From a reader…
Who is a member of the Roman Catholic Church? Is baptism all that is required? What about people baptised into the RC Church who later in life do not believe in some of the teachings of the RC Church (eg regarding homosexuality) but still go to Mass & Holy Communion? Can they still claim to be members?
This seems like a simple question, calling for a simple answer. It isn’t.
From the perspective of the world, the Church, like any other “club” should have clearly demarcated lines of membership, with an initiation process, rules for membership, and penalties of exclusion for those who either violate the rules, or who choose to separate themselves.
The Church is not just a human institution. It is also a divine one. Therefore, it is a mystery. Founded by Christ the Lord, it is the gathering of all those called to faith.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
1267 Baptism makes us members of the Body of Christ: “Therefore . . . we are members one of another.” Baptism incorporates us into the Church. From the baptismal fonts is born the one People of God of the New Covenant, which transcends all the natural or human limits of nations, cultures, races, and sexes: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.”
1268 The baptized have become “living stones” to be “built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood.” By Baptism they share in the priesthood of Christ, in his prophetic and royal mission. They are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that [they] may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called [them] out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Baptism gives a share in the common priesthood of all believers.
1269 Having become a member of the Church, the person baptized belongs no longer to himself, but to him who died and rose for us. From now on, he is called to be subject to others, to serve them in the communion of the Church, and to “obey and submit” to the Church’s leaders, holding them in respect and affection. Just as Baptism is the source of responsibilities and duties, the baptized person also enjoys rights within the Church: to receive the sacraments, to be nourished with the Word of God and to be sustained by the other spiritual helps of the Church.
1270 “Reborn as sons of God, [the baptized] must profess before men the faith they have received from God through the Church” and participate in the apostolic and missionary activity of the People of God.
We know the effects of valid baptism. Baptism makes the baptized members of Christ’s Body… the Church. Baptism is the ordinary means by which men are initiated into the Church. In one sense, every person who has ever been validly baptized is a member of the Church.
The Church often uses the language of “communion”. Every baptized person is initiated into the communion of the Church. But many baptized people, through their actions and beliefs, impair, or even break their communion with the Church. These people remain baptized. Baptism changes the person’s soul forever. In some senses, they are still “members” of the Church. Until they die, they are capable of repairing their communion with the Church.
In the early centuries of the Church, we faced the question of whether those who commit sin are excluded from the Church. The heresy of Donatism concluded that some sins, particularly the sin of denying one’s faith, rejecting Christ and His Church in order to avoid punishment by the State, were so heinous that those who committed these sins were no longer part of the Church. The Church responded that as serious as the sin of apostasy is, apostates and other sinners are still Christians in virtue of their baptism, which is not repeatable. Their communion with the Church was broken, but it could be repaired through penance and reconciliation.
Today, sinners who reject the teachings of the Church sometimes hide their break with the Church. They pretend that they are still in full communion with the Church, despite their rejection of the Church or of some essential teachings. We can think of examples.
Added to their sins of rejecting the Church’s teaching, they continue to receive Holy Communion, adding to their others sins the sin of sacrilege, a serious sin indeed. These people desperately need our prayers: they have been deceived by Satan, the Father of Lies.
As their sins pile up, they become jaded and can no longer see the dangerous cliff toward which they are speeding.
They remain baptized, however. The Church remains their Mother, ever solicitous for their care. We should pray for them to realize the damage they are doing to themselves, and hope that, before it is too late, they recant their misguided beliefs, return to full communion with the Church, and put their moral lives in order.