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Sect and Sects

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Etymology and meaning

The word "sect" is not derived, as is sometimes asserted, from secare, to cut, to dissect, but from sequi, to follow (Skeat, "Etymological Dict.", 3rd ed., Oxford, 1898, s.v.). In the classical Latin tongue secta signified the mode of thought, the manner of life and, in a more specific sense, designated the political party to which one had sworn allegiance, or the philosophical school whose tenets he had embraced. Etymologically no offensive connotation is attached to the term. In the Acts of the Apostles it is applied both in the Latin of the Vulgate and in the English of the Douay version to the religious tendency with which one has identified himself (xxiv, 5; xxvi, 5; xxviii, 22; see xxiv, 14). The Epistles of the New Testament disparagingly apply it to the divisions within the Christian communities. The Epistle to the Galatians (v, 20) numbers among the works of the flesh, "quarrels, dissensions, sects"; and St. Peter in his second Epistle (ii, 1) speaks of the "lying teachers, who shall bring in sects of perdition". In subsequent Catholic ecclesiastical usage this meaning was retained (see Augustine, Reply to Faustus XX.3); but in Christian antiquity and the Middle Ages the term was of much less frequent use than "heresy" or "schism". These words were more specific and consequently clearer. Moreover, as heresy directly designated substantial doctrinal error and sect applied to external fellowship, the Church, which has always attached paramount importance to soundness in doctrine, would naturally prefer the doctrinal designation.

With the rise of Protestantism and the consequent disruption of the Christian religion into numerous denominations, the use of the word sect has become frequent among Christians. It usually implies at present disapproval in the mind of the speaker or writer. Such, however, is not necessarily the case as is evidenced by the widely used expression "sectarian" (for denominational) institutions and by the statement of the well-known authority H. W. Lyon that he uses the word "in no invidious sense" ("A Study of the Sects", Boston, 1891, p. 4). This extension of the term to all Christian denominations results no doubt, from the tendency of the modern non-Catholic world to consider all the various forms of Christianity as the embodiment of revealed truths and as equally entitled to recognition. Some churches, however, still take exception to the application of the term to themselves because of its implication, in their eyes, of inferiority or depreciation. The Protestant denominations which assume such an attitude are at a loss to determine the essential elements of a sect. In countries like England and Germany, where State Churches exist, it is usual to apply the name "sect" to all dissenters. Obedience to the civil authority in religious matters thus becomes the necessary prerequisite for a fair religious name. In lands where no particular religion is officially recognized the distinction between Church and sect is considered impossible by some Protestants (Loofs, "Symbolik", Leipzig, 1902, 74). Others claim that the preaching of the pure and unalloyed Word of God, the legitimate administration of the sacraments and the historical identification with the national life of a people entitle a denomination to be designated as a Church; in the absence of these qualifications it is merely a sect (Kalb, 592-94). This, however, does not solve the question; for what authority among Protestants will ultimately and to their general satisfaction judge of the character of the preaching or the manner in which the sacraments are administered? Furthermore, an historical religion may contain many elements of falsehood. Roman paganism was more closely identified with the life of the nation than any Christian religion ever was, and still it was an utterly defective religious system. It was a non-Christian system, but the example nevertheless illustrates the point at issue; for a religion true or false will remain so independently of subsequent historical association or national service.

To the Catholic the distinction of Church and sect presents no difficulty. For him, any Christian denomination which has set itself up independently of his own Church is a sect. According to Catholic teaching any Christians who, banded together refuse to accept the entire doctrine or to acknowledge the supreme authority of the Catholic Church, constitute merely a religious party under human unauthorized leadership. The Catholic Church alone is that universal society instituted by Jesus Christ which has a rightful claim to the allegiance of all men, although in fact, this allegiance is withheld by many because of ignorance and the abuse of free-will. She is the sole custodian of the complete teaching of Jesus Christ which must be accepted in its entirety by all mankind. Her members do not constitute a sect nor will they consent to be known as such, because they do not belong to a party called into existence by a human leader, or to a school of thought sworn to the dictates of a mortal master. They form part of a Church which embraces all space and in a certain sense both time and eternity, since it is militant, suffering, and triumphant. This claim that the Catholic religion is the only genuine form of Christianity may startle some by its exclusiveness. But the truth is necessarily exclusive; it must exclude error just as necessarily as light is incompatible with darkness. As all non-Catholic denominations reject some truth or truths taught by Christ, or repudiate the authority instituted by him in his Church, they have in some essential point sacrificed his doctrine to human learning or his authority to self-constituted leadership. That the Church should refuse to acknowledge such religious societies as organizations, like herself, of Divine origin and authority is the only logical course open to her. No fair-minded person will be offended at this if it be remembered that faithfulness to its Divine mission enforces this uncompromising attitude on the ecclesiastical authority. It is but a practical assertion of the principle that Divinely revealed truth cannot and must not be sacrificed to human objection and speculation. But while the Church condemns the errors of non-Catholics, she teaches the practice of justice and charity towards their persons, repudiates the use of violence and compulsion to effect their conversion and is ever ready to welcome back into the fold persons who have strayed from the path of truth.

Historical survey; causes; remedy of sectarianism

The recognition by the Church of the sects which sprang up in the course of her history would necessarily have been fatal to herself and to any consistent religious organization. From the time when Jewish and pagan elements threatened the purity of her doctrine to the days of modernistic errors, her history would have been but one long accommodation to new and sometimes contradictory opinions. Gnosticism, Manichæism, Arianism in the earlier days and Albigensianism, Hussitism, and Protestantism of later date, to mention only a few heresies, would have called for equal recognition. The different parties into which the sects usually split soon after their separation from the Mother Church would have been entitled in their turn to similar consideration. Not only Lutheranism, Calvinism, and Zwinglianism, but all the countless sects springing from them would have had to be looked upon as equally capable of leading men to Christ and salvation. The present existence of 168 Christian denominations in the United States alone sufficiently illustrates this contention. A Church adopting such a policy of universal approval is not liberal but indifferent; it does not lead but follows and cannot be said to have a teaching mission among men. Numerous general causes may be assigned for the disruption of Christianity. Among the principal ones were doctrinal controversies, disobedience to disciplinary prescriptions, and dissatisfaction with real or fancied ecclesiastical abuses. Political issues and national sentiment also had a share in complicating the religious difficulty. Moreover reasons of a personal nature and human passions not infrequently hindered that calm exercise of judgment so necessary in religious matters. These general causes resulted in the rejection of the vivifying principle of supernatural authority which is the foundation of all unity.

It is this principle of a living authority divinely commissioned to preserve and authoritatively interpret Divine Revelation which is the bond of union among the different members of the Catholic Church. To its repudiation is not only due the initial separation of non-Catholics, but also their subsequent failure in preserving union among themselves. Protestantism in particular, by its proclamation of the right of private interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures swept away with one stroke all living authority and constituted the individual supreme judge in doctrinal matters. Its divisions are therefore but natural, and its heresy trials in disagreement with one of its fundamental principles. The disastrous results of the many divisions among Christians are keenly felt today and the longing for union is manifest. The manner, however, in which the desired result may be attained is not clear to non-Catholics. Many see the solution in undogmatic Christianity or undenominationalism. The points of disagreement, they believe, ought to be overlooked and a common basis for union thus obtained. Hence they advocate the relegation of doctrinal differences to the background and attempt to rear a united Christianity chiefly on a moral basis. This plan, however, rests on a false assumption; for its minimizes, in an unwarranted degree, the importance of the right teaching and sound belief and thus tends to transform Christianity into a mere ethical code. From the inferior position assigned to doctrinal principles there is but one step to their partial or complete rejection, and undenominationalism, instead of being a return to the unity desired by Christ, cannot but result in the destruction of Christianity. It is not in the further rejection of truth that the divisions of Christianity can be healed, but in the sincere acceptance of what has been discarded; the remedy lies in the return of all dissenters to the Catholic Church.


Catholic authorities: BENSON, Non-Catholic Denominations (New York, 1910); MÖHLER, Symbolism, tr. ROBERTSON, 3rd ed. (New York, s. d.); PETRE, The Fallacy of Undenominationalism in Catholic World, LXXXIV (1906-07), 640-46; DÖLLINGER, Kirche u. Kirchen (Munich, 1861); VON RUVILLE, Back to Holy Church, tr. SCHOETENSACK (New York, 1911); a Catholic monthly magazine specifically devoted to Church unity is The Lamp (Garrison, New York) non-Catholic authorities: CARROLL, The Religious Forces of the United States, in American Church Hist. Series I (New York, 1893); KALB, Kirchen u. Sekten der Gegenwart (Stuttgart, 1907); KAWERAU, in Realencyklop. f. prot. Theol., 3rd ed., s.v.; SEKTENWESEN in Deutschland; BLUNT, Dict. of Sects (London, 1874); MASON, A Study of Sectarianism in New Church Review, I (Boston, 1894), 366-82; MCBEE, An Eirenic Itinerary (New York, 1911).

About this page

APA citation. Weber, N. (1912). Sect and Sects. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Weber, Nicholas. "Sect and Sects." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, D.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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