Profession of Faith, Heresy and Separating Oneself from the Church – Canonist Fr Augustine OSB

“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 not every sin, however grave it may be, is such as of its own nature to sever a man from the Body of the Church, as does schism or heresy or apostasy.”[1]

Pius XII, Mystici Corporis Christi

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What does it mean to “profess the faith” – a requirement for membership – and how does one enter a state of separation from the Church?

This article contains Fr Charles Augustine‘s commentary on Canons 87 and 1325,[1] given in translation with the English text of Dr Edward Peters.

Augustine’s commentary raises some interesting points. In summary:

  • One can lose membership 1) by one’s own acts and 2) by the intervention of authority.
  • The practical meaning of “professing the faith” is not to deny the Faith – which in turn means
    • Professing the faith when the circumstances require, and
    • Not placing any act which is incompatible with the profession of the faith.
  • The ways of failing to profess the faith when required are broad – including things like wearing certain clothes or eating meat on a Friday, if they manifest an intention to reject the faith.
  • The common denominator is that they manifest an intention to depart from that profession of faith.
  • The “obstinacy” or pertinacity that manifests this intention, which makes someone a heretic, does not require warnings but rather “may be assumed when a revealed truth has been proposed with sufficient clearness and force to convince a reasonable man. Of course, the character of each individual must be taken into consideration.”

All this and more is dealt with below. In the meantime, here are a list of some good resources for canonical commentaries:

Canon Law Resources (drops down)

The 1917 Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law, ed. Edward N. Peters (and for UK readers). Ignatius Press.

Bouscaren & Ellis – Canon Law, a Text and Commentary (and for UK readers) (1 vol.) Internet Archive.

Woywod – A Practical Commentary on the Code of Canon Law in one volume, also as Vol. I and Vol. II. Here for UK readers in one volume, or as Vol. I and Vol. II (2 vols). Also available online: Vol. I and Vol. II

Augustine – Commentary on Canon Law (8 volumes) Internet Archive.

Our interest at The WM Review is primarily theological, and we do not believe that theological questions are settled by canon law. This is explained in an article here about the relationship between theology and law. Nonetheless, given the interest that may have in this side of things, the commentary from Fr Augustine on heresy and the profession of faith is very worth considering.

With this said, let’s turn to the canon and Charles Augustine’s commentary.

Charles Augustine’s Commentary

Canon 87[2]

By baptism a man is constituted a person in the Church of Christ with all of the rights and duties of Christians unless, in what applies to rights, some bar obstructs, impeding the bond of ecclesiastical communion, or there is a censure laid down by the Church.


Baptism is the sacrament of initiation, “the sacrament of Christian grace,” the “receiving of Christ’s livery,”[3] concerning which more is said in the third book of the Code.[4] The effect of baptism consists in obtaining certain rights and assuming certain obligations. These are partly general, partly particular. All Christians have the same general rights and obligations with regard to spiritual favors and aids to salvation.[5] But not every Christian is obliged to embrace the clerical or religious state, although all who are called to it have a right to enter that state. In this respect the Catholic Church is truly democratic.

It would be wrong to hold that children, when they attain the use of reason, have a right to decide whether or not they wish to keep their baptismal vows.[6] One who by formal heresy [Editor: see footnote][7] or schism or apostasy rends asunder the bond that unites him with the Church, is yet bound by the obligations resulting from his baptismal vow. Again, one who commits a crime upon which the penalty of excommunication (censura) has been laid by law or inflicted by legitimate authority, loses his rights until absolution is obtained, but his obligations remain.[8]

Canon 1325

§ 1. The faithful of Christ are bound to profess their faith whenever their silence, evasiveness, or manner of acting encompasses an implied denial of the faith, contempt for religion, injury to God, or scandal for a neighbor.

§ 2. After the reception of baptism, if anyone, retaining the name Christian, pertinaciously denies or doubts something to be believed from the truth of divine and Catholic faith, [such a one is] a heretic; if he completely turns away from the Christian faith, [such a one is] an apostate; if finally he refuses to be under the Supreme Pontiff or refuses communion with the members of the Church subject to him, he is a schismatic.

§ 3. Let Catholics beware lest they have debates or conferences, especially public ones, with non-Catholics without having come to the Holy See or, if the case is urgent, to the local Ordinary.


§ 1. The faithful of Christ are bound to profess their faith whenever their silence, evasiveness, or manner of acting encompasses an implied denial of the faith, contempt for religion, injury to God, or scandal for a neighbor.[9]

The Apostle says: “With the heart we believe unto justice; but with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.”[10] This and the declaration of Christ : “He that shall be ashamed of me and my words, of him the Son of man shall be ashamed,”[11] clearly indicate a double duty, namely:

  1. To profess the Christian religion, and
  2. Not to deny it.

But as a prohibitive or negative law obliges always, whereas an affirmative or a positive law does not oblige at every moment or on every occasion, so in our case the text states the negative side of the obligation, namely not to omit the profession of faith when it is called for. Faith may be concealed by mere silence, which, however, is sometimes permissible, for, as stated, we need not profess the faith all the time. Nay, it may even be necessary to hide it, namely, when great damage, such as persecution or vexation,[12] threatens a whole community. On the other hand it is certain that whenever the public and lawful authority demands a profession of one’s faith, it is never permitted to refuse it.[13] Besides, in no case is it allowed to conceal the faith entirely and to be a hidden Christian, even though there were danger of life or loss of temporal goods.[14] Such as wish to remain occult Christians always cannot be admitted to baptism.[15]

Faith may also be concealed by subterfuge, and various devices have been adopted for this purpose, some of them despicable. Thus the custom of Christians assuming pagan or Mohammedan names was branded as deceitful and hypocritical and strictly forbidden by papal constitution.[16] While there is little or nothing in a name as such, if it becomes a shibboleth of heresy or apostasy and is so regarded by the magistrate and populace, it is no longer as sounding brass, even if the bearer interiorly desires to retain the faith. Therefore circumstances must be considered.

A curious kind of subterfuge was devised by certain Christians who wished to graduate or take the doctor’s degree in China, a ceremony accompanied by religious rites, such as the offering of flowers, meat, or incense to an idol, etc. This is never permitted. It is also forbidden to bribe the magistrate or to “play sick” on the day of the ceremony, because this would amount to a lie.[17] A somewhat similar artifice was employed in good faith by some missionaries. The mandarins, in order not to lose their office, made an investigation as to the conduct of these missionaries and, in a report to the “Celestial Son,” assured him that the missionaries were not priests, had not preached the faith and left no following. This report, together with the sentence of exile (instead of capital punishment), had to be signed by the missionaries themselves, so that they, as it were, condemned themselves in order to be treated more leniently. The S. Congregation decided that the missionaries were not allowed to sign the sentence thus worded. On the other hand, however, they were not bound to protest publicly against the magistrates, if these published the sentence without the signature of the missionaries.[18] For in that case the malice of the act was imputable entirely to the mandarins.

It may be added that no denial of the faith is involved in the act of hiding one’s special or peculiar state (for instance, the priesthood) nor would such an act per se amount to a mortal sin.[19]

Lastly, one’s conduct, or ratio agendi, may imply a denial of the faith. To this class belong certain acts which are indifferent in themselves, but become wrong by the end for which they are performed, or by their object or accompanying circumstances.[20] Thus eating meat is in itself an indifferent act, but may become sinful through either or all of three concomitant adjuncts. Thus to eat or prepare meat in odium fidei, in contempt of religion, is a grievous sin because the end is sacrilegious, and may amount to a denial of the faith, if the meat is taken as a signum protestativum of apostasy. If the act is performed merely for economy’s sake, without any religious motive, no denial is involved. Christians in the Orient were permitted to build, or help build, a Mohammedan mosque because compelled to do so by the Turks; at least the S. Congregation decided that they were not to be disquieted.[21] A different answer was given by the Holy Office in reply to the question whether Christians were allowed to build, or cooperate in building, a pagan temple because they feared for their life or were in danger of being exiled. This was declared forbidden.[22] There is an essential difference between a mosque and a pagan temple, because the latter involves idol worship, whereas the former does not. Besides, the cases are somewhat different in this that the latter implies voluntary cooperation, whereas the former contains an element of violence.

That circumstances, too, may change the nature of an act is evident from the example of certain Christians who were made to trample on the cross. To walk over or to step on an object, is in itself a merely material and indifferent act, but intentionally to trample on the cross, if seen and perceived, is sacrilegious. The case was as follows: The pagans placed crosses across the road and in narrow gates, where Christians had to pass. The decision was: (a) if the Christians were not warned, they should walk as if nothing had happened; but (b) if they were warned, they should take care not to step on the crosses; (c) if they were warned, but could not pass by without stepping on them, they should protest to the bystanders and pass over them as reverently as they could.[23]

Idol worship in whatever form, for instance, in the shape of tablets dedicated to the “seat of such and such a soul,” is incompatible with the Christian faith. Therefore such tablets must be destroyed, if they are in the exclusive possession of Christians, or, if pagan families have a share in them, may be restored to these.[24] A convert from the Anglican Church may not hide his faith so as to retain a Protestant minister in his home and assist at the prayer meetings, even though the convert recites the Catholic prayers; nor is he allowed to leave his children in the care of heretical tutors.[25]

Concerning schismatic priests the following decisions may be noted: Assistance at schismatic services is not allowed. An Armenian priest of the Catholic faith is not allowed to pour water secretly into the chalice in the sacristy.[26] Catholic Nestorian priests are not allowed to hear the confessions of their schismatic coreligionists, even though by their refusal they risk losing their support; nor are they permitted to recite the names of Dioscurus or Nestorius at Mass, even though they merely intend to honor the patron saints of these two heresiarchs.[27]

As to clothes, the answer is always the same: if they are distinctive and notorious signs or proofs of infidelity, heresy or apostasy, a Catholic is never allowed to wear them.[28]

For the rest, the rules on material and formal cooperation should be consulted.

§ 2. After the reception of baptism, if anyone, retaining the name Christian, pertinaciously denies or doubts something to be believed from the truth of divine and Catholic faith, [such a one is] a heretic; if he completely turns away from the Christian faith, [such a one is] an apostate; if finally he refuses to be under the Supreme Pontiff or refuses communion with the members of the Church subject to him, he is a schismatic.

§ 2 defines three classes of Catholics who have suffered “shipwreck of the faith.”[29] The first class is that of heretics who, having been baptized, retain the name of Christians, but obstinately deny or doubt some of the truths that must be believed by divine or Catholic faith. The second class is that of apostates, who have given up the Christian faith entirely and fallen away from it. The third class is that of schismatic, who refuse to obey the Sovereign Pontiff or to live in union with those who submit to him.

Heresy, therefore, supposes the valid reception of Baptism, which is the means of Christian initiation. But there is a difference in the attitude of different heretics. Some have been validly baptized and raised in a sect the truthfulness of which they have never doubted. Such are called material heretics, who may, nay should remain where they are, as long as no doubt arises in their mind concerning the truth of their sect. Others have doubts, but make no effort to disperse them, and are not ready to accept the truth, even though convinced of it. Such are formal heretics. To this we may also reckon those so-called Catholics who interiorly reject or doubt any revealed truth, provided the rejection as well as the doubt be obstinate (pertinax), because this characteristic constitutes malice. Obstinacy may be assumed when a revealed truth has been proposed with sufficient clearness and force to convince a reasonable man. Of course, the character of each individual must be taken into consideration. (Emphasis added)

For more on this topic, see here.

Apostasy differs from heresy only as to the extent of the material object of faith denied; the specific malice, viz., the denial of God’s truthfulness, or of the divine authority, is the same in both.[30] An apostate, therefore, is one who rejects the whole deposit of faith and becomes an unbeliever, whilst a heretic is one who wilfully rejects or doubts only the one or other truth revealed and proposed by the Catholic Church.

Pure schism involves mere stubbornness or disobedience to the Roman Pontiff, or to a bishop, as the case may be; but in reality it hardly ever occurs without heresy. The Puseyites endeavored to convince the Apostolic See of the contrary; but the Holy Office very properly decided that separation from the See of Peter meant a split in the unity and apostolicity of the Church and setting up another Church in place of the one founded by Christ.[31]

§ 3. Let Catholics beware lest they have debates or conferences, especially public ones, with non-Catholics without having come to the Holy See or, if the case is urgent, to the local Ordinary.

§ 3 warns Catholics against disputations and conferences with non-Catholics. To hold such a disputation or conference, especially in public, requires the special permission of the Holy See, or, in urgent cases, of the local Ordinary. This has been the attitude of the Apostolic See ever since the beginning of the seventeenth century, though public disputations and conferences — including the so-called congresses or parliaments of religion — are not absolutely forbidden, but may be tolerated, under the condition mentioned, when there is hope of a greater good.[32] The S. Congregation has often expressly forbidden them on the ground that they do more harm than good, since false eloquence may cause error seemingly to triumph over truth.[33] Religious superiors are urged to forbid such public disputations and conferences to their missionaries.[34] This rule in our opinion also affects public disputations with Socialists, because their tenets often contain heresies.[35]

When such disputations are expressly permitted, care should be taken that only capable and prudent speakers be employed to defend the Catholic side.[36]


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[1] Charles Augustine, A Commentary on the New Code of Canon Law, Vol. 2: Clergy and Hierarchy, Herder Book Co, St Louis MO, 1918, pp 9-10. Available at: Internet Archive. Second set of commentaries are from A Commentary On The New Code Of Canon Law, Volume 6, Herder Book Co., St Louis MO, 1918, pp 329-336. Available at Internet Archive.

[2] The 1917 or Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law, in English Translation with Extensive Scholarly Apparatus, trans. Dr Edward Peters, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2001

[3] Cfr. Coustant, Epistolae RR. Pont., 1721, pp 875, 545, 550

[4] Cfr. Canon 737 ff.

[5] Cfr. Canon 682.

[6] Cfr. Conc. Trid., Sess. 8, c. 8, 14 de bapt; Pohle-Preuss, The Sacraments, 1915, II, 273 ff.

[7] Editor: Context is key. In this context, as a Canonist, Augustine uses the word “formal” to indicate that he means one who is truly a heretic (viz. not submissive to the magisterium) as opposed to one who is mistaken about what that magisterium teaches. This can be seen in his commentary on the second canon.

[8] Cfr. Heiner, Kirchsnrscht, 1897, I , 125ff. The disjunction in the canon is only apparent, for by heresy, etc., one eo ipso incurs censure. [Editor: This is all very well in the sense that A incurs B, but such that B exists alone and as a result of A. But this does not mean that A is a species of B, nor that A is identical with B, nor that A has no other intrinsic consequences – as is clear from the theologians.]

[9] Augustine also gives his own translation: “§ 1. The faithful are obliged to openly profess their Christian faith, as often as silence, evasion, or mode of acting would involve an implicit denial of the faith, contempt of religion, dishonor to God, or scandal to their neighbors.”

[10] Rom. 10.10

[11] Luke 9.26, Matth 10.32

[12] Lehmkuhl, I, n 291

[13] SCPF Feb 7, 1791 Coll., n 604

[14] SCPF Nov 24, 1628, n 44

[15] SCPF May 28, 1635

[16] Benedict XIV, ‘Inter omnigenas,’ Feb 2. 1744, §3-6; ‘Quod provincial,’ Aug 1, 1754; SO, Nov 29 1729, Coll P.F. n 373

[17] SCPF Jan 4 1798 n. 644

[18] SCPF Dec 9 1822 n. 776

[19] Lehmkuhl I, n. 292, according to De Lugo, Suarez, etc.

[20] SO, April 19, 1635; May 27, 1671, n. 1; June 20, 1866, n. 38, Coll. P.F., nn. 83, 195, 293; SCPF, June 26, 1820, n. 747. The end is also perceptible in the following case: Christians may contribute to public funds or public demonstrations, if these may be interpreted as signs of public joy, even though idolatrous customs may be connected with them, but the intention of contributing to idolatry is never permissible. SCPF, Sept. 12, 1645, n. 114.

[21] SCPF, Sept 26, 1840, n 13, Coll., n 914

[22] SO Jan 8, 1851, ad 1 , Coll., n 1055

[23] SO Inst, 1863, Coll. P.F., n 1235.

[24] SO, Aug 20, 1778, n. 530

[25] SO, July 29, 1699, n. 246

[26] SO, Aug 7, 1704, n. 267. They do it to hide their faith, because the Monophysites abhor a mixture of wine with water.

[27] SO Aug 28, 1669, Coll., n 185

[28] Cfr. Lehmkuhl, I. c., n 294.

[29] 1 Tim 1.19

[30] Cf. Lehmkuhl, I. c., I, n. 299

[31] SO, Sep 16, 1864, Coll P.F., n 1262

[32] SCPF, Feb 7, 1645 n. 112.

[33] SCPF, Feb 7, 1625, n. 8

[34] SCPF, Dec 18, 1862, n. 148

[35] SC, pro Neg. Eccl. Extr., Jan 28, 1902; n. VIII Ana. Eccl., X, 74.

[36] SCPF., Dec 18, 1662 n. 148.

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