What All Catholics Must Really Know About the Present State of the Church.

I have explained elsewhere why I think it no longer possible to sustain the position set out in the 1992 study What All Catholics Must Know About the Present State of the Church. But it is understandable that those who have formerly been persuaded of that position should find it hard to shake off the ideas it contains until they have some positive ground rules with which to replace them. Hence the object of this paper is to summarise what seem to me to be the real answers to the two key questions posed in that 1992 paper: (i) To whom should priests today be prepared to give the sacraments? (ii) From which priests should the laity today be prepared to receive the sacraments?

It may be said that the fundamental error of the 1992 paper was the supposition that many persons who err are to be treated as heretics or schismatics even when pertinacity is not truly evident. This view was based, in the case of heresy, on confusion between views that the Church has condemned directly and other opinions that seem to lead to conclusions that have been condemned, but have not been directly condemned themselves. The two are not equivalent, because in the latter case the error may well lie in the reasoning, and an error of logic is not always a sin, let alone a pertinacious sin against faith.1 In the case of schism an analogous conclusion was argued for, on the basis of the claim that pertinacity is presumed for practical purposes when a person is objectively in communion with non-Catholics. It has been established in the accompanying studies that this is so only when the miscreant is consciously outside the Catholic communion. The canonists appealed to all referred to that case alone, and theology and history conspire to assure us that in case of genuine confusion on the part of one who wants to belong to the Catholic Church, the same does not apply.

These errors once corrected, it will be apparent that these questions cannot be answered in every case as crisply as the 1992 paper wanted them to be. Nevertheless, let us do our best to answer them as far as possible.

The general principle is that the sacraments may be administered only to Catholics, and may be received from the hands only of Catholic priests
2. So who are the members of the Catholic Church today?

Very simply the members of the Catholic Church are those who, having been baptised, submit to the Catholic rule of faith and adhere to the Catholic communion - i.e. who are neither heretics nor schismatics.

The first condition is verified by believing all that the Church teaches. As only learned theologians know all the Church's teachings in detail, obviously the rest of us believe explicitly what we are aware of and the rest implicitly.

If someone is disposed to believe all that the Church teaches, but makes a mistake as to what that really is, and how it applies, that does not make him a heretic. He is not a heretic in reality or in presumption, as long as he wants to believe what the Church teaches. He may say with St Augustine: "I may err, but I shall never be a heretic."

The difficult case is presented by someone who is objectively believing, and perhaps propagating, error, while saying that he wishes to believe what the Church teaches. How can we tell whether or not he is really a heretic, in the absence of an authoritative judgment of the Church?

The answer is that he will be a heretic only if: (i) his error is directly and certainly opposed to a de fide teaching, and (ii) he is obviously holding it despite evidence that ought to convince any reasonable man that his belief conflicts with that of the Church.

Any doubt about either of those points is to be interpreted in favour of the accused. This arises from the simple duty of charity, which forbids us to think evil of our neighbour unless it is truly evident
4. We are not judges in questions of heresy, as we have neither the competence nor the authority to fulfil that role. But we may certainly note and take account of manifest facts.

In evaluating whether an individual is manifestly rejecting the teaching of the Church, naturally one takes account of many data. Is he a priest? If so he cannot be supposed ignorant of elementary catechism doctrine. Is he learned? If so he is unlikely to be ignorant, but on the other hand he may see subtle distinctions not obvious to others. Is the teaching he denies the subject of cloud and dispute? If so it is easily understood how someone might err about it in good faith. Is the error one that is liable to result from a sincere effort to make sense of the present crisis, with its many opportunities for confusion, and the apparent difficulty in reconciling its features with various dogmas? If so, wider tolerance is appropriate than would be the case if the error were arbitrarily invented. All these principles are discussed by the great Cardinal de Lugo: Disputation on Heresy and Heretics, section V.

My own conclusions on this basis would include the presumption that those who habitually attend the Novus Ordo are pertinacious heretics. Exceptions due to extraordinary ignorance may be conceived, of course, but we need take no account of rare exceptions in stating general rules
5. By contrast I do not think that those who hold the doctrinal errors that circulate in the SSPX (and there are several obvious ones) should be presumed pertinacious unless in each individual case it is known for sure that solid proof of the true doctrine has been given in a way that would have convinced any well-disposed individual. Similarly, while I think the Thuc and Mendez-line consecrations to have been unlawful, I do not think that those who hold the contrary view may be considered heretics.

Quite clearly there is no basis for holding that all who frequent the Masses of a particular priest share whatever errors or heresies that priest may hold. Experience alone tells us that this is not so. Canonists confirm this by teaching that communicatio in sacris with heretics creates a suspicion of heresy only when those involved realise that those they are communicating with are heretics.

The second condition needed for someone to be a Catholic is that he should not be a schismatic, i.e. he should not "wilfully and intentionally separate [himself] from the unity of the Church…" (Summa Theologiae, II-II, Q.39, A.1)

Schism is committed either by refusing habitual submission to the Roman Pontiff, or by separating oneself from communion with the great mass of other Catholics. It is not committed by confusion about whether this or that person is pope, or whether this or that priest, layman or group in fact belongs to the Church. Or rather, such errors could constitute schism only if there were no possible basis for reasonable confusion, or if the Church had already pronounced authoritatively and directly on the matter.

We have already seen elsewhere that there is no basis in theology or canon law for presuming that all who go astray in confusing times are pertinacious. Pertinacity is absolutely essential to both heresy and schism and may be deemed present only when the Church has so judged, or when the facts are such that reasonable confusion in good faith is not possible. It should be noted that by virtue of Canon 2229/2, any factor that diminishes full consent excuses from the canonical effects of heresy, thus even grave negligence in discovering the correct Catholic position, though sinful, excuses from heresy. (Cf. Jone: Commentarium In Codicem Juris Canonici, ad Canon 1325/2, and Vermeersch-Creusen : Epitome Juris Canonici Cum Commentariis, vol. III, n. 311 : "If anyone should commit these sins through ignorance, even gravely culpable, but not affected, he is immune to the delict, which requires pertinacity."

Hence for my part, though I consider that the official SSPX recognition of Karol Wojtyla is objectively schismatic, I do not conclude that all who hold that position are schismatics. I should draw that conclusion only regarding individuals, and even then only after personal discussion, and very reluctantly. Likewise I think that the position I formerly held of regarding all as non-Catholics who do did not subscribe to every detail of the 1992 study What All Catholics Must Know…is objectively schismatic too, as it ruptures communion with the great mass of Catholics, but I am quite sure that I was not a schismatic when I held it, because I was doing my best to understand a complicated situation, and my dominant desire was precisely to stay with the Church, not to be separated from her. The same obviously applies to those who continue to hold it, though I hope that they will soon cease to do hold it.

I think it is quite obvious to any person who consults simple honesty, let alone charity, that the bulk of traditional Catholics who err about the state of the Church today, and in particular about the status of the Holy See, do not have the least intention of separating from Catholic communion, but very much the contrary.

The Duty of the Priest

Canon 682 provides that the laity have the right to receive the spiritual goods from the clergy in accordance with the norm of ecclesiastical discipline. Hence all Catholic priests, not just parochial clergy, are obliged to make the sacraments available to the faithful who reasonably request them. Naturally this does not include manifest heretics and schismatics, or public sinners, but it seems to me that What All Catholics Must Know…(1992) errs not only in assessing who falls into these categories, but also in the angle from which it approaches the problem.

In effect it requires the priest to evaluate whether each given applicant for the sacraments is in fact worthy to receive them. It places on the applicant the onus of proving his orthodoxy, and erects the priest into a judge. But is this correct? Is there any real authority for this approach in theology, in canon law or in tradition? I suggest that there is none.

I suggest that one who has been baptised and brought up as a Catholic is presumed to be one until the contrary is proved, and that there is no need for special enquiries or interrogations until there is at the least very concrete evidence suggesting that he is no longer a Catholic. By all means let the priest interrogate, if there are substantial signs that the individual has lost the Faith, as for instance would apply if he had succumbed to Modernism and the Novus Ordo. But failure to assess correctly the present status of the Holy See, or the conditions for the lawfulness of episcopal consecrations in our days, or exactly which priests are "sound", do not constitute even a priori indications that those who err are no longer Catholics. They therefore furnish no basis for importuning the faithful and departing from the tradition by which the sacraments are made available to all baptised persons who profess to be Catholics and request them unless they are known to be publicly unworthy.

The argument based on Canon 731/2 would be perfectly sound if those concerned were in fact schismatics in good faith. But they are not schismatics. They are Catholics, and depriving them of the sacraments for being misled on matters not directly settled by the Church is in fact a defiance of the law, and moreover will give them no help to see that part of the truth that they have not yet seen.

It can be argued that the clergy can quite easily take newcomers aside and set out the truth to them before admitting them to the sacraments. That is often so. But if the newcomers do not accept this or that position at once, it does not entitle the priest to exclude them from the sacraments, to which they have a right. Perhaps they are slow on the uptake. Perhaps the priest is not such a good apologist as he imagines. Perhaps there are other factors that the newcomers see but that the priest does not see. Perhaps they are under the influence of misinformation, spread in good faith or bad, by apparently credible persons. None of these factors will stop them from being Catholics, so they should be admitted to the sacraments. Membership of the Church does not depend on high intelligence or lengthy study, and both can be necessary to understand some of the issues confronting Catholics today. Nor are high intelligence and lengthy study always enough to find the right answers anyway.

One exceptional case is to be admitted: that of the layman who the priest deems is a danger to his other faithful. If the priest is not a duly appointed parish priest and the miscreant is not one of his parishioners in the strict sense, he is entitled to ban him from his Masses for the sake of the common good, if he cannot otherwise secure his amendment.

And, needless to say, both priests and laity may avoid anyone whom they consider to present a spiritual danger to themselves, irrespective of whether or not he is still a member of the Church.

The Duty of the Laity.

Much the same principles apply to the laity. The sacraments are morally necessary for salvation. We may be saved without them if they are unavailable, even morally, but we should not deprive ourselves of them for insufficient reason. Outside the very gravest necessity, viz. danger of death, we should not receive the sacraments from a non-Catholic priest, no matter how valid they may be or whether or not they are available elsewhere. But we have no right to judge that a priest is no longer a Catholic merely because he is confused. His pertinacity must be clear for that conclusion to follow.

It must be clearly understood that in the absence of an authoritative judgment from the Church, the evaluation of whether a given priest or layman is in fact pertinacious and therefore outside the Catholic Church can lie only with the individual conscience. In many cases the answer will be clear. In others it will be doubtful. In my opinion, Fr P…, Fr L… and Bishop V… count as schismatics, at least presumptively, but I cannot force this view on others who think that they may still be in good faith.

However, it is important to notice that there may be other reasons why we may refrain from receiving the sacraments from someone than his not being a Catholic. In particular we may consider to what extent receiving the sacraments from this or that priest, especially if done regularly, is liable to give scandal, or imply consent to various aspects of his position. We may certainly deem it quite unacceptable to consent to the pollution of the Holy sacrifice by the inclusion of John-Paul II's name in the Canon. We may be concerned not to expose members of our families to the impression that this or that priest is trustworthy if we are convinced that he is not.

Effect on Others

The crucial point to note for those of us who are habituated to thinking in terms of the "old position" (1992) is that whatever judgments we may reach on these issues do not constitute a norm of behaviour for others. If I think that Fr L… is a non-Catholic cult leader, I must not approach him for the sacraments. If you think that he is merely misled, you can approach him for the sacraments, other things being equal. One of us is right and the other wrong, but as long as we are both doing our best to see the truth and acting in accordance with our consciences, our membership of the Church and our salvation are no more involved in the disagreement than they would be in a disagreement over a purely secular subject such as whether vaccinations are beneficial.

The official judgment of the Church creates a norm that all Catholics are obliged to respect. The private judgment of an individual's conscience binds only himself. We are free to try to convince others to share our evaluations of this or that doubtful priest, but they will not be any less our brethren in the Faith for remaining unconvinced by our arguments.

In summary, we must steer between Scylla and Charybdis. There is a common error in circulation to the effect that private individuals can never know whether or not someone is a heretic or schismatic, pending a formal and authoritative judgment from the Church. We know that that is wrong. But the opposite position taken by What All Catholics Must Know…(1992) is also wrong. It is wrong because it in effect implies that we can invariably be as certain of these matters on the basis of private evaluation as if the Church had formally pronounced.

The correct position on this issue lies in the middle. Every doubtful case can be settled only by the ecclesiastical authority. But some cases can be so clear that the individual can make up his own mind. Nonetheless, his judgment does not bind others. We may, when we think the facts truly clear, regard Fr X, or layman Z, as heretics or schismatics, and treat them as such. But we have no possible basis for treating Fr A as a non-Catholic because he continues to give the sacraments to layman Z because he does not share our view of him; nor can a priest refuse the sacraments to layman B because he at other times also receives the sacraments from Fr X if B is not convinced that Fr X is in fact a heretic. That is the essential difference in effect between a private judgment and a public one.

Practical Guidance

The reader may feel, on approaching the end of this paper, an unsatisfied sensation. The 1992 paper offered crisp concrete answers to all the main practical questions. This study has answered hardly any of the questions such as: "Should I go to Fr So-and-so for the sacraments?" and when it has done so it has emphasised that only an opinion is being expressed.

The reason for this is that Providence has not in fact furnished us with the wherewithal to create such crisp paradigms as the 1992 paper proposed. For many matters we are indeed left merely with the faltering efforts of our fallible judgments to reach truth. I could list my own judgments on such of these issues as I have formed one of, but how would that help? The reader is not going to be judged for his fidelity to my conscience, but to his own.

It is not unheard of that there should be doubt and confusion about such matters as this study has considered. Cardinal Billot expressly says that the visibility of the Church is not jeopardised by difficulty in establishing whether a given individual in fact belongs to her. Our Lord Himself treated the Pharisees as members and officers of the true religion of his day, while vigorously rebuking them for their errors and scandals. The nub of our crisis is the absence of authority: we have no pope. It is quite unreasonable to expect that we should have as much certainty today about these questions as if we had a pope. Were that the case we should be entitled to wonder why a pope had ever been needed, and what the formal judgments and excommunications of authority could add to our own evaluations.

Those who wish to judge accurately - and we must all do our best to do so - will find, I think, the main theological and canonical criteria in the studies
6 accompanying this one, but what they will most need is the study of history, to see how the saints acted when confronted with persons whose words or deeds seemed to cast doubt on their orthodoxy, but who had not yet been condemned by ecclesiastical authority. Those who still imagine that the 1992 study What All Catholics Must Know… represents reality will find that history is full of surprises.


Nor is it unknown for the "hard-liner" to be the one who is guilty of the error in logic in assessing whether a given proposition is in fact heretical even by implication.
2 Except in danger of death.
3 I pass over the fact that excommunicati vitandi are also excluded from the Church, as it is impossible to incur this censure during a vacancy of the Holy See.
4 In judgments concerning facts, says St Thomas, our priority must be to believe what is true; but in judgments concerning men "we must endeavour rather to judge a man good, unless there should appear manifest evidence of the contrary." (Summa Theologiae: II-II, Q.60, A.4 responsio ad secundum)
5 "Non est in calculo habendum quod perraro contingit." - "no account is to be taken of what befalls only very rarely" (enunciated by the Sacred Congregation of the Council, in Amorina Funerum, 18th September 1852, G Postremo).
6 Pertinacity and Schism - a Radical Revision of My Views
Have We Correctly Understood Schism?
The "Brussels Syllabus" Commented
What All Catholics Must
Really Know About the Present State of the Church…

J S Daly
In Vigilio Sti Andreae 1999