Living Tradition
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No. 150 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program Jan 2011


by Brian W. Harrison

Part B. Reading Cantate Domino, Unam Sanctam, and the 1949 Letter
in a Hermeneutic of Continuity

IV. Who are the “heretics” and “schismatics” Florence refers to?

In Part A of this essay we have elucidated and articulated more precisely the principal point of conflict between the distinctive Feeney-SBC thesis and the magisterium’s explicit teaching since the 1940s. Both sides agree that no one can be saved outside the Church; but they are not in full agreement as to what the conditions are for being outside the Church. Specifically, SBC affirms, and the contemporary magisterium denies (albeit implicitly), that all those with an explicit and conscious will not to be subject to the Roman Pontiff are outside the Church (cf. section IV, #7 above). Our remaining task in this study is one which might look rather daunting: we need to show that the contemporary magisterium’s position on this point does not contradict the relevant infallible pronouncements of the Council of Florence and Pope Boniface VIII.

Now, Fr. Feeney and his SBC followers would probably say that I am trying to ‘square the circle’ here, so that my efforts to harmonize the medieval magisterial statements with the 1949 Letter are inevitably doomed to failure. Specifically, they would most likely claim that I am hoist on my own petard in trying to defend the sufficiency for salvation of an “implicit desire for the Church” in the hearts of non-Catholic Christians – persons who by definition explicitly refuse submission to the Roman Pontiff. For I have already admitted that we can never, on pain of Vatican I’s anathema, give a new and different meaning to the words of any Catholic dogma. But (my SBC critics are likely to argue) the words “heretics” and “schismatics” in the Florentine profession of faith were certainly understood by the 15th-century Fathers of that Council to include all separated Eastern Christians as well as the pre-Reformation ‘Protestants’ of their day (Hussites, Waldensians, Lollards, and other sectarians). There was no benign ecumenical talk back then of such folks being our “separated brethren”! Therefore (my critics will conclude) the Council of Florence, in consigning to the eternal fire all those dying as “heretics” and “schismatics”, included among these sons of perdition all persons who die professing membership in any non-Catholic community whatsoever, that is, all who die with an explicit will not to be subject to the Roman Pontiff. If this conclusion is correct, the very idea that a non-Catholic’s “implicit desire” for the Church could be sufficient for his or her salvation is heretical. And that is precisely the grave charge leveled boldly by Leonard Feeney at the 1949 Holy Office Letter.1

To answer this objection, we must distinguish carefully between: (a) a judgment as to the definition of the word “heretic” (or “schismatic”); and (b) a judgment as to whether a particular person or group under consideration comes under that definition. Judgment (a) is about what is meant by the sins of heresy and schism respectively, and is, as such, doctrinal in character. But (b) is about who, among the individuals and groups we may be observing and assessing, should be judged (or at least presumed) guilty of those sins. It is therefore not a doctrinal judgment, but rather, a prudential judgment about a question of contingent fact. Now, in order to comply with Vatican I’s insistence that the original meanings of Catholic dogmas must always be retained, we need only retain the same judgment (a) as was made by the Fathers of Florence. That is, we must retain their own ‘job description’ of a heretic or a schismatic, but not necessarily their practical, prudential judgment as to who in fact fits that description.

So what did the Florentine Fathers understand by the term heretic? Neither their document nor any other magisterial statement of that era includes a formal definition of the word. But we can safely assume that they, like most of their learned Catholic contemporaries, would have wanted to follow the two authorities who at that time were generally considered the greatest doctors of the Church: St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. The latter teaches that heresy is the sin, springing from a bad motive (“pride or covetousness”), of one who “intends to assent to Christ” (i.e., wants to be a Christian), but who “corrupts Christian faith” by adhering obstinately to his own false opinion on a certain matter instead of accepting the real teaching of Christ proposed by the Church.2 Equally important for our purposes, however, is the fact that Thomas goes on to cite Augustine, in a passage later enshrined in the Decretals, as an authority endorsing his own view that the simple fact of holding – and even defending – a false doctrine is not sufficient to make one a heretic, no matter how grievous the error may be; for it is precisely the conscious, obstinate and presumptuous pitting of one’s own doctrinal judgment against that of the authority established by Christ that constitutes this sin:

As Augustine says (Ep. xliii), and we find it stated in the Decretals (xxiv, qu. 3, can. Dixit Apostolus), “By no means should we accuse of heresy those who, however false and perverse their opinion may be, defend it without obstinate fervor, and seek the truth with careful anxiety, ready to mend their opinion when they have found the truth”, because, to wit, they do not make a choice in contradiction to the doctrine of the Church.3

Now, is it really plausible today to assert or presume that, of all the hundreds of millions of professing Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant and other non-Catholic Christians around the world, there are none who hold and defend their erroneous beliefs “without obstinate fervor”? None who “seek the truth with careful anxiety, ready to mend their opinion when they have found the truth”? But the moment we admit there are such sincere truth-seekers among their ranks, we are admitting they are not “heretics” in the sense we must presume the Fathers of Florence gave to that word. Similar considerations will apply in determining what they meant by “schismatics”. For St. Thomas (again, relying on the authority of Augustine) emphasizes that the sin of schism consists in a “rebellious” act, by which one “obstinately scorns the commandments of the Church and refuses to submit to her judgment”.4 The Catechism of the Council of Trent, which in the next century simply resumed the centuries-long ordinary magisterial teaching which we must assume was also that of the Florentine Fathers, also stresses rebelliousness against known authority as an essential element in both schism and heresy. It does so with a striking military analogy: among those “excluded from the pale of the Church,” says the Catechism, are “heretics and schismatics, because they have severed themselves from the Church, nor do they belong to the Church any more than deserters belong to the army from which they have deserted”.5 But how realistic is it to classify those Protestant, Anglican or separated Eastern Christians who have never in their life been aware of the Catholic Church’s God-given authority, much less actively served under her banner, as having “severed themselves” from the Church, thereby becoming ‘deserters’ from her ranks?

At this point, however, our SBC friends may insist that this unawareness doesn’t get these non-Catholics off the hook. They will point out that in the very passage of the Summa wherein St Thomas, citing Augustine, accepts that not all who hold and defend heretical doctrines are really heretics, the Angelic Doctor is quick to add that “if anyone were to obstinately deny [such doctrines] after they had been defined by the authority of the universal Church – an authority which resides chiefly in the Sovereign Pontiff – he would be deemed a heretic”.6 “But this,” my critics will argue, “is precisely what all Protestants and other non-Catholic Christians in fact do! They know very well there is a Pope in Rome who expects his teaching to be obeyed; but they simply do not accept his authority to teach them, and so obstinately continue to deny or doubt many things that popes have defined to be true. So all Protestants do qualify as heretics according to St. Thomas’ criteria (which Harrison is attributing, reasonably enough, to the Fathers of Florence). The only baptized people holding opinions contrary to revealed truth who do not qualify as heretics are therefore sincerely mistaken Catholics, that is, believers who already accept with docility the teaching authority of the Pope, and so are ready to correct their views once they realize these have been ruled out by the Holy Father.”

Now, this looks at first sight like a pretty powerful objection. And we must admit that it has been found persuasive not just by Fr. Feeney and his disciples, but by many other Catholics, including saints and approved theologians, prior to the twentieth century. “Feeneyism” scarcely began with Father Feeney! And it seems to have been strongly insinuated in the canon law of Holy Mother Church herself, who for centuries (right up till 1983, in fact) called all non-Catholic Christians “heretics” or “schismatics”, and treated them as such in her legislation.7

However, the objection can be answered – and the modern magisterium thus defended from the charge of heresy – by taking into account the distinction we mentioned above between the two kinds of judgment made by Aquinas and the Fathers of Florence: the doctrinal judgment (a) as to the definition of “heretic” and “schismatic”, and the prudential judgment of fact (b) as to who fitted that definition. I concede that the said medieval Church authorities probably did regard all adult members of non-Catholic communities as true heretics and schismatics, and as therefore being extra Ecclesiam and on the road to perdition. But I insist at the same time that since this was a (b)-type judgment on their part, we can disagree with it – especially in trying to assess the status of today’s non-Catholics – without falling foul of Vatican I’s anathema against changing the original meaning of any Catholic dogma.

In fact, it is not too difficult to understand why those mediaeval Church authorities were more ready than most of us are today to discern sinful “obstinacy” and “rebelliousness” – and, therefore, true heresy and schism – in the attitude of baptized non-Catholics as such. For the authority of the Catholic Church (and thus, of the Pope) to settle religious disputes was, during those “Ages of Faith”, such a huge, central, and fundamental feature of the whole prevailing world-view and culture that it must have seemed – and perhaps in reality was – difficult for anyone baptized and raised in such a culture to cast off that authority in completely good faith. It must have seemed – and perhaps was – reasonable to assume that any such dissident would hear deep-down murmurings of conscience accusing him of sinful pride and rebelliousness in pitting his own judgment against the august authority that the whole surrounding culture sternly and constantly reminded him was the voice of God on earth.

After all, rejecting papal authority in favor of one’s own individual judgment was a perfect recipe for religious anarchy. And in medieval Christendom it was much easier to see that fact – and also to see that such anarchy is thoroughly undesirable – than it is in modern Western society. Desensitized after several centuries spent under a socio-political umbrella that shelters multiple coexistent Christian denominations, we have now, as a society, baptized this chaotic anarchy with the bland name of “religious pluralism”, and have come to see it as an instance of normal and healthy progress, rather than of pathological decline from the revealed norm of a Catholic polity that recognizes the kingship of Christ. (After all, isn’t such ‘pluralism’ a cornerstone of democracy and a guarantee of individual liberty?) Those of us who are converts to the faith8 can testify from experience that for modern Protestants right across the liberal-evangelical-fundamentalist spectrum, the co-existence of many Christian denominations or “churches”, while theoretically acknowledged as falling short of the biblical ideal of Christian unity, is for practical purposes taken for granted as something normal, natural and inevitable – pretty much like the co-existence of many different countries, languages, styles of music, or ice cream flavors. From that perspective it is precisely “Rome” that appears as the renegade – the black sheep in the Christian fold – by virtue of her “arrogant” claim to be the one and only true Church.

And let us recall the full radicality of this Protestant critique. It is not that the Southern Baptists (let us say) object to the aforesaid claim simply because they consider their own denomination, rather than “Rome”, to be the one true Church. That would basically be the same kind of objection that many claimants to this or that national throne have made over the centuries against rival claimants: “It is not you, but I, who am the rightful king!” No, the Protestant position cuts much deeper. It is like objecting to someone’s claim to the throne of England on the grounds that no such throne exists! It’s like protesting that anyone at all who claims to be England’s rightful ruler is ipso facto an impostor and potential tyrant whose pretensions must be firmly resisted! For the common position now shared by Protestants is precisely that no single Christian denomination may claim to be the Church founded by Christ, and, therefore, that no leader of any one denomination may dare claim the authority to make doctrinal or governing decisions that bind all Christians. Rather, it is said, each denomination should respectfully recognize many (or even all) of the others as being true, that is, real, “churches”, and so limit itself to making the modest claim of being preferable to the others in one way or another – for instance, by virtue of possessing what it believes is a better understanding of Scripture. In other words, the different organized “churches”, according to this ecclesiology, are seen as being in this respect pretty much like banks, schools, cars, brands of toothpaste, or any other sorts of commodities and services. It is considered legitimate to promote one or other as being of better quality than the rest; but just as it would be outrageous and beyond the pale for Wells Fargo to claim seriously that none of its competitors is truly a bank, or for General Motors to claim that nobody else makes real automobiles, or for Colgate ads to proclaim that what you’ll get in tubes of other brands is not just inferior toothpaste but fake toothpaste – so Protestants right across the liberal-conservative spectrum consider it theologically outrageous and beyond the pale for any single Christian denomination (read: Roman Catholicism) to claim that it is the one and only real Church.9

Now, pre-Reformation churchmen like Aquinas and the Fathers of Florence would have seen this sort of pluralistic, ‘multi-church’ ecclesiology not only as manifest heresy, but as something approaching lunacy. For they saw what should always be obvious to Christians (but now, sadly, is not), namely, that denying the existence of any earthly authority empowered to make final and binding decisions for the one Church of Christ (including interpretations of Scripture) was just as plainly a recipe for religious anarchy as denying the existence of England’s throne would have been for civil anarchy. To help us appreciate how natural it was for our medieval Catholic forebears to be highly skeptical that any Christian could in good conscience reject papal authority altogether, we need only reflect on how skeptical we ourselves would be about the sincerity of anyone who today claimed ‘conscientious objection’ against one of the authorities that our society still believes are legitimate and necessary. For instance, who among us would take seriously a baseball player or cricketer who, not content to lodge a complaint about some particular decision of an umpire, boldly proclaimed his “sincere belief” that no umpire’s decision should ever be binding, since it is (in his opinion) “presumptuous” for any one man ever to try and “impose” his own judgment on the players in the field? And would we not all roll our eyes dismissively at any man who “sincerely” insisted not just that the latest Supreme Court decision is in his opinion unjust, but that no court in the nation should be considered ‘supreme’ over others, or be so “arrogant” and “autocratic” as to claim the final and binding word in any legal dispute?

In short, the medieval European situation was one in which it seemed obvious to just about everybody that there was, and could only ever be, one single and visibly organized Church of Christ. So it seemed equally obvious that no Christian could reasonably expect to be regarded as sincere and in good conscience if he challenged in its entirety the authority of the Roman Pontiff, the only possible guarantor of the Church’s visible unity.

Today, however, the social and cultural situation in the former Christendom is radically different. As we have noted above, centuries of increasing religious pluralism have made it entirely credible – indeed, morally certain – that there are indeed many non-Catholic Christians (believers, on God’s authority, in at least the Trinity and Incarnation) whose doctrinal errors and separation from the Church’s unity are not due to a sinfully proud, scornful, obstinate, or rebellious attitude. Therefore, good-willed modern non-Catholics of this sort do not fit the Council of Florence’s ‘job description’ of heretics and schismatics. But that in turn means the Council has abstained from teaching that such folks are extra Ecclesiam. On the other hand, not being members of the Church, neither are they intra Ecclesiam. So it makes sense to see them as being in that same kind of ‘portico’ situation – neither inside nor outside – in which the Florentine Fathers were already tacitly locating catechumens. In the light of these considerations, we can see as a harmonious development of the Florentine teaching, not as a contradiction of it, the Church’s recent recognition, in magisterial statements beginning in the 1940s, that even some who explicitly deny papal authority can nevertheless be linked to the Church by an unconscious or implicit desire which is sufficient for their salvation.

V. Pope Boniface VIII on submission to the Roman Pontiff

Finally, we need to consider whether the 1949 Holy Office Letter and other relevant statements of the modern magisterium are also compatible with Boniface VIII’s ex cathedra teaching in the Bull Unam Sanctam (US) of 1302. I accept that US, like any magisterial document dealing with human behavior, must indeed be interpreted literally – for such documents do not belong to any kind of poetic, fictional or ‘symbolic’ literary genre – and also that it may not be given a sense different from that which Boniface himself intended. But I do not agree with Fr Feeney and the SBC that a literal reading of US, any more than of Cantate Domino, requires us to see all non-Catholic Christians as being outside the Church and on the road to Hell. Its true literal meaning may not be obvious at a first and superficial reading, especially if the reader fails to take into account the historical and literary context of the declaration.

What Boniface “declares, proclaims, and defines” is that “for every human creature (omni humanae creaturae), it is altogether necessary for salvation to be subject to the Roman Pontiff (subesse Romano Pontifici . . . omnino esse de necessitate salutis”).10 The relevant point for present purposes, I would argue, is that Pope Boniface himself is intending to include in his teaching the possibility of a merely implicit “subjection” or “submission” to the Roman Pontiff.

Let me elaborate. Boniface VIII was obviously aware that the expression “every human creature” includes small children, who, as he knew perfectly well, cannot yet know or will anything at all with respect to the Roman Pontiff. However, if they are validly baptized, the infused supernatural habits of faith and charity make these children implicitly and potentially subordinate to the Successor of Peter: they predispose such a child to consciously act in obedience to all revealed precepts, including those concerning the Pope, as soon as he or she can learn and understand the obligation to do so. Moreover, since Boniface was presumably not following St. Cyprian’s ancient error (rejected by the magisterium a thousand years earlier), he would have accepted that even infants validly baptized in heretical and schismatic communities are likewise implicitly subject/subordinate to his authority as Peter’s Successor. In Unam Sanctam he does not of course address the question of how long this implicit disposition will last once the child born and baptized into these non-Catholic communities reaches the age of reason. (When that moment arrives, the child will certainly begin – as indeed will the children of Catholic parents prior to being adequately catechized – in a state of inculpable ignorance regarding his/her duty to obey the Pope in religious matters.)

Now, since Boniface’s ex cathedra definition, literally and correctly understood, already includes in principle the sufficiency for salvation of a merely implicit subjection to the Pope, the way was left open for the doctrinal development expressed in the twentieth-century magisterial documents which allow for the possibility of this merely implicit subjection on the part of adults as well as infants. For, as we have already argued,11 there is not necessarily any relevant difference between children and adults in this respect.

A short personal testimony may serve to illustrate the point here. I am a convert from Protestantism, brought up in a strongly Calvinist, anti-Catholic family and social environment. In making my first confession at age 26, prior to being received into the Church, I had plenty to confess, but did not mention among my sins my previous lack of subjection to the Roman Pontiff. That was because I was not conscious before God of any culpability in that respect. Ever since early adolescence I had had a basic knowledge of who the Pope was and of the fact that he and his Church demanded the subjection of all Christians to his authority. And so, as a young Presbyterian who had practically never heard or read anything good about the Pope and his religion, I certainly had at that stage a conscious, explicit and habitual will not to be subject to his authority. But as soon as I became convinced, after several years of intermittent reading and praying on this subject, that I needed to subject myself to the Pope, and that failure to do so would be mortally sinful disobedience to Christ himself, I took steps to join the Catholic Church. I don’t believe I ever sinfully resisted the Holy Spirit’s promptings during my journey of faith. For in my earlier youth it simply never even crossed my radar screen that the papal so-called ‘Antichrist’ – any more than Buddha or Krishna or Mohammed – could possibly have any claim on my allegiance. I really think I was then invincibly ignorant in that regard.

Finally, it is also worth noting the historical and literary context of the definition at the end of US, that is, of the Pope’s insistence on the “absolute” or “utter” necessity for salvation of this subjection (omnino . . . de necessitate salutis). Bearing in mind this context, we can discern that what the Pope has first and foremost in mind is the necessity of precept to that effect, even though his words could also extend to the idea of a necessity of means as regards an at least implicit subjection.12 The whole controversy with King Philip IV of France which prompted this document arose from the king’s insistence that, as head of a Catholic state, his will could justly prevail over that of the Pope in certain matters involving the Church in his own country. Boniface affirms in the second-last paragraph of US:

For this [papal] authority, although it is given to man and is exercised by man, is not human, but rather divine, and has been given by the divine Word to Peter himself and to his successors in Christ. The Lord acknowledged Peter to be a firmly grounded rock, telling him personally, “Whatsoever you shall bind”, etc. (Mt 16: 19). Therefore whoever resists this power so ordained by God “resists the order of God Himself”(Rom. 13: 2) unless, like a Manichaean, he pretends that there are two origins – which We judge false and heretical, because, as Moses testifies, God created heaven and earth “in the beginning”, not “in the beginnings” (Gen. 1: 1)13

In the light of this, and of the whole preceding controversy, it is apparent that what is uppermost in Boniface’s mind, in the ex cathedra definition that directly follows the above words, is to emphasize to Philip that he is under a grave moral obligation to obey the Pope’s commands, i.e., he is under a ‘necessity of precept’ to do so, under pain of losing salvation. For willful and obstinate resistance to the Roman Pontiff, as God’s chief representative, is in effect resistance to God Himself. And why is this particularly relevant to the present discussion? Because while a just precept, like a just law, can objectively oblige whole populations subject to the jurisdiction of the legislator, so that no member thereof can justly claim a right to be exempt from the demands of that precept, it engenders a real subjective moral obligation of obedience for any given person or group in that population only when it has been duly communicated to that person or group. That is: (a) when these subjects recognize (or have no reasonable excuse for not recognizing) the legitimate jurisdiction over themselves of the commanding authority; and (b) when they have been informed about the precept being imposed by said authority and understand its content – or at least, have been given a reasonable motivation and opportunity to learn and understand it. For of course, one can never be morally blameworthy for failing to obey a precept of divine or human positive law14 when one is invincibly ignorant of its legitimacy, existence, or content.

The relevance of this to our discussion should now be clear. For the Catholic but insubordinate Philip was certainly not ‘invincibly ignorant’ of the revealed truth regarding the Pope’s supreme jurisdiction in ecclesiastical matters. On the contrary, the Pope himself was personally hammering it home to him. Yet he was stubbornly resisting Boniface’s injunction to stop violating the rights of the Church in France. That is the kind of insubordination Boniface was targeting as endangering eternal perdition, not a lack of (explicit) subjection to the Roman Pontiff arising from invincible ignorance of the divine authority given by Christ to Peter’s successors. Reading between Pope Boniface’s ex cathedra lines, as it were, we can almost hear him add a fuller explanation of what he meant: “Submission to the Roman Pontiff is altogether necessary for salvation for every human creature, including [thumping his fist] Catholic kings and emperors! They’re not exempt!” Actually, it is entirely possible that a necessity of precept is the only kind of “necessity for salvation” that Boniface VIII had in mind in US. However, even if he also meant to teach that submission to the pope is “absolutely necessary” as a means of salvation, his tacit acknowledgment that an implicit submission could in some cases be sufficient to fulfill that necessity is enough to guarantee the substantial continuity of his infallible definition with the modern magisterial statements that might at first seem incompatible with it.

The corollary of what has just been said is that we should not read between Pope Boniface’s lines, as Feeney/SBC theology seems to do, the following thesis: “Conscious and explicit submission to the Roman Pontiff is altogether necessary for salvation for every human creature, including those adults who are invincibly ignorant of the Pontiff’s divinely bestowed authority! They’re not exempt!” Nothing, probably, was further from Boniface’s mind at that moment, in the thick of his politico-religious duel with the French monarch, than passing judgment on the spiritual state and destiny of people visibly outside the Church’s structures who might be invincibly ignorant of the Pope’s revealed role and privileges. We should always be very cautious about reading into magisterial pronouncements answers to questions which they did not intend to address.


I hope the reflections in this essay on Cantate Domino and Unam Sanctam may help some of Father Feeney’s followers to see how these infallible magisterial interventions can and should be interpreted in harmony with the 1949 Holy Office Letter, which in turn has now been ‘upgraded’ by being referenced in Lumen Gentium and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Even if I have some success in this objective, however, I know from previous friendly discussions with SBC leaders that they will still be likely to insist that, even supposing the older and more recent magisterial documents can theoretically be harmonized, there remains a practical and pastoral urgency that extra Ecclesiam nulla salus be taught loud and clear. And I think they are right. For whatever else may be said, one is entitled to be much more confident of reaching Heaven when in possession of the fullness of revealed truth and the sacramental means of grace. And it also remains true that there is an absolute, objective and grave necessity of precept, deriving from Christ’s expressed will for all his followers to be united in the Church he founded, for all human beings to become Catholics. Accordingly, the SBC, in fidelity to Fr. Feeney’s example, will no doubt continue to insist on this precept at a time when indifferentism, and an excessive emphasis on dialogue at the expense of conversion, are endangering so many souls.

Rather than constantly taking the easy and guaranteed-non-offensive option of blandly assuring non-Catholics that the Church today recognizes their sincerity and good faith, and presumes (of course!) that they are on the road to salvation in whatever religion they happen to profess at present, I think we need rather more of the ‘up-front’ evangelistic approach which the SBC has inherited from Fr. Feeney. It’s an approach reminiscent of those old World War I recruiting posters from which an elderly gentleman in a starred-and-striped top hat eye-balls the viewer head-on, and points a huge finger straight out at him over the caption, “Uncle Sam wants YOU!” Perhaps we should be communicating rather more directly to our Protestant, lapsed Catholic and non-Christian brethren the unequivocal message that “Jesus Christ wants YOU to be a Roman Catholic!” If we did so rather more boldly, I suspect that the spiritual fruits would be very considerable, with a harvest of souls that would truly give glory to God.15 Whatever Leonard Feeney’s theological and prudential mistakes may have been, his enduring legacy will far outweigh them if it animates a new generation of Catholics to proclaim that message “from the housetops”.


1 In spite of what most would consider persuasive evidence to the contrary, Feeney could never bring himself to believe that this document carried the personal endorsement of Pius XII. (This pope was himself the head of the Holy Office.)

2 Cf. Summa Theologiae (ST), IIa IIae, Q. 11, arts. 1 and 2.

3 ST, IIa IIae, Q. 11, art. 2, ad 3 (emphasis added).

4 ST, IIa IIae, Q. 39, art. 1, ad 2 (emphasis added).

5 I, X, VIII.

6 ST, IIa IIae, Q. 11, art. 2, ad 3 (emphasis added).

7 In the 1917 Code of Canon Law, c. 2316 states that “one who participates in religious activities with heretics (communicat in divinis cum haereticis), contrary to what is laid down in c. 1258, is suspect of heresy”. Canon 1258 in turn asserts, “The faithful are not permitted to attend or participate in the religious acts of non-Catholics (in sacris acatholicorum) in any active way whatsoever.” It is thus clear that the Code is applying the term “heretics” to non-Catholic Christians in general. By the early twentieth century, of course, it was commonly presumed that those born and raised in Protestant and other non-Catholic denominations were in many or most cases only material, not formal, heretics. And even in earlier centuries when such folks were more likely to be deemed true (i.e., formal and culpable) heretics, this was still – as is argued in the main text – a presumption about a matter of contingent fact, not a doctrinal judgment as such.

8 I have the impression that nearly all who follow Fr. Feeney’s understanding of ‘the salvation dogma’ – at least, nearly all the prominent and articulate advocates of that position – are ‘cradle Catholics’, as he was. The only well-known exception at present is the former Presbyterian minister Gerry Matatics. But since he is an avowed sedevacantist, our SBC brethren, far from recognizing Mr. Matatics as ‘one of their own’, would probably deem him extra Ecclesiam as a schismatic. My own understanding is that sedevacantists, in denying the papal status of the post-conciliar occupants of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, are certainly in material schism. For they openly and totally reject the authority of the man who is in fact Peter’s Successor. But if at the subjective level they are fully sincere in their denial, they would not appear to be true (i.e., formal) schismatics. For you are guilty of schism (and so put yourself extra Ecclesiam) only when you rebelliously withdraw your submission from the man you yourself know is Christ’s Vicar on earth. But in cases where said denial itself springs culpably from presumption and pride, and so is not fully sincere, such sedevacantists will be true schismatics. To many of us, it does indeed seem presumptuous and proud for a Catholic to categorize all the men recently elected to the See of Peter as true heretics, i.e., as obstinate dissenters from truths which they know the Church proposes as divinely revealed. But only God, of course, can judge their degree of guilt or innocence in that regard. On the other hand, if we are talking about the status of sedevacantist communities as such, rather than that of their individual members, it seems perfectly correct to speak of them without scruple or qualification as “schismatic”. For since a community, unlike an individual, has no conscience that might be subjectively inculpable, what matters here is the community’s objective and publicly professed relationship with the man whom the world in general recognizes as being the head of the Roman Catholic Church. (The more nuanced variety of sedevacantism that is now often known as ‘sedeprivationism’ would need separate analysis. But that would take us too far afield from the topic of the present essay.)

9 Some readers (at both the traditionalist and liberal ends of the theological spectrum) will be sure to object at this point that the Church of Vatican II no longer claims to be “the one and only real Church”. They will appeal above all, of course, to the endlessly discussed statement in Lumen Gentium #8 that the Church founded by Jesus Christ “subsists in” (rather than simply “is”) the Catholic Church under Peter’s successor. I mention this ‘anti-traditional’ interpretation of the said conciliar text mainly just to acknowledge its existence and to register my disagreement with it: for an adequate defense of a ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ in understanding this text would require another full paper. However, we may note briefly that the post-conciliar magisterium itself rejects this claim of doctrinal discontinuity. In the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s document, Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church (June 29, 2007), the answer to Q. 2 includes the following statement:  “In number 8 of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium ‘subsistence’ means this perduring, historical continuity and the permanence of all the elements instituted by Christ in the Catholic Church, in which the Church of Christ is concretely found on this earth.” In other words, “subsists in” means essentially the same thing as “is” – but within the historical and diachronic, rather than abstract and synchronic, perspective that the context calls for. The Council can be accurately paraphrased as saying in LG #8 that the same Church as was founded two thousand years ago continues to exist now, with all the elements Christ gave to it, as the Catholic Church under Peter’s successor. (When Christ founded the Church, of course, it didn’t go by the name “Catholic”, which we don’t find in documents dating before the early second century; and Peter himself, rather than one of his successors, was its earthly leader.)

10 Dz 469 = DS 875.

11 Cf. Part A, section III, #6 and #7, also note 16.

12 Theologians distinguish between the concepts of necessity of precept and necessity of means. The first refers to a moral “necessity” (that is, duty or obligation). I am under a ‘necessity of precept’ to do something when a superior authority (divine or human) lawfully commands me to do it. The second concept refers simply to what one needs as a means of attaining a certain end, and so is per se morally neutral. For instance, we need a plane or ship by a ‘necessity of means’ in order to cross the Atlantic. In that case the necessity is absolute, because nobody can swim the Atlantic. However, there can be a necessity of means that is relative, not absolute. For instance, one normally needs to buy a ticket as a means of being admitted to a cinema to watch a movie. But this necessity is not absolute, for if the owner of the cinema is your friend he may let you in free. Catholic theology regards sacramental baptism as being necessary for salvation by a necessity of precept (it’s commanded by Christ) and also by a necessity of means. But the latter necessity is only relative; for when the sacrament is impossible before death, God will dispense from the need for it in the case of those who are otherwise adequately disposed for salvation.

13 Dz 469 = DS 874, emphasis added.

14 . . . as distinct from natural law, which of course does not include the obligation to be subordinate to the Roman Pontiff.

15 Once again, a corroborative personal testimony may be useful. During the months of 1971-1972 when I was struggling, with much prayer, reading and reflection, over the decision whether to enter the Church, more than one well-meaning Catholic acquaintance, imbued with the new and heady “spirit of Vatican II”, blandly advised me just to “follow my conscience”. One even advised me to become an Anglican, since that, he suggested, would be for me a “congenial” mid-way position between Catholicism and the Calvinism of my upbringing. I was living in Papua New Guinea at the time and had occasion to share these reflections and suggested options with the late Archbishop Virgil Copas of Port Moresby. This fine missionary prelate, himself a Father of Vatican II, did not share that alleged “spirit” of the Council. He told me, kindly but bluntly, “Brian, I am sure Our Lord would want you to join the Church he himself founded.” These uncompromising words from a Successor of the Apostles remained fixed in my mind and definitely helped me to make the decision to become a Catholic.

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