Will fallen-away Catholics go to hell?
Karl Keating writes that some fallen-away Catholics will make it to heaven . . .
Some will, some won’t. We don’t know the proportions, but leaving the Church is always a blunder. Let’s look first at what makes one a member of the Church.
Pope Pius XII put it concisely in his encyclical On the Mystical Body of Christ, 1943: “Only those are to be accounted really members of the Church who have been regenerated in the waters of baptism, profess the one true faith, and have not cut themselves off from the structure of the Body by their own unhappy act or been severed therefrom, for very grave crimes, by the legitimate authority.”
So three things identify the full Catholic: (1) valid reception of the sacrament of baptism, (2) profession of the Catholic faith, and (3) participation in the communion of the Church. By manifesting these marks, one comes under the triple office of the Church: priestly (baptism), teaching (confession of faith), and pastoral (obedience to Church authority).
When you were baptized, an indelible mark was placed on your soul. You never need to be baptized again because there’s no way to undo your baptism. Not even the worst sin, including heresy and apostasy, can remove a valid baptism.
Catholic tradition has held that those dissociating themselves from the Church voluntarily cease to be full members of the Church. In short, neither heretics nor schismatics are considered full members of the Church.
People leave the Church for various reasons. Some never were “in” it except out of habit. Their faith, if not dead, was a candidate for the intensive care unit. One day they simply stopped going to Mass, and that was that.
Others want spiritual nourishment but can’t seem to find it in their parishes, so they go elsewhere. There is an irony in this, of course, since the greatest spiritual nourishment is the Eucharist, which is available in every parish.
Still others leave in good faith, thinking that the Catholic faith is untrue and some other faith is true. If they and the others don’t realize their actions are wrong, they remain related to the Church spiritually, even though they cease to be legal members of it. They still may achieve justification and salvation, but these are harder to achieve the further they distance themselves from the complete truth, found only in the Catholic Church, and ordinary sources of grace, the sacraments.
If people leave in bad faith, then they have adopted for their motto what Dante put above the gates of hell: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” No one knowingly abandoning the truth and failing to repent can be saved.
KARL KEATING is the founder of Catholic Answers. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “What Catholics Really Believe, Setting the Record Straight: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions About the Catholic Faith” (Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1995).
Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.
The ruptures that wound the unity of Christ’s Body… do not occur without human sin: Where there are sins, there are also divisions, schisms, heresies, and disputes. Where there is virtue, however, there also are harmony and unity, from which arise the one heart and one soul of all believers.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 2089, 817