Thursday, March 24, 2011

On Heresy

I apologize in advance to anyone to whom this may apply; it's nothing personal. It's just that a recent conversation got me researching the issue in a more systematic manner than I ever had before, and I am compulsively driven to use this blog to organize and clarify my own thoughts.

A theological realization I've had is learning that heresy (assuming no invincible ignorance about what the Church teaches, which I'd think it's pretty hard for a knowledgeable Catholic to have)...destroys the virtue of supernatural Faith.

Because, apparently (and I'm just learning this theologically)...the object of Faith is the entire deposit of faith, taken as a whole, proposed by the Church as revealed by God. One cannot reject, then, even one article and still have the supernatural virtue of Faith, because the object of the virtue is not individual articles, but the unity of the revealed deposit as a whole.

Of course, merely material heretics, with invincible ignorance, might indeed submit to the deposit of revelation implicitly, and just be mistaken about what it contains. Such is usually assumed about ignorant people raised Protestant. But for Catholics, for whom I'd think invincible ignorance about what Christ's Church teachers is rather unlikely...a single heresy destroys the supernatural virtue of Faith. In this case...there isn't any spectrum. Faith is by nature, as a supernatural virtue, "all or nothing."

Now, a person might nevertheless "believe" many or even all Catholic truths besides their particular heresy. But mere natural belief in the sense of an intellectual conviction (even to things known initially only from Revelation) is not the supernatural virtue of Faith, which requires the choice of assent to the entire deposit of faith. Such an assent does not require understanding or being rationally convinced or "feeling" that the teaching is true or makes sense. It is a free choice to submit intellectually, even if our imperfect human reason is not satisfied.

I know some of you probably hate Catholic Encyclopedia given how much I use it, but:
St. Thomas (II-II:11:1) defines heresy: "a species of infidelity in men who, having professed the faith of Christ, corrupt its dogmas". "The right Christian faith consists in giving one's voluntary assent to Christ in all that truly belongs to His teaching. There are, therefore, two ways of deviating from Christianity: the one by refusing to believe in Christ Himself, which is the way of infidelity, common to Pagans and Jews; 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 the faith, that is, the sum total of truths revealed in Scripture and Tradition as proposed to our belief by the Church. The believer accepts the whole deposit as proposed by the Church; the heretic accepts only such parts of it as commend themselves to his own approval [...] The impelling motives are many: intellectual pride or exaggerated reliance on one's own insight; the illusions of religious zeal; the allurements of political or ecclesiastical power; the ties of material interests and personal status; and perhaps others more dishonourable.


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 his supernatural life, the pledge of his eternal salvation. Privation of faith is therefore the greatest evil, and deliberate rejection of faith 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 the Gentiles 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 a teaching authority to maintain that unity. That unity exists in the Catholic Church, and is preserved by the function of her teaching 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.
A heretic who, knowing what the Church teaches (in other words, is not invincibly ignorant), willfully rejects even one article in the deposit...kills the virtue of supernatural Faith in his soul (which normally remains in spite of every other sin, even when mortal sins extinguish supernatural Hope and Charity) and thus commits the most grievous sin imaginable.

Faith, once lost, can absolutely only be restored by an extraordinary intervention of God. Charity and Hope may be restored through repentance that, in some sense, flows from the virtue of Faith that remains even in a mortal sinner. But one who has lost Faith is utterly without even that font for further graces to flow from.

God's forgiveness of countless heretics throughout history and extending to them the grace of restoring the supernatural faith they have lost (which cannot be regained by any human means) is thus, perhaps, the ultimate expression of His mercy in history towards those who have so flippantly dispensed with the most precious gift imaginable, all while trying to hold onto natural belief in some elements of the true religion for comfort or any of the motives listed above, "
intellectual pride or exaggerated reliance on one's own insight; the illusions of religious zeal; the allurements of political or ecclesiastical power; the ties of material interests and personal status; and perhaps others more dishonourable," and corrupting others in the process; even the least vocal of heretics by nature strikes out against the supernatural unity of the Church.

The notion that such a person is still Catholic in any supernatural sense of the word (except inasmuch as souls in Hell with the indelible baptismal character can be called "Catholic")...has not place in our tradition given these teachings. And yet how many souls does the hierarchy love to call "Catholic" when it suits inflating their statistics when it is clear that many such people are formal heretics.

In days gone by, the "peasants" of the Church may have had "good faith" submission to the entire deposit, even while misunderstanding or being ignorant about what it contained. And sometimes perhaps it was better, in the plan of Providence, for them to be left in this benign neglect. Given how poor catechesis is, perhaps we may hope that some such people of good will constitute a significant segment of Catholics today, for whom their [material] heresy is merely a misunderstanding.

But romanticizing this quaint state among those of us who are not invincibly ignorant of what the Church teaches is to reduce Catholicism to a mere anthropological interest, to "aesthetic" flirtation with a Beauty devoid of Truth, to an affected contrarianism in the form of some sort of hipster obscurantism, the kind that says, "I'm so progressive, I'm actually traditional. Kind of."

This is mere mental masturbation and, yes,
intellectual promiscuity, a glass-bead-game of philosophical or academic one-upmanship where one apparently wins by keeping a straight face while attempting to justify the most outrageous ideas (by the World's standards) using the World's own logic, or to justify an absurd "Catholic" identity while stretching the very notion to the breaking-point. An "ironic" religious identity, is no identity at all.

Now I'm not saying have an Inquisition, though nothing undermines the faith more than such sleeper agents (*cough* "Hans Küng"
*cough*) who apparently get off on claiming to be Catholic while rejecting things essential to what that means. Nor to rub this in people's faces (though sometimes perhaps we should). But we certainly can't deny the truth just to spare peoples feelings. Heretics cannot, in the strict sense, be accounted as Catholics, and someone who knows what the Church teaches, but denies assent to infinitely worse off than the person who assents to the teaching even while continuing to sin grievously.

So I will just remind my readers: it is very hot in Hell.

1 comment:

Mark of the Vineyard said...

Thanks for the post. Actually this is something that's been mulling over in my head for a while now (not as articulate as how you've explained here, and neither with the research you've done). Thanks for giving me more stuff to work with.