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Are Bad Catholics Still Catholics?

Jimmy Akin

Last week, on the forty-sixth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, New York governor Andrew Cuomo enthusiastically signed that state’s “Reproductive Health Act.”

Many commentators observed that New York now has the most radical pro-abortion law of any state in the country, and criticism of Cuomo quickly followed. Part of the criticism was based on the fact that Cuomo is a baptized Catholic; many were aghast at the spectacle of a Catholic taking such a radical pro-abortion stance.

Others, however, denounced the idea that he is a Catholic at all, and debates on the question ensued. For example, in one such debate on Facebook, comments like these appeared:

  • “Let’s be clear here, he is not Catholic!”
  • “He isn’t Catholic. It’s an insult to Catholics to call him one.”
  • “Of course he’s not Catholic.”

Others responded:

  • “He is based on his baptism.”
  • “Yes, he is by virtue of his baptism! He is a Catholic who has sinned!”

Some sought to strike a middle ground:

  • “He may have been baptized by the Catholic Church, but if he is not practicing his Catholic faith, he is Catholic in name only.”

Unfortunately, Cuomo is not alone. We live in an age in which many Catholics who are public figures betray key teachings and values of the Faith. Of course, our age is not unique. There have always been bad Catholics—including bad Catholics in high places. But in our age, mass communication means a lot more people notice them and are able to discuss what they do.

So, are such people still Catholics? Let’s start with the statement that Cuomo-type figures aren’t Catholics and that it’s an insult to say that they are.

This sentiment expresses a truth. When a public figure uses his fame and influence to betray the Faith, he is acting in an un-Catholic or even anti-Catholic way. And the profound contradiction between what he is doing and what he should be doing as a Catholic generates an objective insult to God. It adds injury to insult, for it wounds the body of Christ.

However, it isn’t literally true to say he’s not a Catholic. That’s hyperbole.

“But wait,” someone might say. “If someone betrays the Faith in this way, how can he still be a Catholic?”

To answer this question, we need to look at the Church’s official documents. According to the Second Vatican Council:

He is not saved . . . who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a “bodily” manner and not “in his heart” (Lumen Gentium 14).

By losing the gift of charity, a bad Catholic ceases to be a member of the Church “in his heart,” but he remains in it “bodily.”

The Church thus recognizes that there is a sense in which a bad Catholic ceases to be truly or fully Catholic, but there is another sense in which he still is Catholic.

Are there ways to lose that status altogether? Here the Code of Canon Law becomes relevant. According to it:

Merely ecclesiastical laws bind those who have been baptized in the Catholic Church or received into it, possess the efficient use of reason, and, unless the law expressly provides otherwise, have completed seven years of age (can. 11).

By being baptized in the Church—or by being received into it after being baptized elsewhere—one becomes subject to the laws of the Church, and these obligations remain even when one betrays the Faith in fundamental ways. This even applies in cases where one has committed heresy, apostasy, or schism, which the Code defines as follows:

Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him (can. 751).

There are penalties for committing these crimes, including excommunication (can. 1364 §1). However, even excommunication does not mean that one ceases to be a member of the Church. Instead, as the Catechism explains, excommunication is “the most severe ecclesiastical penalty.” It “impedes the reception of the sacraments and the exercise of certain ecclesiastical acts” (CCC 1463).

This is verified by the Code’s explanation of the effects of excommunication (can. 1331), which lists the inability to participate in the sacraments and the inability to exercise ecclesiastical offices, ministries, functions, etc. However, the canon does not list ceasing to be a Catholic or being released from the Church’s laws as a result.

A person who has committed heresy, apostasy, or schism may no longer identify himself as a Catholic, but he’s still bound by the Church’s laws—including, for example, the obligation to attend Mass every Sunday (without receiving Holy Communion, of course).

This brings to mind the old saying, “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.” There’s a sense in which that’s true, since the legal obligations we acquire upon being baptized or received into the Church continue to exist even if we renounce the Faith and no longer regard ourselves as Catholic.

It is even more clear that someone who still professes to be Catholic—even unfaithfully—remains so, even if it is purely in a “bodily” way and not “in his heart.”

Although there is no doubt that public figures—as well as private individuals—gravely compromise their communion with the Church when they reject key Catholic teachings and values, this doesn’t mean that they literally cease to be Catholics.

Bad Catholics are still Catholics. And that just makes their betrayal of the Faith worse.

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