Are we obliged to believe every person who calls himself a Catholic?

“A visible unity in ‘claims to be Catholic’ is no more remarkable than a unity of ‘claims to be Anglican.'”

Photo by Sander Sammy on Unsplash

Objection: “As long as someone claims to be a Catholic and professes submission to the Church’s magisterium, he cannot be considered to be more than an occult heretic – even if he openly says heretical things.”

Having established an understanding of how Louis Cardinal Billot explains heresy and membership in an earlier part, I would like to address some objections that frequently arise.

Response: As Leo XIII said, “Nothing is more useful than to look upon the world as it really is.”[1]

It is easy to get distracted by appearances, words and claims, rather than things as they really are.

It is common sense that sometimes, claims to believe the Catholic faith are nothing more than empty verbiage. In some cases, a man’s claim to be a Catholic may be manifestly belied by other acts or omissions, or by a general state of separation from the unity of the Church.

When it comes to the topic of heresy and membership, the only cases which are relevant are those that are open and public. We are not considering cases where someone happens to say heretical things, either because he misspeaks or is erring in good faith. We are only considering cases where someone has also made clear, by his acts or his state, that he does not profess the faith, and is not submissive to the Church’s magisterium.

If a case is ambiguous, then it isn’t relevant to the question of membership. We can give such a person the benefit of the doubt, and treat him with the kindness or firmness needed to help him.

Who is a Catholic?

Pope Pius XII gives us a statement of who is and is not a member of the Church, in his encyclical 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 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.”[2] (emphasis added)

The proposition “heretics are not members of the Church” is completely certain – so long as the right distinctions are made. But these distinctions seem to be somewhat different to what many assume. Some of these (such as the distinction between formal and material heretics) are dealt with in the essay on heresy – but let’s consider the objection that we cannot know that a man is a heretic if he claims not to be.

There is nothing in Pope Pius XII’s text about “claiming to be a Catholic” or about “professing to be submissive to the magisterium.” In order to justify the objection, our interlocutors must either insist that these are the real meanings of the phrase “profess the true faith”, or that we are mistaken in our understanding of what it means for heresy, by its own nature, to sever a man from the Church.

The objection claims that if a man calls himself a Catholic, we are forbidden from concluding that he is actually a heretic or to have separated himself from the Church. In other words, such a man cannot be more than an “occult heretic” (or perhaps “suspect of heresy”), and we must consider him to be a member of the Church until there has been a declaration from authority, or until he has himself abandoned the Catholic name, perhaps through (for example) formally becoming an Anglican.

Billot’s words could seem to support such an idea:

“Secret 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.

“There are many examples of people like this in our current times: namely those who have a doubt about matters of faith or positively disagree, and do not hide their state of mind in the dealings of their private life, but who have never explicitly rejected the faith of the Church, and voluntarily say they are Catholics when they are asked simply what their religion is.”[3]

But is the idea formulated in the objection an accurate interpretation of Billot’s words?

Public vs. Private

In the text above, Billot states that he is discussing men who “do not hide their state of mind in the dealings of their private life” – and those who manifest heresy externally, “but not with a public profession.” As such, the bare fact of claiming to be a Catholic is not relevant to the point. The key point is that persons who have not made a “public profession” of heresy remain members. The next question is, of course, what constitutes a public profession in this context?

The passage takes place in the context of distinguishing secret (or occult) heretics from those who are notorious. Another question, then, is what Billot means by “notorious” – which is addressed elsewhere, and which will form the basis of a further objection. But it is not logically sound to seize on the phrase, “voluntarily say they are Catholics”, as if it was the key to the matter, or as if this was the definition of secret heretics (as opposed to one common quality to such persons) – especially when this requires ignoring the other salient points in this passage and in his treatment.

Billot is far from positing an obligatory legal fiction and an epistemological deadlock, as the objection seems to do. It seems, rather, to refer to cases such as the following. A man may clearly manifest his heresy to a small number of trusted and discreet family members over a meal. This man is indeed a heretic, and (as an aside) does incur an automatic excommunication for externalising his heresy – although it is debatable whether such an excommunication would remove his membership of the Church.[4]

But in any case, as I have explained elsewhere, this is all beside the point.

Heresy known only to a small number of discreet persons is not public (let alone “notorious”), and therefore is not relevant to the question. This kind of externalised heresy cannot yet be said to jeopardise the visible unity of the Church – which, as I have shown, is a fundamental idea and key to this question.

“Occult heresy” and the unity of the Church

Let’s also question this definition of an “occult heretic”.

First, defining “occult” in the way implied by the objection does violence to the basic meaning of the words. Of course, technical words can sometimes have counter-intuitive meanings when they are used in a scientific way: consider the use of the word “authentic” in the context of the magisterium, which means “authoritative”, rather than “genuine.” However, The WM Review has already published three canonists commenting on the relevant terms, and it is far from clear that such a definition of “occult” is tenable – let alone obligatory.

Further discussion of these levels of publicity will form the subject of another objection in due course.

In any case, the idea that someone cannot be more than an occult heretic, simply because he still claims to be a Catholic – even in the face of overwhelming, public evidence of the hollowness of such a claim – is out of keeping with the rest of Billot’s treatment and other truths which we are obliged to hold. Both Billot, other theologians and, indeed, the Tradivox catechisms which inspired this series, refer to the “profession of the faith,” viz. of the dogmas of the Church – and not merely to “the profession of the Catholic name.”

In a similar way, “professing the faith” is not equivalent to “professing to believe the faith.” It is true that the profession of faith can be resolved into submission to the magisterium – but here, we refer to actual submission, and not a mere claim to be submissive to the magisterium.

Whatever else may be said about these ideas, they implicitly deny that the Church’s unity is a “mark” or “note” of the Church. Theologians treat the Church’s visible unity in her profession of faith as the most fundamental of the four notes and a remarkable, standing motive of credibility for the Church’s claims. But a visible unity in “claims to be a Catholic” is no more remarkable than “claims to be an Anglican” – indeed, the Anglicans are just as visibly united in their claims to be Anglicans as Catholics are in their claims. Such a “unity of claims” cannot be a note denoting the true Church.

Continues below:

Comparisons with schism

As a passing comment, it is bitterly ironic that many of those who assert that we cannot know whether a man is truly a heretic without their special conditions being fulfilled, nonetheless freely accuse others of being schismatics. We all know that these accusers would by no means accept a claim that one is a Catholic as exonerating their victims.

Some seem to understand heresy as being more internal and unknowable, and schism as being more external and objective. In fact, this is a misunderstanding of heresy, schism, the visible nature of the Church, and of human acts. No-one commits an act of either heresy or schism without some form of pertinacity – the deliberate intention to will the object of the act (without regard for moral culpability). And if this pertinacity is unknowable for open heretics, it is equally unknowable for schismatics. St Thomas writes:

“As Isidore says (Etym. viii, 3), schism takes its name ‘from being a scission of minds,’ and scission is opposed to unity.  Wherefore the sin of schism is one that is directly and essentially opposed to unity. For in the moral, as in the physical order, the species is not constituted by that which is accidental. Now, in the moral order, the essential is that which is intended, and that which results beside the intention, is, as it were, accidental.  

“Hence the sin of schism is, properly speaking, a special sin, for the reason that the schismatic intends to sever himself from that unity which is the effect of charity: because charity unites not only one person to another with the bond of spiritual love, but also the whole Church in unity of spirit.”[5]

If we cannot know someone’s intention with regard to heresy, why would we think that we could know it with regard to schism? And if external signs, actions, words and states can reveal that someone is a schismatic, despite his claims to the contrary, then why would we gratuitously assert that they cannot do the same for a heretic?

In fact, Billot says specifically that the principles are the same:

“Thesis XII: The second condition required for adults is that they not be impeded from membership, and that the bond of communion not be broken, which can happen in two ways. The first way is by the action of the person himself, which is through schism, which is considered in the same way as heresy. […]”[6] (Emphasis added)

He continues in his treatment of the subject, whilst also emphasising the distinction between schism (and, by extension, heresy) and excommunication:

The general reason is exactly the same as in the preceding thesis [on heresy]. For, as was proved in Question 3, the Church is essentially one in faith and communion. Therefore, just as belonging to the visible body of the Church is impeded by that which destroys the bond of the unity of faith, then in the same way this also happens from whatever destroys the bond of communion, if you understand all of this according to the ideas we have expressed already.

“We must point out one difference, though, in that the unity of faith can only be removed in one way, namely by heresy, while the bond of communion can be broken in two ways: firstly by schism, and secondly by excommunication.”[7] (Emphasis added)

He then proceeds to treat the matter with the same methodology he uses in his treatment of heresy.

Anyone who wishes to sustain the stated objection against this explanation of heresy and membership needs to apply the same principles here, and cease accusing others of schism until they have been warned and condemned by the Church.

Supporting The WM Review through book purchases
As Amazon Associates, we earn from qualifying purchases through our Amazon links. Click here for The WM Review Reading List (with direct links for US and UK readers).


The idea that someone is (or must be considered to be) a Catholic, simply because he says so, appears to be an expression of nominalism, voluntarism and legal positivism, depending on the angle from which it is considered. This idea requires us to live in a world of legal fiction, contrary to common sense – and even the canons and “legal order” which it is posited to preserve. It is divorced from reality and the world of real things, and should be rejected.

In any case, the 1917 Code of Canon Law treats “retaining the name ‘Christian’” as an intrinsic part of the definition of heresy. It is easy, in a world including the Orthodox and Protestants, to understand “retaining the name ‘Christian’” as somehow excluding the idea of “retaining the name ‘Catholic’” – but I propose that there is not necessarily such an opposition here. The relevant point is that a heretic is a baptised man, claiming to be a Christian, who denies or doubts a dogma in the way described in the original essay: and this definition applies just as well to one who keeps claiming to be a Catholic (as well as a Christian) as it does to one who explicitly abandons that name.

Further, since Pius XII’s Mystici Corporis Christi, there is really only one way of talking about membership of the Church – and that is the way which refers to visible members of the visible Church. As such, it will not do to appeal to the somewhat outmoded terminology, in which membership can refer to both so-called “legal membership” and to whether one is internally united to Christ or not – or to whether one is to be saved or not. As I discussed in the original essay, the state of a person’s soul and his eternal destiny seem to be quite irrelevant to the question. It would obviously be fallacious to say that if a man is a member in one (outmoded) sense, he must therefore also be a member in another, different sense.

Finally, let’s recall that it is the Church who teaches us – both through the direct exercise of her magisterium, and by her theologians – that certain types of heretics separate themselves from the Church by the nature of their acts or state. She expects us to listen, learn, understand, and accept – and, in some cases, understand the implications of her teaching on the actual facts around us. As Don de Sarda y Salvany wrote in his famous work Liberalism is a Sin, approved by the Holy Office:

“Of what use would be the rule of faith and morals if in every particular case the faithful could not of themselves make the immediate application, or if they were constantly obliged to consult the Pope or the diocesan pastor? […]

“It would be rendering the superior rule of faith useless, absurd and impossible to require the supreme authority of the Church to make its special and immediate application in every case and upon every occasion which calls it forth.”[8]

In any event, wrangling over all these points is a diversion. The question is one of fact, one of reality:

Regardless of what a man says, do his acts or state clearly manifest, in an open, public way, both a denial of a truth of faith, and a rejection of the magisterium, such that he cannot realistically be considered part of the Church’s visibly united profession of faith?

If so, then he is a heretic and a non-Catholic – whatever he might say to the contrary.

Tradivox Catechism Review
Part I: How can we find the teaching of the universal ordinary magisterium?
Part II: What do the catechisms tell us about heretics and the Church?
Part III: How is the Church “visibly united in faith,” according to Cardinal Billot?
Part IV: Why is it essential that the Church is visibly united in faith?
Part V: What sort of heresy results in being outside the Church?
Part VI: What is the difference between an excommunicate and an open heretic?

Obj. I: Are we obliged to believe every person who calls himself a Catholic?
Obj. II: Should mistaken Catholics be called “material heretics”?
Obj. III: What is the state of a Catholic who submits to a false magisterium?


As we expand The WM Review we would like to keep providing our articles free for everyone. If you have benefitted from our content please do consider supporting us financially.

A small monthly donation, or a one-time donation, helps ensure we can keep writing and sharing at no cost to readers. Thank you!

Monthly Gifts

Subscribe to stay in touch:

Follow on Twitter and Telegram:

Also on Gab!

[1] Leo XIII Encyclical Rerum Novarum 1891, n. 18. Available at:

[2] Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi, 1943, available at 22-3.

[3] Louis Cardinal Billot, Tractatus de Ecclesia Christi, Tomus Prior, Prati ex Officina Libraria Giachetti, Filii et soc, 1909, 293. All translations are by Fr Julian Larrabee unless otherwise mentioned.

[4] “Note the difference between notorious heresy, and heresy which is sufficient to incur the excommunication of the Bull Apostolicæ Sedis. For to incur that excommunication, any external manifestation is sufficient, even one made in private, that one professes error. But excommunication and its effects relating to the present question will be discussed in the next proposition.” Billot 293

[5] St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II, Q39 A1

[6] Billot 304

[7] Billot 304-5

[8] Don Felix Sarda Y Salvany, Liberalism is a Sin (1899), trans. Conde B. Pallen, TAN Charlotte, North Carolina, 2012. Ebook version, Ch. 32.

Leave a Reply