When does one fall into apostasy, and what does it mean?

I wonder if I am at risk of apostatizing, and what that would mean.

I don’t plan to become a member of a different specific religion. I don’t plan to go around talking about it. I still believe many things Catholicism teaches (like natural law) and am not trying to ‘escape’ from following those teachings. I believe my conscience will still bind me in many ways to act consistent with Catholic teaching. But I’m not sure what will happen when the pandemic ends and we’re obligated to return to Sunday Mass; I don’t know yet if I will return.

I increasingly don’t understand what the Catholic Church is. It increasingly seems there is no ‘one’ Church speaking with one voice. The Church increasingly looks to me like it has many heads, and Tradition and Magisterium (even those within the magisterium) speak at odds with each other rather than in harmony. It seems that those who speak for the Church today emphasize that my conscience is my guide, and that if I am sincere in my motives it is not important that I participate in things like sacraments or formal communion with the Church.

I edited my post to add this paragraph in case it helps explain: My natural intuitions say that externally received sacraments are not necessary. I only have received them in the past through trusting the Church when she told me to receive them. But if external teaching is unclear or says they may not be necessary, and I am encouraged to follow my own instincts and intellect, my instincts and intellect may not lead me to continue receiving the externally visible sacraments.

I have tried in the past to follow teaching closely. But teaching now seems unclear to me, and I am exhausted of trying to defend teaching to other Catholics and non-Catholics when those in positions of authority (to whom I should defer) seem to discourage defending teaching or spreading the faith as being “rigid” or about “counting heads”, and I don’t know what to do anymore. I can’t teach against the teachers, and I no longer hear the teachers teaching with one voice.

I am not asking for help with my specific issues (though I understand that anyone can make any reply here). I am asking if quietly retreating and acknowledging (internally, or to family and friends) the reality I seem to be facing, of not knowing what the Church is, and not thinking I have to interact with the sacraments anymore, makes me an apostate… and what that would mean for my soul from the perspective of the Church. If anyone knows where to point me. Though I realize there may be multiple different kinds of answers, which seems like part of my problem in the first place.

Apostasy means renouncing the Christian Faith.

Who are these people? And what document(s) have they produced in the name of the Church saying this?

This is demonstrably false by even the most cursory study of Church teaching. The Bible itself makes it clear baptism is necessary for salvation.

The Church’s teaching is perfectly clear and certainly does not teach what your propose.


It isn’t the first time that things have seemed less-than-unshakeable or where there has been confusion or a lack of clarity. The Church is clear on the Creed, the commandments, and the sacraments–and our duty to evangelize. Most disputes are about either very nuanced issues or the best way to apply or carry out certain truths in our circumstances. At least it’s not like other times in the past, where the very nature of God or the person of Jesus were thrown into confusion.

We are not all called to get bogged down in the minutiae–if it is causing you problems, stick to the basics. As St. Irenaeus says in “Against Heresies”:

For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.

Faith in Christ and a common profession of faith with the Church covers any innocent errors or points of ignorance, since the whole truth is contained in Christ and the Church’s faith. As the Catechism says, Christ “is the Father’s one, perfect and unsurpassable Word. In him he has said everything; there will be no other word than this one” (CCC 65); “what he spoke before to the prophets in parts, he has now spoken all at once by giving us the All Who is His Son” (CCC 65, quoting St. John of the Cross).

Pope Innocent IV explained it like this (Commentaria in quinque libros decretalia, Ad liber I):

There is a certain measure of faith to which all are obliged, and which is sufficient for the simple and perhaps for all laymen—that is, every adult must believe that God exists and that He rewards all good people. He must also believe in the other articles of the Creed implicitly, that is, he must believe that whatever the Catholic Church believes is true…

Such is the power of implicit faith that there are those who say that if someone has it—that is, he believes in everything the Church believes—but his natural reason makes him hold the erroneous opinion that the Father is greater than the Son or precedes Him in time, or that the three persons are separate beings, he is neither a heretic nor a sinner, so long as he does not defend his error and so long as he believes that this is the faith of the Church. In that case, the faith of the Church replaces his opinion, since, though his opinion is false, it is not his faith, rather his faith is the faith of the Church.

Likewise, if our pastor errs, we are covered by that same faith:

St. Thomas Aquinas says in the Summa:

The simple have no faith implied in that of the learned, except in so far as the latter adhere to the Divine teaching. Hence the Apostle says (1 Corinthians 4:16): “Be ye followers of me, as I also am of Christ.” Hence it is not human knowledge, but the Divine truth that is the rule of faith: and if any of the learned stray from this rule, he does not harm the faith of the simple ones, who think that the learned believe aright; unless the simple hold obstinately to their individual errors, against the faith of the universal Church, which cannot err, since Our Lord said (Luke 22:32): “I have prayed for thee,” Peter, “that thy faith fail not.”

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Are there any public Masses in your area rather than total shutdown?
If so, are you reasonably able to get to them?

You need to be attending Mass and being in the presence of Jesus, not reading whatever you’re reading.
And if you’re expecting all teachers to teach with one voice, you’re not going to find that anywhere unless you join a little cult with one guy and one guy only teaching.

Thank-you for your reply. I will think about what you have said.

This part of what you have said is relevant to me and part of what I have to think about. Trying to figure out which ‘head’ I’m supposed to listen to when a local pastor asks me to trust his interpretation but it seems at odds with what I think are said by Tradition and the interpretation of others in the magisterium, including at high levels.

What I don’t know is whether the Church teaches that I should follow my local pastor’s interpretation no matter what and I will be covered by faith in Christ, or whether I should ignore my local pastor’s interpretation and pay attention to what I learn from the internet about what ‘The Church’ says in documents and so on. And which documents count.

This is what I mean by “I don’t know what the Church is” anymore. I don’t know where to look or who to trust to tell me what the Church really is and really teaches.

I apologize for being non-specific about my issue. It is very personal. My main question is about what apostasy is and what state a person is in when not participating in the Church because they don’t know what the Church is anymore.

All seven sacraments have matter and form so are external. Did you mean something else?

I suppose what I mean is, for example, external confession needing to take place with a priest instead of internal contrition and repentance sufficing in God’s eyes. For example, since if one dies in a state of perfect contrition (without being able to reach a confessional first) they’re still saved – so why not just continue to return to a state of perfect contrition and repentance after each sin (intending not to sin again), and trust God to know the heart at the time we die?

Especially considering my current struggle to understand precisely what the Church says about herself and salvation, I actually feel fairly calm trusting this to God. Especially when we seem to have teaching that so many will be saved (at least plausibly saved) without ever receiving external baptism or external confession at all. I’ve made many external confessions in my life and it doesn’t bother me to do it (indeed, there’s a psychological relief to it) – but there also feels like a freedom and trust in just going straight to God.

And I can hear myself and imagine the answer I’d have made to myself not long ago (about trusting God meaning following His guidance given through the Church, and the Church stating that absolution and special graces are given through external confession) but what I’m struggling with is my sense of the Church as reliable guide to begin with.

Curiously, I just found the answer to my question.

After a brief moment of frank prayer and request for help to God, it occurred to me to go check the appendix of a certain book for information related to a different question I have.

In the book I had tucked sheets of paper, months ago, into a random place in the middle (that I was nowhere near reading yet), just to keep those papers with the book.

Opening the book to take those papers out before flipping to the appendix, these words were at the top of the page where my papers had been tucked:

"The term apostasy must be used carefully. It refers to rejecting the Christian faith outright. If a person maintains any kind of claim to being a Christian, he is not an apostate. He must be willing to say, “I am not a Christian anymore.”

I am not willing to say those words, so I guess that answers my question.

God works in mysterious ways.

Thank you to those here who interacted with me anyway.

The bishops are the authorized teachers, and the bishop of Rome (the Pope) is the chief teacher. We should be able to rely on our parish priest–but clearly if he says something that sounds obviously wrong–like evangelization is bad–then we can look to a higher authority: and the Pope and bishops are clear about our duty to evangelize. They still hold up the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a sure guide for us to consult. I don’t mean to sound like I’m saying bury one’s head in the sand–more like don’t miss the forest for the trees–but as a lay person, what more do you need than the Creed, the commandments, and the sacraments? The Catechism can take you deeper if you need it.

When it comes to past vs. present, we have a living teaching authority for a reason. It’s the same Church in every era always visibly identifiable by its communion with the bishop of Rome–everyone, even non-Catholics recognize this continuity in identity (even if they don’t like it).

Cardinal Manning, a 19th century English bishop, was a convert from Anglicanism who encountered this same issues of apparent doctrinal conflicts over time. In his book “The Temporal Mission of the Holy Spirit” he notes how doctrinal questions can be complex and nuanced, especially when interwoven with history, including changes in vocabulary and culture over time, leading to apparent contradictions and other anomalies. Different people today can look back at the past and come to different conclusions just like we can look at Scripture and see apparent contradictions and different interpretations.

The only way these issues could ever be resolved is if we could rely on the continuity of the Church herself as guarantor of the faith, since it is the same Church in each era.

As such, Manning stated that “No critic except the living and lineal judge and discerner of truth, the only Church of God, can solve these inequalities and anomalies in the history of doctrine. To the Church the facts of antiquity are transparent in the light of its perpetual consciousness of the original revelation.” He was finally content that since it is the same Church in all times, “The enunciation of the faith by the living Church of this hour, is the maximum of evidence, both natural and supernatural, as to the fact and the contents of the original revelation.”


The Holy Spirit guarantees the teaching authority of the Catholic Church in matters of faith and morals. The individuals in it may and do error. The power to bind and loose sins is given to the Church.

Really a state of perfect contrition is not the condition for salvation but rather the state of sanctifying grace. Perfect contrition is not sufficient by itself for absolution; it also requires (for mortal sins) the intention to make confession individually ASAP. No person can be absolutely certain of the state of sanctifying grace, without divine revelation (this is a dogma of faith).

Catechism of the Catholic Church

1448 Beneath the changes in discipline and celebration that this sacrament has undergone over the centuries, the same fundamental structure is to be discerned. It comprises two equally essential elements: on the one hand, the acts of the man who undergoes conversion through the action of the Holy Spirit: namely, contrition, confession, and satisfaction; on the other, God’s action through the intervention of the Church. The Church, who through the bishop and his priests forgives sins in the name of Jesus Christ and determines the manner of satisfaction, also prays for the sinner and does penance with him. Thus the sinner is healed and re-established in ecclesial communion.

1452 When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called “perfect” (contrition of charity). Such contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible.51

51 Cf. Council of Trent (1551): DS 1677.

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