ASK FATHER: Who is a member of the Church?

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.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Imrahil says:

    And of course the (paraphrased) answer of Ludwig Ott is

    A member of the Catholic Church is who
    i) has been baptized,
    ii) has not separated himself from the Church through apostasy, heresy or schism,
    iii) has not been separated from herself by the Church through excommunication as a vitandus.

    As the saying goes, “mit Ott geht’s flott” (look it up in Ott and the job’s done quickly).

    Ott mentions as points of dispute whether as to ii), publicity of the act is required for losing membership (because Church membership is a public affair) or not (because, is an apostate, even a secret one, a Church member?).

    [The reasoning behind iii) is that the Church does speek of people who have lost membership by punishment, but makes clear that normal excommunication does not have that effect, whence the, Ott says, unanimous conclusion of theologians is that precisely vitandus excommunication is meant.]

    I might note, what was a matter of course to Ott, that “heresy” is formal heresy, not merely material heresy.

  2. JabbaPapa says:

    Well, technically, induction into the Order of the Catechumens is sufficient to make one a Catholic, without Baptism ; and Infant Baptism technically requires assent in the Confirmation of the Truth of one’s Faith.

  3. Titus says:

    As Mgr. Knox said, “there are no Protestants under the age of 7.”

  4. Kerry says:

    As we are called to have faith in all the Church proposed for our belief, choosing otherwise is not faith, but opinion.

  5. Marg says:

    St. Robert Bellarmine described the Church as, “the assembly of men united in the profession of the same Christian faith and in the communion of the same sacraments, under the rule of legitimate pastors, and in particular, that of the one Vicar of Christ on earth, the Roman Pontiff.”

  6. Augustine Thompson O.P. says:


    Yes, it is the common opinion of the Fathers that a adult catechumen is considered a “member of the Church,” because of his intention to be baptized. It is NOT true that “technically” Confirmation is required as an “assent to the true faith” to be a member of the Church. Any baptized individual is fully a member of the Church. Confirmation does not make one a Christian by “assent.” Your theology of Confirmation is simply wrong. Eastern Rite Catholics are confirmed at Baptism while babies, they never consciously “assent.” And (in most areas, sadly) Latin Christians are admitted to Communion before Confirmation. If they are given Communion, how are they not Catholic Christians? Confirmation is NOT the Christian form of a Bar Mizvah. Nor of a Protestant “Profession of Faith.”

  7. Augustine Thompson O.P. says:

    Obviously, St. Robert was speaking of the visible Church on earth. Not the Communion of Saints in Heaven, of which we can never know the members. One should never quote out of context.

  8. Norah says:

    Does this mean that an Anglican or a Methodist or a Lutheran who was validly baptised is a member of the Mystical Body of Christ and a member of the Catholic Church? If so, how does their membership differ from that of a validly baptised Catholic?

  9. JabbaPapa says:

    Well Father/Brother Augustine, I did say “technically” … the actual truth of things is of course centred on no mere technicalities.

  10. Imrahil says:

    Dear JabbaPapa,

    no, and no.

    As far as I am aware, a Catechumen is colloquially certainly a Catholic but, precisely technically, he is not yet a member of the Church (they were not considered “fideles”, for instance. Do not find a source right now.).

    Also, infant Baptism is fully valid, whatever the Anabaptists say and whatever doubts haunt the feelings of Protestants and also of Catholics. The assent of Faith has been done in the child’s name by his godparents (or parents on the new rite).
    And the time for the “adult profession by oneself” is not Confirmation, either. It is the first Easter Vigil the child visits after reaching the age of seven, or usually the First Communion Mass contains such an element; and anyway, doesn’t the public speaking of the Credo do the trick somehow too? This then also repeated before Confirmation (because of the unity of the initiatory sacraments), not because this would be the point of Confirmation).

  11. The Masked Chicken says:

    “Does this mean that an Anglican or a Methodist or a Lutheran who was validly baptised is a member of the Mystical Body of Christ and a member of the Catholic Church? If so, how does their membership differ from that of a validly baptised Catholic?”


    Protestants separate themselves from the Church (hence, the Vatican II term, “separated brethren”). As such, separated from the unity of the Church, they do not have access to sacraments other than baptism and marriage, except in rare circumstances. Many Protestants are cultural Protestants and not formal heretics (indeed, many don’t really know what the Christian faith is all about, anymore), however, so their status in regards to the Church is murky, at best.

    The best one can say is that they are our brothers and sisters in Christ, but not yet in the Catholic Church. It is a little like separating oneself from one’s natural family because of some silly dispute – you are still united by DNA (baptism), but you won’t have a home-cooked meal by your mother, not to mention a forgiving smile.

    The Chicken

  12. Magash says:

    Anyone who is validly Baptized is a member of the mystical body of Christ. If someone has been raised in a Protestant sect it is the teaching of the Church that Heaven is not closed to them by that fact alone, unlike for a Catholic who has descended into heresy thorough their own choice. If they are granted salvation, however, it will be through the graces God grants through the Catholic Church, which is the only valid instrument of Jesus’ salvation.
    Their membership differs most prominently in that they don’t recognize it.

  13. Michael says:

    This is coming up more and more lately. I have had more than one discussion with a lapsed Catholic friend who has been intrigued by the current Holy Father.

    The answer I give is this: If you have been baptized Catholic and you believe everything in the Apostles’ Creed as Catholics believe it, then you are a member of the Catholic Church. You can still believe that homosexuality is moral or that women should be ordained. You are wrong, but you are still a Catholic. What you cannot do is publicly oppose or undermine or attempt to change the immemorial teachings of the Catholic Church (e.g. on homosexuality and women’s ordination). And you need to be open to the Holy Spirit changing your thinking on those issues.

    I am reminded of Scott Hahn. When he was in the process of converting from Protestantism, it was so difficult that he could not even pray to God for the strength to do His will. Hahn first had to pray for the strength to want to do His will.

  14. corcagiensis says:

    What about Protestants who have an understanding of baptism that is different from the Catholic one? I mean, Baptists and evangelical Anglicans often have a “dedication” ceremony, or something like that, for a baby, but no baptism takes place until the baby is a young adult. So it seems to me that they don’t regard baptism as being necessary in order to become a Christian, but rather as a symbolic ceremony to mark the fact that one has accepted Jesus as personal Lord and Saviour. Is this understanding of baptism sufficiently different from the Catholic one to render it non-efficacious? Does it even involve an outpouring of Grace? Are people so baptised actually members of the Church. (I do hope so, by the way.)

    Grateful for any thoughts!

  15. JabbaPapa says:

    Imrahil, I have very little desire, and it would serve only a rather cerebral and theoretic purpose, to get into some pointless argument about technicalities with my good Faithful Catholic Christian brethren.

    Catechumens are the ONLY unbaptised Catholics — but Catholic they most certainly are.

    The Rite of entry into the Catechumenate is not the Baptismal Sacrament, certainly — but it is nevertheless a Sacramental, the Catechumen is formally enrolled into the membership of the Holy Catholic Church, and a Catechumen, unlike any other unbaptised, participates fully in the Holy Mass, without of course being able to take the material Holy Communion — but a Catechumen participates in both soul and desire in the spiritual Communion of the Catholicity.

    I’ll spare you the pedantry concerning the History of the dogmatic and ecclesial relationships between infant and adult Baptism, and Confirmation.

    Obviously, infant Baptisms do not lack validity.

  16. Imrahil says:

    Dear JabbaPapa,

    sorry if I came over somewhat harsh…

    as for catechumens, I still think that membership in the Body of Christ (which is, of course, a physical reality) is conferred by no less than a sacrament (or physical death – the Catechumen who is in Heaven is of course also a member of the Church). However much they are Catholic, otherwise.

    As for infant baptism, you didn’t say that they were invalid. But if they’re valid, then they confer membership in the Body of Christ, without need of a separate declaration of assent. (Plus, I have heard things on that line – “Confirmation is about declaring the Faith by oneself instead of as an infant” with the unspoken subtext that infant Baptism somehow does not really do it – a bit too often.)

  17. JabbaPapa says:

    Dear Imrahil

    The Sacramental of entry into the Catechumenate and the infant Baptism have it in common that they are promises to God.

    That promise is kept by the Sacrament of Confirmation (pretty much automatically given to an adult baptised). Again — I really do wish to avoid the historical pedantry, sorry — elsewhere than at Fr Z’s I’d expound at more length, but Father appears to prefer posts with substance.

  18. NYer says:

    Thank you, Fr. Z., for the distinctions. I am especially reminded of our Lord’s words to St. Faustina with regard to the Divine Mercy Novena. Day Nine, the final day of the novena, He said: “Today bring to Me the Souls who have become Lukewarm,and immerse them in the abyss of My mercy. These souls wound My Heart most painfully. My soul suffered the most dreadful loathing in the Garden of Olives because of lukewarm souls. They were the reason I cried out: ‘Father, take this cup away from Me, if it be Your will.’ For them, the last hope of salvation is to run to My mercy.”

    Our Lord suffered and shed tears for these souls.. For our part, we need to pray for them on a daily basis.

  19. johnnys says:


    I’m not sure that is correct. I don’t think you can not believe in a teaching of Jesus outright and be in communion. You may not understand but even with that you must give assent that the Church is True. It is my understanding that when we say Amen to the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord and Savior we are also saying Amen to the Church. I think it was put to me as…..the Eucharist is not a means to unity but the fruit of unity.

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