Material heresy and membership in the church, Pt. 1

Material heresy and membership in the Church, Pt. I

© Copyright 2015, T. Stanfill Benns ( All emphasis within quotes is the author’s unless indicated otherwise.)


Even those Catholics who follow the laws of the Church tend to view those laws on heresy and schism, especially the censures, as unworkable and largely unenforceable today, yet this is simply not the case. The Catholic Church never prescribes laws that cannot be enforced in some way. On rare occasions a law may be found to be entirely incapable of fulfillment. If it cannot be reconciled using the canons prescribed, it must be considered null and void, (Can. 15). Many have taught in these times that the entire 1917 Code is largely inoperative, but this has been proven to be false. Following the introductory canons carefully, nearly all the Code can be seen to still govern us today if those consulting it would take the time to follow its guiding principles and rules of application. In the excommunication issued for the Chinese bishops he addresses in Ad Apostolorum Principis, Pope Pius XII states that according to Can. 147, a “canonical… provision [must be] made according to the Sacred Canons” anytime any action outside the Church’s discipline is taken. Below we have attempted to satisfy this requirement.

Many have heatedly taken exception to the provisions of Can. 2200 (whose parent law is Cum ex Apostolatus Officio) and the teachings of the Church that material heretics are no longer considered members of the Church and cannot be absolved until true hierarchy become available. This fear-driven anger at the laws and teachings of the Church is no doubt based on the fact that at one time all of us have been guilty of material heresy and found ourselves outside the Church. Many are afraid that as non-members or not certain members they will be unable to save their souls. But by complying with the law and the Church’s will that it be enforced, the best possible outcome for those so unfortunately embroiled in material heresy is made available to the offender. While it is true that some approached for having committed material heresy thereby forfeiting Church membership will not and have not recanted their errors, it also is true that those who have retracted their errors and performed penance, made amends and satisfied Church law make it most likely that they have fully reinstated their membership, even if only informally. Once such satisfaction is made, they must be absolved, canon law says.

As for those who refuse to recant, can they still be the victims of invincible ignorance? Pope Pius IX tells us that on that count we are not allowed to judge, even though Canon Law legislates that they become formal heretics for obstinately refusing to recant. God alone may judge the invincible ignorance of such individuals, and the teaching of some theologians allow for this possibility. Even in judging and enforcing the laws governing external proofs of material heresy, we are not determining that any person has committed mortal sin; we are only enforcing the laws and teachings of the Church. That this is indeed the case is demonstrated in the summary below.


  1. Material heresy is the external denial or doubt of an article of faith or morals taught by the Church as divinely revealed and proposed for belief by baptized Christians, (baptized Catholics and baptized non-Catholics). See. Can. 1325.
  2. No declaration of such heresy is needed to presume guilt; this is the clear and constant teaching of the Church. Guilt is presumed in the external forum, (Can. 2200). Revs. Woywod-Smith comment that the burden of proof rests with the one who claims to be free of liability.  All canonists agree on this point.
  3. This law simply reinforces the general rule set out at the beginning of the Code for interpreting the law: “Laws made for the purpose of safeguarding the public against a common danger bind, even when there is no danger.” Revs. Woywod-Smith comment on Can. 2200: “The rule here stated is evidently necessary for the public welfare.”
  4. The public act against faith itself incurs the censure ipso facto unless and until sufficient proof of innocence can be presented to the proper Church authority.
  5. It is contrary to the Catholic faith (heresies of Liberalism, fideism; see “Proofs”) to maintain that the laity cannot identify heretics/schismatics today using papal and other authoritative teachings on the subject.
  6. In determining that such an external act has occurred, there is no judgment made that the one committing the external act is guilty of sin; the law exacts a penalty.
  7. The only one who can judge the sin (internal act) of heresy is a bishop, or a priest with the properly delegated faculties.
  8. For heresy to remain material, the party in question must immediately accept the Church’s true teaching upon its presentation and renounce the heresy or schism.
  9. The evil will is presumed to have existed from the outset only if the one committing the outward act persists in heresy (or schism) once the teaching of the Church is presented by at least two witnesses, contradicting the error.
  10. Sect “leaders” of any sort who continue to publicly and defiantly promote error even after such presentation must be considered formal heretics, incurring all the penalties found in Can. 2314. They cannot be judged per se but must be avoided (Titus 3: 10, 11) and formally recommended to the future pope for judgment.
  11. If two or more people present clear proofs to their neighbor of heresy or schism and he does not recant his errors, one cannot condone his behavior without cooperating in these sins. Condoning the heresy of another results in excommunication for heresy according to Pope Pius IX and Pope Paul IV.
  12. “A person is considered to have desisted from his obstinacy when he has truly repented from his offense and has at the same time made proper satisfaction for the damages and scandal caused or has at least promised to do so,” (Can. 2242 §3). The law requires that a profession of faith and public retraction of any errors be made and a (self-imposed) penance assigned.
  13.  “The ecclesiastical superior is required by law to grant absolution as soon as the offender amends and gives due satisfaction,” (commentary by Revs. Woywod-Smith on Can. 2236). But,
  14. “Any censure, once contracted, cannot be removed except by legitimate absolution,” (Can. 2248).

But what about invincible ignorance?

Presented below are quotes from Msgr. Joseph C. Fenton’s work “The Catholic Church and Salvation,” published in May of 1958. It is it is the most comprehensive work written on the subject of “outside the Church no salvation” and contains the summary of all his previous works. Here he is commenting on the allocution by Pope Pius IX, “Singulari Quadam” where that pope addresses the nature of invincible ignorance. 





Church membership

These last two paragraphs Msgr. Fenton wrote above are very important statements. As he points out, “The invincibility of some individual who is not a member of the Church is definitely not contained in the divine message which has been confided to the apostolic collegium.” Note here that he specifies such a person as “not a member of the Church.” What so many fail to understand is that this alone is a determining factor in dealing with those who are in material heresy, for whatever reason. The Church has Her own laws and teachings that determine when any individual is placed outside Her pale, materially or formally. These laws and teachings are relatively easy to understand and follow; if we could not understand and follow them we could never know with any certainty whether we or anyone else was a member of the Church. And if we could not reliably detect heresy or schism, we would not be subject to Can. 1325, which requires us to profess our faith whenever it is violated by omission or commission. There is evidence that must be produced to satisfy canon law in such cases to make the decision whether or not one truly did deny the faith. If two witnesses present this evidence and the person retracts, all well and good. If not, then they are presumed in the external forum only to be schismatics or heretics. All we are permitted to judge is the external forum. God alone and the priest in the confessional can judge the internal forum.

Pope Pius XII defines Church membership in Mystici Corporis as: “Only those who have been baptized, who profess the true faith, who have not miserably separated themselves from the fabric of the Body and who have not, by reason of very serious crimes, been expelled by legitimate authority.” Now of course today, there is no legitimate authority to expel anyone because no such authority exists. So if we have any questions about whether someone is validly baptized or whether they profess the true faith, and especially if it appears that they have committed heresy or schism, even materially — by writing or uttering publicly something proven to be contrary to faith or morals or communicating in non-Catholic services — they cannot be counted as members of the true Church. Under Can. 2200, they must be considered as non-members until legitimate authority decides their case. We cannot, ourselves, say that they are or are not invincibly ignorant because the hierarchy, and in their absence God alone, decides this. What we can say is that they are not members of the Church, and are material heretics until the Church adjudicates their case. In the very last entry in his diary, made shortly before his death, Msgr. Fenton wrote that he intended to refute the false statement that only the historian can be the judge of heresy and heretics, made, he said, “by a pretender in the field of theology.”



It is clear from Msgr. Fenton’s proofs and observations that we are forbidden to speculate about the state of these people’s souls; we can judge only according to the laws of the Church. This is true even of “clerics” who most likely are formal heretics, (see St. Thomas Aquinas below). While we are bound to consider them as such for the sake of safeguarding the faith, we are not allowed to regard them as lost or incapable of repentance. But many believe we have no right to judge based on the law, or to even apply the law. On the contrary, we are bound to renounce heresy and schism under the law and to even demand that it be addressed. The hierarchy may be lacking but we certainly can at least note they have deviated from the faith, and mark them forjudgment by future popes. If we do not know our faith well enough to distinguish it from heresy, then we have no business calling ourselves Catholics. One cannot use a probable opinion (that a person is not a heretic or schismatic in the face of external evidence) in determining the means to eternal salvation or the rights of a third party. St. Thomas Aquinas best expresses this below.

The Angelic Doctor teaches, Art. 3,Q. 11, Pt. II-II: “On the contrary, The Apostle says (Titus 3:10,11): ‘A man that is a heretic, after the first and second admonition, avoid: knowing that he, that is such an one, is subverted.’ For [St.] Jerome commenting on Gal. 5:9, ‘A little leaven,’ says: ‘Cut off the decayed flesh, expel the mangy sheep from the fold, lest the whole house, the whole paste, the whole body, the whole flock, burn, perish, rot, die. Arius was but one spark in Alexandria, but as that spark was not at once put out, the whole earth was laid waste by its flame.’” (Reply to Obj. 1): “…The heretic should be admonished a first and second time: and if he be unwilling to retract, he must be reckoned as already ‘subverted,’ as we may gather from the words of the Apostle quoted above.” (Art. 4, Q. 11, Pt. II-II Reply to Obj. 2): “Our Lord was speaking to Peter of sins committed against oneself, for one should always forgive such offenses and spare our brother when he repents. These words are not to be applied to sins committed against one’s neighbor or against God, for it is not left to our discretion to forgive such offenses, as Jerome says on Mt. 18:15, ‘If thy brother shall offend against thee.’

Notice that it is not the existence of heresy we are warned not to judge, but the existence of invincible ignorance. As Part II of this work will demonstrate, it is even allowed to presume a man a heretic when he is not; this is a better choice, St. Bellarmine says, than presuming him innocent. In fact this is the very gist of Can. 21: “Laws made for the purpose of safeguarding the public against a common danger bind, even when there is no danger.”

Laws that allow us to address material heresy

According to the 14 points in the summary above, NO declaration is needed to incur the censure for heresy, (see proofs, Pt. II). Pointing out heretical or schismatic behavior to a neighbor in an attempt to win their recantation is simply a matter of fraternal correction, as taught by Christ Himself. It can be considered in two ways. 1) It can be taken as the admonishment mentioned in Can. 2314 n. 2, (although not the deprivation of offices itself; this is automatic under Can. 188 no. 4); or 2.) It can be the denouncement of such a party for the benefit of those who yet retain the Catholic faith as described under Can. 2223. This canon allows “an interested party” to demand that a latae sententiae sentence be issued; or such a sentence can be issued merely “if the public welfare requires it.” Both conditions apply in this case. If such a party so demands, the Canon says, the superior “must issue the declaratory sentence.”  Since no sentence is actually needed, all the fulfillment of the witnesses’ duty does in administering the correction is satisfy the obligation of Can. 1935. Catholics have the obligation to denounce the actions of heretics or schismatics under Can. 1325 whenever their failure to so denounce by professing their faith would imply doubt or denial of their faith, explicitly or implicitly. Canon 1935 states that when the law requires it or an offender’s actions constitute “a danger to the faith or religion,” then the obligation exists. The accusation must be made formally and published, bearing the accuser’s name.

Under Can. 1933, all such offenses must be public, and unless heresy/schism is public or can easily become public, it remains occult. When public, “Penalties may be inflicted also by way of precept without judicial procedure provided the offense is certain.” Revs. Woywod-Smith explain under Can. 24 that a precept differs from the law in that it is attached to a person, not a territory. “Precepts are directly attached to the persons subject to the superior, and they bind these persons irrespective of the territory in which they stay.” The word superior can be taken as “anyone who has authority over others, whether such authority be private or domestic.” Revs. Woywod-Smith compare it to a sort of “citizen’s arrest” under Can. 1935, and certainly in the secular sphere — which Woywod –Smith say serves as the basis for ecclesiastical procedure — one is allowed to act as a juror in the judgment of one’s peers. The certainty spoken of under Can. 1933 can be had by way of witnesses, confession of the offender, or written materials. (Can. 24 states that if a precept is given in way of a legal document signed by two witnesses, it is then semi-permanent.) Under Can. 1939, Woywod-Smith comment: “If the commission of an offense is certain, penances [and] penal remedies, [also] excommunications, suspensions, or interdicts can be inflicted even by way of precept without a judicial sentence. The requirements for establishing such certainty, Woywod-Smith state are: “means to prove [the offense] actually at hand, and the means…available to show that there is no excuse from liability for the offense.”

In writing these articles I have tried to present such proofs. For without them one could never be justified before the law in any condemnation. Having established those proofs however, such condemnations can be made and must be made by law in cases of heresy, apostasy and schism. If anyone wishes to know the true purpose of this site, and the reason for the lengthy and detailed articles posted, THAT is the reason. There is a right way and a wrong way under the law to go about this, as is demonstrated here. What basically is being described under this heading is the construction of a canonical provision as allowed under Can. 20 when “there is no explicit provision concerning some affair in either the general or in the particular law.” In that case  “a norm of action is to be taken from laws in similar cases, from the general principles of law applied with equity…from the manner and practice of the Roman Curia and from the constant teaching of doctors [in Canon Law and Sacred Theology].” Here we best the rule of law by citing the teachings of the popes, superior to that of the Curia. For above we have presented the teaching of Popes Pius IX and Pius XII and laws in similar cases, also Msgr. Fenton, a doctor of sacred theology. In the proofs the popes and St. Alphonsus is quoted and others as well.

The laity can function as ‘hierarchy’

From all appearances, the laity themselves can address these matters in way of precept, since no hierarchy or religious superiors exist. In fact Pope Pius XII, in his address “The Mission of Catholic Women,” (Sept. 29, 1957), taught that, “In countries where contacts with the hierarchy are difficult or practically impossible …Christians …must, with God’s grace assume all their responsibilities.”  But he adds that nothing can be done against the implicit or explicit will of the Church, faith or morals or ecclesiastical discipline, (see “Proofs,” below). What is important here is that if sufficient proof exists, offenders can be held accountable even for those offenses to which an ipso facto sentence is not attached, (such as that listed under Can. 2200). This is especially true when the offense constitutes a danger to the faith or public welfare and provided it can be proven according to the rules established by the scholastics to assess evidence and achieve certitude. If all this is verified, it can be handled outside the judicial process.

This same principle is reiterated in Canons 2312-2313 immediately preceding Can. 2314. Therefore, if one guilty of material heresy confessed and exhibited contrition, s/he could be assigned or could even assign themselves suitable penances and escape the penalty of the law, (these penances are suggested in the canon itself). The practice of the Church in the case of religious who have defected from their orders details this process. In this case, Rev. Woywod states under Can, 672§1, (see also Can. 2295) that the religious who has given signs of complete amendment for three years is to be readmitted to his order. If the religious order or superior object to the individual’s return, the matter is to be referred to the Holy See. In the case of material heresy or schism, infamy also may be incurred as a vindicative penalty. After three years this penalty, applying only when the censure itself exists, might be lightened, but the offender would still need to seek absolution for material heresy and/or schism and dispensation from the penalty by the Roman Pontiff.

ALL excommunicated persons must be expelled from any active participation whatsoever in divine services if their excommunication was inflicted by condemnatory (attached to the law) or declaratory sentence, (Can. 2259) Those guilty of infamy of law also are to be prevented from exercising their ministry and from ecclesiastical acts, (Can. 2294). It is true that this applies only to pseudo clergy today, and to acts which are prohibited and therefore never take place. But Traditionalists who believe that their “clergy” are validly ordained at least, but are unable to function owing to censures, still have the obligation to eject them from services and make their disability public.  If the faithful are required to do this in the absence of the clergy then they also can issue precepts. In such a situation they take the place of clergy and can function as “lay superiors,” but only for as long as the present circumstances last. It is possible to create some sort of lay tribunal, based on the (English) grand jury process (Can. 1935) to help sort out some of these problems but no one seems interested in using Can. 20 to construct such a process or participate in it. Yet officially or unofficially, as long as the laity are forced to fend for themselves, they are the only acting Catholics and even individually or with one or two others, as Canons 1935 and 2223, permit, they may denounce an evildoer.

Issuing precepts

Precepts could be issued for several reasons. They could declare that:

• a person had denounced heresy and or schism, or that they had not denounced it

• they are on probation for such offenses, or that they have completed the three-year probation required successfully

• announce that a heretic had been put on notice that his heresy is recognized as having been automatically incurred, referring him to a future pope for judgment

• commend certain persons for specific actions, or certify that they had sufficient training as catechists or baptizers

• declare that individuals had left marriages to remarry a true Catholic left for reasons the Church historically had granted annulments for, referring the decision of the individual him/herself to the future Roman Pontiff for review.

A list of such precepts would need to be made available on the Internet and in printed form accompanied by the necessary canonical information to justify their issuance.

Had validly ordained priests offered Mass privately and focused on teaching and training Catholics to function in such lay positions following Vatican 2, instructing them on how to remain Catholic without Mass and Sacraments they could have provided the Church with a way to survive this crisis. Had they done so, those exiting the Novus Ordo church would never have fallen for Traditionalism. Pope St. Pius X taught: “All those who are pastors of souls…are certainly obliged by the precept of Christ to know and nourish the sheep confided to them; now to nourish is first of all to teach… And so the Apostle said, ‘Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the Gospel,’ indicating thus that the first office of those who are set up in any way for the government of the Church is to instruct in sacred doctrine,’” (April 15, 1905, “Acerbo nimis”).  This is a papal definition of Holy Scripture which condemns Traditionalists for their false interpretation and application of  “the means necessary for salvation,” i.e. for them the Mass and Sacraments only. As (Cardinal) Ludwig Billot teaches in his De Ecclesia Christi, “Theological Faith is more necessary still than the Sacraments, since nothing can replace it, whereas those who possess it already possess the Sacraments as by desire, voto.”


We have an obligation to Christ and to other Catholics to be able to identify and refute heresy and schism. It is not an option or a responsibility we may shirk. The Church has left us the tools to determine when such heresy occurs and how we are to view it and deal with it. Jesus and His Apostles wrote it into the pages of Holy Scripture. Canon Law and its method for supplementing the law supplies whatever is lacking in the application of this teaching. Rev. MacKenzie tells us that the average layperson is more likely to be a material heretic; the average cleric or even wannabe Traditionalist “cleric,” with some training and at least the education level to do his own research and find the truth, is held to a different standard. He doesn’t have a family to support nor does he have a fulltime job, as a rule. He may be liable only to the penalties for the laity but he is far more apt to be a formal heretic. Please see the article on the Free Content site on Pertinacity and Heresy.

Two or three people correcting could be two or three individual websites presenting the truth, two or three emailing an inquirer, or two or three neighbors dropping in for a chat. Materials for returning to the faith and keeping the faith at home should always be made available. Answering any questions is essential. Keeping in contact over time also is important, as many grow weak in resolve. The returning Catholic should be required especially to study that area of the faith that he has been most confused about or most deficient in. It would be ideal if a group of true Catholics could agree to work as a team to take on this sort of convert work but we are so few and far between and so committed to family and other duties that this is a very difficult task to undertake. The most important thing to remember from above is that no one is judging anyone; we only are following the laws and teachings of the Church. The judgment arrived at in both the case of the unrepentant material heretic or the suspected formal heretic is that such persons must be avoided until the Church Herself can render a judgment. Pope Pius XII included in his definition of the Church given in Mystici Corporis the requirement that members of the Church must follow all Her laws. It also should be noted here that no one is accusing anyone of anything they have not first accused themselves of doing. Those who notify others of their departure from the faith have most likely completed their three years probation for material heresy themselves. Those who paint stay-at-home Catholics as goody-two shoes who think that they alone have a sure ticket to heaven can abandon that idea. True Catholics know that NO one may be certain of his own salvation, and that we all must work out our salvation at all times, “in fear and trembling.”  Stay-at-home Catholics are no exception to this rule.

Finally, I know that those maintaining their faith at home are lonely, afraid, tired, discouraged and at their wits end much of the time. Many feel abandoned and are burdened with illnesses, financial problems, marital problems, problems with their children and other woes. All of us have our unique crosses to bear and the only way to bear them is to look to Calvary. But we are not without help. The popes continue to guide us, rule us and assist us with their infallible teachings and as one stay-at-home Catholic observed, in this way the reign of Pope Pius XII is extended indefinitely, since it his he himself who contributed so generously to our knowledge base of the faith. It is for us to put this legacy to use and to do all in our power to preserve what remains until the chastisement or the coming of the Lord.

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