Membership of the Church: Part III – Public Profession of the True Faith

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In this part we will examine the second condition of membership, that of public profession of the true faith.

In part one of this series, we saw that the Catholic Church could be defined as:

“The society of men who, by their profession of the same faith, and by their partaking of the same sacraments, make up, under the rule of apostolic pastors and their head, the kingdom of Christ on earth.”[1]

Van Noort, Christ’s Church

Furthermore, we saw that because the Church “was instituted to save all men” it was necessary, in order for her to fulfil that mission, that she should be a visible society, easily recognisable as the true Church of Christ by all men and women of good will.[2] In order to be a truly visible society, we concluded, she must be comprised of members, whose identity can generally be recognised with reasonable discernment: 

“One can discern, using one’s external senses, which men profess the same doctrine, frequent the same sacraments, and obey the same rulers.”[3]

Van Noort, Christ’s Churchhere)

A Church whose members could not be recognised could hardly, we remarked, be called a visible society. The three conditions by which membership of the Church can be known are, we said: baptism, public profession of the true faith and lawful communion with the hierarchy of the Church.

We noted that this was the authoritative teaching of Pope Pius XII in his 1943 Encyclical Letter Mystici Corporis Christi:

“Actually, 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.”[4]

Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi

In part two we considered the first condition in some detail and saw that baptism is the “necessary and sufficient” means by which a person becomes a member of the Church, and that after baptism membership of the Church Militant will continue until death unless (i) terminated by public heresy or public schism on the part of the individual or (ii) terminated by the legitimate authority of the Church which separates a person from her body by sentence of major excommunication.

Let us turn to the public profession of the true faith.

The nature and ends of a society

To understand why public heresy and public schism separate a person from membership of the Church, in which they were incorporated by baptism, we must take a step back and examine the true nature of a society. This will give us the correct framework in which to understand why public heresy and public schism are completely incompatible with membership of the Catholic Church, while other grave sins are not. 

Every society, wrote Aristotle, “is established with a view to some good; for mankind always acts in order to obtain that which they think good.”[5] For example, the family has as its end the procreation and education of children; a hospital, the healing of the sick; a seminary, the formation of priests; and so on. There are two, and only two, perfect societies, which possess all the means necessary to guide their members to their proper common end. These are the Church and the State. The State acts for the common good of its particular community, with reference to man’s natural end. The Church acts for the common of good of all mankind, with reference to man’s supernatural end.

Every society therefore consists (i) of its members – the material element, and (ii) the union of their wills to a common end – the formal element.[6] Clearly without members, no society would have existence, but it should be equally clear that without a shared end members would not form one society together. Nobody who rejects the formal element – the common end of a society – can form part of the material element – i.e be a member of that society.

To achieve its purpose a society must be directed towards its common end by those in authority. Without authority to direct its common efforts a society would soon disintegrate into anarchy and chaos. Therefore, in all societies there is a division between those who exercise authority, and those to who obey authority. And in all societies beyond the extremely simple there are those who both command inferiors while obeying their own superiors i.e. there is a hierarchy.

It should be clear therefore that it is authority that directs the wills of the members (the material element) towards their common end (the formal element), therefore “practically speaking, authority is the formal element of every society since it is authority that preserves and strengthens all the bonds by which members are held together.”[7]

Therefore, a member must submit to be directed towards the common end of a society by legitimate authority if they are to remain members of a given society.

As Fr Sylvester Berry writes:

“Every member of a society must accept its end and aims according to his ability, and he must strive, at least in some degree, to realize those aims. He that rejects the purposes of a society thereby rejects the society itself; he can neither become a member, nor remain one if already received into the society.”[8]

This can be applied to the perfect society that is the Catholic Church as follows:

“The members of the Church constitute its material cause; the authority by which their union into a society is preserved and directed, may be considered the formal cause. The material cause of a society is either proximate or remote: the former consists of those who actually compose the society; the latter, those eligible for membership. The whole human race constitutes the remote matter for the Church, since it was established for the salvation of all men, regardless of race, color or condition. The proximate matter of the Church consists of those who fulfil the necessary conditions of membership and thereby become constituent parts of her organisation.”[9]

Authority the formal element of membership of the Church 

In part I of this series we wrote that:

“Since Pentecost Our Lord has, through His Vicar, the Roman Pontiff, and through the college of bishops in union with him, exercised the threefold ministry of Priest, Prophet and King. As Priest he offers public worship, especially the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and celebrates the other sacraments; as Prophet he teaches infallibly the true doctrine of the Church, and as King he exercises jurisdiction over the baptised in order to lead them to Heaven.”

Members of the Church must be subject to the threefold authority of Jesus Christ – exercised by the ecclesiastical hierarchy – in order to become, and remain, members of the Catholic Church.

Dr Ludwig Ott explained:

“According to [the encyclical letter Mystici Corporis Christi] three conditions are required for membership of the Church: a) The valid reception of the Sacrament of Baptism. b) The profession of the true Faith. c) Participation in the Communion of the Church. By the fulfilment of these three conditions one subjects oneself to the threefold office of the Church, the sacerdotal office (Baptism), the teaching office (Confession of Faith), and the pastoral office (obedience to Church authority).”[10]

He continued:

“As the three powers perpetuated in these offices… constitute the unity and the visibility of the Church, subjection to each and all of these powers, is a condition for membership of the Church.”

And with reference to the condition of profession of the true faith he stated:

“The Confession of the true Faith and the adherence to the communion of the Church are for adults the subjective conditions for the achievement and the unhindered perpetuation of their membership of the Church which is initiated by baptism.”

And he continues by affirming:

“That those who dissociate themselves from the Faith and from the communion of the Church, cease to be members of the Church, is the general conviction of Tradition.”

And in the same manner Fr Berry writes:

“The practice of the Christian religion, which consists in the external profession of Christian faith, is the proximate end to be obtained in the Church. Therefore, external profession of faith is an essential condition for membership. Moreover, the Church must be one in the external profession of faith, consequently he that severs this bond of unity is separated from the body of the Church, i.e. he ceases to be a member.”[11]

This is because:

“The very existence of a society depends upon the subjection of its members to authority; therefore he that rejects the authority of a society, rejects the society itself and ceases to be a member. Neither can the end of a society be realized unless the members be directed by its authority in their common endeavours to that end. Therefore, rejecting the authority of a society is tantamount to rejecting its ends and aims, which is to reject the society itself. Consequently no one can be a member of any society unless he submits to its authority according to his ability. Furthermore, in regard to the Church, there must be unity in the external profession of the true faith, which Christ committed to the teaching office of the Church. Therefore, the profession of faith necessary for membership in the Church practically resolves itself into submission to her teaching authority.”[12]

In summary:

  1. The formal cause of membership of the Catholic Church is the authority of the ecclesiastical hierarchy
  2. There is a threefold authority in the Church – that of sanctifying, teaching and governing
  3. Submission to the teaching authority of the Church is therefore a necessary condition for membership
  4. Those who reject the teaching authority of the Church cannot be members.

Profession of faith

Having established that profession of the true faith is a necessary condition of membership of the Catholic Church, we must now explore further what is meant by this term.

By profession of the true faith we mean:

“External profession of the true faith, which is had by submission to the teaching authority of the Church.”[13]

Mgr Van Noort explains further:

“The unity of faith which Christ decreed without qualification consists in this, that everyone accepts the doctrines presented for belief by the Church’s teaching office. In fact our Lord requires nothing other than the acceptance by all of the preaching of the apostolic college, a body which is to continue forever; or, what amounts to the same thing, of the pronouncements of the Church’s teaching office, which He Himself set up as the rule of faith. And the essential unity of faith definitely requires that everyone hold each and every doctrine clearly and distinctly presented for belief by the Church’s teaching office; and that everyone hold these truths explicitly or at least implicitly, i.e., by acknowledging the authority of the Church which teaches them.”[14]

The unity of faith – as we saw in Part I – is an essential property of the Catholic Church, which can never be lost. The Church of Christ is necessarily One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. Her oneness, or unity, consists in unity of faith, unity of worship and unity of government.

Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical letter Satis Cognitum, authoritatively expounded on this unity of faith:

Agreement and union of minds is the necessary foundation of this perfect concord amongst men, from which concurrence of wills and similarity of action are the natural results. Wherefore, in His divine wisdom, He ordained in His Church unity of faith; a virtue which is the first of those bonds which unite man to God, and whence we receive the name of the faithful – ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism’ (Eph 4: 5). That is, as there is one Lord and one baptism, so should all Christians, without exception, have but one faith. And so the Apostle St. Paul not merely begs, but entreats and implores Christians to be all of the same mind, and to avoid difference of opinions: ‘I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no schisms amongst you, and that you be perfect in the same mind and in the same judgment’ (I Cor 1:10). Such passages certainly need no interpreter; they speak clearly enough for themselves. Besides, all who profess Christianity allow that there can be but one faith. It is of the greatest importance and indeed of absolute necessity, as to which many are deceived, that the nature and character of this unity should be recognized. And, as We have already stated, this is not to be ascertained by conjecture, but by the certain knowledge of what was done; that is by seeking for and ascertaining what kind of unity in faith has been commanded by Jesus Christ.”[15]

Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum, in A Light in the Heavens 

As this visible unity of faith can never be lost by the Church, so it is essential to her constitution that all her members profess the same faith, in submission to the same infallible teaching authority. One who openly departs from this unity – a heretic – cannot therefore be member of this perpetually united Church.

[The WM Review has also published a three-part series on this visible unity of faith.]

Who is a heretic?

Salaverri gives the standard definition of a heretic:

“A heretic is someone who, after being baptized, obstinately denies or doubts one of the truths that must be believed by divine and Catholic faith.”[16]

Those truths that are to be believed by “divine and Catholic faith” are those:

“contained in the word of God as found in scripture and tradition, and which are proposed by the church as matters to be believed as divinely revealed, whether by her solemn judgment or in her ordinary and universal magisterium.”[17]

Cardinal Billot expands on the nature of heresy and its relationship to the teaching authority of the Church:

“According to the origin of the term and the constant sense of all tradition, someone is properly called a heretic who after receiving Christianity in the sacrament of Baptism, does not accept the rule of what must be believed from the magisterium of the Church, but chooses from somewhere else a rule of belief about matters of faith and the doctrine of Christ: whether he follow other doctors and teachers of religion, or adheres to the principle of free examination and professes a complete independence of thought, or whether finally he disbelieve even one article out of those which are proposed by the Church as dogmas of Faith.”[18]

However, before we proceed we must draw some necessary distinctions. Firstly, a person may express a heretical proposition despite holding to the truth, due to an imprecise use of language. This person is not a heretic.

Secondly, a person may internally assent to a heretical proposition because they mistakenly believe that proposition to be the Catholic Church’s teaching, or at least to be compatible with that teaching. Their intellect is in error, while their will remains truly submissive to the magisterium. This person is not a heretic; if they are correctly disposed they will abandon their error as soon as it is made clear to them what the magisterium actually proposes for their belief. 

Thirdly, a person may internally assent to a proposition contrary to divine and catholic faith, while knowing that the Church teaches otherwise – that is, they wilfully refuse submission to the teaching authority of the Church. This person is a heretic. This will be so, even if the heresy is merely internal – although the social effects of heresy may not apply until it is sufficiently public. In the meantime, they no longer possess the theological virtue of faith (and consequently neither hope nor charity) and if their heresy is public then they are no longer members of the Catholic Church.

As Berry writes:

“A doctrine contrary to revealed truth is usually stigmatised as heretical, but a person who professes a heretical doctrine is not necessarily a heretic. Heresy, from the Greek hairesis, signifies a choosing; therefore a heretic is one who chooses for himself in matters of faith, thereby rejecting the authority of the Church established by Christ to teach all men the truths of revelation. He rejects the authority of the Church by following his own judgment or by submitting to an authority other than that established by Christ.”[19]  

We are now ready to draw some more precise distinctions between the different kinds of heretics. We may distinguish between heresy which is formal and material, and heresy which is public and occult.

The following definitions are from Cardinal Billot.

Formal heretics: “are those to whom the authority of the Church is sufficiently known”.

Material heretics: “are those who labor under invincible ignorance about that same Church, and in good faith choose a different rule to guide them.”[20]

Occult heretics: “are first of all those who actually reject dogmas of faith proposed by the Church, but only internally, as well as those who manifest heresy with external signs, but not with a public profession.”

Public heretics: “are those who by their own admission do not follow the rule of the ecclesiastical magisterium.”[21]

Fr Berry summarises the various forms of heresy in this manner:

“A person may reject the teaching authority of the Church knowingly and willingly, or he may do it through ignorance. In the first case he is a formal heretic, guilty of grievous sin: in the second case he is a material heretic, free from guilt. Both formal and material heresy may be manifest or occult.”[22]

There are thus four kinds of heretics:

  • Formal public heretics – who openly and guiltily refuse submission to the rule of faith proposed by the magisterium
  • Material public heretics – who openly but innocently refuse submission to the rule of faith proposed by the magisterium. This does not include Catholics who are in error in good faith.
  • Formal occult heretics – who secretly (but guiltily) refuse submission to the rule of faith proposed by the magisterium
  • Material occult heretics – who secretly and innocently refuse submission to the rule of faith proposed by the magisterium.

Public heretics (formal and material)

It should already be clear from what has preceded that public heretics are not members of the Catholic Church.

Ott states simply:

“Public heretics, even those who err in good faith (material heretics), do not belong to the body of the Church, that is, the legal commonwealth of the Church.”[23]

And Van Noort explains in more detail:

“Public heretics (and a fortiori, apostates) are not members of the Church. They are not members because they separate themselves from the unity of Catholic faith and from the external profession of that faith. Obviously, therefore, they lack one of the three factors – baptism, profession of the same faith, union with the hierarchy – pointed out by Pius XII as requisite for membership of the Church. The same pontiff has explicitly pointed out that, unlike other sins, heresy, schism and apostasy automatically sever a man from the Church. […]

“By the term public heretics at this point we mean all who externally deny a truth (for example Mary’s Divine Maternity), or several truths of divine and Catholic faith, regardless of whether the one denying does so ignorantly and innocently (a merely material heretic), or wilfully and guiltily (a formal heretic). It is certain that public, formal heretics, are severed from Church membership.”[24]

Van Noort, Christ’s Church

It is held by Catholic theologians to be certain that public formal heretics are not members of the Catholic Church. Salaverri asserts:

“That formal and manifest heretics are not members of the body of the Church can well be said to be the unanimous opinion among Catholics.”[25]

Cardinal Billot affirms:

“we must say first what everyone agrees with: notorious heretics are excluded from the body of the Church.”[26]

Some theologians have defended the proposition that public material heretics are members of the Church. However, the contrary opinion is the more common opinion of theologians, and for good reason:

“if public material heretics remained members of the Church, the visibility and unity of Christ’s Church would perish. If these purely material heretics were considered members of the Catholic Church in the strict sense of the term, how would one ever locate the ‘Catholic Church’? How would the Church be one body? How would it profess one faith? Where would be its visibility? Where its unity? For these and other reasons we find it difficult to see any intrinsic probability to the opinion which would allow for public heretics, in good faith, remaining members of the Church.”[27]

Once again, as we saw in Part I and in our treatment of secretly invalid baptisms in Part II, the question of membership is intrinsically connected to the visibility of the Church. In that first part we affirmed (i) that the Church on earth is perpetually visible and (ii) that this Church is defined as “the society of men who, by their profession of the same faith, and by their partaking of the same sacraments, make up, under the rule of apostolic pastors and their head, the kingdom of Christ on earth”. Therefore, it must be considered that only those professing the true faith can reasonably be considered her members. Otherwise, we would be in the absurd position of stating that those who publicly submit to a rule of faith other than that of the magisterium nonetheless share in the “profession of the same faith” with those who do so submit. In such a church there would clearly be no unity of faith and consequently no visibility. 

As Cardinal Billot remarks:

“the unity of the profession of faith, which is dependent on the visible authority of the living magisterium, is the essential property by which Christ wanted His Church to be adorned forever, it follows clearly that those cannot be part of the Church who profess differently from what its magisterium teaches. For then there would be a division in the profession of faith, and division is contradictory to unity. But notorious heretics are those who by their own admission do not follow the rule of the ecclesiastical magisterium. Therefore they have an obstacle that prevents them from being included in the Church, and even though they are signed with the baptismal character, they either have never been part of its visible body, or have ceased to be such from the time they publicly became heterodox after their baptism.”[28]

Occult heretics

We have explained above that public heretics cannot be reasonably considered to be members of the visible Church. The case is quite different for those whose heresy has remained occult.

Van Noort explains:

“When it comes to a question of occult heretics remaining members of the Church, theologians are in sharper disagreement and the intrinsic probability of their respective arguments seems better balanced than in the preceding case… The more common opinion is that such heretics remain members of the Church. Occult heresy does not take away their former public profession of the Catholic faith.”[29]

Once again, we must emphasise that most important question is the impact the form of heresy has on the necessary visibility of the Church:

“The question comes down to this: how satisfactorily can theologians on either side of this disputed point square their opinion with the necessary visibility of the Church? If true supernatural faith is required for membership in the Church, how can one be sure of the Church’s membership? The virtue of faith, like any other supernatural gift, is not discernible by empirical methods.”[30]

In other words, if occult heretics are not members of the Church we cannot reach moral certainty as to who is a member and who is not. Some who seem to be members, would not in fact be so. While a certain amount of ambiguity can be tolerated in some individual cases, the members of the Church must be generally visible. Otherwise, a distinction would have to be drawn between the Church as perceived by the senses and the “real Church”. As we saw in Part I such distinctions are utterly inadmissible. Therefore, we must conclude that just as public material heretics are not members of the Church, so occult heretics – both formal and material – are members, though occult formal heretics do not possess the supernatural virtue of the faith and, without repentance, will not be found in the Church Suffering or the Church Triumphant.


The Catholic Church is a visible society founded for the salvation of all men. The sacrament of baptism is the necessary and sufficient condition of membership. However, submission to the threefold authority of Christ exercised in the Church – that of sanctifying, teaching and governing – is necessary to remain a member. Consequently, all those who refuse submission to her teaching authority through the public profession of heresy cease to members of the Church. No public heretic has ever been, is now, or ever will be a member of the Catholic Church.

“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.”

Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi, (1943)

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[1] Mgr G. Van Noort, Dogmatic Theology Volume II: Christ’s Church, (6th edition, 1957trans. Castelot & Murphy), p xxvi.

[2] Rev E. Sylvester Berry, The Church of Christ: An Apologetic and Dogmatic Treatise, (Mount St Mary’s Seminary, 1955), p22, 36-41.

[3] Van Noort, Christ’s Church, p12.

[4] Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi, (1943), No. 22.

[5] Aristotle, PoliticsBook I, Part I (trans. Benjamin Jowett).

[6] Berry, Church of Christ, p6. “A number of individuals is the material element necessary for the formation of a society, but they do not form a society unless banded together for the attainment of a common end by united efforts. Hence the union of wills toward a common end is the formal element of every society. The specific nature of the society may be literary, political, or religious, according to the end to be attained, and the organisation of the society will vary accordingly. Hence the end to be attained may be called the external formal element.”

[7] Berry, Church of Christ, p6.

[8] Berry, p125-26.

[9] Berry, p120.

[10] Dr Ludwig Ott, The Fundamentals of the Catholic Dogma, p309-11.

[11] Berry, p126.

[12] Berry, p126.

[13] Berry, p126.

[14] Van Noort, Christ’s Church, p127. 

[15] Pope Leo XIII, Satis Cognitum (1896), No. 6.

[16] Salaverri, Sacrae Theologiae Summa IB, p422. NB. “An apostate is someone who, after being baptized, obstinately and totally abandons the Christian faith. The same divisions which follow concerning a heretic also apply completely to the apostate.”

[17] Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution of the Catholic Faith, Session III, 24 April 1870.

[18] Louis Cardinal Billot, De Ecclesia, Question 7: The Members of the Church, (extracts translated by Fr Julian Larrabee).

[19] Berry, p128. 

[20] I.e., Protestants, the Orthodox etc. choose a rule of faith other than that of the magisterium of the Catholic Church, but they may do so in good faith. If they are in good faith, they are still public heretics – and not members of the Catholic Church – but their heresy is material not formal.

[21] Billot, De Ecclesia, Q. 7.

[22] Berry, p128. 

[23] Ott, Fundamentals, p309-11.

[24] Van Noort, Christ’s Church, p241.

[25] Salaverri, p424.

[26] Billot, De Ecclesia

[27] Van Noort, Christ’s Church, p242.

[28] Billot, De Ecclesia, Q.7.

[29] Van Noort, Christ’s Church, p242.

[30] Van Noort, Christ’s Church, p242.

One thought on “Membership of the Church: Part III – Public Profession of the True Faith

  1. Zack

    Thank you very much for this article and your work, here as well as on other websites!

    I must admit, unfortunately, that this article and, I am afraid, even some of the pre-V2 theologians whose manuals we try to learn from and use as authoritative sources, are not precise enough about some of the terms and notions involved. Ultimately, I think one of the issues stems from what John Daly discusses in his article “Hylemorphism and Heresy”. In short, there is a great danger and difficulty in applying a dichotomy (here “material”/”formal”) along an axis that does not furnish straightforward division into two. (In addition, I would also consider there to be a difficulty in imprecise uses of the term “rule of the faith”.)

    To be more specific, I do not think it is clear how your remark “This does not include Catholics who are in error in good faith.” in the summary definition of “Material public heretics” follows from the totality of sources you quoted and used.

    To the contrary, the quotation of Van Noort associated with footnote n. 27, appears to me to make a very good case that even those who, while claiming to be Catholics, contradict a particular dogma in good faith, ought not to be considered Catholics, i.e. members of the Church in the sense used in Mystici corporis.

    In my view, we should locate the reason that saves many of the erring Catholics from being excluded from the body of the Church, not in “materiality” but in the lack of publicity/notoriety/manifestness (unfortunately, these terms are also used differently among different authors; see e.g. a rather specific definition of “public heretic” in Salaverri’s manual, which he probably provides only for completeness as he otherwise refers only to “manifest” heretics in the relevant chapter).

    Ordinarily, the good yet gravely erring Catholic would have an opportunity to be sufficiently corrected while and consequently change his opinions to be in line with dogma so that his heresy never becomes manifest. However, should such ordinary circumstances not obtain and should he become sufficiently known to deviate in a matter sufficiently known to be binding upon all Catholics to believe, he would be rightfully considered not to be a member of the Church anymore, whether by believers or non-believers, for reasons of visibility applicable with members of any organized human society.

    Let me know what you think, and thank you once again!

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