Who can call themselves a Catholic?
A Catholic becomes a Catholic by Sacramental initiation. Were you baptized Catholic? Were you confirmed Catholic? Have you received the Holy Eucharist as your first communion in a licitly offered Catholic rite of the Holy Eucharist? If yes, you are a Catholic.
The Church insists that your Catholic initiation be inscribed, in a verifiable record, in a registry. So long as it’s there, you’re a Catholic. If the record gets destroyed, or was inadvertently not recorded, you’re still Catholic, and witnesses will verify your received sacraments.
This designation means you are Catholic, by initiation. It’s a real status. It’s ontological, in the seals of baptism and confirmations. The baptism and confirmation cannot be undone. They can be disrespected. They can be neglected. They can be rejected in their meaning, by mortal sin. But they can never be undone.
Now, there IS in fact a way to partially-negate that Catholic-by-initiation status: if you petition, formally and in writing, to leave the Catholic Church, this “defection” from the communion of the Church WILL IN FACT BE NOTED ON YOUR BAPTISMAL RECORD! If you were ever to do this (and I really don’t ever encourage it!) you would be putting yourself, voluntarily, into the same sacramental “company” as those Catholics who are excommunicated.
Who gets excommunicated? Those Catholics are excommunicated who incur automatic excommunications in extremely specific situations, the conditions of which cannot be explicated here. Those Catholics also get excommunicated, who get excommunicated. Sorry, what I mean by that redundancy is that a bishop can excommunicate a Catholic for serious reasons, even if those reasons are not those contained in the automatic excommunications. I am hardly aware if this has been done at all in the last 50 years.
Who is not excommunicated? Catholics-by-initiation may be denied communion and/or reprimanded for anti-Catholic actions, without any excommunication needed. Catholics-by-initiation may cease to be “Catholic-in-morality,” when they commit mortal sin, or when they do something (regardless of issues of subjective conscience) that the Church has authoritatively proclaimed to be contrary to the objective meaning of the sacraments. (* Side not: I will use the term “grave matter” below. I assume the reader knows this definition when it comes to the topic of mortal sin).
Here I must take up a problem. I have more or less MADE UP SOME TERMINOLOY, so that I might show a distinction that I hope my readers will see is essential. Yes, I have grouped the persons committing mortal sins with another category that may not coincide with mortal sinners, necessarily. I have made the term of “Catholic-in-morality” for two purposes: 1) Catholic moral teaching is quite real, quite solid, and well defined, and it includes an intrinsic element of “catholicity,” i.e. universality, in it; and 2) both of these groups that I say are no longer “Catholic-in-morality” are in fact denied communion by the Church. (I do not mean that I THINK they should be denied communion; I mean it is a real practice that these people may be denied the sacrament of the Eucharist according to Church law, as the law stands, and often are denied communion in practice.)
Side note: there are two very common cases wherein Catholics-by-initiation cease to be Catholic-in-morality, even while they don’t realize their choices are objectively insulting to the Church’s sacraments: A. Catholics getting married in a sacramentally invalid unions, B. Catholics disobeying the Precepts of the Church in regard to weekly Mass and at-least-annual confession. These are FREQUENTLY done in a way that I cannot necessarily, infallibly call mortal sins; mortal sin requires the real judgment of evil in the subjective conscience to know that there is an element of sin; sure, let us say some Catholics are ABSOLTELY, COMPLETELY CLUELESS that there is an intrinsic morality in certain of our sacramental practices. It may not be their fault; but it is their problem. It MAY be the case that the consciences of these people know of some element against God’s laws present in their action. As such, they would do well to consider their own sins as grave, and I will pastorally try to point out the gravity. Nonetheless, I say these people are no longer Catholic-in-morality, NOT because of presumed mortal sin, but because their actions are objectively irreconcilable with the Church’s sacraments, be they guilty for putting themselves in such a state or not.
This now brings me to the place where social media has recently become a vast milieu of contradictions and confusion about the word “Catholic.”
People are ignorant of what Church Law says about Catholic initiation, and they more-or-less conflate mortal sin with excommunication, or with defection-by-petition from the Church’s communion.
The confusion is not helped when, as an alternate “explanation,” claims are offered which conflate the subjective guilt of mortal sins with outward actions objectively irreconcilable with the Church’s morality. As I just said, in the latter, there is not a necessary identification of the two things, and some good moral theology is needed. (If I have botched this whole article, I hope you get that good moral theology from some studied and prayerful priest… which I’m just trying to be here).
So now, the way to love the sinner and hate the sin is by this Catholic paradox: I warn you of sin. And I tell you, if you are not guilty of mortal sin, I will be happy to call you innocent thanks to your ignorance… but also less Catholic at the same time, for being thus ignorant!
“I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and an arrogant man, but I have been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief” (1 Tim 1:13).
“Father forgive them, they know not what they do!”
If you were apparently, or confessedly, ignorant of the Church’s morality, then you were unaware of the insult you made against God’s laws, against God’s plan for salvation.
Here I must insist upon an additional meaning, or rather “extension,” for the word Catholic. It is more of a claim, that, to go against the Church on ANY of the moral teachings which the Church considers grave matter i.e. the essentials to the 10 Commandments, means that one is no longer Catholic-in-morals. For, the word “catholic” is used by the church with a double entendre in this sense: the Catholic moral system is catholic (i.e. universal) in scope and application. We call the Church “Catholic” because its teaching extends to every major aspect of life and morality. And part of being Catholic is accepting the whole of that definitive teaching, universally, in a Catholic way. To dissent from any of the moral teachings on grave issues is to cease to be Catholic-in-morals, even if you remain Catholic-by-initiation. The fact that the Church does not have an explicit answer to every little, particular moral question that has been posed does not change this. When the Church needs time to study very particular and very minute moral questions, before an authoritative answer is formed, it is already assumed by the Catholic that the correct moral answer will be within the realm of the Church’s teaching. Every applicable human good, and every major aspect of life, is covered, in a positive sense, in the 10 commandments, and in the Church’s moral teaching.
That the word Catholic means “universal,” indeed, shows that the Lordship of Jesus Christ applies to every aspect of our lives; before we apply his Lordship to the political questions of “other people’s” decisions in society, we should apply the standard of Christ’s teaching (in faith, hope, and charity) to our own lives!: to our minds and souls, our families, our marriages, our sexuality and family planning, our property, our wealth, our careers, our friendships, our hobbies… the totality of our lives must come under the Reign of God!
Praise be Jesus Christ!
“[The Church] is called catholic, then, because it extends over the whole world, from end to end of the earth, and because it teaches universally and infallibly each and every doctrine which must come to the knowledge of men, concerning things visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly, and because it brings every race of men into subjection to godliness, governors and governed, learned and unlearned, and because it universally treats and heals every class of sins, those committed with the soul and those with the body, and it possesses within itself every conceivable form of virtue, in deeds and in words and in the spiritual gifts of every description.” (Catechetical Lectures 18:23 [A.D. 350]) – Saint Cyril of Jerusalem
Catechism #868 The Church is catholic: she proclaims the fullness of the faith. She bears in herself and administers the totality of the means of salvation. She is sent out to all peoples. She speaks to all men. She encompasses all times. She is “missionary of her very nature” (AG 2).
Catechism#2051 The infallibility of the Magisterium of the Pastors extends to all the elements of doctrine, including moral doctrine, without which the saving truths of the faith cannot be preserved, expounded, or observed