10 June 2009

Error, Heresy, & You

My Dominican service for the day: making distinctions and telling lies. . .

All too often these days we hear that This or That theologian or priest is teaching/preaching heresy. It's been a problem from the beginning (cf Paul's letters) and it will be with us until The End.

Most of time those teaching/preaching heresy draw a heavy line between Evangelization and Doctrine, meaning they separate the Work of the Church from Word of the Church. This separation allows them to do all the "feel-good" Work without being too terribly bothered with the Word. For example, "What does the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception have to do with feeding the hungry, making peace, and helping the poor find affordable health care?" The underlying assumption here is that they can do the Work of the Church without reference to the Word of the Church. This is false.

This last Trinity Sunday, we read in Matthew's gospel Jesus' charge to his disciples to go out into the world and "teach all that I have taught you." Christ irrevocably binds together evangelization, works of mercy, and truth-telling in our teaching and preaching. Strictly speaking, a priest who teaches heresy cannot evangelize the world by doing good works. His works may indeed be good, but an atheist or a Muslim or a Wiccan priestess could do the same work and do so in the absence of Catholic doctrine. The point of helping the poor is to honor God by honoring the creatures whom He made in His image and likeness and remade in Christ. In other words, we help the poor in order to worship the Triune God.

Now, we must draw a sharp distinction between error and heresy. The temptation to charge a fellow Catholic teaching error with the crime of heresy is nearly irresistible. We want it made perfectly clear that this guy is not teaching with the mind of the Church. Though all heresy is erroneous not all error is heresy.

"Error" is exactly that: a mistake, "getting it wrong," flubbing a statement of the truth. You forget to carry the "1" when subtracting. You switch letters when spelling out a word. Error, by definition, is unintentional and therefore blameless. Error can be corrected and instantly forgiven.

"Heresy" is something else entirely. Heresy is error stubbornly taught as truth; it is a mistake one holds as a truth. It's the banking equivalent of forgetting to carry the "1" and then obstinately refusing to admit the mistake, demanding that your calculation be accepted despite having been shown your error. Heresy is insisting that your spelling of a word is correct even after your reader uses several dictionaries to show you your error. Heresy is intentional, obstinate, and arrogant.

Let's say your pastor on Christ the King Sunday preaches a homily in which he says, "Christ our Lord was created by the Father to give us eternal life." The idea that the Son is a creation of the Father is part of the heresy called "Arianism." The Son was not created but rather eternally begotten. The Three Persons of the Trinity are co-eternal; there is no temporal or ontological priority within the Trinity. You point this out to your pastor: "Father, you were teaching heresy this morning!" Strictly speaking, this is true. He did indeed teach the heresy of Arianism. But is Father a heretic? It depends on how he responds.

He responds to you, "I know! I realized it later in the Mass, and I should have corrected myself. I'll put a note in the bulletin. How embarrassing." Though he has taught heresy, he is not a heretic. Let's say he responses, "Oh yes, I know. Basically, I think the idea of the Son as begotten of the Father is baloney. Jesus is one of us, a creature. We shouldn't think of him as God." You, a bit shocked, remind him that the Council of Nicaea condemned Arianism in the Nicene Creed. Again, he says, "I know, I know. But that council was one big political mess. Besides, all that Greek philosophy should have never been allowed into the Church" and so on. Is Father a heretic? Not yet.

So far, no one with magisterial authority has attempted to correct Father. If you contact the bishop and the bishop contacts Father and corrects him and he refuses to budge on the issue, then he compels the bishop to determine his orthodoxy. Maybe Father simply misunderstands what the Creed teaches. Maybe he has a mistaken notion of what "begotten" means. Maybe he is somehow intellectually impaired or in a fit of misplaced compassion, he has given one doctrine (Jesus' humanity) priority over another (his divinity) in a false move to make Christ accessible. The bishop corrects all of these errors. And Father still refuses to budge.

At some point in the exchange it becomes clear that Father is a formal heretic; that is, he actually believes his error to be the truth. By refusing to be corrected by a competent ecclesial authority, Father places himself outside the communion of the Church and remains there until he recants. Even if he faithfully teaches every other doctrine of the Church correctly, he is teaching heresy on this issue. Of course, it's simply impossible to teach just one heresy. Like the game of Jenga, when you remove one support from the structure, the whole thing starts to wobble and eventually it collapses. A heretic who wants to be wrong on one doctrine faces the daunting prospect of either abandoning the faith altogether in an effort to be theologically consistent with his heresy, or figuring out a way to teach his heresy as consistent with all other doctrinal truths. I do not believe the latter is possible. Heresy corrodes one's faith by compelling you to reject one truth after another in order to remain consistent with the initial heresy.

So, feeding the poor as an act of Christian mercy while believing that Jesus is simply a creature just like one of us is not possible. Though the act can be merciful, it is not Christian. We do good works AS Christians. An atheist can do good works, but he does not do them in order to evangelize. A Buddhist can do good works, but she does not do them to honor the poor in their dignity as creatures made and remade in the likeness and image of God. Everything we do as Christians is principally about giving glory to God. Any material good that comes from this spiritual duty is welcomed and wonderful, but it's hardly the point of being a Christian.

Do not let anyone tell you that orthodox belief is irrelevant to orthodox practice. One cannot exist without the other.


  1. Ståle4:01 AM

    Thanks for the clarification!

    What about the laity? Can a layman be declared a heretic by the church?

  2. I'm a bit sceptical about your Jenga analogy. Surely, it depends upon what the person is heretical about? For example, I don't really understand the division between the Orthodox and the Catholic church. They hold a different view about the Trinity and the role of the Pope. With your Jenga analogy their faith is nothing. Can that realy be the case when in extream circumstances Catholics are allowed to recieve the blessed sacrament from Orthodox Priests?

  3. Stale, oh yes...though the potential for scandal is lessened b/c the layman is not likely to have audience for his heresy. Lay theologians and others can and do teach heresy.

  4. Jake, the Orthodox and Catholic Churches lifted their mutual excommunications back in the 60's. The RCC does not consider the OC to be heretical. There are questions about RC participation in OC sacraments given that they do not recognize the Pope. However, the OC is not in schism with the RCC like the Protestant churches.

  5. Jake, I should add...cf CCC 838.

  6. I've heard that a Dominican friar of the [Western U.S.] Province of the Holy Name taught the student brothers that they could expect to preach one material heresy in every homily, but they ought at least to know which heresy it is.

    On the "Christ our Lord was created by the Father" example, I can also imagine a homilist distinguishing between the Eternal Son and His created human nature in some way that may or may not be heretical, but will certainly be too confusing for a homily.

  7. Anonymous10:05 AM

    Father Philip Neri,
    This short article conveys some very important distinctions that should have wider coverage. Why don't you dress that piece up and submit it to some Catholic publisher (HPR; St. Anthony Messenger; whichever NCR would take it, etc.). Thanks for your work.

  8. On the Monday after my ordination as a deacon at Blackfriars, Oxford, I was asked to preach the daily Mass. It was the memorial of the Oxford martyrs.

    When all was done, I asked one of the profs what he thought of the homily. After saying a few good things about the style and content, he noted that I had preached the heresy of patripassianism. Look it up. OY!

    Great debut.

  9. Heh.

    We belonged to a church in Milwaukee which was pretty 'traditional' while being an Ordinary Rite parish.

    The pastor, however, was problematic. He tended to talk faster than he thought during sermons.

    Three of us would actually count his errors-in-sermons every Sunday, and almost always came up with more than three--once, it was SEVEN in one sermon.

    We didn't think he was a heretic, but we would have liked it if he had written his sermons, carefully.

  10. Anonymous1:52 AM

    I couldnt' find your email address re: link to Domincans down under.

    I mention it only because
    I'm about to give the vocations director a call.

    How could anyone not want to be a Dominican reading your blog?


  11. Martin, welcome to the OP Adventure!

    Glad you enjoy the blog...warts and all.

    Fr. Philip, OP

    my email is: neripowell(at)yahoo(dot)com

  12. Dear Father,

    You may have heard of the recent contretemps in Australia, where Fr Kennedy of St Mary's, South Brisbane, had been invalidly baptizing for years; he has recently been removed from the parish, and, having set up his own Mass centre "in exile", has just been suspended as a priest. While he has not yet been formally declared a heretic, his bizarre views on well, just about everything from the Divinity of Our Lord down certainly make him seem like one. Unfortunately, he has led many astray by his great emphasis on (guess) good works and social justice concerns...

  13. Oddly, most medieval and modern heresies do not result from deep philosophical or theological differences with orthodoxy...my guess is that most of the them result from very well-intentioned efforts to bring the Church closer to the poor...the Albigensians, for example, and the liberation theologians...

  14. Father, you wrote:

    A heretic who wants to be wrong on one doctrine faces the daunting prospect of either abandoning the faith altogether in an effort to be theologically consistent with his heresy, or figuring out a way to teach his heresy as consistent with all other doctrinal truths. I do not believe the latter is possible. Heresy corrodes one's faith by compelling you to reject one truth after another in order to remain consistent with the initial heresy.

    St. Thomas objects that one who rejects a single article of faith, has no faith, living or dead, at all (IIa IIae,q5 a3), having rather their own opinion.

  15. Mark,

    Yup. Exactly what I wrote. :-)