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(Latin in, privative, and fidelis.)

As in ecclesiastical language those who by baptism have received faith in Jesus Christ and have pledged Him their fidelity and called the faithful, so the name infidel is given to those who have not been baptized. The term applies not only to all who are ignorant of the true God, such as pagans of various kinds, but also to those who adore Him but do not recognize Jesus Christ, as Jews, Mohammedans; strictly speaking it may be used of catechumens also, though in early ages they were called Christians; for it is only through baptism that one can enter into the ranks of the faithful. Those however who have been baptized but do not belong to the Catholic Church, heretics and schismatics of divers confessions are not called infidels but non-Catholics. The relation in which all these classes stand to the Catholic Church is not the same; in principle, those who have been baptized are subjects of the Church and her children even though they be rebellious children; they are under her laws or, at least, are exempt from them only so far as pleases the Church. Infidels, on the contrary, are not members of the ecclesiastical society, according to the words of St. Paul: Quid mihi de his qui fortis sunt, judicare? (1 Corinthians 5:12); they are entirely exempt from the canon law; they need to be enlightened and converted, not punished. Needless to say, infidels do not belong to the supernatural state; if they receive supernatural graces from God, it is not through the channels established by Jesus Christ for Christians, but by a direct personal inspiration, for instance, the grace of conversion. But their condition is not morally bad; negative infidelity, says St. Thomas (II-II, q. x, a. 1), does not partake of the nature of sin, but rather of punishment, in the sense that ignorance of the Faith is a consequence of original sin. That is why the condemnation by the Church of proposition lxviii of Baius: Infidelits pure negativa, in his quibus Christus non et praedicatus, peccatum est (purely negative infidelity in those to whom Christ has not been preached is a sin), was fully justified. But it is different with regard to positive infidelity, which is a sin against faith, the most grievous of all sins, apostasy. Being endowed with reason, and subject to natural law, infidels are not excluded from the moral order; they can perform acts of natural virtue; and so the ecclesiastical authorities had to condemn proposition xxv of Baius which declared that: Omnia infidelium opera peccata sunt, et philosophorum virtutes vitia (all works of infidels are sinful, and all the virtues of the philosophers are vices; cf. St. Thomas, loc. cit., a. 4; Hurter, Theol. dogm., III, thes. cxxvi and cxxvii). Daily experience moreover proves incontestably that there are infidels who really are religious, charitable, just, true to their word, upright in their business, and faithful to their family duties. One can say of them, as the Scriptures say of Cornelius the centurion, that their prayers and their alms are acceptable to God (Acts 10:4). It was especially among such well-meaning infidels that the Church of Jesus grew up, and it is from their ranks that she gains her recruits at the present day in missionary lands.

The Church, mindful of the order of the Saviour: Go, teach all nations (Matthew 28:12), has always considered the preaching of the Gospel among the infidels and their conversion by her apostolic missionaries to be one of her principal duties. This is not the place to recall the history of the missions, from the labours of St. Paul, the greatest of missionaries, and those who gave the light of faith to the Greek and Roman world, and those who converted the barbarian peoples, down through the ages when the phalanxes of religious men rushed to the conquest of the Orient, the Far East, and America, to the present-day pioneers of the religion of Jesus Christ; the multitude of heroes and martyrs and the harvest of souls that have been won to the true Faith. Doubtless, we still are far from having but one fold and one shepherd ; nevertheless, there is not today a province or race of men so remote, but has not heard the name of Him by whom all men must be saved and has given children to the Church. The work of the missions is placed, as is well known, under the care and direction of the congregation of cardinals that bears the admirable name Da Propaganda Fide (for the propagation of the Faith), instituted by Gregory XV in 1622. Ever encouraged and developed by the popes, it is the directing body on whom the evangelical labourers in infidel lands depend. It sends them forth and grants them their powers, it established the prefectures Apostolic and the vicariates, and it is the tribunal to whose decision the missionaries submit their controversies, difficulties, and doubts.

Thought there is a general obligation on the Church to toil for the conversion of infidels, yet it is not incumbent on any particular persons, unless on those priests charged with the care of souls who have infidels within their territory. For the distant fields of labour missionaries, priests, members of religious orders, both men and women, who voluntarily offer themselves for the apostolic work, are recruited in Catholic countries. Native Christians are not excluded from the ranks of the clergy, and it is a duty of the missionaries to provide themselves prudently with auxiliary workers in their missions. To draw the infidels to the Faith, the missionaries ought, like St. Paul, to make themselves all things to all men, adopt the customs of the country, acquire the native language, establish schools and charitable institutions, preach especially by their example, and show in their lives how the religion they have come to teach is to be practiced (cf. Instr. of the Prop. to the Vicars Apostolic of China, in the Collectanea S. C. de Prop. Fide, n. 328). They and their catechists are to instruct with zeal and patience to those who are anxious to know the true religion, admitting them to baptism after longer or shorter period of probation, as was done in the case of the catechumens in ancient times. But the conversion of infidels must be free and without compulsion, otherwise it will not be genuine and lasting (cap. 9, tit. vi, lib. V, de Judaeis). It cannot be denied that at various epochs, notably under Charlemagne and later in Spain, there were forced conversions, which may be explained, though not excused, by the custom of the age; but the Church was not responsible for them, as it has constantly taught that all conversions should be free. On several occasions it expressly forbade the baptism of Jews and infidels against their will, and even the baptism of children without their parents consent, unless they were in imminent danger of death (cf. Collect. cit., De subjecto baptismi). In the rite of administering baptism the Church still asks the questions: Quid petis ab Ecclesia Dei? Vis baptizari?

Though ecclesiastical law does not affect the acts of infidels as such, yet the Church has to pass judgment on the validity of these acts and their juridical consequences when infidels come within the fold by baptism. No act of an infidel can have any value from the point of view of the spiritual society to which he does not belong; he is incapable by Divine law of receiving the sacraments, notably Holy orders (evidently we are not speaking here of a purely material reception); nor can he receive or exercise any ecclesiastical jurisdiction. The acts of infidels are to be considered in the light of natural law, to which they, like all men, are subject, and in accordance with the Divine law, in so far as it determines the secondary natural law. This applies principally to the case of matrimony. The marriage of infidels is valid as a contract under natural law, not as a sacrament, though at times this word has been applied to it (cf. Encycl. Arcanum); it is subject only to the impediments of natural law and, at times, to those of the civil law also, but it is not affected by the impediments of canon law. However the Church does not recognize polygamy as lawful among infidels; as to divorce strictly so called, it admits it only under the form of the Casus Apostoli, also known as the privilege of the Faith or the Pauline privilege; this consists in a convert being permitted to abandon his partner, who remains an infidel, if the latter refuse to continue the common life without endangering the faith of the convert (cf. DIVORCE, I, B, 1); under such circumstances the convert may marry a Catholic. As to acts which are prohibited or void in virtue of canon law alone, they are valid when performed by infidels; thus, the impediment of the remoter degrees of consanguinity and affinity, etc., does not affect the marriages of infidels. But the juridical consequences of the acts, performed by them when infidels, begin to exist at the moment of and in virtue of their baptism; consequently, a converted widower may not marry a relative of his late wife without dispensation; and again, a man who has had two wives before his conversion is a bigamist and therefore irregular.

Most of the laws passed by the Church refer to the relations between its subjects and infidels in not only religious but also civil affairs. Speaking generally, the faithful are forbidden to take part in any religious rites, considered as such, of pagans, Mohammedans, or Jews, and all the more to practice them through a kind of survival of their primitive superstitions. If this prohibition is inspired not so much by a fear of the danger of perversion as by the law forbidding the faithful to communicate in sacris with non-Catholics, aversion to false religions and especially from idol worship justifies the rigor of the law. To mention but the principal acts, the faithful are forbidden to venerate idols, not only in their temples, but also in private houses, to contribute to the building or repairing of pagan temples or of mosques, to carve idols, to join in pagan sacrifices, to assist at Jewish circumcisions, to wear idolatrous images or objects having an acknowledged religious significance, so that the fact of wearing them is looked upon as an act of pagan worship, and finally to make use of superstitious and especially idolatrous practices in the acts of civil or domestic life. Some very delicate questions may arise in connection with the last prohibition; for instance, we may recall the celebrated controversy concerning the Chinese rites (see CHINA). On the other hand, it is not forbidden to enter temples and mosques out of mere curiosity if no act of religion be performed, or to eat food that has been offered to false gods, provided that this be not done in a temple or as a sacred repast, and that it be done without scandal; or to observe customs or perform acts which are not in themselves religious, even though pagans join superstitious practices to them. Not only is it not forbidden, but it is permissible and one might say obligatory to pray even publicly for infidel princes, in order that God may grant their subjects peace and prosperity; nothing is more conformable to the tradition of the Church; thus Catholics of the different rites in the Ottoman Empire pray for the sultan.

In this place mention may be made of the ecclesiastical law forbidding the faithful to marry infidels, a prohibition which is now a diriment impediment, rendering a marriage null and void unless a dispensation has been obtained (see DISPARITY OF WORSHIP). It is easy to see that there is a real danger to the faith and religious life of the Catholic party in the intimacy of married life and in the difficulties in the way of a Christian education of the children; and, if that party be the wife, in the excessive authority of the husband and the inferior condition of the wife in infidel countries; consequently, this dispensation is granted only with difficulty and when the precautions dictated by prudence have been taken. The laws regulating the dealings between Catholics and infidels in civil life were inspired also by religious motives, the danger of perversion, and the high idea entertained in the ages of faith of the superiority of Christians to infidels. These regulations, of course, did not refer to all acts of civil life; moreover, they were not directed against all infidels indifferently, but only against Jews; at the present day they have fallen almost completely into desuetude. In the early Middle Ages, Jews were forbidden to have Christian slaves; the laws of the decretals forbade Christians to enter the service of Jews, or Christian women to act as their nurses or midwives; moreover, Christians when ill were not to have recourse to Jewish physicians. These measures may be useful in certain countries today and we find them renewed, at least as recommendations, by recent councils (Council of Gran, in 1858; Prague, in 1860; and Utrecht, in 1865). As for the Jews, they were ordinarily restricted to certain definite quarters of the towns into which they were admitted, and had to wear a dress by which they might be recognized. Modern legislation has given the Jews the same rights as other citizens and the intercourse between them and Catholics in civil life is no longer governed by ecclesiastical law. (See JEWS AND JUDAISM; MOHAMMED AND MOHAMMEDANISM.)

About this page

APA citation. Boudinhon, A. (1910). Infidels. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Boudinhon, Auguste. "Infidels." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Sara-Ann Colleen Hill.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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