Billot on Membership in the Church

De Ecclesia Christi (1927) of Cardinal L. Billot, S.J.
Q. 7: On the Members of the Church.

All theologians easily agree upon the following assertion, declared in these general terms: “To be a member of the Church, the necessary and sufficient conditions are baptism and the bond of the unity of the faith and of the Catholic communion.”  By the very fact that someone has been initiated by baptism, he will always pertain to the Catholic Church, at least by the right and exigency of the baptismal character; he will also be joined to her in fact, unless he be a heretic or schismatic or excommunicated. …
I said quite purposefully that this is the unanimous opinion as expressed in general terms; for, when we try to determine each of these conditions in greater detail, there begin to be differences of opinion.  All indeed require baptism, but some would argue that a merely putative baptism suffices, such as that which someone receives when he receives the sacrament invalidly, and the cause of the invalidity is occult, and by a false supposition of fact he is thought to have received it.  Again, the opinion is unanimous that there must be unity of faith and of Catholic communion, and that this unity is not lost except by heresy, schism, or excommunication.  But now we ask what sort of heresy it is that separates a man from the visible body of the Church: does occult, and even purely internal heresy suffice? or only that which passes into an external and notorious profession?  Again, what sort of excommunication?  Here there can be all the more reason for doubt, since the excommunicated are distinguished, not only into notorious and occult, but also into the vitandi and the tolerandi.  The controversy, then, revolves around these terms.
Now, we must make it clear that this controversy is not at all prejudicial to the certitude of the dogma of the Church’s visibility; for this certitude, which has already been established on its own proper foundations, remains entirely independent of the multitude of opinions that are here brought forth.
In the first place, the visibility of the Catholic Church, insofar as she is the true Church of God, remains unshaken.  For this is the visibility of credibility, and results from the notes that we have already set forth; notes by which it becomes apparent that we must give the assent of faith to the truth that, of all the religious societies that exist in the world, this one alone is legitimate and genuine.  Besides, this visibility is in reference to the social body as a whole, and not in respect to each of its members taken singly; for, surely no one would say that it can or ought to be believed with divine faith that this or that particular man truly belongs to the Church, and not in appearance only.  The doubts, therefore, that still exist about the minimum conditions necessary for the individual person to really participate in the social bond cannot do any harm to this sort of visibility.  The only difficulty (even apparent) that might occur here is in regard to the supreme head on whom the whole society depends.  But the response is easy: we can be certain that he is a true member, and indeed the principal member of the Church, independently of the opinions currently debated upon by theologians; and this certainty rests on the strength of conclusions that we have already demonstrated.  For, if these conclusions are true, it follows quite plainly that the infallible providence of God will prevent it from ever happening that the whole Church adhere to a false head; consequently, no one will ever be accepted as supreme pontiff who does not meet all the conditions necessary to be a member, whatever those conditions may be.  That visibility, therefore, by which the true Church is recognizable as such, is in no way imperiled.
Even the visibility of the Church considered as a society whose members ought to recognize one another on the individual level, especially as this regards the subordination of the sheep to their pastors, remains secure; for, this visibility certainly does not preclude any and all doubt about anyone’s belonging to the Church; it is enough that certitude be had in regard to the majority.  All that is required is a moral certitude, and in practice this suffices in human affairs.  Now, the disagreement of theologians contains itself within these bounds, and no one’s opinion takes away from the members of the Church this sort of recognizability.  In any case, even if there occurred an opinion incompatible with this principle of the visibility of the Church—a principle that all agree upon and unanimously acknowledge as an unshakeable dogma—the dogma would not be cast into doubt because of the opinion; rather, the opinion would be cast into doubt because of the dogma.  If you objected to this on the authority of any author, you would do the author an injustice, claiming that he is departing from principles to which he clearly professes to adhere with an unshakeable certitude, and this on the grounds of an opinion that he holds as a matter of lesser consequence.  All we can conclude in that case, is that perhaps the author did not follow the rules of logic.
On all accounts, then, the multiplicity of theological opinions on who are the members of the Church leaves entirely intact and unshaken the certitude of all that has hitherto been demonstrated.  Nay rather, all these principles, and especially those expounded in our second thesis,[1] can rightfully be taken in the present discussion as the very criteria by which we are to decide which of the various opinions seems to approach closer to the truth.  What I have said here once, I want to be kept in mind always.  But now we shall move on to an explanation of our teaching…

THESIS 11 Although the baptismal character is sufficient, of itself, to incorporate a man into the true Catholic Church; nevertheless, to have this effect in adults a double condition must be met.  The first condition is that the social bond of unity of faith be not impeded by formal, or even material, heresy.  Nevertheless, because this sort of impediment is caused only by heresy that manifests itself in an open profession, we must conclude that only notorious heretics are excluded from the body of the Church.

We must establish, in the first place, the proper sense of the term “heresy.”  According to the etymology of the term and its actual usage, which has been the same throughout all of tradition, that man is properly called a heretic who, after embracing Christianity in the sacrament of baptism, does not accept from the magisterium of the Church the rule of what is to be believed, but takes from somewhere else the norm for his beliefs in matters of faith and concerning the teaching of Christ.  He might follow other religious teaching authorities, or he might adhere to the principle of free examination, professing the complete independence of reason; or, finally, he might disbelieve only one of the articles that are proposed by the Church as dogmas of faith.

Note, then, the difference between infidelity and heresy. [1] First of all, the general sin of infidelity can exist in any man having the use of reason, while heresy is proper to one who has received the sacrament of faith, that is, the baptismal character. [2] Moreover, for general infidelity it is enough for someone to disbelieve truths revealed by God and sufficiently proposed to him as such.  The notion of heresy, however, includes another element: departure from the social Magisterium (sociali magisterio), which was divinely constituted to be the authoritative organ for the proposal of revealed truth in Christian society. [3] Hence, general infidelity prescinds from any special condition in its opposition to divine faith, while heresy is opposed to this same faith in precisely the way that it ought to be in a Christian: under the rule, and in dependence upon that authority to which it belongs to govern, in the place of God, the society of believers.

Public Formal and Material Heretics

Now, heretics are divided into formal and material.  Formal heretics are those to whom the authority of the Church is sufficiently known.  Material heretics are those who, affected by invincible ignorance concerning the Church herself, choose in good faith another rule to determine what they are to believe.  The heresy of material heretics is not imputed as a sin; on the contrary, it is possible for them to have even that supernatural faith which is the commencement and root of all justification; for, they might believe all the principal articles explicitly, and believe the others, not explicitly, but implicity, by the disposition of their minds, and the good intention they have of believing all truths whatsoever are sufficiently proposed to them as revealed by God.  Consequently, they can still belong in desire to the body of the Church and meet the other conditions necessary for salvation.

Nevertheless, because we are concerned with real incorporation into the visible Church of Christ, our thesis does not distinguish between formal and material heretics—understanding the latter according to the notion of material heresy that we have just explained, which alone is the proper and genuine sense of the term.  For, if by “material heretic” you understand one who professes dependence upon the magisterium of the Church in matters of faith, but denies something defined by the Church because he is ignorant of the fact that it was defined, or holds an opinion contrary to Catholic teaching because he mistakenly thinks that it is taught by the Church, then it would be utterly absurd to put material heretics outside the body of the true Church; but this would also be to distort completely the true meaning of the word.  For, a sin is called “material” only when all the elements of that sin are present materially, but without advertence or deliberate choice.  Now, heresy by its nature requires departure from the rule of the ecclesiastical magisterium.  In the case cited, there is no departure; there is only an error of fact about what the rule dictates.  Such an error cannot be heresy, even materially so.

Since, in the present discussion, it makes no difference whether one be a formal or a material heretic, we will direct our attention to another division. 

Notorious and Occult Heretics

Heretics are divided into occult and notorious.  Occult heretics are, in the first place, those who by a purely internal act disbelieve dogmas of faith proposed by the Church.  Those also are occult, who do indeed manifest their heresy by external signs, but not by a public [i.e., notorious] profession.  You will easily understand that many men of our times fall into the latter category—those, namely, who either doubt or positively disbelieve matters of faith, and do not disguise the state of their mind in the private affairs of life, but who have never expressly renounced the faith of the Church, and, when they are asked categorically about their religion, declare of their own accord that they are Catholics.

Many theologians—and among the most recent, Cardinal Franzelin (de Eccles. Thes. 22)—hold that occult heretics in no way pertain to the true Church.  “But we,” Bellarmine writes, “follow the more common manner of speaking, and teach that those who are united to the other faithful by a merely external profession, are true exterior parts, and therefore also members, although withered, of the body of the Church.  See Thomas of Walden, tom. 1, l. 2, c. 9 & 11; John Driedo, l. 4 de ecclesiasticis scripturis et dogmatibus, c. 2; Peter Soto in the Catholic confession that he wrote in opposition to the confession of W├╝rttemberg, cap. de Ecclesia & cap. de Conciliis; Cardinal Hosius, l. 3 against the prolegomena of Brenz, and Melchior Cano, l. 4 de locis theologicis, c. ult. ad argumentum 12” (Bellarm. de Eccles. 1. 3, c. 10).  We think that this opinion, by far the more common one, should by all means be followed.  But first, for clarity’s sake, we will explain what all agree upon: that notorious heretics are excluded from the body of the Church.  Afterward, we will explain what some deny: that only notorious heretics are excluded, and not the occult—among whom we must also number (as it seems to us) those who sin against the faith even externally, but have never departed from the rule of the Church’s magisterium by a public profession. (…)
Are Notorious Heretics Outside the Church?

[Objection] Next you will object: At the time of the Jansenist heresy, there were many bishops who openly appealed against the Bull Unigenitus and other papal Constitutions, whether preceding or following, that had been received in the whole Church.  These, therefore, were notorious heretics.  Notwithstanding this, they were still considered as true bishops having communion with the Apostolic See, and therefore as true members of the Church.  Therefore it is false to say, even of notorious heresy, that it puts a man outside the body of the Church.

I reply that the Jansenists were more innovative than other heretics in coming up with every kind of subterfuge in order to evade the anathemas of the Church, so that, by dissembling themselves in every way, they might diffuse more efficaciously the virus of their doctrine.  There is nothing to wonder at, then, if the heresy of some, because of the great cunning of their artifices, was not so notorious among their contemporaries. 

Now, after those few bishops, the “Appellants,” went further, and began to reject [1 March 1717] openly, pertinaciously and unambiguously the Constitution Unigenitus [8 Sept. 1713], which had been unanimously received in the Church as a rule of faith, then their heresy began to be notorious; but at the same time they also ceased to be considered as true and legitimate bishops. Nay, as soon as time allowed they were expressly denounced as being outside the communion of the Catholic Church; we have proof of this in the acts of the Council of Embrodun (Concilium Embrodunensis), and especially in the Bull Pastoralis officii of Clement XI [28 Aug. 1718]. …

Are Occult Heretics Outside the Church?

It is most certain, then, that notorious heretics are outside of the Church.  But now we must enquire into the special case of occult heretics; that they should not be counted among the rest, will become apparent from the arguments that follow.

§2.  That occult heretics are still in the Church can be shown, in the first place, by an argument drawn from the general principle that was declared above.  For baptism, of its very nature, gathers men into the visible body of the Catholic Church; this effect is always joined to it, unless there be something in the recipient of baptism that prevents it—something incompatible with the social bond of ecclesiastical unity.  Moreover, the social bond, because it is social, is of it very nature external and manifest.  As long, therefore, as heresy is not openly professed, but stays within the mind, or is confined to manifestations that do not suffice for notoriety, it by no means prevents one from being joined to the visible structure of the Church; and by this fact the baptismal character (by which we are made to be of the body of the Church) necessarily continues to have its effect, or rather retains its natural corollary, since there is not yet anything contrary to impede or expel it. End of Selection.


Meaning of Notoriety:

“Notoriety is the quality or the state of things that are notorious; whatever is so fully or officially proved, that it may and ought to be held as certain without further investigation, is notorious. It is difficult to express exactly what is meant by notoriety, and, as the Gloss says (in can. Manifesta, 15, C. ii, q. 1), ‘we are constantly using the word notorious and are ignorant of its meaning’. Ordinarily it is equivalent to public, manifest, evident, known; all these terms have something in common, they signify that a thing, far from being secret, may be easily known by many. Notoriety, in addition to this common idea, involves the idea of indisputable proof, so that what is notorious is held as proved and serves as a basis for the conclusions and acts of those in authority, especially judges. To be as precise as is possible, ‘public’ means what any one may easily prove or ascertain, what is done openly; what many persons know and hold as certain, is ‘manifest’; what a greater or less number of persons have learnt, no matter how, is ‘known’; what is to be held as certain and may no longer be called in question is ‘notorious’.”  (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913, Notoriety, bu Fr. Auguste Boudinhon, former Professor of Canon Law at the Catholic University of Paris:

Heresy that is not notorious is reduced to occult:

“In a strictly juridical sense, we speak only about occult or notorious heresy, and the notion of public heresy is reduced to that of occult heresy. In this juridical sense (which is sense used in canon law), any external act that has not been noted by the authority is occult.” (Fr. Gleize, professor of ecclesiology, Econe)

“Heresy can be occult per se, if it is without an external act; or occult per accidens, if it was externally manifested, but did not attain to notoriety.  … for, although in the second case the heresy has been externally manifested, it is nevertheless occult if it cannot here and now be juridically be proven” (Sebastianus Fraghi, De Membres Ecclesia,  1937).