Whose included in or excluded from the Church and the communion of saints? Are heretics, apostates, and schismatics full fledged members of the Church? Are they members of the elect? Are they holy persons in Christ?
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
15 February 2022
In his General Audience address on February 2, Pope Francis gave a catechesis on St. Joseph and the communion of saints. In his address, he made several alarming statements in terms of who’s included in the communion of saints. The Pope stated that the “communion of saints” includes “those who have denied the faith, who are apostates, who are the persecutors of the Church,” and people “who have denied their baptism”:
Let us consider, dear brothers and sisters, that in Christ no one can ever truly separate us from those we love because the bond is an existential bond, a strong bond that is in our very nature; only the manner of being together with each of them changes, but nothing and no one can break this bond. “Father, let us think about those who have denied the faith, who are apostates, who are the persecutors of the Church, who have denied their baptism: Are these also at home?”. Yes, these too, even the blasphemers, everyone. We are brothers. This is the communion of saints. The communion of saints holds together the community of believers on earth and in heaven.
This statement by the Pope, of course, does not rise to the level of infallible teaching. It rests at the level of his personal opinion. Nevertheless, it is potentially confusing and scandalous to the faithful and therefore should be addressed.
Is it true that heretics who deny the true faith or apostates who reject the faith are members of the communion of saints? Is this part of the Church’s constant teaching?
What is the Communion of Saints?
First, let’s address this question: what is the communion of saints? The Catechism teaches that the “communion of saints is the Church” (CCC 946). In speaking about the communion of saints, the Catechism refers to it as “one family in Christ” (CCC 959). It is “all the faithful” who “form one body” (CCC 947).
The Catechism goes on to stipulate that “communion of saints” is an expression that “refers first to the ‘holy things’ (sancta),” which is “above all the Eucharist” (CCC 960, cf. 948). The Eucharist represents the unity of believers and, through its reception, brings that unity about (ibid), forming the faithful into one body in Christ by virtue of consuming his flesh and blood.
Next, the Catechism notes that “communion of saints” also refers to the communion of “holy persons”: “The term ‘communion of saints’ refers also to the communion of ‘holy persons’ (sancti) in Christ who ‘died for all,’ so that what each one does or suffers in and for Christ bears fruit for all” (CCC 961, cf. 948).
Finally, the Catechism notes that the communion of saints includes the Church in her three states: the pilgrim Church on earth, the Church in Purgatory comprised of the elect who are being purified, and the heavenly Church comprised of the blessed in heaven (CCC 962). These three states form one single reality, one single earthly, purgative, and heavenly Church.
Understanding what the Catechism is Teaching
Is the Church saying in the Catechism that anyone who is baptized as a Catholic and receives the Eucharist is forever a member of the communion of saints? Are heretics (baptized Catholics who persistently deny some dogma of the faith) and apostates (Catholics who reject the faith) included in the communion of the saints? Said another way, does Baptism into Christ and his Church permanently insert a person into the communion of saints, regardless of free will choices that would shatter this communion?
Granted, the Catechism’s treatment on who is included in the communion of the saints is not as clear as it could be. Nevertheless, if we consider the broader context of the Church’s teaching, we find clear answers.
Who are the Faithful of the Church?
The Catechism teaches that the communion of the saints are the faithful of the Church. Who is considered to be among the faithful? The faithful are those baptized members of the Church who profess the true faith in its entirety, accept the Church’s moral teaching, are governed by the hierarchy of the Church, and who have not excluded themselves from the Church’s communion.
Who is Excluded from the Church?
In his encyclical, Mystici Corporis Christi, Pope Pius XII provides teaching on who is included or excluded from the Church’s membership:
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 in one spirit” says the Apostle, “were we all baptized into one Body, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether bond or free.” As therefore in the true Christian community there is only one Body, one Spirit, one Lord, and one Baptism, so there can be only one faith. And therefore, if a man refuse to hear the Church, let him be considered – so the Lord commands – as a heathen and a publican. It follows that those who are divided in faith or government cannot be living in the unity of such a Body, nor can they be living the life of its one Divine Spirit. (MCC, 22)
Nor must one imagine that the Body of the Church, just because it bears the name of Christ, is made up during the days of its earthly pilgrimage only of members conspicuous for their holiness, or that it consists only of those whom God has predestined to eternal happiness. It is owing to the Savior’s infinite mercy that place is allowed in His Mystical Body here below for those whom, of old, He did not exclude from the banquet. 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. Men may lose charity and divine grace through sin, thus becoming incapable of supernatural merit, and yet not be deprived of all life if they hold fast to faith and Christian hope, and if, illumined from above, they are spurred on by the interior promptings of the Holy Spirit to salutary fear and are moved to prayer and penance for their sins. (MCC, 23)
To summarize, Pius XII makes the following distinctions:
1. Not every sin, however grave it may be, necessarily severs a man from the Church. For example, it is possible for a man to commit mortal sin, such as adultery or fornication, yet still retain his faith in Christ and his visible membership in the Church, although his communion with the Church is seriously wounded. Provided that this person repents of his sin and receives absolution in the sacrament of Penance, he receives sanctifying grace again and can be saved—thus he can be considered a member of the communion of saints once he is restored to God’s friendship. We might think of an example as a man losing holiness and justifying grace and receiving it back again—and thus his place among the elect—through repentance and Confession. However, to be clear, those in a state of mortal sin are not in the communion of saints because they lack sanctifying grace, which is required for membership among the elect.
2. There are other sins that sever a man’s communion with the Church, casting him outside of the one body of Christ. These include heresy, apostacy, and schism.
In his Catechism, using question and answer format, Pope Pius X states the following under the heading “Communion of Saints”:
10 Q. Who are they who do not belong to the Communion of Saints?
A. Those who are damned do not belong to the Communion of Saints in the other life; and in this life those who belong neither to the body nor to the soul of the Church, that is, those who are in mortal sin, and who are outside the true Church.
11 Q. Who are they who are outside the true Church?
A. Outside the true Church are: Infidels, Jews, heretics, apostates, schismatics, and the excommunicated.
To summarize, Pius X teaches that those in mortal sin are not counted among the communion of saints because they have cut themselves off from the virtue of charity and severed their relationship with Christ; therefore, they do not belong to the soul of the Church. Nevertheless, those in mortal sin can remain visible members of the Church on earth. We know this to be true because the Church on earth includes both wheat and weeds, the righteous and the unrighteous (see Matt 13:24-30). At the end of time when Christ returns, the righteous will go off to the resurrection of life, whereas the unrighteous will go off to the resurrection of eternal damnation (Matt 25:31-46).
Making the distinction between visible members of the Church and those who are outside of the Church, Pius X teaches that those outside the Church include infidels, Jews, heretics, apostates, schismatics, and those who have been excommunicated from the Church. For an explanation of how he defines these groups of people, see questions 12 through 17 in his Catechism, under the heading “Communion of Saints.”
The Roman Catechism (from the Council of Trent) says the following under the heading “Meaning of The Communion of Saints”:
The faithful, therefore, in the first place are to be informed that this part of the Article, is, as it were, a sort of explanation of the preceding part which regards the unity, sanctity and catholicity of the Church. For the unity of the Spirit, by which she is governed, brings it about that whatsoever has been given to the Church is held as a common possession by all her members.
Under the heading, “Those Who Share In This Communion” the Catechism of Trent states:
The advantages of so many and such exalted blessings bestowed by Almighty God are enjoyed by those who lead a Christian life in charity, and are just and beloved of God. As to the dead members; that is, those who are bound in the thraldom of sin and estranged from the grace of God, they are not so deprived of these advantages as to cease to be members of this body; but since they are dead members, they do not share in the spiritual fruit which is communicated to the just and pious. However, as they are in the Church, they are assisted in recovering lost grace and life by those who live by the Spirit; and they also enjoy those benefits which are without doubt denied to those who are entirely cut off from the Church.
Again, the Council of Trent teaches that “dead members” (those in mortal sin) remain visible members of the Church. However, “they do not share in the spiritual fruit which is communicated to the just and pious.” Those in mortal sin lack sanctifying grace, which is the life of God in the soul, and thus are not counted among the elect—they are not members of the communion of saints. This situation of spiritual death can be remedied by making a good confession in the sacrament of Penance, which restores the sinner to the life of grace.
Heresy, Apostacy, and Schism
In paragraph 2089, the Catechism defines heresy, apostacy, and schism—which are each sins against the faith and therefore violations of the First Commandment—in this way:
Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.
Both Pius X and Pius XII teach that heresy, apostacy, and schism cause men to exclude themselves from the Church, which means they are excluded from the body of Christ and the communion of saints, for Christ said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). Given the nature of these sins, their teaching is perfectly reasonable.
A heretic denies some truth of the faith which must be believed with divine faith, therefore he denies Christ’s divine revelation and consequently his membership in the Church, which is the communion of saints. An apostate totally repudiates the Christian faith, and therefore cannot be included among the faithful members of the Church of Jesus Christ or the elect. A schismatic refuses submission to the Roman Pontiff or communion with the members of the Catholic Church and therefore also excludes himself from the communion of saints.
As the Catechism points out, the communion of saints is a communion among holy persons in Christ (CCC 961, cf. 948). Although one may commit mortal sin and still retain membership in the Church to some degree (visibly a member), we cannot say that a person in a state of mortal sin is a member of the elect or a member of the communion of saints, since mortal sin severs one’s relationship with Christ. Pius X, Pius XII, and the Roman Catechism make these same points.
Further, if heretics, apostates, and schismatics are members of the communion of saints, one must believe these persons are members of the elect, living the life of holiness in Christ—something which is offensive to even think about.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.