What is a Heresy?
St. Thomas defines heresy: “a species of infidelity in men who, having professed the faith of Christ, corrupt itsdogmas”. “The right Christian faith consists in giving one’s voluntary assent to Christ in all that truly belongs to His teaching.
2 Ways of Deviating from Christianity – There are, therefore, two ways of deviating from Christianity:
1. the one by refusing to believe in Christ Himself, which is the way of infidelity, common to Pagans and Jews
2. the other by restricting belief to certain points of Christ’s doctrine selected and fashioned at pleasure, which is the way of heretics.
The subject-matter of both faith and heresy is, therefore, the deposit of thefaith, that is, the sum total of truths revealed in Scripture and Tradition as proposed to our belief by the Church.
The Believer – The believer accepts the whole deposit as proposed by the Church;
The Heretic – the heretic accepts only such parts of it as commend themselves to his own approval.
The heretical tenets may be ignorance of the true creed, erroneous judgment, imperfect apprehension and comprehension of dogmas: in none of these does the will play an appreciable part, wherefore one of the necessary conditions of sinfulness–free choice–is wanting and such heresy is merely objective, or material.
On the other hand the will may freelyincline the intellect to adhere to tenets declared false by the Divine teaching authority of the Church. The impelling motives are many: intellectual pride or exaggerated reliance on one’s own insight; the illusions of religious zeal; the allurements of political orecclesiastical power; the ties of material interests and personal status; and perhaps others more dishonourable. Heresy thus willed is imputable to the subject and carries with it a varying degree of guilt; it is called formal, because to the material error it adds the informative element of “freely willed”.
Pertinacity, that is, obstinate adhesion to a particular tenet is required to make heresy formal.
For as long as one remains willing to submit to the Church’s decision he remains a Catholic Christian at heart and his wrong beliefs are only transient errors and fleeting opinions. Considering that the human intellect can assent only to truth, real or apparent, studied pertinacity — as distinct from wanton opposition — supposes a firm subjective conviction which may be sufficient to inform the conscience and create “good faith”. Such firm convictions result either from circumstances over which the heretic has no control or fromintellectual delinquencies in themselves more or less voluntary and imputable. A man born and nurtured in heretical surroundings may live and die without ever having a doubt as to the truth of his creed. On the other hand a born Catholic may allow himself to drift into whirls of anti-Catholic thought from which no doctrinal authority can rescue him, and where his mind becomesincrusted with convictions, or considerations sufficiently powerful to overlay his Catholic conscience. It is not for man, but forHim who searcheth the mind and heart, to sit in judgment on the guilt which attaches to an heretical conscience.
Heresy is opposed to faith; schism to charity; so that, although all heretics are schismatics because loss of faithinvolves separation from the Church, not all schismatics are necessarily heretics, since a man may, from anger, pride, ambition, or the like, sever himself from the communion of the Church and yet believe all the Church proposes for our belief (II-II, Q. xxix, a. 1). Such a one, however, would be more properly called rebellious than heretical.
Degrees of heresy
Both matter and form of heresy admit of degrees which find expression in the following technical formula of theology and canon law. Pertinacious adhesion to a doctrine contradictory to a point of faith clearly defined by the Church is heresy pure and simple,heresy in the first degree. But if the doctrine in question has not been expressly “defined” or is not clearly proposed as an article of faith in the ordinary, authorized teaching of the Church, an opinion opposed to it is styled sententia haeresi proxima, that is, an opinion approaching heresy. Next, a doctrinal proposition, without directly contradicting a received dogma, may yet involvelogical consequences at variance with revealed truth. Such a proposition is not heretical, it is a propositio theologice erronea, that is, erroneous in theology. Further, the opposition to an article of faith may not be strictly demonstrable, but only reach a certain degree of probability. In that case the doctrine is termed sententia de haeresi suspecta, haeresim sapiens; that is, an opinion suspected, or savouring, of heresy (see THEOLOGICAL CENSURES).
Gravity of the sin of heresy
Heresy is a sin because of its nature it is destructive of the virtue of Christian faith. Its malice is to be measured therefore by the excellence of the good gift of which it deprives the soul. Now faith is the most precious possession of man, the root of hissupernatural life, the pledge of his eternal salvation. Privation of faith is therefore the greatest evil, and deliberate rejection offaith is the greatest sin. St. Thomas (II-II, Q. x, a. 3) arrives at the same conclusion thus: “All sin is an aversion from God. A sin, therefore, is the greater the more it separates man from God. But infidelity does this more than any other sin, for the infidel(unbeliever) is without the true knowledge of God: his false knowledge does not bring him help, for what he opines is not God: manifestly, then, the sin of unbelief ( infidelitas) is the greatest sin in the whole range of perversity.” And he adds: “Although theGentiles err in more things than the Jews, and although the Jews are farther removed from true faith than heretics, yet the unbelief of the Jews is a more grievous sin than that of the Gentiles, because they corrupt the Gospel itself after having adopted and professed the same. . . . It is a more serious sin not to perform what one has promised than not to perform what one has not promised.” It cannot be pleaded in attenuation of the guilt of heresy that heretics do not deny the faith which to them appears necessary to salvation, but only such articles as they consider not to belong to the original deposit. In answer it suffices to remark that two of the most evident truths of the depositum fidei are the unity of the Church and the institution of ateaching authority to maintain that unity. That unity exists in the Catholic Church, and is preserved by the function of herteaching body: these are two facts which anyone can verify for himself. In the constitution of the Church there is no room for private judgment sorting essentials from non-essentials: any such selection disturbs the unity, and challenges the Divine authority, of the Church; it strikes at the very source of faith. The guilt of heresy is measured not so much by its subject-matter as by its formal principle, which is the same in all heresies: revolt against a Divinely constituted authority.
Christ, the apostles, and the fathers on heresy
Heresy, in the sense of falling away from the Faith, became possible only after the Faith had been promulgated by Christ. Its advent is clearly foretold, Matthew 24:11, 23-26: ” . . . many false prophets shall rise, and shall seduce many. . . . Then if any man shall say to you: Lo here is Christ, or there, do not believe him. For there shall rise false Christs and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch as to deceive (if possible) even the elect. Behold I have told it to you, beforehand. If therefore they shall say to you: Behold he is in the desert, go ye not out: Behold he is in the closets, believe it not.” Christ also indicated the marks by which to know the false prophets: “Who is not with me is against me” (Luke 11:23); “and if he will not hear the Church let him be to thee as the heathen and the publican” (Matthew 18:17); “he that believeth not shall be condemned” (Mark 16:16). The Apostles acted upon their Master’s directions. All the weight of their own Divine faith and mission is brought to bear upon innovators. “If any one”, says St. Paul, “preach to you a gospel, besides that you have received, let him be anathema” (Galatians 1:9). To St. John the heretic is a seducer, an antichrist, a man who dissolves Christ (1 John 4:3; 2 John 7); “receive him not into the house nor say to him, God speed you” (2 John 10). St. Peter, true to his office and to his impetuous nature, assails them as with a two-edged sword: ” . . . lying teachers who shall bring in sects of perdition, and deny the Lord who bought them: bringing upon themselves swift destruction . . . These are fountains without water, and clouds tossed with whirlwinds, to whom the mist of darkness is reserved” (2 Peter 2:1, 17). St. Jude speaks in a similar strain throughout his whole epistle. St. Paul admonishes the disturbers of the unity of faith at Corinth that “the weapons of our warfare. . . are mighty to God unto the pulling down of fortifications, destroying counsels, and every height that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God . . . and having in readiness to revenge all disobedience” (2 Corinthians 10:4, 5, 6).
Church legislation on heresy
Heresy, being a deadly poison generated within the organism of the Church, must be ejected if she is to live and perform her task of continuing Christ’s work of salvation.