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When is a Catholic not a Catholic?

THE President of the Philippines, in a profanity-laden message, has declared he is no longer a Catholic. He claims to have been abused by a Jesuit as a teenager, and while that allegation can no longer be met with outraged disbelief, only God knows whether it is true.

Nobody with any knowledge of history will doubt that those who perceive themselves as ex-Catholics are by far the most severe critics of the Church. One can think of excusable reasons for this, but drawing broad conclusions from the extreme criticisms of ex-Catholics is a little like assuming objectivity in a man who has divorced his wife. If we look back on our own relationships from a more mature perspective, we will usually find that defects in our own perceptions and personalities made a significant contribution to our contempt for those we thought insufferable.

Men and women who truly cannot emotionally and intellectually separate the divine character of the Church from the sins of her members must either be damaged (to a degree which mitigates guilt) or suffer from a dramatically reduced spiritual self-awareness (which in most cases will be at least partially guilty).

Awareness of our own sinfulness and guilt arises not only from the action of the Holy Spirit but from simple self-reflection. This awareness is not only essential to spiritual growth but a prime factor in helping us to distinguish the Divine and human aspects of the Church. But for any Catholic who foolishly seeks to flee the Church, the question remains: How does a Catholic cease to be a Catholic?

Surprisingly, this has no simple theological answer, except the answer that ceasing to be a Catholic is not absolutely possible. In the same way, it is impossible for a member of the Church to cease in an absolute sense to be a member of the Church. It is true that in descriptive terms we can cease to be Catholic when we knowingly embrace heresy, reject the Church, or incur excommunication. But even in these apparently decisive cases we remain baptized. Baptism impresses something that we describe, for want of better language, as “an indelible mark” on the soul. That mark is the mark of membership in the Church. That mark, in every case whatsoever, is the mark of a Catholic.

So the most fundamental answer is that we cannot really cease to be Catholic, though we can sever what we might call our voluntary connection with the Church and/or severely damage our relationship with her. The Church by her own authority can recognize that damage through a decree of excommunication, even if we did not consciously intend that result. But excommunication simply eliminates access to the sacraments and other engraced ministries of the Church. It does not make one a non-Catholic; nor does it remove the excommunicated person from the Church’s jurisdiction. – Jeff Mirus @ catholicculture.org

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