Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

President Duterte: When is a Catholic not a Catholic?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 16, 2018

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. One wonders, of course, how such a Catholic nation continues to elect leaders with no respect for the Church, but what interests me about Rodrigo Duterte’s statement is a very different question: How does a Catholic cease to be a Catholic?

Nobody with any knowledge of history will doubt that those who perceive themselves as ex-Catholics are by far the most scathing critics of the Church. One can think of exculpatory 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 disdain 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 culpable). Awareness of our own sinfulness and culpability 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.

Spiritually, of course, it avails us nothing to be Catholic against our will. In fact, at the moment of death, this state is far worse than never having been baptized at all. When someone (freely and knowingly) claims to be “no longer Catholic”, it simply means that person is Catholic against his will—in serious rebellion against the spiritual identity he has, beyond all hope, received from Christ.

If we engage in such a rebellion, it does effect a break in our active spiritual connection with Christ and the Church, in that it constitutes a refusal to accept the grace of salvation from its sole source. But that it does not completely erase our Catholic identity is evident from the facts that, according to the circumstances, a change of heart, reception of the sacrament of Penance, and the lifting of the ban of excommunication enable us to become fully connected again with Christ and the Church—to be fully Catholic again—without requiring a new baptism.

I suspect this also explains more fully the bitter denunciation of the Church so frequently expressed by self-proclaimed “ex” Catholics. They are, after all, experiencing a kind of interior war between their active wills and an identity which really has been impressed on their very being. There is a schizophrenia at work here, a division between not just two different personalities, but two hostile personalities.

With apologies to President Duterte, then, let me say I do not believe him for a moment. He may have caged the Hound of Heaven, but he has in some mysterious sense caged Him only within His very self. At such close quarters he cannot avoid hearing the spiritual bark—and so he continues to fear the spiritual bite.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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