|I. 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 tenents 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 August. contra Faust. Manich. 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 Go , 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.