Short essay: “Idolatry Passports” and objections on the profession of faith and membership

“Men are not bound to scrutinize hearts.”

Photo by Sayak Bala on Unsplash

Following a revision and expansion of an earlier essay, I thought that it would be worthwhile re-publishing this edited section containing more detail on the profession of faith.

The topics expanded include:

  • How formal professions of faith can be a red herring
  • How the failure to profess the faith is not primarily a question of sin
  • What we can learn from those who purchased fake “idolatry passports” in the third century.

Membership of the Church requires, among other things, an external profession of the faith.

Church teaching and many of the catechisms refer to the “profession of faith” as a requirement for membership sometimes using the word “confession” to signify the same thing. But what exactly do these words mean?

In terms of the object of faith, I have already addressed this in the essay from which this is taken. Let’s consider some other aspects here.


“Professing the faith” can mean different things in different contexts. We should be cautious, and not apply the wrong meaning to the wrong context.

For instance, one makes a formal profession of faith when becoming a Catholic, or when assuming certain offices in the Church. Some persons talk as if such occasional, formal acts – or even the mere claim to be a Catholic, or the recitation of the Creed on Sundays – can “override” every other word or action a person might say.

But such individual acts are not what is meant in this context. On the contrary, as a criterion of membership, “professing the faith” implies a state, or something of constancy.

It is feasible that someone could make an insincere formal profession, whilst making his departure from the faith clear on other occasions. As Pope St Pius X described this intentional strategy of the modernists:

“[I]n their books you find some things which might well be expressed by a Catholic, but in the next page you find other things which might have been dictated by a rationalist.”[1]

In this context, professing the faith certainly does not only refer to something done on occasions – and it is something integral, and therefore incompatible with the open profession of heresy at other times.

For reasons that should be clear, this applies even more strongly to the idea that “professing the faith” means “professing to believe the faith” or “professing to be Catholic.” We should give the benefit of the doubt, and interpret someone’s actions in light of such claims as far as is possible – but mere claims cannot override clear evidence of their own falsity. I will address this point in further detail in due course.

Positive professions

However, one is not obliged to go around reciting all the Creeds of the Church at all times. As an example, The Douay Catechism states that Catholics are obliged to make an open profession faith “as often as God’s honour, our own, or our neighbour’s good requires it.”[2] Canon 1325 §1 expresses this reality in very similar terms:

“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.”[3]

St Thomas explains further:

“It is not necessary for salvation to confess one’s faith at all times and in all places, but [it is] in certain places and at certain times – namely when by omitting to do so, we would deprive God of due honor, or our neighbor of a service that we ought to render him.

“For instance, if a man, on being asked about his faith, were to remain silent, so as to make people believe either that he is without faith, or that the faith is false, or so as to turn others away from the faith.”[4]

St Thomas is discussing sin, and what is necessary for salvation. Nonetheless, his comments also shed light on the requirements for membership of the Church, and for when one has an obligation to make an external profession of faith.

In the context of membership, one part of “professing the faith” is fulfilling such obligations.

Personal responsibility for one’s actions

But does every failure to fulfil such obligations constitute a departure from the profession of faith? What if a person fails due to extreme pressure or fear, but still professes the faith internally?

We can answer this with four points.

First, internal acts have no relevance to the Church’s visible unity of faith. Perhaps external pressures could remove moral culpability, but the question is whether a man’s acts constitute a visible failure to profess the faith (or a rejection of it).[5]

Second, the possibility of pressure which is so obvious as to nullify such a failure (or denial) does not mean that a man’s responsibility can never be clear and morally certain.

Third, without some reason to think otherwise, men should generally be considered to be responsible for their own actions.

Fourth, we can and often must act on judgments based on such presumptions. As St Robert Bellarmine teaches:

“[M]en are not bound to, or cannot scrutinize hearts; but when they see someone acting in a heretical way, they simply judge that he is a heretic, and they condemn him as a heretic.”[6]

We should give the benefit of the doubt in as many cases as possible. But it is one thing to discuss clear evidence of external pressure – it is another to hypothesise about secret pressure, which (if even true) would do nothing to mitigate or distinguish what would otherwise be a clear, visible failure to profess the faith when obliged to do so. Such an idea is an implicit denial of the Church’s visible unity of faith.

Avoiding things contrary to the profession of faith

The profession of faith also includes not saying or doing anything openly contrary or incompatible with the profession of faith. To understand this, let’s recall that baptism makes someone a member of the Church, providing that there is no “obstacle in the baptized person” impeding this effect.[7] Here is Billot’s formulation, showing that as criterion for membership, the profession of faith is in some sense negative rather than positive:

“The first condition [for baptism making someone a member of the Church] is that the social bond of the unity of Faith not be broken by formal heresy or even by merely material heresy.”[8]

As implied by Canon 1325, one professes the faith through a certain “manner of acting.” This can include frequenting the sacraments and the Mass, and worshiping God in an orthodox, traditional manner. Of the latter, Pius XII taught:

“The worship [the Church] offers to God, all good and great, is a continuous profession of Catholic faith and a continuous exercise of hope and charity […] In the sacred liturgy we profess the Catholic faith explicitly and openly […] The entire liturgy, therefore, has the Catholic faith for its content, inasmuch as it bears public witness to the faith of the Church.”[9] (emphasis added)

Likewise, acts and omissions can constitute the denial of the faith when they are clearly incompatible with professing the faith. This has nothing to do with the moral value of an act, per se – but rather, we could say, it refers to the “meaning” of certain acts or states which are incompatible with the unity of the Church. This refers to all public acts and omissions, and not just acts of teaching or governing.

The canonist Dom Charles Augustine explains further:

“[O]ne’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. 

“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.”[10]

The avoidance of such acts and omissions can in itself be a part of the profession of faith.

We can see this in stark terms when we recall how “The Lapsed” were treated in the bloody Decian persecution of the third century. The historian Darras writes:

“There were several degrees of apostasy: these timid Christians were classed in three different categories, which were termed the thurificati, sacrificati, libellatici. The thurificati had only offered incense to the idols. The sacrificati had sacrificed to the false gods, or eaten immolated viands.

“The libellatici had gone to the magistrates, declaring that, as Christians, they were not permitted to offer sacrifice, but they offered money in order to procure an exemption from this ceremony. Through avarice or humanity, the proconsuls and governors gave them then a billet (libellum), purporting that they had renounced Jesus Christ, and sacrificed to the gods of the empire, even through they had done no such thing. These billets were read publicly, and their bearers were left in peace.

“All who belonged to these three categories were, without distinction, named lapsi (fallen), and for each of them canonical penances were appointed.”[11] (Line breaks added)

Despite extreme pressure, and despite not actually offering incense, the public libellatici’s actions were nonetheless treated as visible departures from the profession of faith.

Further, these points all refer to all public acts and omissions, and not just acts of teaching. It would be foolish to say that someone only departs from the profession of faith if he teaches or imposes such a departure on his subjects.

All of these points show the intimate links between the Church’s unity of faith, the individual profession of faith and how it is that heresy prevents a man from being a member of the Church. As Cardinal Billot explains:

“So as long as heresy is not professed openly, but exists only in a person’s mind, or is manifested only in ways that are not sufficient to make it public, it does not exclude participation in the visible body of the Church, and thus the baptismal character (by which we are attached to the body of the Church) necessarily retains its power, or rather retains its natural consequence, which is not blocked or opposed by any contrary action.”[12]

The converse of this is that if a man’s acts are sufficiently public and sufficiently clear to make him visibly disunited from the Church’s visible unity of faith (including in the secondary sense of submission to the magisterium) then he can no longer be said to profess the faith.

Thus, whatever secret internal dispositions he might have to the contrary, he has departed from the body of the Church.

Some further reading:

E. Sylvester Berry, The Church of Christ

Charles Augustine, A Commentary On The New Code Of Canon Law, Volume 6

Henry Turberville, The Douay Catechism or An Abridgement of the Christian Doctrine


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[1] Pope St Pius X, Encyclical Pascendi Dominic Gregis, 1907, n. 18. Available at

[2] Henry Turberville, The Douay Catechism or An Abridgement of the Christian Doctrine, published 1649. In Tradivox II, Sophia Institute Press, 2021, Q3 p 111.

[3] 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

[4] St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Benziger Bros, 1947. III Q3 A2

[5] St Robert Bellarmine, whilst acknowledging that the myth of St Marcellinus sacrificing to idols may never have happened, wrote: “I believe, however, that he did not ipso facto lose the pontificate, because it is sufficiently certain to all that he sacrificed to idols only out of fear. You can add to this what St. Augustine in his book on baptism in chapter 16 against Petilian says, namely, that Marcellinus was innocent, and none of the ancient historians mention this moral fault.” in St Robert Bellarmine, Controversies of the Christian Religion, trans. Fr Kenneth Baker SJ, Keep the Faith Press, USA, 2016, p 979

[6] St Robert Bellarmine 983.

[7] Louis Cardinal Billot, Tractatus de Ecclesia Christi, Tomus Prior, Prati ex Officina Libraria Giachetti, Filii et soc, 1909, 298. Trans. Fr Larrabee.

[8] Billot 291, trans. Fr Larrabee

[9] Pius XII, Encyclical Mediator Dei, 1947, n. 47. The theologian Berry also says that the rites of the Church “in fact are, outward professions of faith.” E. Sylvester Berry, The Church of Christ, B. Herder Book Co. London 1927. p 98.

[10] Charles Augustine, A Commentary On The New Code Of Canon Law, Volume 6, Herder Book Co., St Louis MO, 1918, pp 332. Available at Internet Archive.

[11] J.E. Darras, A General History of the Catholic Church, Vol I. P.J. Kennedy, New York, 1898, p 241

[12] Billot 298, trans Fr Larrabee.

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