This Wednesday’s papal audience stirred up quite a bit of controversy in Catholic traditionalist circles. During his address, Pope Francis taught that “those who have denied the faith, who are apostates, who are the persecutors of the Church, who have denied their baptism … blasphemers, all of them” belong to the communion of saints. Critics of the pope argued that he had contradicted established Catholic doctrine—yet another proof of Francis’s heterodoxy.
Is this really the case? Let us dive in and take a closer look.
The immediate context
As is typically the case, the pope’s controversial statements are quoted without their immediate context. However, if we read the preceding paragraph, we can see that Francis defines “communion of saints” by saying: “The communion of saints is the Church.” The Holy Father then goes on to remind us that the Church is not “reserved for the perfect,” but is a “community of saved sinners.”
If we read from the official text, we can see that this is not Francis’s own definition. “The communion of saints is the Church” is a direct quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 946), in the section on the fifth paragraph of the Profession of Faith. The Catechism goes on to say:
“Since all the faithful form one body, the good of each is communicated to the others. … We must therefore believe that there exists a communion of goods in the Church. But the most important member is Christ, since he is the head”
— CCC 947, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas
If we read Francis’s Wednesday audience in full, we see that this mirrors his address very well.
The same section of the Catechism goes on to explain that “‘communion of saints’ therefore has two closely linked meanings: “communion ‘in holy things (sancta)’ and ‘among holy persons (sancti)’” (CCC 948).
This distinction is important and Pope Francis is quite aware of it. For example, on October 30, 2013, Pope Francis said in another Wednesday audience address that “the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that two realities are meant by this expression: communion ‘in holy things’ and ‘among holy persons’ (n. 948).” He dedicated that week’s address and the next one to exploring each of the two different meanings.
Can we determine whether Francis’s teaching on the communion of saints this week was about communion in holy things (sancta) or among holy persons (sancti)? A compartmentalized analysis isn’t always easy. After all, both the Catechism and Pope Francis teach that the two meanings are “closely connected.” However, when we are dealing with a teaching of the Holy Father, we must try to interpret him according to his intended meaning and charitably attribute to him the most plausible and orthodox interpretation.
Immediately preceding his mention of apostates, Francis says:
“Let us consider, dear brothers and sisters, that in Christ no one can ever truly separate us from those we love because the bond is an existential bond, a strong bond that is in our very nature; only the manner of being together with one another them changes, but nothing and no one can break this bond.”
Here Francis refers to an existential bond—one of love and in Christ.
This is immediately preceded by the paragraph where Francis defines the communion of saints. The entire paragraph is pivotal to contextualizing the controversial excerpts:
“What, then, is the “communion of saints”? The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms: “The communion of saints is the Church” (no. 946). See what a beautiful definition this is! “The communion of saints is the Church.” What does this mean? That the Church is reserved for the perfect? No. It means that it is the community of saved sinners [It: peccatori salvati]. The Church is the community of saved sinners. It’s beautiful, this definition. No one can exclude themselves from the Church, we are all saved sinners. Our holiness is the fruit of God’s love manifested in Christ, who sanctifies us by loving us in our misery and saving us from it. Thanks always to him we form one single body, says St Paul, in which Jesus is the head and we are the members (cf. 1 Cor 12:12). This image of the Body of Christ and the image of the body immediately makes us understand what it means to be bound to one another in communion: Let us listen to what Saint Paul says: “If one member suffers,” writes St Paul, “all the members suffer together; and if one member is honoured, all the members rejoice with him. Now you are the body of Christ and, each according to his part, his members” (1 Cor 12:26-27). This is what Paul says: we are all one body, all united through faith, through baptism… All in communion: united in communion with Jesus Christ. And this is the communion of saints.”
Note that the Holy Father is not referring to “holy persons,” but to the Church as a communion of “saved sinners.” Their “holiness” is not their own, but “the fruit of God’s love manifested in Christ.” We form one body, through baptism, with Christ as the head and we as the members. And this makes us “bound to one another in communion.”
Again, we must understand that the context of the controversial quotes is that of a “bond,” of love and in Christ.
With this context, we can now go back to the Catechism to answer the question: was Francis teaching about communion in holy things or among holy persons?
Communion in holy things: two special goods
The Catechism section dedicated to the former meaning (sancta), is named “Communion in Spiritual Goods.” What goods? There are five goods listed: communion in the faith, of the sacraments, of charisms, of having everything in common, and in charity. Two of these stand out as particularly relevant here.
The first is Communion of the sacraments. Obviously, the Eucharist takes a prominent place here, but all seven “sacraments are sacred links uniting the faithful with one another and binding them to Jesus Christ, and above all Baptism, the gate by which we enter into the Church” (CCC 950). It is important to note that Baptism impresses an indelible mark on the faithful, one that cannot be erased (CCC 1272), not even through apostasy. This is why excommunicates or apostates are not re-baptized when they repent.
The Catechism repeats its teaching on the sancta in the summary at the end of the section:
The Church is a “communion of saints”: this expression refers first to the “holy things” (sancta), above all the Eucharist, by which “the unity of believers, who form one body in Christ, is both represented and brought about” (LG 3).
— CCC 960
Just as Francis quoted the teaching on the believers forming “one body in Christ,” the Catechism quotes the same teaching, but in relation to the communion of saints as communion of holy things (sancta).
But there’s another spiritual good that is also important (and in my opinion, the most important) for us to understand Pope Francis’s message. It’s the “Communion in Charity.” Here, the Catechism says:
“If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it”
— CCC 953
It is remarkable how the Catechism is citing the exact same biblical quote that Francis used in the paragraph that contextualizes the polemical passage.
This “communion in charity” also illustrates what Francis means by an “existential bond” that can never be broken, which means that we are never separated from those we love. Indeed, we should love everyone, even apostates, the persecutors of the Church, and blasphemers. They also benefit from this communion in charity that we, as members of the communion of saints, extend to them.
- There are two meanings for “communion of saints”: a) communion in holy things (sancta); b) communion among holy persons (sancti)
- These two meanings are “very closely connected,” so it’s difficult to excise one from the other
- The communion in holy things (sancti) includes “communion of the sacraments” (namely Baptism, which leaves an indelible mark) and “communion in charity”
- The immediate context of Pope Francis’s controversial statements correlates closely with the Catechism’s teaching about “communion in holy things,” especially “communion in charity”
We can therefore reasonably conclude that Pope Francis is teaching in continuity with the official Catechism promulgated during the papacy of St. John Paul II. Still, some traditionalists have asserted that his teaching contradicts earlier sources, notably the Catechism of St. Pius X (CSPX). Let us explore it.
Traditional understandings of “communion of saints”
The Catechism of St. Pius X does not hold the same magisterial status as the universal Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was promulgated by Pope John Paul to all the Christian faithful. Nor does it hold the same magisterial authority as the Roman Catechism, which was promulgated for the benefit of parish priests throughout the Church. The CSPX (officially named Catechismo della dottrina Cristiana), however, was published in 1908 at the late pope’s behest, to provide children and uncatechized adults of Italy with a brief, accessible text for instruction in the faith. Still, as then-Cardinal Ratzinger once said, “St. Pius X’s catechism always retains its value. However, the way of transmitting the contents of the faith can change.” The CSPX was based on St. Pius X’s writings as a bishop, and was composed in the question-and-answer format familiar to those who have studied the Baltimore Catechism and the 2005 Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Critics of Pope Francis have pointed to the text of this early 20th-century catechism, which seems to exclude apostates in its section dedicated to the Communion of the Saints. It says:
10 Q. Who are they who do not belong to the Communion of Saints?
A. Those who are damned do not belong to the Communion of Saints in the other life; and in this life those who belong neither to the body nor to the soul of the Church, that is, those who are in mortal sin, and who are outside the true Church.
Are the apostates, persecutors, and blasphemers mentioned in Francis’s speech in a state of mortal sin? It’s certain that those who fall into these categories have committed sins with objectively grave matter, but as we have explained many times in the past regarding Amoris Laetitia, grave matter is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for mortal sin. As the Catechism teaches, one commits venial sin when one “disobeys the moral law in a grave matter, but without full knowledge or without complete consent” (CCC 1862). We cannot know with certainty whether apostates, persecutors or blasphemers are in mortal sin or not. But, for the sake of this discussion let us assume that we’re talking about people in a state of mortal sin.
The next question addresses “those who are outside the true Church.” Here, the CSPX lists a series of categories, including apostates. Interestingly, schismatics are also named, defined as “those Christians who, while not explicitly denying any dogma, yet voluntarily separate themselves from the Church of Jesus Christ, that is, from their lawful pastors.” (Note that the CSPX defines “lawful pastors” as “the Roman Pontiff, that is, the Pope, who is Supreme Pastor, and the Bishops.”)
It would seem, then, that Pope Francis contradicted his predecessor St. Pius X, who placed apostates outside the true Church, and therefore, outside of the communion of saints.
But here, we must ask ourselves, was Pius X talking about communion of saints as “communion in holy things” (sancta) or “communion of holy persons” (sancti)? In context, he is clearly referring to persons who have committed acts and made decisions that exclude them from the communion of holy persons. Pope Francis, however, is clearly referring to the communion between those who share holy things—those who make up the Church because they are united by baptism.
In fact, the CSPX discusses the “communion in holy things” earlier in the same section, in its answer to Q1:
In the words The Communion of Saints, the Ninth Article of the Creed teaches us that the Church’s spiritual goods, both internal and external, are common to all her members because of the intimate union that exists between them.
In the following question, internal spiritual goods are defined as “the graces received through the Sacraments; faith, hope and charity; the infinite merits of Jesus Christ; the superabundant merits of the Blessed Virgin and of the Saints; and the fruit of all the good works done in the same Church” (Q2).
The next question defines external spiritual goods as “the Sacraments, the Sacrifice of the Mass, public prayers, religious functions, and all the other outward practices that unite the faithful.” (Q3)
So, can apostates really enjoy these spiritual goods (and, therefore, the communion of saints), as Francis seems to teach?
The CSPX explicitly says that those in mortal sin “can participate in the external goods of the Church, unless indeed they are cut off from the Church by excommunication” (Q7). (Please note that apostates and excommunicates are distinct terms in the CSPX and are not synonymous.)
What about the internal goods? In Q4, the CSPX says that “those who are in mortal sin do not participate in these goods” (Q4). But in the very next answer, the CSPX also states that “they are excluded from perfect communion in spiritual goods” (Q5). The terminology “perfect communion” implies that there may be an imperfect communion of some kind.
This is why, in the answer to Q6, the CSPX teaches:
Christians who are in mortal sin still continue to derive some advantage from the internal and spiritual goods of the Church, inasmuch as they still preserve the Christian character which is indelible, and the virtue of faith which is the basis of justification. They are aided, too, by the prayers and good works of the faithful towards obtaining the grace of conversion to God.
This seems to match the substance of Francis’s address (not to mention the CCC). This is communion of the saints, when understood as the communion of Christians bound in holy things. Therefore, Francis and Pius X are not in contradiction.
All that was said before, in turn, is also confirmed by the Roman Catechism mentioned earlier, and that traditionalists often quote:
Communion Of Sacraments
The fruit of all the Sacraments is common to all the faithful, and these Sacraments, particularly Baptism, the door, as it were, by which we are admitted into the Church, are so many sacred bonds which bind and unite them to Christ. That this communion of Saints implies a communion of Sacraments, the Fathers declare in these words of the Creed: I confess one Baptism…
Communion Of Good Works
But there is also another communion in the Church which demands attention. Every pious and holy action done by one belongs to and becomes profitable to all through charity, which seeketh not her Own. This is proved by the testimony of St. Ambrose, who, explaining these words of the Psalmist, I am a partaker with all them that fear thee, observes: As we say that a limb is partaker of the entire body, so are we partakers with all that fear God…
This communication of goods is often very aptly illustrated in Scripture by a comparison borrowed from the members of the human body. In the human body there are many members, but though many, they yet constitute but one body, in which each performs its own, not all the same, functions. All do not enjoy equal dignity, or discharge functions alike useful or honourable; nor does one propose to itself its own exclusive advantage, but that Of the entire body. Besides, they are so well organized and knit together that if one suffers, the rest likewise suffer on account of their affinity and sympathy of nature; and if, on the contrary, one enjoys health, the feeling of pleasure is common to all…
Those Who Share In This Communion
The advantages of so many and such exalted blessings bestowed by Almighty God are enjoyed by those who lead a Christian life in charity, and are just and beloved of God. As to the dead members; that is, those who are bound in the thraldom of sin and estranged from the grace of God, they are not so deprived of these advantages as to cease to be members of this body; but since they are dead members, they do not share in the spiritual fruit which is communicated to the just and pious. However, as they are in the Church, they are assisted in recovering lost grace and life by those who live by the Spirit; and they also enjoy those benefits which are without doubt denied to those who are entirely cut off from the Church.
One last question remains though: is Pius X contradicting himself? After all, in one part he says that people in mortal sin do not participate in the internal goods of the Church, but in another part he says that although they are not in “perfect communion,” they derive some advantage from the internal and spiritual goods of the Church. Is he being contradictory?
One can understand that Pius is not being contradictory, but applying complex theological concepts like “participation,” and using different meanings in different parts (and, as we have seen, the different meanings are so closely interconnected that it’s easy to be confusing when teaching about them).
But then again, it’s easy to understand what Pius is teaching if we try to interpret him charitably, instead of scavenging for contradictions to undermine his papal authority. It would be of great benefit if Catholics who are quick to accuse would start extending the same charity to Pope Francis. In this way, they can participate more perfectly in the spiritual goods of the communion of saints.
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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.