“None of this is relevant to membership of the Church – and therefore, it has nothing to do with Francis’ legitimacy.”
Image: Wiki Commons Public Domain
This essay is written in response to Mr Michael Lofton’s comments on a debate hosted by Mr Matt Fradd on Pints with Aquinas on 20 September 2022. (We have also published another attempt to engage Mr Lofton here).
But first, some background for those who have not heard of Mr Lofton.
Mr Michael Lofton is the personality behind the website and YouTube channel Reason and Theology. Reason and Theology Live describes itself as:
“A show dedicated to charitable discussion, debates, interviews, commentary and analysis. The show concentrates on theological topics, historical matters and philosophical problems, with content ranging from introductory material to in-depth examinations.”
The channel sometimes features lecturers explaining points of Catholic doctrine with clarity and thoughtfulness.
It also features respectful debates and conversations with Protestants, Orthodox and others.
I want to state clearly at the outset that I appreciate some of Mr Lofton’s work.
But unfortunately, I must also note that the respect shown to Orthodox and Protestants does not extend in the same way to those whom he calls “radical traditionalists.”
Some background on Michael Lofton and “Rad-Trads”
Lofton has become increasingly concerned about those who, to differing degrees, reject the reforms that have appeared since Vatican II.
He has made very many critical videos and comments about aspects of traditionalism. While it may not be intentional, these videos are often marred by what appears to be disdain, superiority and condescension.
In August 2022 – responding to “Criticism and Hate Mail” – Lofton was asked to explain the reasoning behind the different ways he treats “Rad-Trads” and non-Catholics. In response – after denying that he is harsher on traditionalists than Orthodox and Protestants – Lofton said:
“[S]ome aspects of radical traditionalism are more pernicious than Orthodoxy and Protestantism, because in some ways radical traditionalists are closer to the Catholic faith than Orthodox or Protestants. Here’s the problem though. The closer you are, however one when you add an error mixed in with it that leads people away from Christ, the more dangerous you are. […]
“It’s more pernicious, it’s more subtle, but it’s also more dangerous for that reason because it’s so easy to then confuse that with the proper understanding of the Catholic faith, with proper ecclesiology, a proper understanding of the magisterium – because they’re so close. You have just a little drop of poison in there, it’s so easy to think that the whole thing is good. […]
“But I’m not seeing a lot of people engaging with Radical Traditionalists and the misinformation that they’re offering, and the content that is taking people away from Christ and his Church. I’m not seeing people engaging that as much, so I’m seeing more of a need to address that.”
While we sharply disagree with Mr Lofton on the nature of the current crisis, we do have some common ground.
His theological principles and those expressed on this website (The WM Review) are largely in accord – it’s clear that he and we are reading many of the same sorts of standard pre-conciliar books (viz. those recommended here).
We share his criticisms of those who say that we must “rethink the papacy” in light of the current ecclesial crisis.
In the above text, Lofton talks about the importance of having a proper understanding of ecclesiology, and of addressing the “misinformation” coming from traditionalists.
There is no doubt that some “Rethinkers” are promoting distorted and untraditional understandings of ecclesiology and the magisterium. But I would like to point out a serious misunderstanding of Lofton’s own, made in his reaction video to the debate on the so-called “Pope Question.”
But first, a comment on the medium and this idea of engagement.
Mr Lofton has complained that traditionalists do not engage with his criticisms.
The sad reality is that few persons have the time to engage with anything lengthy.
This includes books and even essays!
But in particular, very few persons have the time or inclination to sit through lengthy videos of Mr Lofton’s genre. Even fewer persons have the time to search through an enormous catalogue of such videos.
Claiming that he has treated a topic in detail, and then referring the world to such a video or catalogue, is like providing a footnote to a series of books without the relevant page number – or even the relevant volume number.
Similarly, few persons have the time to watch a two-and-a-half hour video debrief following a two-hour debate.
This is because such videos – especially reaction videos – place a disproportionate and incongruous burden on their audience.
But first, consider the burden on the creator. Consider the less formal approach of livestreamed videos – and compare this with the thinking, researching, drafting, referencing, re-writing, editing and proofreading required for an essay. This is not to suggest that such videos are easy or require no work, but the difference is clear.
Next, the burden on the audience. The written form is not only superior in itself: it is also better for the recipient. Reading a formal and more focused essay takes much less time, and a higher degree of active and fruitful engagement, than is required for watching an informal video with the same number of words.
Videos are not the only means of studying theology, and they often offer a lower reward than comes from the same time spent reading.
Finally, those who are most likely to engage seriously with his ideas are generally the least likely to be aware of Catholic YouTube influencers, let alone to have the time or inclination to watch such videos.
In short, the problem is not length or lack of patience, but the medium. While videos may achieve many good fruits, if Mr Lofton wishes his ideas to receive serious engagement, then it would be better if he published them in a written form.
With that said, let’s proceed to Lofton’s comment.
In his review of the debate, Mr Lofton refers to a comment on the topic of membership:
“Dimond complains about the notion that non-Catholics can be part of the Church. And he sees this in Lumen Gentium.”
Lofton then addresses this by conflating – apparently unconsciously – the issue of membership of the Church and the issue of salvation. This is also evident in the title of the timestamp: “Dimond on no salvation outside the church.”
Br Peter Dimond and his organisation are outspoken advocates for the dogma “outside the Church there is no salvation.” Perhaps this is why Lofton tries to show that Dimond’s “complaint” is unjustified, by referring to the possibility of being united to the Church by desire.
But in fact, Dimond’s comments in this section were ordered towards the external profession of the faith as a requirement for membership of the body of the Church and not towards the distinct question of who can be saved. Membership of the body of the Church is important both to the question of Francis et al, and to the question of salvation, but these are still distinct questions. I do not believe that Dimond’s explanation of this point was unclear, but it appears that Mr Lofton did not understand it.
Unfortunately, this does mean that Mr Lofton’s comments are irrelevant to the topic at hand.
I am using this cumbersome phrase – “actual member of the body of the Church” – to make clear what is meant. However, notwithstanding examples to the contrary, the shorter phrase “member of the Church” is usually used to signify this same reality, rather than to someone who is united to the Church by desire.
Insofar as Lofton’s comment takes place in the context of discussing a debate on “The Pope Question,” it represents an improper understanding of the ecclesiological point at stake.
It also represents a misunderstanding or obscuration of the argument being made. Given that this misunderstanding imputes a quite basic error to those who question Francis’ legitimacy, it might be fair to use Lofton’s own word and call this “misinformation.”
Let’s see the full text.
“Dimond complains about the notion that non-Catholics can be part of the Church. And he sees this in Lumen Gentium. Now, I’ve treated Lumen Gentium 14-16 in great detail, so I think we severely need to qualify what it’s saying – because it itself qualifies itself. But there is this notion certainly in Vatican II that a non-Catholic can be part of the Church. But that’s not unique to Vatican II. There’s a very long history here.
“In fact I have got it out for the video. I think this is worth reading. Francis Sullivan, he’s the one I’m writing my doctoral dissertation on. Magisterial reversals in the thought of Francis Sullivan. And he has a book called Salvation Outside of the Church – Tracing the History of the Catholic Response. I don’t agree necessarily with the way he understands Florence or the way he understands what Vatican II says – I think that he concedes too much and there are some points that he doesn’t have to concede in order to maintain consistency on the part of the magisterium. So I don’t agree with necessarily some of the conclusions or some of the solutions that he tries to provide to harmonise Florence and Vatican II – but I will say that he does a great job at outlining and serving the history of the Church on this question.
“And what I’m trying to say here is that if we’re disturbed by Vatican II on this concept that a non-Catholic could be a part of the Church – so they’re not a formal member, they’re not a card-carrying Catholic, but they are united to the interior of the Church through the bonds of faith, hope and charity – are we… is this something unique to Vatican II really? No, I think he does an excellent job at tracing the history of this, historically.
“So if we’re going to indict Vatican II here I think we really have to indict the Catholic Church, because Vatican II is really just expressing what has gone before that. But it’s doing so very, in a very qualified and nuanced way, which is why I very much appreciate paragraphs 14-16 in Lumen Gentium, because it’s trying to harmonise this concept of salvation only inside the Church, and the necessity of baptism, and yet this ability to be able to speak of those who are not formal members in the church possibly being united to the church, it does so in very balanced and helpful way.
“Of course Bellarmine – you could see this concept in Bellarmine, he even speaks of those who are in the Church by desire, so there’s certainly attestation to this among Doctors of the Church and theologians. It especially becomes prominent with the discovery of the new world. So for a good 500 years, we’ve been saying these things and Vatican II is just kind of the culmination and expression of what has gone before us for about 500 years expressing these things. So again, if we’re going to indict Vatican II, I think we have to indict the last 500 years of Catholic history.
“Of course we have Pius IX who refers to this concept, you obviously have Pius XII, you of course have the Holy Office letter written to the Archbishop of Boston in 1949 dealing with the Feeneyites, and in fact, if you want a really good summary of this in the pre-Vatican II era, read that 1949 Holy Office letter to the Archbishop of Boston. I think it does a wonderful job at expressing really what we’re going to see at Vatican II. And it’s of course calling on Pius IX and Pius XII. And I know Peter Dimond is probably trying to engage Pius IX there, Pius XII in the letter to the Holy Office, but I think again ultimately Vatican II is just expressing a lot of those things, so if we’re going to indict Vatican II we’re going to have to indict those popes and plenty of theologians prior to that. And I just think that does too much damage and violence to the Catholic position.”
As already stated, none of this is relevant to the doctrine of membership of the Church – and therefore, it has nothing to do with “The Pope Question.”
This confusion is regrettably common, and as a result, many think that those united to the Church by desire can indeed be treated as equivalent to Catholics or members of the Church, whether in general or in reference to such points. This confusion is seen by the very fact that Lofton is making these irrelevant comments in this context, delivered with such confidence of their relevance.
Let’s see this how the argument from membership actually proceeds.
The argument from membership
In order to be a member of the body of the Church, one must fulfil the criteria set out by Pius XII and various other theologians. One way of putting this is: one must be baptised, profess the faith externally, and not be separated from unity of the body, or excommunicated.
From this we proceed to the first syllogism:
- One is not a member of the body of the Church if one does not profess the faith externally.
- Francis does not profess the faith externally.
- Therefore, Francis is not a member of the body of the Church.
A variation on this, with similar conclusions down the line due to the nature of doubtful authority, might also run:
- One is not a member of the body of the Church if one does not profess the faith externally.
- It is unclear whether Francis professes the faith externally.
- Therefore, it is unclear whether Francis is a member of the body of the Church.
Now, one might disagree with the premises given, and I do not propose to defend them or explain them here. But let’s note a few points in passing.
The primary syllogism implicitly recognises that secret or occult heretics remain members of the body of the Church – as is held by the majority of theologians.
The premises refer to Francis’ external actions, with no reference to his magisterium “as” a magisterium. Further, those unfamiliar with this topic should not just assume what “professing the faith externally” means in this context – more information is available here, here or here.
One might object that this syllogism presumes to judge the Pope, and that this is impossible. But affirming that “Francis does profess the faith externally” – as Lofton suggests that he would do – one is rendering a judgment of the same nature as that in the syllogism. In fact, Lofton not only implicitly recognises the legitimacy of “judging” whether Francis professes the faith, but he even explicitly criticises one of the debaters for not being ready to do so:
“You’re not really prepared to answer these things – at least, he didn’t seem to have a ready answer prepared, he’s ready to give a judgment on Pope Francis here. And I kind of feel like it would have helped his position if he was a little bit more solid there, and prepared to say at the beginning, ‘Yes he does,’ and then able to address any objections that Dimond is going to throw out at him.” (Emphasis added)
All this said, it is vital to understand the first premise above. It is pointless to discuss whether a non-Catholic can hold office in the Church, without agreeing that non-Catholics are not members of the Church.
In the video at hand, Lofton advances the idea that non-Catholics can be a “part of the Church.” But the only way that this could be relevant to the above syllogism is if “a part of the Church” is equivalent to “a member of the body of the Church.”
In fact, Lofton himself does not seem to think that they are actually equivalent. This much is clear in his reference to belonging to the Church by desire, or to the “interior” of the Church, and so on – and his distinguishing of such a person who may be united in this way from a “formal member […] a card-carrying Catholic.” But in that case, why is he making these comments in this situation?
Now, as union with the Church by desire has no relevance to the above syllogism, on which the argument from membership is based, we could end this discussion here.
However, it is worth adding a few more points.
Membership and Headship
The next stage of the argument from membership begins by stating that one cannot be the head of a body without also being a member of that body.
We know, as a matter of reason, that the head is a type of member. Here are some authorities advancing this principle of reason, as well as the thesis itself.
First, Pope Leo XIII (on a different issue) remarks in passing:
“It is absurd to imagine that he who is outside can command in the Church.”
St Robert Bellarmine states, quoting also the Dominican Cajetan:
“[T]his reason is most certain. A non-Christian cannot in any way be Pope, as Cajetan says in chapter 26 of the same book, and the reason is because what is not a member cannot be the head.”
This is Cajetan’s expression of that principle – although it is presented as part of an objection, and he qualifies it elsewhere:
“[B]eing a member and being the head are so essentially ordered that being a member is anterior to being the head, as is evident because the head must be a member, but not conversely. Therefore, that which is not a member is not the head.”
Bellarmine also refers to Melchior Cano OP:
“[He] teaches that heretics are not parts of the Church, nor members, and in the last chapter at argument 12 he says that it cannot even be thought that someone could be the Head and Pope, who is neither a member or a part of the Church.”
Cardinal Billot makes the same argument:
“[N]o one can be the head even of a particular church, if he is not a member of the Church. For what was ever a head which was not a member? For even though not every member is a head, nevertheless every head is a member.”
Having established this point, here is the second syllogism:
- One cannot be the head of the body of the Church if one is not a member of the body of the Church.
- Francis is not a member of the body of the Church.
- Therefore, Francis cannot be the head of the body of the Church.
The only way that Lofton’s comments could be relevant to this second syllogism is if the first premise was false – in other words, if one could be the head of the body of the Church despite only being united to the Church by desire. Lofton does not attempt to argue for such a premise directly: he merely explains the idea of union by desire, and we are left to assume that it is relevant to the point.
However, it is not relevant.
Let’s recall the majority position on the question of occult heresy (either private or internal heresy) – that this does not prevent a person from being a member of the body of the Church. For this reason, comments such as those made by the great Fr Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, on how an occult heretic could be a moral head, also have no relevance to this argument. This is so, even though these comments are presented as relevant by those with an insufficient grasp of the argument from membership, and of the context of the great theologian’s text.
The above syllogism also has nothing to do with becoming a heretic, teaching heresy or losing office, and as such the various texts on those controversies are of limited relevance.
However, it is not clear that Lofton actually thinks that one can be head of the body without being a member of the body. The idea that there is some useful equivalence between Catholics and non-Catholics in relation to this topic, and the idea that one can be a head without being an actual member of the body, are both so improbable that I hesitate to impute them to him. It seems probable that he is discussing these ideas in a tangential way.
However, it also seems that he has misunderstood the argument; and it is certain that discussing union by desire in this context obscures the central issues, rather than clarifying them.
Problems with language
Treating those who might be united to the Church by desire as if they were equivalent to actual Catholics in this context also obscures wider issues of ecclesiology, by suggesting that there are two ways of being a member of the Church – an invisible and visible way. This inevitably divides and gives rise to two churches – one visible and one invisible – which is an error. As St Robert Bellarmine teaches:
“There is only one Church, and not two, and that the one and true Church is the assembly of men bound together by the profession of the same Christian faith and by the communion of the same sacraments, under the rule of legitimate pasters, and especially of the one Vicar of Christ on earth, the Roman Pontiff.”
This is not to deny the possibility of union by desire. Further, the internal and invisible virtue of faith could, in theory, be compatible with the external profession of falsehoods against divine revelation made in good faith. But this is precisely why this invisible virtue is in no way a criterion of membership of the Church. Bellarmine continues:
“… we do not think that any internal virtue at all, but only the outward profession of faith and the sensibly manifest communion of the sacraments are required in order that a man may be judged absolutely to be a part of the true Church of which the Scriptures speak.” (Emphasis added)
However, if we are saying or implying in this context that the visible Church herself consists of both Catholics and non-Catholics, then we are saying or implying that the Church consists of a) “[those] bound together by the profession of the same Christian faith,” forming one body with b) those who do not profess this faith externally.
If this were to be so, then we could no longer be able to say that the Church is visibly united in faith. But visible unity in faith is, in fact, the principal aspect of the note of unity according to Cardinal Billot:
Therefore, any application of union by desire to the topic of membership either denies or risks obscuring the great truth of the Church’s visible unity of faith – the most important of the four marks – and the very principle of a visible Church itself.
In this vein – I would invite Michael Lofton and his fans and followers to consider whether they believe that the organisation currently headed by Francis (in which a sizeable number knowingly and openly reject dogmas, such as that of transubstantiation) can be described as visibly united in its profession of faith; and to provide – in writing, and not with yet more videos – their explanation of the apparent loss of an essential mark of Christ’s Church.
No-one can contribute to a discussion without understanding what his interlocutors are saying. Without such understanding, all parties lose.
When someone’s arguments are not understood by his opponents, he loses the opportunity to have his ideas critiqued. He loses the opportunity to refine any true arguments, and to shed any false ones. These losses in turn cannot help but imply that his own arguments are correct (especially to onlookers) – and if they are false, he suffers by being confirmed in falsehood.
Those who do not make the effort to understand the arguments of their opponents lose the following opportunities:
- To exercise the virtue of justice, through accurate representation of their opponents
- To exercise the virtue of charity, by disabusing their opponents of errors or faulty arguments
- To exercise the virtue of affability, and win goodwill from their opponents, through fair and respectful engagement
- To advance their own positions, by showing all listeners that they have truly understood the points in question and that their critiques have value
- To attain truth themselves, if their own arguments prove to be inferior.
This is why a formal disputation does not properly start until the challenger had repeated his opponent’s thesis and shown that he has correctly understood it.
Now, I do not expect that everyone will accept the conclusions under discussion without a more thorough explanation and defence of the premises. But the purpose of this article is simply to point out this common misunderstanding of ecclesiology, and of the arguments against Francis’ legitimacy.
The argument from membership relates solely to actual membership of the body of the Church. Those who might be united to the Church by desire are not Catholics in any sense relevant to this argument. If Lofton does indeed understand this point, it does not change the fact that his treatment – delivered with such surety, despite its irrelevance – obscures the issue.
In the days following the debate, some have called for a follow-up featuring Michael Lofton in defence of Francis and his recent predecessors. While I will again state clearly that I think that Mr Lofton does indeed produce valuable work on the Church’s magisterium – albeit which is only accessible to those who can tolerate hours of YouTube videos – it is disappointing to see him confusing these issues on ecclesiology. I hope that any follow-up debate will avoid such misunderstandings.
If we – as traditionalists, and as those questioning the legitimacy of Francis and recent predecessors – are as dangerous as Mr Lofton thinks, then we must be refuted; but we cannot be refuted if what we argue is not properly represented and understood.
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The WM Review – How is the Church “united in faith,” according to this twentieth-century master of ecclesiology?
The WM Review – Membership of the Church and Public Profession of the True Faith
The WM Review – What do the catechisms say about heretics and the Church?
The WM Review – What sort of heresy separates a man from the Church?
The WM Review – The Visible Unity of the Church
Salaverri – On the Church of Christ. Contained within Sacrae Theologiae Summa Volume IB. Keep the Faith Publications
Augustine – Profession of the Faith, Heresy and Separating Oneself from the Church
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 ‘Michael Lofton Responds to Criticism and Hate Mail’, Reason and Theology, published 9 August 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8nQStGmYek&t=2006s
 ‘REVIEW: Sedevacantism Debate (Cassman vs. Dimond)’, Reason and Theology, published 21 September 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F02dlyCDMSE&t=2814s
 Leo XIII, Encyclical Satis Cognitum, 1896. 15. Available at https://www.vatican.va/content/leo-xiii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_29061896_satis-cognitum.html
 Cajetan, Tract 1 de auct Papae et Concilii, cap 17, quoted in Louis Cardinal Billot, Tractatus de Ecclesia Christi, Tomus Prior, Prati ex Officina Libraria Giachetti, Filii et soc, 1909, p 615. Translated by Novus Ordo Watch, available at https://novusordowatch.org/billot-de-ecclesia-thesis29/
 Bellarmine 840
 Billot 300-1, Translated by Fr Julian Larrabee.
 Given that our arguments accept that occult heretics are members of the Church, and pertain solely to those who are open and public heretics, the text from Garrigou-Lagrange is irrelevant. Garrigou-Lagrange and those of his position are attempting to solve a problem created by their acceptance of the minority opinion – namely, how an occult heretic can a) not be a member of the Church, but b) maintain headship (viz. habitual jurisdiction) in the Church. As such, this comment does not pertain to public or open heretics, and it does not seem that Garrigou-Lagrange is even addressing Bellarmine’s so-called fifth opinion. It is therefore irrelevant to our arguments, and those who produce it against us demonstrate their lack of understanding of the debate. The comments are available here: Garrigou-Lagrange, De Christo Salvatore. Marietti, Rome-Turin, 1946, p. 232. Taken from the Dominicans of Avrillé, translated from Latin and then from French by Fr Pierre-Marie and Fr Ortiz respectively. Available at https://dominicansavrille.us/on-the-deposition-of-the-pope-part-2-of-2/
 From St Robert Bellarmine’s De Ecclesia Militante, translated by Fenton and included in Mgr Joseph Clifford Fenton, ‘Father Journet’s Concept of the Church’, in The American Ecclesiastical Review, Vol. CXXVII No. 5, November 1952 p 370. Scanned by The Bellarmine Forums and available at: https://wmreview.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Father-Journets-Concept-of-the-Church.pdf
 Cf. Billot, discussing how material heretics (those who inculpably do not accept the magisterium as their rule of faith) are outside the Church:
“Heresy is not imputed to material heretics as a sin; in fact they are not even necessarily lacking that supernatural faith which is the root and beginning of all justification. For they may explicitly believe the principal articles, and believe the others, not indeed explicitly, but implicitly, through a disposition of soul and the good will to accept everything which is sufficiently proposed to them as being revealed by God. Thus they can still belong to the body of the Church by desire, and have the other conditions which are necessary for salvation. Nevertheless, with regard to real incorporation into the visible Church of Christ of which we are now speaking, the thesis does not make any distinction between formal and material heretics, but understands everything according to our notion of material heresy which we will explain shortly, which alone is proper and genuine heresy.” Billot 292-3, trans. Fr Julian Larrabee.
 Ibid 370-1.
 Billot 146, Gleize n. 208.
 Cf. Gregory A. Smith, ‘Just one-third of U.S. Catholics agree with their church that Eucharist is body, blood of Christ’, in Pew Research Center News, August 5, 2019. Available at https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/08/05/transubstantiation-eucharist-u-s-catholics/