Mark 9:24

Countering heresy

In Lay Meditations on July 24, 2011 at 1:45 am

We cannot explain why orthodoxy wins over heresy by appealing to the iron heel. If the Church ever crushed opposition, proponents of this view citing the relatively bloodless Inquisition and more sophisticated critics citing the crusade against the essentially anarchist Cathars, it is not the pattern. For example, over the Arians, who had full state support, orthodoxy prevailed through the martyrdom of the again-oppressed Christians. Against the lies of the Eastern bloc governments, Christianity flourished in defiance.

Only in the sense of the eventual victor is orthodoxy a history of the winners.

I do not say that Christian truth is and always has been oppressed — as ignored as it may be from time to time — nor do I attempt to justify the Inquisition, but rather I say that reality is not nearly so simple than the “iron heel” hypothesis.

To go farther we must define our terms: Orthodoxy translates as “right belief,” and so the opposed, heresy, is “wrong belief.” More specifically, heresy is “undue emphasis of a certain portion or aspect of doctrine at the expense of another.” Heresy is, essentially, deception. As with all lies — and all evil things — it begins with a truth and twists or inflames that truth beyond its proper portion. It is obsession, very soon paired with denial of ecclesial authority, and, I believe, motivated more by a desire for originality or worldly fame than for truth. On the simple level of falsehood, heresy is already grave matter.

This is why in labeling or not a thing as heresy the Church treads carefully. We cannot truthfully say that Church rebels at the City of Man but rather that She condemns the aspects intrinsically tied up with sin. We must also note that the Church does not call every new thing a heresy. In the words of Kreeft:

My position is no a priori prejudice against change in the Church. Many of the saints can and did call for changes in the Church.

As with all living things — life reflecting the Greatest Good — the Church grows and changes over time in Her accidents. The Church never changes in substance. In this way, the Eucharistic Body of Christ is much like the ecclesial Body of Christ. This is so obvious on a moment’s reflection that I am ashamed at not thinking of it before. As is Adoration, it is a great calling to meditate on the substance of the Church, and better still to have something to say about it, even if all we can muster is straw. What provokes us to meditation? Heresy.

Heresy is an evil thing, but from renouncing heresy comes a deeper understanding of revelation and our logically consistent traditions, passed on in ritual and constant teaching since apostolic times. Here, as always, we see that from evil comes a greater good. It’s almost Chestertonian: We encounter God by countering heresy.

  1. Just remember, Ben: “heresy” comes form the Greek word meaning “choice.” And when people have a choice, heresy will flourish.

    Heresy, choice, is the great glory of humankind. The Reformation, the Enlightenment, the glorious de-Christianization of Europe in the last half of the twentieth century, the decline of Christianity in the USA during the last two decades (see the ARIS surveys), the rise to dominance of “cafeteria Catholics” in America, the collapse of “religious vocations” in recent years, the turning away from Catholicism in Latin America to fringe sects — the glorious history of heresy makes one proud.

    Once we get a good strong heretic on the throne of St. Peter, the final victory will have been won.

    Ah, a world free of Christianity! Such a glorious future.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

  2. Thank you for the insights.

    It’s interesting that you consider having a good strong heretic on the throne of St. Peter the final victory. This means that the battle against Catholicism is the final battle. This means that the defeat of Catholicism is necessary to bring about the victory of something. This means that Catholicism is opposed to something very strongly and is the only serious barrier preventing the final victory of that something.

    At this point, I think we can look at history — not at the Black Legend of the Inquisition, or the Galileo myth — to decide what it is exactly that the Church has been opposed to all this time. “Choose today whom you will serve.”

    In any case, you realize that’s been tried before, right?

    • Ben wrote to me:
      > It’s interesting that you consider having a good strong heretic on the throne of St. Peter the final victory. This means that the battle against Catholicism is the final battle. This means that the defeat of Catholicism is necessary to bring about the victory of something. This means that Catholicism is opposed to something very strongly and is the only serious barrier preventing the final victory of that something.

      Well, no. It’s just a nice symbol. I mean wouldn’t it be cool for a Pope to come clean and say:

      “The leading scholars of the Church have known since the middle of the twentieth century that the old stories about the Resurrection, the Incarnation, and the Virgin Birth were just myths that started out as early followers of Jesus attempted to indicate their respect for their dead teacher by making up fanciful tales to illustrate what a great guy he was. Alas, too many ordinary Christians started taking those fables literally, and the Church hierarchy, who knew better, felt trapped and went along. I and my recent predecessors have looked for a way out of this unholy mess, and I have finally decided simply to tell the truth: Jesus was just a man. I apologize to all who were deceived but remind them that they *wanted* to be deceived, indeed insisted on being deceived. It’s not as if they could not have found out the truth from many sources outside the Church. But, now that so few Catholics any longer believe in the old lies, well… it’s like parents’ pretending to believe in Santa when the kids know the truth. Silly. So, I am reorganizing the Roman Catholic Church into the “Jesus of Nazareth Memorial Charitable and Historical Monument Society.” As my last act of Pope, I hereby forbid all faithful Catholics from ever again praying to Jesus, or to anyone else who has died. Henceforward, I shall be addressed as the Chairman of the Board of the Jesus Memorial Society. Let us no longer profane the memory of this great man, Jesus of Nazareth, by pretending that he was anything more or less than a man like all the rest of us. He died, and he is still dead. May he Rest in peace.”
      “Thank you.”

      How long do you think it will be before we hear a speech like that from the Holy See?

      Sooner than you think, I suspect.

      If Gorbachev could tell the truth about Communism, the day will come when a Pope tells the truth about Christianity.

      • Thank you for your insights, but I feel I must stress: Final victories are never symbols. If they are only the capstone, they are still the only reason for the pyramid and totally the fulfillment of the promise of four sides and a base. It is quite clear that the bottom of such a structure is for the placing of the final pointed stone at the top. You might say that without the final victory of a capstone the pyramids are pointless.

  3. Sorry, Ben, but I disagree. I do not, after all, really care whether we convince 99.999 percent of Christians that Christianity is false or 100 percent of Christians. Either counts as a victory. If we were to convince everyone except the Pope, that would still be a monumental victory, even if not technically “final.” Remember this is what started your and my discussion: your inability to understand why we atheists do not feel a need to convince the entire human race. We just don’t: we’ll get most of the human race, and that is enough (to use your term, the “outright dumb” are not that relevant).

    Nonetheless, I think the day will come when even the last Pope abandons belief in “Christ” (as opposed to the mere man Jesus), and this will be very, very cool.

    But, by that time, the real victory will already have been won. The public submission of the Pope really will be largely symbolic.

    The victory is, indeed, already largely won: Have you read anything by Raymond E. Brown, the foremost Catholic New Testament scholar? Try his “The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus”. A lot of the leaders on your side have already given up: they are just looking for a graceful way to surrender publicly (think of Hans Küng, Karl Rahner…).

    And think too of all the ordinary Catholics who no longer believe in transubstantiation, or the Virgin Birth, or demonic possession.

    Not much longer left, Ben.

    By the way, if you cannot get Brown’s book, this site ( ) has lots of good excerpts. E.g.,

    >It was this interaction [of the eschatological and the historical] that Pope Paul pointed to in the same address when he spoke of the resurrection as “the unique and sensational event on which the whole of human history turns.” This is not the same, however, as saying that the resurrection itself was a historical event, even though editorial writers quoted the Pope’s speech to that effect.

    Brown’s book carries the Nihil Obstat and Iprimatur.

    Your leaders are pulling back, Ben.

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