Membership of the Church: Part II – Baptism

In the first part of our series on membership of the Church we discussed the Church’s perpetual visibility. We saw that the Catholic Church is a society which is always identifiable by men of good will through her four marks of unity, sanctity, catholicity and apostolicity. These marks are discernible by the senses. We further noted that if the Church is a visible society then her members too must generally be individually visible.[1] A Church, we said, whose members could not be identified after reasonably diligent discernment could hardly be called visible.

We concluded by repeating the teaching of Pope Pius XII in his encyclical letter Mystici Corporis Christi that: 

“only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith, and who have not been so unfortunate as to separate themselves from the unity of the Body, or been excluded by legitimate authority for grave faults committed. ‘For in one spirit’ says the Apostle, ‘were we all baptized into one Body, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether bond or free.’ As therefore in the true Christian community there is only one Body, one Spirit, one Lord, and one Baptism, so there can be only one faith. And therefore, if a man refuse to hear the Church, let him be considered – so the Lord commands – as a heathen and a publican. It follows that those who are divided in faith or government cannot be living in the unity of such a Body, nor can they be living the life of its one Divine Spirit.”[2]

In this encyclical letter we find an authoritative formulation of the Church’s teaching on membership. The Church teaches us very clearly that the members of the Church are those who are:

  • baptised
  • publicly profess the Catholic faith
  • and are in lawful union with the hierarchy of the Church (that is, are not separated by schism or excluded by sentence of major excommunication).

In our conclusion to Part I we said:

Each and every human being who fulfils all three of these criteria – baptism, profession of the faith, lawful union with the hierarchy – is a member of the Catholic Church. 

Nobody else is. 

Neither the unbaptised, nor the public heretic, nor the public schismatic, can ever be considered a member of the visible body of Christ’s Church.

In this second part of the series, we will look more closely at the first of the three conditions of membership, namely, baptism.

What is baptism?

Our Lord Jesus Christ instituted the sacrament of baptism as a sacred rite by which men would enter His Church.[3]

Baptism is one of the seven sacraments of the new law.[4] It is “the outward washing of the body done together with the prescribed form of words”.[5] It is the “washing of water with the word of life” (Eph. 5:26) and the “washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Ghost” (Tit. 3:5) that was preached by St Paul.

In baptism “regeneration takes place through grace, for by justification a man is changed from a state of divine wrath to a state of friendship. This involves the forgiveness of sins and the infusion of sanctifying grace. By baptism, therefore, all sins are remitted, not only original sin, but also all actual sins, if there are any, and the whole temporal punishment due to them.”[6]

By baptism “man receives also grace and the infused virtues, with the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the infused habits in order to be able to act supernaturally. Grace is always joined together with the remission of sins.”[7]


“by this regeneration and sanctification another effect of baptism is produced, namely, incorporation in the mystical Body of Christ. For, ‘by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jew or Greeks, slaves or free— and all were made to drink of one Spirit (1 Cor 12:13); and this is with all the rights pertaining to the community of the faithful, namely, participation in all the other sacraments. For, by the washing of the regeneration of baptism, those born to natural life are not only reborn to the life of grace, but they also receive the character and become capable of receiving the other sacraments.”[8]

Baptism is necessary for salvation. Our Lord taught that “unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5) and that “He that believeth and is baptized, shall be saved: but he that believeth not shall be condemned.” (Mk 16:16)

Baptism of blood and baptism of desire are extraordinary means of salvation, whereby a person receives certain effects of the sacrament of baptism, but not the sacrament itself.[9]

However, only baptism by water confers an indelible sacramental character upon the soul. Only baptism by water makes it possible for the other six sacraments to be validly received.

The Council of Florence taught:

“Holy baptism holds the first place among all the sacraments, for it is the gate of the spiritual life; through it we become members of Christ and of the body of the church.”[10]

Pope Pius XII affirmed:

“Through the waters of Baptism those who are born into this world dead in sin are not only born again and made members of the Church but being stamped with a spiritual seal they become able and fit to receive the other sacraments.”[11]

When Our Lord founded the Church, the same pontiff taught, “He determined that through Baptism those who should believe would be incorporated in the Body of the Church”.[12]

The Fathers and Doctors

This is also the doctrine of the Fathers of the Church. 

St John Chrysostom preached:

“You see how many benefits there are of Baptism… For this reason we also bap­tize infants… so that holiness, justification, adoption, inheritance and the brotherhood of Christ may be given to them, that they may be his members.”[13]

And St Augustine wrote:

“We read that whoever is in the Body of Christ, which is the Church, belongs to the Kingdom of heaven, and we must understand that this refers only to the baptized.”[14]

St Thomas Aquinas, the common doctor of the Church, writes:

“men are incorporated in Christ by faith… But for this end is Bap­tism conferred on a man, that being regenerated thereby, he may be incorporated in Christ, by becoming his member.”[15]


“Baptism is ordained to a certain spiritual regeneration, by which man becomes a member of Christ.”[16]  

Before His Ascension Our Lord commanded His Apostles to bring all nations into His Church through the sacrament of baptism:

“All power is given to me in heaven and in earth. Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.” (Mt 28:18-29) 

The Early Church

When the Catholic Church was promulgated to the world on the feast of Pentecost, and St Peter preached to the people of Jerusalem, the crowd “said to Peter, and to the rest of the apostles: What shall we do, men and brethren?” and Peter answered “Do penance, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins: and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost…. They therefore that received his word, were baptized; and there were added in that day about three thousand souls.” (Acts 2:37-38,41)

And when preaching at the house of Cornelius it was by baptism that St Peter, the visible Head of the Church Militant, opened the doors of the Church to the Gentiles:

“While Peter was yet speaking these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them that heard the word.  And the faithful of the circumcision, who came with Peter, were astonished, for that the grace of the Holy Ghost was poured out upon the Gentiles also. 

“For they heard them speaking with tongues, and magnifying God.  Then Peter answered: Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, who have received the Holy Ghost, as well as we?  And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Acts 10: 46-48)

And the practice of St Peter is confirmed by that of the other apostles:

“But when they had believed Philip preaching of the kingdom of God, in the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” (Acts 8:12)

Finally, we may consider the example of St Paul, who after being converted by a vision of Our Lord was received into the Church by baptism:

“And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house. And laying his hands upon him, he said: Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus hath sent me, he that appeared to thee in the way as thou camest; that thou mayest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost. And immediately there fell from his eyes as it were scales, and he received his sight; and rising up, he was baptized.” (Act 9:17-18)

This same St Paul taught also the doctrine that it is by baptism that we are incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ: 

“A man’s body is all one, though it has a number of different organs; and all this multitude of organs goes to make up one body; so it is with Christ.  We too, all of us, have been baptized into a single body by the power of a single Spirit, Jews and Greeks, slaves and free men alike; we have all been given drink at a single source, the one Spirit. The body, after all, consists not of one organ but of many”. (1 Cor 12:12-13)


“you are all the children of God by faith, in Christ Jesus.  For as many of you as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And if you be Christ’s, then are you the seed of Abraham, heirs according to the promise.” (Gal 3:26-29)

Baptism – an external rite of initiation into a visible society

In part I of this series we introduced the necessary relationship between the Church’s teaching on membership and her perpetual visibility. We said that every visible society, in which men join together “for the purpose of attaining a common good by united efforts”,  can be identified by certain external visible rites.[17] This is especially important when it comes to rites of initiation which indicate to everyone that the individual is now a member of a society. As theologian Fr Francisco Sola S.J. explains:

“The Church is a visible society. But in every visible society (especially religious) there is customarily some external rite (taken at least in a broad sense) to manifest one’s admission and entrance into that society. Therefore it was necessary that Christ also, when he instituted his visible religious society, should establish some external rite, to make clear one’s entrance into his society.”[18]

This initiatory rite of baptism is in and of itself both necessary and sufficient to constitute a person a member of the Catholic Church.[19] After a person has validly received the sacrament of baptism they are a member of the Catholic Church for as long the bonds of union with the Church have not been broken either by heresy or schism or excommunication”.[20]

It is here that we must make a very important distinction – often not made by many today – between a subject and a member.

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Fr Salaverri, in the Sacrae Theologiae Summa IB, defines the terms as follows:

A subject is said to be someone who is under the social power of another. 

A member is called that which is united to some organic body as an integral part of it.”[21]

Furthermore, we can distinguish a third category: those who are neither subjects or members but are bound to become such.

When applied to the Catholic Church we can divide mankind into three categories:

  1. “Those bound to enter the Church are those on whom Christ has placed an obligation to join his Church; such are all men on earth”[22]
  2. Subjects of the Church are those who are under the social power of the Church… Therefore, subjects of the Church are thought to be all those who have been baptized, even if they are heretics or schismatics or excommunicated persons who are to be shunned”[23]
  3. Members of the Church are those who are united to the body of the Church as an integral part”[24]

All members of the Church are also subjects of the Church. However, not all subjects of the Church are members. 

Those are subjects without being members who, after becoming members of the Church through baptism, then departed from her visible unity through public heresy or public schism or were excluded from her unity by sentence of major excommunication by legitimate ecclesiastical authority. 

In the later parts of this series, we will examine in more detail the manner in which a person can depart from membership of the Church through public heresy or schism. This is clearly a topic of the greatest importance for the Church today, as many men who publicly claim to hold ecclesiastical offices – most obviously the current claimant of the See of Rome – have, publicly, deliberately and unambiguously departed from the profession of the true faith.

However, to close this part of our series we will draw attention to an interesting theological debate which emphasises the importance of the connection between the doctrine of perpetual visibility and the Church’s teaching on membership.

There have been theologians – including one as eminent as St Robert Bellarmine – who have put forward the argument that those who have received baptism invalidly due to a defect of intention should be considered as members of the Church. 

The contrary opinion, that valid baptism is essential for membership, has come to be considered as (at the very least) the more probable opinion of theologians, and for very good reason. As Fr Salaverri explains:

“by an invalid Baptism, although properly conferred, [i.e. invalid due only to defect of intention] persons can be con­stituted members of the Church only putatively and apparently, but not effectively and really.”[25]

This is because: 

“in order to constitute members of the Church in reality… that Baptism is required whereby persons are rendered capable of participating in the specific and principal social goods of the Church, which are the Sacraments. But only by a valid Baptism are persons rendered capable of participating in such social goods.”[26]


“in order to constitute members of the Body of the Church really what is required, according to Scripture and the understanding of the Church, is that Baptism, whereby really the regeneration and rebirth take place by which persons truly are united with Christ and are incorporated into him as the Head of Body of the Church. Therefore valid Baptism is required in order really to constitute members of the Body of the Church.” 

However, some theologians held the contrary view because of the necessity of the members of the Church being generally visible. They were prepared to consider the possibility that a non-baptised person might be a member of the Church because the external rite had visibly taken place and it was impossible for other members of the Church to know that this person was not actually baptised.  In other words, they took the position that a person who was in every external respect a member of the Church – the rite of baptism had been visibly conferred, they visibly professed the true faith and they were in visible lawful union with the visible hierarchy of the visible Church – must necessarily also be a member of that same Church.

Whatever the Church may one day decide is the true position (and it seems clear which opinion is more probable), the debate itself is instructive because it draws attention to the importance of the relationship between the visibility of the Church as a whole, and the visibility of her members.

But what is the state of those who have visibly departed from the profession of the true faith?

That will be subject of the next part of this series.

Relevant Further Reading:

Doubtful Baptisms – reflections on the necessity for widespread access to conditional sacraments

Also the Visible Unity of the Church series:

Part I gives an overview of the meaning of the visible unity of the Church in her profession of faith, and the nature of the problem faced today.

Part II goes into greater detail, citing theologians and other sources to establish beyond any doubt the meaning of this teaching.

Part III offers an hypothesis to reconcile the teaching of the Church with the apparently contradictory facts of the crisis.

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[1] Of course, there may sometimes be difficult cases where a given individual X is not able to discern with moral certainty that a given individual Y is, or is not, a member of the Church. But these individual cases do not threaten our assertion that it must be possible in the vast majority of cases to determine, with the application of reasonable diligence, whether a given individual is baptised and has not left the Church through public heresy or public schism or been excluded by sentence of major excommunication. 

[2] Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi, No. 22.

[3] Francisco A P. Sola S.J “Treatise II: On the Sacraments of Christian Initiation or On Baptism and Confirmation”, Sacrae Theologiae Summa IVA, (originally published 1956; translated by Kenneth Baker S.J., 2015) Thesis I, p128.

[4] Council of Trent, Session VII, “On the Sacraments in General”, Canon I.

[5] St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, III. q.66 a.1. 

[6] STS IVA, No. 95, p182.

[7] STS IVA, No. 96, p183.

[8] STS IVA, No. 97, p184.

[9] ST III. q.66. a.11.  

[10] Council of Florence, Bull of Union with the Armenians, Session 8, 22 November 1439.

[11] Pius XII, MCC, No. 18.

[12] Pius XII, MCC, No. 23.

[13] Quoted by Fr Joachim Salaverri S.J., Sacrae Theologiae Summa IB, No. 1033, p414.

[14] St Augustine of Hippo, Epist. 265, quoted by Salaverri, No. 1033, p414-15.

[15] ST III, q.68, a.1.

[16] ST III, q.62, a.2.

[17] For a more detailed discussion of the Church as a society – visible, religious, supernatural, divine-human and perfect – see E. Sylvester Berry, The  Church of Christ: An Apologetic and Dogmatic Treatise, (Mount St Mary;’s, 1955), p6-7, 21-24.

[18] STS IVA, No. 18, p132.

[19] Joachim Salaverri S.J., Sacrae Theologiae Summa IB, Thesis 25, p407.

[20] STS IB, No. 1019, p408.

[21] STS IB, No. 1018, p407.

[22] STS IB, No, 1019, p407.

[23] STS IB, No, 1019, p407.

[24] STS IB, No, 1019, p407.

[25] STS IB, No. 1034, p415.

[26] STS IB, No. 1034, p415.

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