This week is week of Christian unity. Catholics pursue Christian unity in two ways, by lovingly presenting the truth of Jesus Christ and inviting non-Catholics to join the Church and by engaging in ecumenism. Ecumenism is the endeavor to achieve full Christian unity. Whereas the former effort towards unity regards individuals entering the Church, the latter regards whole communities and churches and even whole groups of churches. However, the end result in either case is full integration into the Catholic Church. As Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis redintegratio, teaches, both movements are in perfect harmony.
This week of Christian unity brings up a number of topics. The first I will cover is membership in the Catholic Church. In the past 50 years, Catholics have become confused over what constitutes “membership” in the Church. In order to address this issue, we must know our Tradition.
Key foundational teachings can be found in Leo XIII, Satis cognitum, a crucially important document on ecclesiology. I highly recommend one read this. One elemental teaching in this document is that the Church is a visible society. No one can escape this definitive description of the Church. Any description which denies that the Church is a visible society is false. A close inspection of the documents of Vatican II show that this definitive way of describing the Church is very much at play in the Council. Now, that the Church is indeed a visible society grounds the criteria for membership. A merely “supernatural” description of membership will not do.
The next key document is Pius XII, Mystici corporis. Again, I highly recommend one read this. Pius XII specifies the three criteria for membership. 1) One must be baptized validly. The other sacraments of initiation are Eucharist and Confirmation. Baptism is the basis and this criterion is absolute. No non-baptized person is a member of the Church. The next two criteria are necessary for those who have the use of reason or who can act freely. (Infants are another story.) 2) One must confess the whole faith of the Church. (Normally, this is done implicitly by confession of a basic creed. Minimally, it entails that one not reject any dogma of the faith and that one confess something such as follows: one God exists, rewards those who serve him, sent his divine Son as a man to die for our sins, and joins us to himself through the work of the Holy Spirit. I will mention something at the end that is perhaps surprising regarding this criterion and the next.) 3) One must preserve hierarchical communion with the true Church, i.e., be subordinate to the pope and the bishops who are in communion with him.
In its foundational document Lumen gentium, art. 14, Vatican II indicates the same three requirements that Pius XII indicates. This is another crucial document to read. However, with Vatican II we also get a subtle set of descriptions of various kinds of relation one might have to the Catholic Church, which is the Church of Christ or The People of God. It is important we get this subtlety right, for it is frequently misinterpreted.
The word Vatican II uses for membership is incorporation. Obviously, all Catholics are “incorporated” (incorporantur) into the Catholic Church. Each meets the three requirements of membership. (We add the nuance that those who have also received the Eucharist and Confirmation are sealed in all three ways of initiation.) Now, some Catholics are in the state of grace, and some are in the state of sin. To distinguish these groups, Vatican II describes a Catholic who is in the state of grace as “fully incorporated” (plene incorporatur). The phrase is, unfortunately misleading. At least, it has mislead many good and no doubt well-intentioned interpreters.
The reason it is misleading is that it seems to modify membership, as though there might be “full” and a “partial” incorporation. But there can be no “degrees” of membership. The only way in which one can note “degrees” as it were is by way of the Sacraments of Initiation. Every baptized Catholic is a true member. However, those who have received the Eucharist and Confirmation are as I said sealed in all the ways of initiation.) But the key point is that one is either a Catholic or one is not. This is an absolute disjunct. However, if one is in the state of grace, one is a living member. If a Catholic is not in the state of grace, he is a dead member, ready, should he die in this state, to be cut off and cast into the eternal fire of hell (on this, read Jn 15). In order to express this difference between “living” and “non-living,” the Church describes the un-living Catholic as “incorporated” (incorporatur). Note that the Council never uses the expression “partially incorporated”. Little baptized Catholic babies are indeed incorporated members. Lumen gentium refers to Catholics in the state of sin as simply incorporated. Every good bishop and priest knows that a sinful Catholic is a Catholic still. (However, to live in the state of sin is to expose one’s faith to annihilation. One cannot maintain for long a ‘dead faith’. Either one will deny the faith or repent by accepting God’s sufficient grace.)
Does the Council describe anyone else as a member of the Church? No. No one else is a member. (Although, as I said, there is a surprising point to note below.) Thus, there should be no ambiguity on this point, though as I indicated, the initial expression “fully incorporated” may have caused some to miss the care with which the text was written. I will pick up the further modes in which one can be related to the Catholic Church in the next post.