Foundations of the Faith Part 5: What does it mean to belong to the Church?

This is the fifth of a 12-part series that will cover core teachings of the Catholic faith. Once a month from January through December, this space will focus on exploring a specific aspect of the Church’s teaching. To read and share this and the previous parts of the series, visit OSV.com/foundations.

Next month’s topic: Personal vocations

“Are you a member of the Catholic Church?” The answer to this question must be obvious to a lot of people. According to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), more than 74 million persons in the United States self-identified as Catholics in 2016. That means if the U.S. population was 325 million in the same year, then 23 percent said, “Yes, I am a Catholic,” and 77 percent said, “No, I am not.” Simple, right?

Actually, it’s not that simple. CARA also found that a little more than three-fourths of the 74 million self-identified Catholics said that they did not attend Mass each week. Now that’s a problem, if, that is, attending weekly Mass is an integral part of being a member of the Catholic Church. Based on the CARA survey, it seems that a significant number of self-identified U.S. Catholics do not think it is. Are they right, and who gets to decide if they are? Does the Church? And what if an individual person disagrees with the Church? What exactly does membership in the Catholic Church entail (see sidebar)?

To answer these questions, one must consider the very specific things the Church has to say about membership within its ranks.

But before looking at the specifics, it’s important to address the underlying issue of Church authority. The Catholic Church proclaims that it was founded by Jesus Christ and that Jesus remains united to the Church as a head is united to its body. Before ascending into heaven, Jesus established a hierarchy among his followers, giving the keys of the kingdom to Peter, who led the early Church with the other apostles. They, in turn, handed on their authority to their successors, the pope and the bishops. All of them, from Peter on, exercised authority for the Church. The main task has always been to follow the path of Christ, to abide in him (see Jn 15:4). To support the union of head and members, the pope and bishops proclaim the Faith, preside over the sacraments and provide the service of leadership, which includes stipulating what constitutes membership in the Church.

What makes a member?

During Vatican II (1962-65), Pope Paul VI, with the agreement of the assembled bishops, promulgated the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, which sets forth the nature and mission of the Church. It also explains what entails membership in the Church. The requirements are expressed in a highly compressed manner: “They are fully incorporated in the society of the Church who, possessing the Spirit of Christ accept her entire system and all the means of salvation given to her, and are united with her as part of her visible bodily structure and through her with Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops” (Lumen Gentium, No. 14).

This is a packed sentence, to say the least, and one needs to read it a few times in order to appreciate not only what it’s saying but also what it’s not saying. Certainly the requirements for membership are not surprising, for they include the basic elements that can be found in other ecclesial documents: union with Christ and other members through the Holy Spirit; acceptance of everything the Church is and teaches; remaining in relationship with the earthly institution and its leaders. These requirements are manifested outwardly by members through the “profession of faith, the sacraments and ecclesiastical government and communion” (Lumen Gentium, No. 14). In other words, a member believes what the creed teaches, participates in the sacraments, beginning with baptism, and gives proper obedience to Church leaders. However, notice that Lumen Gentium attributes all these necessities and dispositions to those who are “fully incorporated in the society of the Church,” which begs the question: What about those not fully incorporated? Are they also members?

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The parish is where many Catholics most strongly experience a sense of belonging to the Church. It should be a place where engagement continually is stressed versus an attitude of simply maintaining membership. Spencer Grant

Love is key

Lumen Gentium avoids describing in detail what constitutes membership apart from full incorporation. Other documents, such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, can fill in the gap by offering a minimum standard for discernment purposes. But the intent of Lumen Gentium is not to provide a chart that lists various levels of membership with corresponding requirements. The document takes for granted, of course, that there are people who are members of the Church and those who are not. For the latter group — other Christians, Jews, Muslims and people who profess no faith (other Christians are a special case: although they are obviously not fully incorporated into the Catholic Church, they are members of the body of Christ by their baptism) — Lumen Gentium describes how they are related to the Church. For those who are members, the clear intent is to exhort them to seek the fullness of their baptism. Being a member of the Church is not simply a matter of receiving a sacrament, having one’s name in the parish register and then waiting for Judgment Day — as if membership alone guarantees salvation.

Rather, in the Spirit of Christ, Lumen Gentium invites people to set their eyes on the goal of union with God, to reject complacency and to persevere along the path that Jesus has provided, which includes the gift of the Church and all it has to offer. However, Lumen Gentium does provide one very important caveat. In perhaps its boldest passage about membership, Lumen Gentium states that a member of the Church who satisfies all the requirements and maintains all the visible bonds, but who does so without the proper motive, suffers a fate worse than excommunication: “He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity” (No. 14). Love is the proper motive. Love, indeed, is the essential requirement for Church membership. Without love, a person may go through the motions of membership, but he or she is really disconnected from Christ and his members.

A balancing act

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                                                                  Source: CARA

As a member of the Church, the balance is between living in this world and setting one’s eyes on the next. To support this dual endeavor, the Church as a visible institution needs laws and precepts for the common good and edification of its membership. At the same time, the Church must guard against any attitude or policy that suggests that simply maintaining the laws is sufficient for membership. By focusing on what it means to be fully incorporated in the Church, Lumen Gentium aims to keep all members engaged and striving for the goal.

What answer, then, would a reading of Lumen Gentium give to the question at the beginning of this article based on the finding of CARA’s survey: Are the self-identifying Catholics, who say that they do not attend weekly Mass, members of the Church?

One could answer that they are not members (much less fully incorporated), for a member would know that attending Mass on Sunday and all other holy days of obligation is a requirement. Not doing so is a grave sin (CCC, No. 2181), and to actually stop going altogether separates one from the Body of Christ. Moreover, the sin here is not simply refusing to follow a rule but failing to honor one’s relationship with God and neighbor (i.e., to persevere in charity).

However, the survey does not state why these people do not attend Mass. It’s possible that some of the respondents are homebound senior citizens or people living in an area without a resident priest. In both cases, there is no culpability because of their situations. To give an answer about a specific person, one would need to inquire about important details, like the person’s knowledge and consent. The ultimate judgment belongs to God, as Jesus reminds us in the Gospel: “Let them grow together until harvest; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, ‘First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn’” (Mt 13:30).

The point here is not to dodge the question but to emphasize (again) that membership in the Church is not a simple matter of satisfying requirements. Following rules and satisfying requirements play a part in membership, but love is central.

Balance: Christ as Our Model
The leaders of the Church have an important balance to maintain when it comes to laws. On the one hand, they need to avoid the error of regarding obedience to the law as more important than honoring one’s relationship with God and neighbor. On the other hand, the opposite extreme must be shunned as well: being so lax in requirements that the idea of being a member of a body is lost. Their inspiration should always be Christ, who said man is not made for the law (see Mk 2:27), but also, “I have come not to abolish [the law] but to fulfill” (Mt 5:17).

Motive of love

Regarding the specific requirement of attending Mass each Sunday, a member hopefully moves beyond having only a sense of obligation and includes the motive of love. Such a movement happens as one perseveres in prayer and love, and as one begins to glimpse the meaning of what one is participating in. Mass welcomes the assembled Body of Christ, who, united to Jesus its head by the power of the Holy Spirit, offers thanksgiving to the Father. Mass is where the member receives nourishment to continue the journey and to love one’s neighbor. Mass is an encounter among members who celebrate their fellowship, support each other and receive Jesus’ gift of himself in word and sacrament. Mass is the foretaste of full communion with God and one’s brothers and sisters, in which even the hosts of heaven participate. If a member perceives Mass for what it is, then the motive for attending will be less “I have to be there” and more “I want to be there.”

Certainly, one can find all kinds of requirements that are part of being a member of the Catholic Church. One needs only to consult the Catechism, the documents of Vatican II and any number of papal documents. But if one is looking for a detailed list of requirements that ensure membership, then one misses the mark completely. Being a member of the Church is about abiding in Christ, always seeking to yield more fully to God’s love and to share his love with one’s brothers and sisters.

David Werning writes from Virginia.

Nihil Obstat: Msgr. Michael Heintz, Censor Librorum

The Precepts of the Church




The precepts of the Church are set in the context of a moral life bound to and nourished by liturgical life. The obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is meant to guarantee to the faithful the very necessary minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbor:

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1. The first precept (“You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor”) requires the faithful to sanctify the day commemorating the Resurrection of the Lord, as well as the principal liturgical feasts honoring the mysteries of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints; in the first place, by participating in the Eucharistic celebration, in which the Christian community is gathered, and by resting from those works and activities that could impede such a sanctification of these days.

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2. The second precept (“You shall confess your sins at least once a year”) ensures preparation for the Eucharist by the reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which continues baptism’s work of conversion and forgiveness.

3. The third precept (“You shall receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season”) guarantees as a minimum the reception of the Lord’s body and blood in connection with the paschal feasts, the origin and center of the Christian liturgy.

4. The fourth precept (“You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church”) ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts and help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.

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5. The fifth precept (“You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church”) means that the faithful are obliged to assist with the material needs of the Church, each according to his own ability.The faithful also have the duty of providing for the material needs of the Church, each according to his own abilities (Catehcism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 2041-2043).

Becoming a member of the Catholic Church

Most people become members of the Church by being born into it; their parents are Catholic, so they become Catholic. For children who have reached the age of reason and for adults, there is a formal process to become a member called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). The process is separated into the following distinct periods and rites. For information on RCIA classes near you, call your diocese or local parish.

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Baptism is central to our understanding of what it means to belong in the Church. Spencer Grant

1. Precatechumenate: A period of evangelization and learning about Jesus and his Church, discerning whether or not one is being called to be a member. If so, one celebrates the rite of acceptance.

2. Catechumenate: A period of prayerfully considering the Scriptures, the teaching of the Church, and what it means to live as a baptized member. Participants are called catechumens, or those in whom the word of God echoes. The catechumenate can lead to the request for baptism.

3. Rite of election: A person’s request for baptism has been accepted, and he or she is now called the elect. The elect enter into a period of purification during Lent, preparing to become a member of the Church.

4. Easter Vigil: The elect receive the sacraments of initiation (baptism, confirmation, Eucharist) and participate in the Lord’s Supper for the first time.

5. Mystagogy: After being accepted into the Church, the newly baptized continue to pray and to learn, understanding that they must persevere on the journey to heaven.

A good source for more information about RCIA is the website for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (www.usccb.org).

Membership and Canon Law
The normal way of becoming a member of the Church is through the sacraments of initiation: baptism, confirmation and Eucharist. Children born to Catholic parents often receive these sacraments during the period between their birth and teenage years. Adults who want to join the Catholic Church do so mainly through the RCIA process. If one is looking for more of a legal expression of membership, here is an excerpt from the Church’s Code of Canon Law: