“You Can’t Be a Catholic…”

You very often hear that “you can’t be a Catholic and [fill in the blank]”.  The [blank] is then filled in with whatever the person finds reprehensible, and what they consider to be grounds for ejecting somebody from the Church.  The most common ones I hear are “you can’t be Catholic and be pro-choice”, or “you can’t be Catholic and support ‘gay marriage'”.

That can be a very tempting sentiment to express.  Catholics must always adhere to the teaching of the Church — God forbid that I ever say or do anything against that teaching.  There’s also something very distressing about people who proclaim themselves to be “good Catholics” or “devout Catholics”, yet take public positions or perform public acts that are inimical to that teaching.  It misleads people, and it places souls at risk.

Now, I am no canon lawyer (I am a lawyer and some people want to shoot me out of a cannon, but that doesn’t count).  But as I understand it, the general principle in Canon Law is that once you’re baptized a Catholic you’re always a Catholic, unless you formally defect — make a formal statement to your pastor that you are leaving the Church. That’s very rarely done. It’s actually very difficult to stop being a Catholic. Merely committing a sin is not enough.

That makes perfect sense.  The Catholic Church isn’t a country club, where you lose your membership if you violate the rules or fail to pay your dues.  It’s the Body of Christ, and we are incorporated into that Body by virtue of our Baptism — we are indelibly changed by the grace of that sacrament.  It has become a question of who I am, and not just what I believe or do.

The key question then is not whether one ceases to be a Catholic, but to what extent a person is in communion with the Catholic Church, and thus with Christ Himself.

Full communion with the Church can be impaired by many things, such as heresy (rejection of a truth divinely revealed), schism (no longer attending Mass, but instead joining a religious group that is not in communion with the Holy See), etc. Failing to live a life in keeping with the teaching of the Church will also impair one’s communion (e.g., openly cohabiting with a non-spouse).  Individual acts can also breach communion (like any mortal sin). In most of these cases, full communion is restored by sacramental Confession.

The USCCB described this once as “If a Catholic in his or her personal or professional life were knowingly and obstinately to reject the defined doctrines of the Church, or knowingly and obstinately to repudiate her definitive teaching on moral issues…he or she would seriously diminish his or her communion with the Church.”

Penalties like excommunication are imposed by the Canon Law in some particularly serious cases (e.g., heresy, schism, abortion, etc.).  But they do not eject someone from the Catholic Church. Instead, they are public declarations that a person has breached communion with the Church in a significant way (e.g., those who participate in the purported “ordination” of women as priests). In these cases, full communion has to be restored, often by some other public act.  The goal of these penalties is not to kick people out, but to call them to return.

So, for example, the poor deluded people who participate in mock “ordinations” of women have breached communion with the Church by their actions. Under Canon Law they have incurred an automatic excommunication. In no way are they Catholic priests. But they are still Catholics.  Likewise with those who ordain bishops without the consent of the Holy See, or politicians who support intrinsically evil laws (such as those recognizing abortion rights, or re-defining marriage).  They haven’t stopped being Catholic, but they have gravely wounded their communion with Christ and His Church.

Why does this technical distinction matter so much?  Because it’s much easier to dismiss people as being beyond the pale, than to grieve for their sin and to work to reconcile with them and repair the damage.  Anyone who has trouble in their family knows how tempting it is to wish that the difficult person were gone from the house, and how much harder it is for them to stay and work things out.

Reconciliation and healing are hard.  Just ask the father of the Prodigal Son.  Just ask Jesus.


5 Responses to ““You Can’t Be a Catholic…””

  1. Mary says:

    Your essay took me back to Sunday’s reading 1 Ez 33:7-9

    Thus says the LORD:
    You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel;
    when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me.
    If I tell the wicked, “O wicked one, you shall surely die, ”
    and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way,
    the wicked shall die for his guilt,
    but I will hold you responsible for his death.
    But if you warn the wicked,
    trying to turn him from his way,
    and he refuses to turn from his way,
    he shall die for his guilt,
    but you shall save yourself.

    I like Ezechiel’s no nonsense approach to our neighbor’s unfaithfulness. Whether 33:7-9 is meant for ordinary pewsitters or not, it is supremely adaptable to our times. So, for example, if I’m thoroughly disgusted with Governor Cuomo, better that I warn him to turn away from his wickedness than be consumed by legalities only to lose my own life in the process.

  2. joey says:

    I agree that Catholics should not label themselves as “true catholics” compared to others who don’t follow the main doctrines of the Catholic Church. However, if one is attempting to produce an informative article, that person should refrain from using words such as “intrinsically evil.” Additionally, how do you know that some of these “evil” laws are breaching communion within the church? Not everything the Church says and does is necessarily correct in judgement. For example, the Church imprisoned Galileo for his discoveries of the nature of the earth’s movement around the sun. Later, the Church apologized for this imprisonment. The Church is not perfect, and thus must become more open-minded to certain issues. This will eventually strengthen the Church as a “Catholic” (UNIVERSAL) Church.

  3. Ed Mechmann says:

    I don’t think you understand the term “intrinsically evil” as Catholics use it. Let me explain.

    The notion of “intrinsic evil” is central to Catholic moral doctrine, and has been so from the beginning. It is based on the idea that there are certain acts that can never be morally acceptable under any circumstances, regardless of one’s motive in doing so — things like rape, adultery, perjury, blasphemy, murder, genocide, torture. This is part of Divine Revelation (see the Ten Commandments), and is also knowable by natural reason because it is written into the human heart in the natural moral law. There is no way we can be “open” to the idea that these kinds of acts could ever be morally acceptable.

    One who commits an intrinsically evil act has breached communion with the Church, because he has breached communion with God — he has damaged his relationship with God, and needs to be reconciled to Him. This breach can be caused by an affirmative act (e.g., if I do it myself), or by omission (e.g., if a legislator fails to protect people from acts of violence by permitting abortion).

    The Galileo case had nothing to do with moral doctrines, or with universal moral truths.

    The people who constitute the Church are not perfect — far from it!. But we as Catholics believe that the Church Herself is preserved from error by the Holy Spirit on fundamental matters of faith and morals. The technical theological term for this is “indefectibility”.

    I hope that helps you better understand the point I was making.

  4. joey says:

    Thank you for your response and explanation. It has cleared my confusion on the terminology. Lately it has been a struggle for me to accept the Church’s teachings on homosexuality. I was bullied for much of my life, and the pain it caused made me closer to God. Last year, I discovered that I am gay. I didn’t understand why God made me this way, but I believe he did it for a reason. I feel his presence within my heart and have continued to feel a sense of purpose after speaking to some friends. This is why I don’t believe that homosexuality is intrinsically evil. I feel within me, a calling by God to be accept myself for who I am. It hurts when I see and read stories of Catholics and other Christians opposing homosexuality, especially when done by hierarchical members. I do not wish to blame anyone, but this pain exists for many people. I feel betrayed by the Church, unfortunately, although I maintain a strong relationship with God. I want to request more open talks and ideas about homosexuality within the Church community. As a member of the Catholic Church, I am deeply committed to helping others within the community. God has called me to speak about my experiences to others, so that they will have a better understanding of the situation. Is it possible to email the archbishop and other members of the archdiocese in order to express my concerns and beliefs?

  5. Ed Mechmann says:

    Joey, I would urge you to look into the group Courage, which helps people with same-sex attraction live good, happy and holy lives, in accordance with the teachings of the Church.