Gathering the Scattered

In a recent discussion at dotCommonweal about “lapsed Catholics,” a number of questions arose about the appropriateness and meaning of the term “lapsed,” what happens when “lapsed Catholics” join another Christian community, and whether they also turn up in the RCIA. Margaret O’Brien Steinfels invited my comment, which I gave and have reproduced here because I thought it might be of interest to the readers of PrayTell.

Because this is an ecumenical blog, I would also be interested to know if members of the other Christian traditions which are represented here might be able to share something about their approach(es) to “gathering the scattered” members of their flocks.

First of all, the term lapsed Catholic is certainly old-fashioned, but it has sort of a wonderful pedigree. It is based on a fine old term that comes from the third century and has an important place in the history of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The “lapsi” were Christians who caved under the pressures of persecution, and sacrificed to the cult of the emperor or procured a false certificate that said they did so, rather than face the wild beasts in the amphitheater. They were not “apostates.” In other words, they did not profess heresy or freely reject the Catholic faith on its own merits. They simply found they couldn’t live up to its demands in the circumstances in which they found themselves.

The “confessors” were those who did hold fast and suffer the consequences — imprisonment, and sometimes death. After the persecutions were over, a lot of the lapsi wanted to come back. This seemed like a slap in the face to the confessors (think about how collaborators were viewed after World War II). But the final decision was that mercy should be extended to them. The controversy over what to do about this stands at the base of our whole ecclesial history of the Sacrament of Penance.

Fast forward to the beginning of the 20th Century. According to the 1917 Code of Canon Law, once baptized Catholic, always a Catholic. It didn’t matter if you joined a dozen Protestant denominations, you were still Catholic unless you made a formal repudiation of the Church in writing, such as is required by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Then, in the 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law, the rule changed. The “formal act” of joining another Christian community was taken as decisive even without a repudiation of Catholicism. Recall the new situation on the ground due to the Decree on Ecumenism issued at Vatican II (Unitatis Redintegratio). No longer was it assumed that those who belong to non-Catholic Christian communities are necessarily heretics or schismatics, or going to hell. The individual who left to join a Protestant or Anglican community would from that time forward be regarded as a non-Catholic Christian, but this was not the worst thing in the world. (All of this has consequences for the sacraments of initiation, especially if they decide to come back later.) In the late 1990s, I believe there was a pull-back from this position to once again assert that the Catholic Church is more like the Hotel California: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

What does all this tell us? I think it says that these are neuralgic issues today. There are multiple approaches to the question of what it means to be Catholic, and also to the question of under what circumstances one ceases to be Catholic, and finally, what all of this means vis à vis the strong claims of the Catholic tradition regarding sacramental practice.

Now, in the pastoral ministry realm, which although related is quite different from the canonical-liturgical discussion, this phenomenon has also had lots of attention. The terminology of choice in church circles today tends to be “inactive Catholics” or “alienated Catholics” rather than lapsed or “fallen away” Catholics. Studies have been done. Literature has appeared. The former term (inactive) is favored by those who prefer the “Come Home for Christmas” approach, the latter (alienated) by those who tend to be more frank about addressing issues deeper and more difficult than the phenomenon of “drifting away.”

The schema developed by Jim Lopresti in the 1980s to chart the phenomena associated with alienated Catholics, to my mind, still has merit (James Lopresti, Penance: A Reform Proposal for the Rite, American Essays in Liturgy 6; Washington, DC: Pastoral Press, 1987). He identified three types of alienation, each of which demands a different pastoral response: the unawakened, the classic sinners, and the prophetically alienated. (Like all typologies, there are mixtures too, but for the sake of clarity, he names three types.)

The unawakened are those who, although having received the sacraments in childhood and perhaps some Catholic upbringing, never really grasped what it was all about. The need here is for a kind of new evangelization, or awakening, to the beauty, power, and relevance of the Christian message to their lives. Think “Come Home for Christmas” RENEW and so forth.

The classic sinners are those who acknowledge that they have done wrong in their lives, and this led them astray. They want back in, because of repentance. Forgiveness, and a journey of reintegration into a credible community that will accept and support them is the most useful pastoral response. Think AA, rehab programs, etc.

Finally, the prophetically alienated make a claim against the community. They say “I hold a piece of the truth, which you did not acknowledge. I did not leave the Church, the Church left me.” As you can imagine, the previous two strategies will not work here. Something different is required, to take seriously the level on which this sort of alienation operates. Think dialogue, trust-building, and the frank acknowledgement of fault within the institution.

None of these folks is appropriately served by the RCIA. They really need and deserve something else by way of a pastoral response. In the early days of RCIA implementation, practitioners dumped everybody into the same boat, and sometimes the consequences were disastrous. The one group of Catholics meant to be included in the initiation process of the RCIA is called the “baptized but uncatechized adult Catholic” and this means baptism only—no first communion, no confirmation. It’s an exception for those who got baptized but then had so little contact with the Church that they are functionally quite similar to catechumens.

Now, as to whether the RCIA treats individuals of other Christian traditions as “lapsed” from their own communities, the answer is not really — if it is done right. They may well have a history of little or no practice of the Christian faith in their community of origin. That’s relevant to discerning what sort of pastoral formation they may need, but the way in which their “journey” is viewed conceptually is not so much based on where they’ve been but where they’re going. There’s a well-defined theory (which everybody might not agree with, but it’s what we have in the official documents) that respects the freedom of individuals to choose, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to enter into “the full communion of the Catholic Church” without prejudice to the work of ecumenism, which seeks to unite whole bodies of the Christian faithful, over time. The Directory for Ecumenism and Unitatis Redintegratio are relevant documents here.

Now that the various Christian denominations are developing analogous processes to the catechumenate as it is practiced in the Catholic Church (this is happening), one might wonder whether Catholics will have to undergo some sort of initiation process to join another ecclesial community. I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that the practice of “open table” and having no outward requirement for receiving the Eucharist in many of these communities militates against this outcome. The genius of the catechumenate, after all, is that it pivots on the sacraments of initiation. Without such a “hinge” the processes for membership may appear quite optional.

Not so, of course, with other religions. I believe it takes 18 months to become an Orthodox Jew, for example, and the practices of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam likewise take time to acquire.

I welcome comments, insights, clarifications, questions, and discussion.


  1. We use the term “returning Catholics” in Landings which
    is a parish ministry that welcomes back those seeking to return. It is a non-judgemental process of listening,
    & welcome that includes prayer, telling of our spiritual autobiographies and reflection on the Creed. Landings has been active for the last 20 years in the US, UK, Canada and Singepore. How many people do we know that would come back if only there was an invitation and a warm welcome extended. Yes, we want to gather the scattered

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