Heterodox Does Not Mean Heretical

Eamonn Clark

Update: See Dr. Ed Peters take on this issue (in a better way, taking up the issue of “refraining from proclaiming truth”) here.

In an earlier post I examined the beleaguered (and yes, still deserving of charity) Fr. James Martin, SJ’s denunciation of the rash use of the label “heretic,” together with some extremely suspicious Christology.

I actually agree with him regarding his claim that he is not a heretic (at least according to law, which involves outward signs revealing what is within the soul). This is with respect to his Christology and even with his homosexualist agenda. Nor does his shocking (but not quite totally direct) endorsement of apostasy rise to the level of “heresy,” I suggest. Of course, I also think these things are awful and deserve serious attention from the appropriate ecclesiastical authorities. Until such a time as those offices give that attention, and as long as “Martin Mania” continues, may I offer some selected thoughts on how to navigate this alarming controversy and propose the wide-spread resurgence of the use of a timeless treasure of the Church – hopefully in an “official” way?

Theological censures.

A theological censure is a kind of warning – or judgment – about a teaching or a written work. A local bishop, a special commission, a Roman congregation, or the pope himself might issue a censure. A censure says that a teaching or work is heterodox (at odds with the truth in any of a variety of ways) and/or dangerous to the moral life of those who might encounter it. Works that receive bad enough censures might be put on an index of forbidden literature, and teachings might be condemned in the form of a syllabus. Theological censures are still used today but not nearly as much as they used to be. While there is some danger with them (such as descending into incessant hair-splitting or losing a sense of theology’s purpose, such as was happening with the overuse of manuals), it seems an opportune moment to begin at least talking about popularizing this tool once more.

Suppose a Jesuit writes a book with imbalanced emphases, a bold assertion about rewording the Catechism, and generally scandalous phrases which tend to affirm sinners in their sin. What censures might be relevant?

There are three broad classes of censures which could possibly be placed on any work, or even propositions within a work. The first regards the importance of the teaching’s object itself, the second regards the mode of expression of that teaching, and the third regards the moral character of the teaching itself and its foreseen practical consequences for morals. (There is another means of categorizing censures, viz., according to the relevant “theological note”, but this is the simpler method and allows an easier way to admit the third category mentioned here.)

The first category is where we find the term “hæretica,” meaning “heretical.” It is the highest censure that can be placed on a teaching or work. A heretical teaching is one which directly and immediately contradicts a doctrine “de fide” (or dogma), a truth revealed by God which must be believed (“credenda”) with divine and Catholic faith. To say, “God is four Persons,” or “Christ had only a human nature,” or “the Eucharist is not substantially Christ,” or “the Commandments are impossible even for one in grace,” would be heretical. It is very, very difficult to earn this stamp of disapproval. The too frequent use of the word “heresy” is a bit like the casual use of bad language – it empties it of its power, and it should be discouraged. It is quite difficult to commit the sin of heresy, and it is even more difficult to commit the outward crime which can be judged by the Church publicly as such. The latter requires outward, explicit, and obstinate confession of a proposition directly contrary to a de fide truth/dogma.

Are there dogmas regarding morals? Yes. I contend it is dogmatically certain that murder is immoral, as it is expressly condemned in Scripture and denounced by the ordinary magisterium of the Church in an infallible way, that is, consistently and universally throughout the entire history of the Church. It would be heretical to support murder as such. On the other hand, it would be more difficult to say that the immorality of abortion is a dogma, as it is at least somewhat debatable that the ordinary magisterium has consistently and universally enough maintained that unborn life in all its stages is truly human and therefore inviolable. The naturally available truth of the humanity of the embryo, now completely evident, confirms that abortion does indeed constitute murder. But because we have to put these two truths together, one which is a dogma and one which is a natural truth related to it, to say abortion is immoral is not, in the strictest sense, heretical. One might put it in one of two categories: “erronea” (erroneous), supposing the humanity of the embryo is or was a sufficiently doubtfully applied natural truth, unlike an innocent adult (which, if taken away, would leave the 5th Commandment void of content altogether), or “hæresi proxima” (next to heresy or approaching heresy), if it is the case that one sees the humanity of the embryo as having been insufficiently doubtful to warrant the need for an additional truth on top of what is already implicitly contained in the Commandment. Either way, this is still a terrible label… To be in an error of faith, or to be next to heresy, should be frightening to the one putting forth the teaching, as it is still mortal sin. (Do take a look at the theological notes chart here, with more examples and explanations for all this.) Error regards things which still must be held (“tenenda”) by Catholics. The support of the legal recognition of same-sex unions as marriage would fall in one of these lower (but still binding) categories… It involves a dogma and a naturally available truth (called a “certa”), or it involves a truth immediately derived from the dogma which is “proxima fidei” (next to faith and commonly believed to be revealed, but without ever being the object of a formal enough definition). The dogma is that sacramental marriage is between a man and a woman, and the natural or derivative truth is that men are not women (and vice versa). Supporting homosexual marriage in law would be contradicting either a certa (mix of a truth from natural reason and a truth “de fide”) or to contradict the immediate derivative of the dogma itself. Heterodox? Yes. Heretical? No. (I tend to favor the label “erroneous,” but that’s too much to get into here.) And the vaguer the language becomes, the more difficult it is to levy a high censure rightly. To say something like, “There can be true love in a homosexual act,” is surely wrong in many ways, but it is vague enough to be far from deserving that worst of labels, “heresy.”

Returning to the example of abortion, the claim that so-called medical abortion or craniotomy (both of which destroy the child to save the mother) are licit procedures, given that such a condemnation is difficult to reconcile with the general affirmation of the morality of self-defense, could be called “errori proxima” (next to error): the contrary is able to be deduced from the right teaching on abortion. It would be “temeratia” (rash) to assert that the vast majority of abortions are only venial sins on the part of the mother due to the distress of the situation. In no way is this clear, as the natural truths involved are not at all available to the one who makes this claim (so one must wonder at the reasoning), and so this is also at odds with the common opinion of theologians.

Propositions which just seem like heresy or error but can’t quite be charged with the other offenses might be labeled “sapiens hæresi/errori” (smacking of heresy/error) or even “suspecta de hæresi/errori” (suspected of heresy/error).

There are other qualifying labels which might be added, according to what kind of truth is being contradicted (Scriptural, credal, moral, etc.), but this will do for our investigation of the first category.

The second regards the way a teaching is put forth. Even true teachings could be censured in this way. A proposition may be “ambigua” (ambiguous), for example, leaving itself wide open to bad interpretation. “Protestants should be welcomed into the Catholic Church,” might be an example… Surely, entrance into full communion should be done in a welcoming way, but we should not simply begin treating Protestants as part of the Catholic Church.

Statements might also be “captiosa” (captious), “male sonans” (evil-sounding), or, my favorite in this category, “piarum aurium offensiva” (offensive to pious ears). The first uses unobjectionable language to forward an objectionable agenda (“Priests might be allowed to marry one day.”) The second is when inappropriate words are used to express truths (use your imagination). The third simply shocks the sensibilities of Catholics, though it may well be true. (See my post on Jesus and the Aliens, which arguably comes under this category. I claim there that our sacramental economy could not incorporate extraterrestrial life because aliens are not descended from Adam. The short and “offensive” version is, “Jesus can’t save aliens.”)

The third category describes what a teaching does that is morally wrong or encourages that is morally wrong. They are rather self-explanatory. The category includes but is not limited to “subsannativa religionis” (derisive of religion), “decolorativa canodris ecclesiæ” (defacing the beauty of the Church), “subversia hierarchiæ” (subversive of the hierarchy), “arrogans” (arrogant), “scandelosa,” “perniciosa,” “periculosa in moribus” (scandalous, pernicious, dangerous to morals), which might include “blasphema” (leading to blasphemy), “magica” (leading to sorcery), “idolatra” (leading to idolatry), etc., etc.

Hopefully this will serve as a decent primer on this important and seemingly neglected area of Church governance and teaching.

What censures might some of Fr. James Martin, SJ’s countless articles, tweets, books, and speeches rightly be labeled with? Many, for sure, but that would be for the lawful authorities of the Church to determine and pronounce. Though I do not think that anything I have seen warrants that highest and worst label hæretica.

But that is surely nothing to brag about.

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Main image: Detail of an icon of Nicaea I

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