Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Nov. 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Is schism possible in the Catholic Church?

Members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gather for the USCCB's annual fall meeting on Nov. 12, 2018, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

(RNS) — As the U.S. Catholic bishops gather in Baltimore to discuss controversial issues such as clerical sexual abuse and racism, some people are talking about the threat of schism.

History shows that the possibility of schism is always present, but the odds against schism today are high.

First, in order to have a schism, you need at least one bishop interested in breaking away. If a priest and his parishioners decide to split from the church, that is not a schism. If a priest leads a breakaway, it usually fades when the priest dies.

Schismatic bishops can ordain other bishops and priests, so the breakaway has a better chance of continuing; the Great Schism of 1054 between Eastern and Western Christianity has lasted almost 1,000 years.

On the other hand, the most famous schism of the 20th century was led by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre against many of the reforms mandated by the Second Vatican Council, including ecumenism, religious freedom and putting the liturgy into the vernacular. In 1988 he ordained four bishops without the approval of the pope, but he took only a relatively small number of Catholics with him into schism. After his death, his group has not grown significantly and has experienced its own splits. (Benedict XVI also made the group less attractive by permitting greater use of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass.)

There are certainly bishops who do not like the way Pope Francis is leading the church. Archbishop Carlo Viganò has called for the pope to resign. Others, including Cardinal Raymond Burke, have criticized Pope Francis, but so far none of them has indicated any interest in going rogue.

They look upon him as an aberration that will be corrected by the next papacy. After all, at 81 years of age, he is older than many of his critics. They can wait him out.

Cardinal Raymond Burke applauds at the Italian Senate on Sept. 6, 2018, on the first anniversary of the death of Cardinal Carlo Caffarra. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

In order to have a schism, too, you need truly divisive issues that split the community, not just the bishops.

Conservative bishops have complained that Pope Francis is too permissive on allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to go to Communion, too soft on Catholics who practice birth control and too welcoming to LGBT Catholics. Yet public opinion polls show that Catholics, even those who go to church weekly, are much more liberal than the pope on these issues.

While conservative bloggers and commentators may rant about these issues, the faithful are not going to follow a bishop into schism because they want the rules on birth control, divorce and homosexuality strictly enforced.

Feelings are stronger on abortion, but Pope Francis has repeatedly expressed his opposition to abortion, although early in his reign he indicated he was not going to “obsess” over it since everyone knows the church’s position.

The topics under discussion at the Baltimore meeting, sex abuse and racism, are certainly controversial, but the bishops are united in their opposition to racism and united in panic in dealing with the sexual abuse crisis. On sex abuse, the major split is not among the bishops, but between the bishops and their people.

History’s most important schisms have been more about politics than theology. That was true of the Great Schism and the Anglican split under Henry VIII. Today the schism between Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox believers is all about politics.

Similarly, some also considered the bishops belonging to the Chinese Patriotic Association to be in schism because they also ordained bishops without Vatican approval. The Vatican avoided calling them schismatic, and a major goal of Pope Francis’ recent agreement with the Chinese government was to mend the divide among Chinese Catholics, even if it meant accepting some bishops the Vatican would never have willingly ordained.

Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Nov. 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The U.S. Catholic Church has been extraordinarily successful in keeping political opponents in the fold. While many Protestant churches split during the Civil War, the Catholic Church stayed united. In the recent midterm elections, Catholics evenly split their vote between Republican and Democratic candidates, as they did in the last presidential election, while other denominations tended to go overwhelmingly for one party.

This unity is feeling some strain but still appears strong. According to the Pew Research Center, 84 percent of Catholics have a favorable opinion of Pope Francis, but when that is broken down by party, the numbers are 89 percent for Democratic Catholics and 79 percent for Republican Catholics. The latter is still an extraordinarily high number; any politician would love that rating. But it shows how partisanship can weaken unity.

Pew also found that 55 percent of Republican Catholics think Pope Francis is too liberal. The pope’s talk of building bridges rather than walls and his strong support of refugees and migrants go counter to Trump orthodoxy. But these Republicans don’t appear ready to abandon the church.

Nor do the American bishops appear ready to abandon the sensitivities of either side. While some would prefer to focus on abortion, gay marriage and religious liberty, none of them has supported the anti-immigrant policies of the Trump administration. This year alone, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued 21 press releases dealing with immigration, all critical of the Trump administration.

True, they want pro-life judges appointed to the Supreme Court, but unlike evangelical leaders, the Catholic bishops have not sold their souls to the Republican Party. They still follow Catholic social teaching with its concern for workers, the poor and the marginalized. In truth, they are uncomfortable with both parties.

The issue in Baltimore is not schism but credibility. If the bishops are not capable of credibly dealing with sex abuse during their meeting in Baltimore, the faithful will not break away; they will simply leave.


  1. Orthodox bishops have complained primarily that Francis has been unclear and unwilling to clarify his meaning, particularly in the context of the Church’s existing teachings, not that he is “is too permissive on allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to go to Communion, too soft on Catholics who practice birth control and too welcoming to LGBT Catholics”. When he reiterated the ban on ordaining homosexuals, a goodly number of “LGBT” Catholics were rather cranky.

    “Yet public opinion polls show that Catholics, even those who go to church weekly, are much more liberal than the pope on these issues.”

    As the author pointed out, schisms start from the top not the bottom.

    Public opinion polls, therefore, are irrelevant.

  2. The Catholic Church today hardly exists anymore as a unified body. It is drowned in moral, theological and financial corruption and has lost its identity in doctrine and traditional moral discipline since decades. So why talk about a schism at a time when everyone does what seems good in his own eyes? Is it possible to have a schism in a body which is already in an irreversible process of decomposition? The whole idea of a schism seems to be anachronistic at this stage, The Catholic Church isn’t a relevant institution anymore. It is practically gone.

  3. The facts seem not to bear you out.

    The Catholic Church is growing an an exponential rate.

  4. “History’s most important schisms have been more about politics than theology.” True. And the face of the Catholic church in the USA is not its bishops, but ultra-right wing Catholic Republican politicians and media agitators (Fox News, Paul Ryan, Newt Gingrinch, Brownback, etc.). They utterly reject Catholic social teaching and Catholic environmental concerns, and Catholic teaching on distributive justice. The bishops may make verbal statements on this or that “progressive” issue but they still favor voting Republican and their voices, except when supporting Republican candidates, are ignored. The most likely schism will not come from right wing Catholics but from progressive Catholics determined to form a church (with clergy marriage allowed) where Catholic social and environmental teaching is required, including requiring govts to adopt social and environmental benefit policies. Such a church, combined with the growing popularity of social democracy (a la Denmark) growing among the US young in general, could well change the course of politics in the USA. As this pope tries to get away from appointing hardened traditionalist as bishops, one or two of the more social justice bishops may conclude that it is necessary to break away from the Catholic church in order to build a Catholic church firmly committed to what Catholic leading politicians now reject. The ultra-right Catholics want to drive the liberals out of the church and in many ways they are succeeding. But their inquisitorial attacks may backfire. Instead of their gaining, through intimidation, control of the Catholic church, they may cause a schism, with a new rival Catholic church proceeding ahead with a non-Republican agenda. And talking many Catholics, and their financial support, with them.

  5. With 500+ Protestant sects and counting, and the demise of being the official church of various nations, schism seems a rather outdated concept. If anything it just means people jump ship to other sects or form new ones. Not earth shattering. Just what has been going on for the last century or so in an increasingly secular world.

    The importance of staying in a sect which one does not agree with or at odds with its self appointed leaders is minimal. At this point it’s more a function of social pressure then belief. There are enough choices out there that one need not stay around with a church whose actions and dogma don’t sit well with them.

  6. Yes, by nominal baptisms which produce fake statistics about the number of Catholics. To what avail?

  7. The “progressive” Catholics have already created a series of small schisms, all of which have petered out and died. I am happy to provide a list of a dozen or more.

    It is difficult to maintain an existence when there is no doctrinal core and the adherents don’t breed at a replacement level. The European Old Catholics are a perfect example of what happens, as is the decline of the Episcopal Church in the United States.

    Your “ultra-right wing Catholic Republican politicians and media agitators” make clear that orthodox Catholicism and politics you happen not to care for are indistinguishable in your perspective. In the real world, of course, the real divide between what you call “progressive Catholics” and what you call “ultra-right” is on issues such as abortion.

    Orthodox Catholics are not trying to drive “liberals” out of the Church.

    Liberals are taking themselves out of the Church.

    And talking about their “financial support” considering they might go to church at Christmas and Easter, contribute to political causes rather than the Church, and either don’t have children or send them to other than Catholic schools, seems to be a figment of imagination.

  8. If you can support the terms “nominal baptisms” and “fake statistics”, please do so.

  9. Reese is examining this issue as if the major problem is the chance of schism, in the narrow sense of an organized group setting up a new form of Catholicism, outside of the control of the Vatican, but with “apostolic succession” intact.

    Then he notes a couple of things: “Yet public opinion polls show that Catholics, even those who go to church weekly, are much more liberal than the pope on these issues. While conservative bloggers and commentators may rant about these issues, the faithful are not going to follow a bishop into schism because they want the rules on birth control, divorce and homosexuality strictly enforced.”

    And I agree that “the faithful are not going to follow a bishop into schism”. Many of the faithful, tens of millions of the faithful, 1/3 of all those born Catholic in the U.S., just leave and another huge percentage adapt their practice to what is meaningful to them. How many of those who are still members of parishes and claim the name of “Catholic” actually go to Mass each week? According to a CARA study, in 2014 that would be very high in African countries, somewhere in the middle in South America (40%s, 50%s) and very low in many European countries. Mass attendance in the U.S. in 2017 was 23%, according to a CARA study.

    There is a quiet schism going on. Not the formal schism but dropping out entirely or the intentional ignoring of parts of Catholicism that either don’t feed faith or are just considered plain wrong teaching. For example, confession to a priest is no longer a sacrament that most Catholics seek. Marriages in the Church and even funerals from the Church are dropping off like crazy – not seen as necessary. Even going to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day is not seen as some terrible sin.

    And, majorities of Catholics use contraceptives, believe in LGBT civil marriage; even a very slight majority (51%) think abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

    I get it that the Roman Catholic Church is fearful of a formal schism. But the bigger danger is this quiet movement entirely away from the Church and this erosion of an ability to buy-into supposedly non-negotiable parts of the the faith by huge swaths of Catholics who do care. We older Catholics lived through a process of adapting to these new attitudes. The young won’t do that.

    What about the quiet schism, Fr. Reese?

  10. True, just leaving the church works well. One way or the other the church will be left to Republicans only. The children of liberals see no reason to stay in the church. Hispanic Catholics will start leaving too. Europe is the future. According to the Sipe Report, accepted as legitimate, only 50% of US Catholic priests are celibate, so the church continues to exist on a big lie and is intrinsically disordered toward a propensity to lie about itself.

  11. In Africa and Asia. If it is growing in the U.S. it is primarily because of immigration. Same for Australia. Otherwise, it is losing ground in most of the Americas, Philippines, and Europe. At one time it would have been unthinkable that Catholicism would wane in Ireland but it has, although it is still strong. Same for Poland, where it is showing signs of people wanting the Church out of the business of trying to run the country.

    Tens of millions have left because there are parts of the faith that don’t make sense any more and/or the rituals and practices do not feed the soul. I don’t think those leaving have necessarily lost faith in a loving God or the power of the message Jesus gave us. They just don’t find God and Jesus present in the life of the Church or how the Church tells them they must live.

  12. The church will be left to the BELIEVERS who place God above themselves.
    Each person that falls away most likely falls away because they do not desire to adhere to the catechism of the church; they would rather do what they want to do or adhere to their own desires.
    This goes for the homosexual priests and their handlers in Rome as well.
    The church is the people. The orthodox in the church will ensure that the church survives; albeit in smaller numbers.
    Pope Benedict XVI said as much in the 1960’s.
    In the Holy Mother’s apparition in Akita, Japan; she states:
    “The work of the devil will infiltrate even the church in such a way that cardinals will oppose cardinals and bishops against bishops…”

  13. All you guys (I assume you all are men) are not mentioning 3 realities. 1. A schism has already occured: in it women are bishops and priests alongside men; that movement is growing in the northern hemisphere. Make all the distinctions you want about being in communion with the papacy…these folks aren’t going away. 2. Try to wrap your heads around the ongoing, unfolding crisis of sexual abuse. There is not a single country in which this has not happened, just a staggered time table in the revealing. You can argue over all the other social concerns all you want. When a married couple (that golden ideal of one man, one woman, of child bearing age) have children and they think of where to take those children once they are old enough to learn, the sexual abuse crisis looms above much if not all else. If you think the women bishop/priest issue is wholly separate at the roots, think again. 3. An unfolding cultural shift in Western(ized) countries has long been in the making…authority is no longer found in the specific institutions and their spokespersons. This is the reality for secular organizations as well. Where is the exception? Children’s sports teams which have expanded beyond high school varsity and junior varsity, down to 3rd and 4th grade, with the number of associations exploding in number as well as sports options. OK, I’ll add 2 more realities: we do not have a clue what the electronic plugged in internet realities are doing to us at this point…but it would be folly to suggest that only trivial matters are arising. 5. Who gets to claim to be ‘orthodox?’ I believe in the Nicene Creed. I’m Anglican. Therein lies a mind-boggling number of distinctions. Orthodox is a term that gets lobbed out there without anyone saying what it means; it is an empty term.

  14. Yes, and the reason is that the overwhelming majority of Catholics are only catholic by their baptism and by nothing else. They don’t believe anything, they don’t practice their religion in any way, so I conclude that these growing numbers really don’t mean anything. They just produce fake statistics.

  15. So, you’re saying the “overwhelming majority” of Catholic are poorly or not at all catechized.

    Whether they believe anything, or what they believe, is indeterminate.

    They sound just like Episcopalians.

  16. “If it is growing in the U.S. it is primarily because of immigration.”

    You’ve written that before but been unable to support.

    I believe what is happening is that the folks who think National Catholic Reporter, Bilgrimage, and so on are aces for the most part don’t actually attend anymore and have not for quite some time.

    What is happening is that young orthodox Catholics who attend church and have children are filling in the pews.

    These things run in cycles, and the “spirit of Vatican II” folks have had their run, petered out, and are now for the most superannuated and irrelevant.

    “Tens of millions have left because there are parts of the faith that don’t make sense any more and/or the rituals and practices do not feed the soul.”

    Well, the rituals and practice got dumped – by “spirit of Vatican II” folks. Few young folks have ever experienced a Latin Mass, benediction, confession, and on and on.

    And then they weren’t catechized – by the “spirit of Vatican II” folks again.

    And yes, if you don’t acquaint them, and you don’t catechize them, they don’t grow into it.

    Most of the converts I run into found that finding a church that “tells them (how) they must live” was actually one of the things that led them to the Church.

    So, as the National Catholic Reporter crowd fades into the sunset, and Catholics stop paying any attention to America, Commonweal, and your spiel, things are beginning to look pretty promising.

  17. I believe what you’re saying is that you’re leaving or have left the Church.

    Sounds reasonable to me.

    Now that that is settled, you can stop carping about and at it.

  18. If you talk with them they not only sound like Episcopalians, perhaps they are Episcopalians, or, more probably just deists and agnostics. In any case, they are not catholic. For to be catholic two things are necessary; (1) being validly baptized, and, (2), to subscribe to all the teachings of the Church.

  19. And you have claimed that it is growing and haven’t supported it Suggest you take a look at CARA statistics, going back for several decades, on Catholics in the U.S.

  20. It’s the battle of statistics and perhaps defective polling mechanisms.

    It’s the same reason why the Pew Research folks keep portraying the Nones as increasing and the mainline churches declining, and yet the mainline churches keep reporting increases in membership. Other than giving Mark Silk something to write about, the Pew Research stuff is useless.

    It is really quite simple.

    The National Catholic Reporter, which at one time had sufficient readership to support a print edition, and whose average readership was 35, is barely alive and its average readership is 70.

    All those folks told the Church that unless and until they got what they wanted, they would withhold support and hold their breath while turning blue.

    That left actual parishes in the hands of Catholics, who increasingly support the Church and its traditional teachings. And now they are rebuilding, baptizing, and moving on leaving the “I want what I want how I want it Right Now” folks still reading the National Catholic Reporter and assembling in small cliques of superannuated something or others:


    As the phrase goes, it ain’t rocket science.

  21. As our friends the dissidents and heterodox love to point out, all you have to be is validly baptized.

    Your (2) needs to be qualified: to subscribe to all the teachings of the Church of which you are aware.

    If you live in ignorance because your parents and your parish failed to catechize you, you’re still Catholic, you’re just an ignorant Catholic.

  22. That’s true, under the proviso that you submit to the authority of the Church and her teaching office. So the minimum confession of an ignorant person would be: I believe all that the Catholic Church teaches (without knowing the actual doctrines of the Church).

    But this doesn’t really solve the problem. For there are legio baptized persons who consider themselves catholic and are yet explicitly opposed to subject themselves to the Church’s teaching authority! These persons are no catholics.

    Moreover, if I’m correct — but I’m not competely sure about this — claiming ignorance is only valid as long as it is invincible ignorance. A person not interested in learning the doctrine of the Church is not excused by his lack of interest. Tot the contrary, this lack of interest is itself a moral failure which increases hus guilt.

  23. The minimum confession of an ignorant person might be:

    “I believe all that the Catholic Church requires that I believe to the best of my knowledge.”

    Otherwise one condemns poorly catechized individuals inappropriately.

    Unlike civil law, where ignorance of the law is no excuse, it actually is an excuse when it comes to judgment by God.

    Invincible ignorance, for example, may involve a person not even knowing there is a body of teaching, and you run into folks like that in internet fora such as this one fairly regularly.


    Many of them think Moses received the Ten Recommendations thanks to a lack of catechesis.

  24. The basic confession cannot be: “I believe all that the Catholic Church requires that I believe to the best of my knowledge”. The restriction “to the best of my knowledge” makes no sense. The point is that the person has to trust the Church and subject to her no matter what it is that she teaches and whether he knows about it or not. This is called implicit faith and explained by Card. Henry Newman in his Grammar of Assent.

  25. It makes complete sense.

    If an individual through no fault of her or his own is unaware of an obligation to accept what the Church teaches, that person can only be culpable for that which is actually known.

    The danger is accidentally recreating “Outside the Church there is salvation” in the rigorist sense that led to Leonard Feeney’s excommunication.

    I am unwilling to do that given the battles that preceded the Church explaining what it intended by the maxim.

  26. Every Catholic is complicit in the rape and sexual abuse of children by their predatory priests. After all, don’t they still pay their salaries?

    The RCC needs to go the way of the dinosaur, same as Islam.

  27. Why should an individual ad the mental restriction: “to my best knowledge” if he knows beforehand that whatever the Church teaches is correct, whether he has explicit knowledge of it or not? For even a doctrine which is actualy known by an individual catholic is not believed by him according to the best knowledge he as an individual has of it but according to the degree of knowledge possessed by the Church. If “to my best knowledge is to be added”, then there is no longer place for any implicit faith, because this restriction excludes all teachings one is unaware of from faithful assent. Yet these teachings one is unaware of can include articles of faith necessary for salvation.

    The only solution within the context of Catholicism is thus the acceptance of implicit faith as salvific, But implicit faith in everything taught by the Church excludes the restriction: “to my best knowledge”.

    This doctrine of implicit faith doesn’t lead to a rigorist interpretation of the “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” sentence. To the contrary, it excludes it.

  28. However most of those Catholics are having fewer children and practice Birth Control. The proof is that in the 50’s the churches were full of large families of 5 or more children. Not so now. No matter what the Bishops preach, it does not make it so if the laity in good intelligent and independent conscience can not conform. I have over 22 years of formal Catholic education. As much Catholic education or more than most priests and bishops. Only about 40% of my living fellow cradle catholics adhere to many of the teachings of the RCC. Most used to go to communion and mass but with the current scandals, many can not bear the hypocrisy. They still ARE cradle catholics and have homes that are filled with catholic images. Some now go to independent Catholic Churches but most just do not go. The independent Catholic Churches are, however, growing with each generation. Remember if we look at the second largest group of religious individuals in America, they are former Catholics. The Clerical society is making the church and itself irrelevant by not listening to what the Holy Spirit says to each of us, laity and clergy in each and every generation. The idea of infallibility, and the practice of authoritarian clericalism are making our institution completely irrelevant to the real world. The Clerics are indeed out of touch with reality.

  29. Most of those “Catholics” having fewer children and practicing Birth Control are in North America and Western Europe and are not attending church.

    “Most used to go to communion and mass but with the current scandals, many can not bear the hypocrisy.”

    That’s simply an excuse.

    “The independent Catholic Churches are, however, growing with each generation.”

    No, they are not.

    The Old Catholics are nearly extinct.

    The various small splinters – Stallings in DC, for an example – peter out in a generation.

    I have been hearing this nonsense for six decades, and it has never panned out as predictive.

  30. How would an uncatechized Catholic, child of dissidents who never enrolled the child in a Catholic school, or student in a school with Fr. Happy and Sister Whoopee, know that whatever the Church teaches is correct?

    I ran into a young Catholic priest a few years ago who told me how his vocation took place.

    He had gone through twelve years of “Catholic” education.

    He was attending a public university and happened to have a chat with the chaplain at the Newman Club.

    And there he was told for the very first time that Catholics believe that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. And that changed his life.

    Btw, the way you’re presenting implicit faith – which left the individual in the first sentence above out in cold, approximates the rigorist interpretation of”extra ecclesiam nulla salus”.

    It has precisely the same effect.

  31. No, every Catholics is NOT complicit in the rape and sexual abuse of children.

    Comments like that are illogical bigotry of anti-Catholics.

  32. Tell that to every one of the tens of thousands of young children and women the world over who cry for help today while your clergy rape them over and over and over again . . .

  33. The rate of occurrence was lower than among public school teachers, rabbis, Protestant ministers, and a host of other professions.

    That does not excuse it, but it does make it clear that the axe you’re grinding is anti-Catholicism, not concern for children.

  34. Immaterial. It happens to be an open secret among the RCC’s pecking order that the rape of young children, as well as women, is an ancient tradition of the Church.

    That you choose to still back such an evil institution speaks volumes to the kind of filth you are . . .

  35. A person who is so ignorant that he doesn’t know whether to believe the Church or not is essentially in the same situation as an ignorant pagan. He simply isn’t catholic. But why should this leave him in the cold? From a catholic perspective, nobody is left in the cold. If a person isn’t a catholic he can become one.

    By the way, for the uncatechized child of your example, it doesn’t really matter whether this child is considered catholic or not. For being catholic doesn’t guarantee in anyway eternal salvation or the state of grace in this life.

    So what’s the problem?

  36. I am sorry you do not see the problem with “He simply isn’t catholic.”

    From the perspective of Canon Law, she or he remains Catholic unless and until she or he apostatizes formally.

    Being an ignorant Catholic does not make one a non-Catholic.

  37. I believe the word you’re looking for is “riddance”, my beetle-browed semi-literate anti-Catholic correspondent.

  38. That’s exactly what I’m saying. Being an ignorant catholic does not make one a non-catholic, and the reason is that an ignorant catholic can have implicit faith. For it cannot be denied that faith is necessary to belong to the Catholic Church. An ignorant catholic can have implicit faith in all the Articles of Faith simply by believing the Church (Credo […] unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam”.

    However, this presupposes a minimum level of knowledge. For answer me this question: If both baptism and professing the faith are necessary to be catholic (and this is indisputable), how can an ignorant adult have faith, except by somehow having faith in the Catholic Church? And how can he have such implicit faith without having a minimum level of knowledge?

    What you say about Canon Law on apostasy is probably about the ecclesial crime of apostasy, not the sin. A person can apostatize by silently leaving the faith. This is what constitutes the sin of apostasy. Apostasy becomes a crime when it is done publicly and by a formal act, such as joining another religion or publicly embracing an atheist position, &c.

    Today the majority of the baptized seems to be silent apostates. From a catholic perspective, this must, I guess, be a rather disturbing fact. Catholics make a big fuzz about the increasing numbers of baptized people in the world, and they claim that Catholicism grows by these increasing numbers. But that’s not what is really happening at all, and these numbers are in fact quite irrelevant. What is actually happening today is the cultural and religious implosion of Catholicism

  39. I believe you’re misusing the term “implicit faith”.

    You seem to be using to mean something along the lines of “I don’t know all the Church teaches, but I accept it because the Church teaches it.”

    But the Church itself has never defined it that way:


    Aquinas in “The Disputed Questions on Truth” wrote:

    “Granted that everyone is bound to believe something explicitly, no untenable conclusion follows if someone is brought up in the forest or among wild beasts. For it pertains to Divine Providence to furnish everyone with what is necessary for salvation, provided that on his part there is no hindrance. Thus, if someone so brought up followed the direction of natural reason in seeking good and avoiding evil, we must most certainly hold that God would either reveal to him through internal inspiration what had to be believed, or would send some preacher of the Faith to him as He sent Peter to Cornelius (Acts 10:20).”

    Basically we’re discussing an individual effectively brought up in the forest or among wild beasts, a person who is unaware that the Church teaches at all, let alone teaches with authority.

    But … they remain Catholic.

    An ignorant Catholic, to be sure, but a Catholic.

  40. My defintion of implicit faith is from Card. Henry Newman’s Grammar of Assent. Your quotation from Aquinas is not about implicit but explicit faith. From this text of Aquinas it is clear that he is talking about explicit revelation and acceptance by faith of those truths he considered necessary for salvation. Aquinas to my knowledge doesn’t have a theory about implicit faith properly so called. That’s why he considers it necessary that God would reveal himself to the ignorant either by internal inspiration or by sending a preacher. All that is clearly about explicit revelation and explicit faith.

    I can agree with you that a validly baptized person who is brought up in the forest or among wild beasts and is completely unaware of the teachings of the Church remains a catholic. Such a person will lack the intelligence and information to either silently or explicitly renounce the faith. Since he lacks the means of developing his latent intelligence, he remains free from the obligation to search for the truth.

    But cases like these are very rare. Today’s ignorant catholics are not in that category. They are willfully ignorant because they do have the means for searching the truth and don’t use them.

    You seem to be unaware of the fact that the overwhelming majority of those who were baptized as catholics are not interested at all in their religion. They simply don’t care at all. That’s why they are silent apostates and no longer catholic, except, of course for the statistics. They are just good for the bishops and the Vatican to delude the world with impressing numbers.

  41. Yes, I understand that you are relying on “Grammar of Assent”.

    No, Newman’s every word – like Aquinas’ – is not de fide.

    I spent a fair amount of time looking at “implicit faith” and found its very meaning – and at times its existence – in hot dispute.

    That does not look like the rock, then, upon which to build your argument.

    In short where I believe you are heading in the wrong direction is in writing “But cases like these are very rare. Today’s ignorant catholics are not in that category. They are willfully ignorant because they do have the means for searching the truth and don’t use them.”

    As the example of the young priest who was gobsmacked when he was told that Catholics believe that the bread and wine are transubstantiated demonstrates, ignorant catholics can go through twelve or more years of “Catholic” education and not be aware of the Catholic faith, and in fact be told that the drivel they are handed IS the Catholic faith.

    I cannot agree that my young priest was wilfully ignorant, unless you’re referring to the will of his parents and teachers who were obliged to catechize him and did not.

    We are culpable for our acts of will, not for the absence of information, including the information that we don’t have the information we need when we have been catechized to the contrary.

  42. My opinion is that the ignorant young priest of your example simply believed in the Church and thus implicitly believed the doctrine of the Eucharist because of his trust in the Church, despite the fact that his explicit opinion was formed in a wrong way by his education. That’s the point of Newman’s category of implicit faith.

    Of course, one can only suppose this implicit faith afterwards, when things are cleared up. If the priest of your example had rejected the doctrine of the Eucharist after been explicity exposed to it, this would be a sign that he had no catholic faith at all. But this is exactly the position of the majority of catholics, e.g. of those who reject Humanae Vitae and accept contraception.

    I agree with you that the priest of your example wasn’t necessary wilfully ignorant. Wilful ignorance is a problematic category anyway, because it is difficult to be wilfully ignorant about anything without knowing enough about it to conclude that you don’t want to know more. I don’t think that wilful ignorance is the theological category applicable here, but invincible ignorance certainly is, and this is the category constantly used in moral theology to deal with matters like these. A person is invincibly ignorant if it is impossible for him to obtain the knowledge he needs.

    That the priest of your example was invincibly ignorant, however, doesn’t sound convincing to me. Seminarians are usually intelligent young men who are quite able to point the finger at inconsistencies and theological problems. And if a young priest were so misled about catholic doctrine as not to know about the doctrine of transubstantiation, numerous passages and rites even in the Novus Ordo Missal would have been unintellible and problematic for him and he could have asked questions and done his own research.

  43. I talked to the priest.

    He sounded convincing to me.

    He had NEVER heard the Catholic doctrine.

    A person is invincibly ignorant if it is not dispelled by moral diligence.


    “Ignorance is said to be invincible when a person is unable to rid himself of it notwithstanding the employment of moral diligence, that is, such as under the circumstances is, morally speaking, possible and obligatory. This manifestly includes the states of inadvertence, forgetfulness, etc. Such ignorance is obviously involuntary and therefore not imputable. On the other hand, ignorance is termed vincible if it can be dispelled by the use of ‘moral diligence’. This certainly does not mean all possible effort; otherwise, as Ballerini naively says, we should have to have recourse to the pope in every instance. We may say, however, that the diligence requisite must be commensurate with the importance of the affair in hand, and with the capacity of the agent, in a word such as a really sensible and prudent person would use under the circumstances.”

    “Furthermore, it must be remembered that the obligation mentioned above is to be interpreted strictly and exclusively as the duty incumbent on a man to do something, the precise object of which is the acquisition of the needed knowledge. In other words the mere fact that one is bound by some extrinsic title to do something the performance of which would have actually, though not necessarily, given the required information, is negligible. When ignorance is deliberately aimed at and fostered, it is said to be affected, not because it is pretended, but rather because it is sought for by the agent so that he may not have to relinquish his purpose. Ignorance which practically no effort is made to dispel is termed crass or supine.”

    In the case of the priest, his ignorance was involuntary and therefore not imputable. It was dispelled by the lucky and unplanned conversation with a Catholic priest.

  44. If we assume, for the sake of the argument, that this priest’s ignorance was invincible, it is obvious that he remained a catholic on the basis of his implicit faith in the Church. He believed that the Catholic Church was the true Church and that the teachings of this Church were true. Thus he implicitly believed all the dogmas and other obligatory teachings of the Church, despite the fact of his ignorance about them. So what’s the problem?

  45. He was raised in a Catholic environment.

    The only act of will that could be imputed to him is that he never left, like many of his poorly catechized sisters and brothers in the post-Vatican II era.

    I believe we’re seeing why the term “implicit faith” never got ginned up and adopted as de fide in the Church.

    That is why the Church teaches:

    “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.” – Lumen Gentium 16


    “For, since Christ died for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery.” – Gaudium et Spes 22

    because we are held accountable for our acts of will only, and not theological constructs of how God may work in the hearts and minds of men.

    “When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” – Romans 2:14-16

  46. What the Church teaches logically implies implicit faith, since it is an axiom that “without faith it is impossible to please God: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6). This is clear from the fact that nobody can be in the state of grace without charity, and charity presupposes faith. The three divine virtues of faith, hope and chsrity are always necessary in order to be in a state of grace.

    Nobody is saved without grace, and thus for anyone who isn’t capable of having explicit faith in Christ, there are only two possibilities: either having implicit faith, or being without faith at all. Only the first alternative makes it possible for such a person to be in the state of grace.

  47. Given the fuzzy nature and lack of a de fide definition of “implicit faith”, my concern is one man’s implicit faith is another man’s “outside the Church”.

    It seems to be that the appropriate way to approach this is to note:

    – God wants all men to be saved.

    – All men have at least the law written in their hearts to guide them.

    – If a man seeks to do good and avoid evil, he will seek the truth.

    – If circumstances are in his favor he will be given the opportunity to hear and respond to the Gospel.

    – If he is not so favored, he will be judged on the law written in his heart, the so-called Noahide laws or Natural Law.

    – In both cases salvation comes through the merits of Jesus Christ.

    – Those who refuse the truth and obstinately deny it will be judged more harshly than those who have not heard and been given the opportunity to the Gospel.

    – No one is condemned for circumstances alone because God is just, not arbitrary and capricious.

  48. Mark,

    You have elsewhere remarked on Anglican or Episcopal decline.

    The pattern of church decline in the West (e.g. Catholic decline in Ireland. See https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/what-caused-the-fall-of-irish-catholicism-1.3091020) and growth in the Third World is widely shared across denominations.

    It is hardly fair to compare the European or American numbers of one denomination with the global numbers of another. Africa and Asia Anglican churches today are among the most dynamic and rapidly growing provinces in Anglicanism as a global communion. The average Anglican now is African and may well attend church somewhere in Uganda and Nigeria. Do you have evidence of Anglican decline in Africa and Asia?

    I do agree that small-o orthodoxy is important in explaining these numbers.

    Islam is also doing very well numerically.

  49. You are making several errors.

    First, the Noachide Law is not identical to the Natural Law, for the Noachide Law is part of divine revelation and contains stipulations which cannot be known except by revelation, e.g. the prohibition of blood consumption (Gen. 9:4).

    Second, It cannot be that the judgment of those outside the Church is based only on the natural law, and at least Catholicism has never taught such a thing because it would imply that without faith it is indeed possible to please God, contradicting Hebrew 11:6.

    Three, the state of grace is absolutely necessary to be saved. The state of grace cannot be conferred upon obeying the Natural Law, since the Natural Law is the law of natural reason, not of revealed faith. Moreover, it is not even possible for man to perfectly keep the Natural Law by his own efforts, since the Fall damaged the capacities of human nature to do so.

    Fourth, even if it were possible for man to obey the Natural Law by his own efforts, this wouldn’t help him, because, even if he did never commit actual sins, he would still be in the state of Original Sin. The only escape for those who reject the concept of implicit faith is take recourse to the classic doctrine of Limbo, which asserts that unbaptized children go to hell, yet are not punished there because they have committed no actual sins and will, after the Resurrection and the Last Judgment, enjoy all natural happiness, but will forever be excluded from the viso beatifica.

  50. The Natural Law is also part of the divine revelation.

    A prohibition against blood consumption is not part of the Seven traditional Noahide laws:

    – Not to worship idols.

    – Not to curse God.

    – To establish courts of justice.

    – Not to commit murder.

    – Not to commit adultery or sexual immorality.

    – Not to steal.

    – Not to eat flesh torn from a living animal.

    Paul teaches that the judgment of those outside the Church is based only on the Natural Law, the law written in their hearts, in the quote from Romans i already provided.

    Therefore the state of grace can apparently be conferred upon obeying the Natural Law.

    I take it you’re in the Society of Pius X or another similar organization.

  51. Anglicans in Africa are sending missionaries to the Americas and assisting in setting up jurisdictions which compete with the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church.

    That gives you some idea of the state of affairs in the Anglican Communion, and how far from each other the African Anglicans and the North American Anglicans are from each other in faith and practice.

  52. Explain to me how the state of grace can be conferred upon obeying the natural law. Which catholic theologian has ever said such a thing? From a catholic viewpoint this the obviously heretical. I’m not saying that Catholicism is true, but what you say is not internally consistent. Besides, your argument is vacuous, since St. Paul clearly declares that no one actually ever kept the natural law. So if grace could be received by keeping the demands of the natural law, no one would actually benefit from it

  53. Let’s see what Paul says:

    “Romans 25 But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 For he will render to every man according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. 9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality.”

    “12 All who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. 13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. 14 When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”

    Explain how glory and honor and peace will be given to the Jew first and also the Greek (Gentile) when God judges if neither is in a state of grace?

    How will God excuse the Gentiles on that day when God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus?

    Society of Pius X?

    Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Richmond?

  54. This text of St. Paul probably deals with Gentile believers in Christ, who, though they don’t have the Law of God in the same manner as the Jews who are under the jurisdiction of the Torah, yet do the things of the Law. The Law Paul is speaking about here is the revealed Law, the Torah, not the law of natural reason.

    The Gentile believers have this revealed Law written in their hearts, which is the characteristic feature of the New Covenant: not merely the letter, but the letter animated by the Spirit.

    We should also consider that Romans 2:14 is ambiguous. The Greek phusei, “naturally”, can be taken with the preceding or the following clause. This passage can thus be read as either: “[…] when the Gentiles who don’t have the Torah naturally, do the things contained in the Torah […]”, or: “[…] when the Gentiles who don’t have the Torah, naturally do the things contained in the Torah […]”.

    The first reading seems to be preferable when we compare this passage with other instances of phusei in St. Paul, e.g. Rom. 2:27 and Gal. 2:15. Both readings are possible, however, and the second reading is explained by St. Thomas Aquinas in his commentary on this epistle as referring not to human nature in itself but to nature under the influence of grace or “reformed by grace” as he says: “Unde exponendum est naturaliter, id est per naturam gratia reformatam. Loquitur enim de gentilibus ad fidem conversis, qui auxilio gratiae Christi coeperant moralia legis servare” (Super Rom. cap II lectio 3).

    Aquinas also considers the possibility that “the things contained in the the Torah” are those instructions of the Torah which belong to the natural law. But he maintains that grace, and thus faith and charity, are necessary in order to be considered righteous before God and decisively rejects a Pelagian interpretation of this text.

    To me the point St. Paul seems to be making is simply that man finally is to be judged by his works, and that God is no respecter of persons. But these “works” include true obedience from the heart by a walk of repentance (2:3-5).

    As to your questions: (1) “Explain how glory and honor and peace will be given to the Jew first and also the Greek (Gentile) when God judges if neither is in a state of grace?”; and, (2), “how will God excuse the Gentiles on that day when God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus”, I would say the following.

    As to (1), it is clear that no one will enter everlasting life without grace, since all have sinned and become guilty before God (3:19), and are unable to remove this guilt. Glory and honour and peace will be given to the Jew first and also to the Greek when the goodness of God leads them to repentance (2:4) and they by patient continuance in well doing will be granted glory, honour and immortality (2:7).

    As to (2) I think that this question is based on a wrong interpretation of the text. Romans 2:13-15 is a parenthesis, and the judgment of :16 concludes the train of thought of :12. Thus: “For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law; and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law; [parenthesis ::13-15] in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel”

    It is not said that God will excuse these Gentiles on that day when God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus, but that their own conscience bears witness in excusing or accusing themselves (in this temporal life), which demonstrates that they have a law in their hearts (and thus are inexcusable in that respect (2:1)).

  55. No, the Law Paul is speaking about is NOT the revealed Law, it is the law of natural reason.

    Every man has at least the hope of salvation.

    Their own consciences, of course, may be formed with only the natural law, the law written in their hearts, and by their compliance with that they will be judged.

  56. It is clear from the context that the Law St. Paul is speaking about is the Torah. No exegete denies this. Romans 2:12 distinguishes between those who “sinned without law” and those who “sinned in the law”. This distinctioni cannot be about the natural law, because no one is without the natural law. It is about the distinction between those who live without a revealed law (the Gentiles) and those who live within the context of a revealed law (the Jews). St. Paul is thus dealing here with the revealed Law of God.

    But even when in some other texts St. Paul speaks of the moral laws that can be known by natural reason, it is evident that he asserts that no one actually kept these laws and that all sinned, especially in Romans ch. I, where his reproach against all mankind is that they “hold the truth in unrighteousness” (1:18) and his subsequent exposition of their immorality in that chapter. And he is perfectly clear about the position of natural man in Romans 3:10-11: “[…] There is none righteous, no, not one: there is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God”.

    Even the Jews cannot obtain eternal justification by keeping the explicit Law given to them, the Torah, for according to St. Paul: “[…] by the deeds of the Law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the Law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). If this is true of the revealed Law, the Torah, how much more of the Natural Law!

  57. The Law itself justifies no one.

    Christ’s death provides the basis for justification.

    It provided the justification for Mary’s immaculate conception outside of time.

    It provided the justification by which Christ released the good awaiting redemption in Sheol.

    It is not the Law but the striving for the Truth, that is God, forming the conscience correctly, and living according to it.

    Taken literally your position turns the clock back to Fr. Father Leonard Edward Feeney, SJ, and his error.

    If that is not your intent, you need to clarify where you differ from Feeney.

    If it is your intent, we both understand our positions cannot be reconciled.

  58. At first you said that the obedience to the Natural Law saved people outside Christianity and now are you saying something else. Now it is their striving for the truth, and, if I guess rightly, their spirit of repentance and submission to God which is the decisive thing. The position you now take is that of implicit faith. A person who doesn’t know the explicit revelation but submuts himself to God in a spirit of repentance, is obviously mentally prepared to accept God’s revelation, if there is any. For submission to God includes submission of His authority and to everything He does or is capable of doing.

    How you could ever think that Newman’s doctrine of implicit faith is identical to the doctrine of Feeney is a complete riddle to me. But it is clear that what you said earlier on in this discussion is outright Pelagianism.

  59. I NEVER said the Natural Law saved anyone.

    I said, continued to say, and say now that:

    – “Implicit faith” is an ill-defined term used in both positive and negative ways by a variety of Catholic theologians in considering and proposing,but never defined by the Church and never considered de fide.

    – Both the New Testament and the Vatican II Council make clear that in the term “outside the Church there is no salvation”, the word “church” includes those who – seeking God – rightly form their consciences with the best materials available to them – Natural Law, Mosaic Law, the Gospels – and follow those consciences.

    – No one is condemned for lack of knowledge, per se.

    – Pelagianism is the belief in Christianity that original sin did not taint human nature and that mortal will is still capable of choosing good or evil without special divine aid. Obviously I am not promoting Pelagiansism, nor did Vatican II.

    As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

    “1260 ‘Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery.’ *1 Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.” *1 citing “Gaudium et spes” 22 # 5; cf. “Lumen Gentium” 16; also “Ad gentes 7″

    The term “implicit faith” is not used. If by “implicit faith” you reference “in a way known to God” in “Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery.”, we are in agreement.

  60. The concept of implicit faith is logically implied in your quotation from the Catechism: *Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.”

    If these ignorant persons had desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity, it logically follows that they implicitly desired it in their state of ignorance. Or otherwise there would be no internal difference at all between those who had explicitly desired if they had known and those who hadn’t, as long as they were in their common state of ignorance.

    You should consider that the state of grace always implies the presence of the divine virtues of faith, hope and love. Actually the presence of these virtues is the very definition of the state of grace, and thus no person can be in the state of grace without having faith somehow. Well, if this faith isn’t explicit faith, then obiviously it must be implicit, or else there is no state of grace.

  61. Without a clear and unequivocal definition of “implicit faith”, to suggest it is logically implied is avoidance of defining it.

    Since both are saved, the notion there is internal difference between those who explicitly desire Baptism, and those who in a state of ignorance had not, appears to be unfounded.

    The difference is external; the first have the good fortune of knowledge, the second the misfortune of ignorance.

  62. I’m sorry, but I don’t get what you are saying here. If the difference between those who know and those who don’t is only external, then those who are ignorant are either all saved or all damned. Under the claim that some of the ignorant are saved, however, there must be an internal difference between those ignorant who are saved and those who aren’t.

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