Mark 9:24

Heresy, that wayward righteousness

In Lay Meditations on September 16, 2012 at 6:18 am

At the core of many heresies [1], if not the spark or the first impulse, there is some understandable, and sometimes laudable, wish. Though all heresies distort some truth at the cost of others, some simplify the truth while others exaggerate a truth. What man tired of mystery isn’t tempted to want a simpler truth better understood, and what man enamored with a point of truth is not tempted to ignore other truths for the sake of his beloved?

Righteousness brings conviction, which can be a good, so long as it is applied evenly; no man with in the cancer of self-righteousness convicts oneself.

Today, simplification of divine truth is sometimes called modernism. Laughingly so, it must be hoped — accommodationists, seeking to smooth out the hard teachings of the church with a wink or a shrug, have haunted the Church in every age [2], right back to the Arians [3]. Because these Sadducees let fashion or politeness trump truth for the sake of peace, they forget the truth which sustains them; therefore, this sect dies and is forgotten [4].

More sympathetic by far, and more dangerous, is the love of truth. It is not for the hatred of the Church or Christ or the truth that a really dangerous heresy arises, but by obsession with a truth at the cost of others. Not only this, but often it is the same love of truth and hatred of scandal which causes the most lingering schisms from the Church. Take these three: In the early Church was Donatism, in the Middle Ages were the reformers, and in this age exists some forms of traditionalism [5].

In all three, indignation, whatever forms it later took, began as righteous, often laudable indignation. As with the Donatists before him and the SSPX after him, Luther rightly protested the scandal of Christian sin reflected by the destruction, loss, or widespread ignorance of authentic Christian piety [6]Luther would be easier to dismiss if he were always wrong; it is the central drama of Luther that he was sometimes right. 

Yet when yells yield to shouts and tempers take no prisoners even men against error will finally oppose truth. Luther began protesting clerical abuse and ended by protesting clerics. He began by denouncing Tetzel and ended by denouncing Peter. So it is when righteous indignation falls to self-righteous impatience: Your theories and tracts spiral out of control, and you end up saying such nonsense that only your partisans will believe you. Heretics don’t know when to stop. 

And yet, once you shock the crowd into silence, your heart races. Blood of the man before you pours from his nose and drips from your fist; what has been done cannot be undone. There is only the cavalry charge or the white flag of surrender. Yield now and you not only show yourself wrong. Yield and you show your gut instinct wrong, or so believes a righteous heretic. 

But your gut instinct is right! What is more, you do not want to betray your original gut instinct that, if cooler heads had prevailed, your opponent should have agreed with. Instead of admitting fault, admitting excess, you charge ahead. Hesitatingly at first, but then with practiced gusto: You pound your chest when you should have offered a mea culpa.

Such is what happens when men who champion the truth forget themselves, thinking themselves paragons of truth. In speaking the truth you are noble; in thinking you speak only truth, you become ignoble. In varying order, there are these qualities in the righteous heretic:

  • Indignation;
  • Impatience;
  • Rationalization; and
  • Obstinance.

Essentially, the tragedy of Luther is not that he was a demon but that he was not. He was not so much a bad man from the start, but an intemperate one who, fighting for a good cause, fought too far, denounced a true thing, and either did not know it or would not admit it. Donatists of every age suffer a similar temptation.


Catholics, consider this the moral of the story: Apply this to some of the folks who say some silly things in defense of old, good things, especially those who aren’t really heretics. In appealing to rules, they are usually not lovers of rules but lovers of the liturgy, lovers of the Mass, adorers of Christ. They are the loyalists [7], embittered against rebels, and of a generation who does not remember mumbled Latin and the lowest Low Mass but rather remembers sand in the holy water font [8].

Just as in our modern day there is a split between the twin foolishnesses of modernism and fundamentalism, one is more sympathetic than the other; only one can claim to be righteous.


1. Heresy: False doctrine. Usually truth falsely emphasized at the cost of other truth. Heretic: One who holds heresy. (This is not the canonical definition but the colloquial definition of heretic. Canonically, one has to hold heresy and know it to be false to be, canonically, a heretic.) Also note that this whole paragraph assumes good intentions within the a core group involved in the heresy. It is quite possible that the first heretics in question were powergrubbers not to be trusted; in cases such as these apply the benefit of the doubt to those duped. 

2. This is to say, modernism’s mood or attitude antedates our present age. Modernism as a technical term does refer to a particular branch of nonsense uniquely in our present age. 

3. Arians themselves were not defeated but for Islam. A better contemporary example would be, perhaps, Christians of what may legitimately be called a modernist theology, who profess, in the famous summation of Niebuhr: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Such congregations can only die off into apathy or distract themselves with spectacle

4. Truth sustains all things which persist; if some lie had no truth it could not linger, even survive. 

5. Please note: Donatists, Protestants, and sedevacantists are not here said to be the same gravity of error, or even the same kind of error. Rather, the only point here is that these three all spring from the same righteous impulse and as such have some similarity in fruit. Indeed, there are various degrees of error involved even within various forms of traditionalism, as sedevacantists are obviously more in error than the SSPX, whereas some traditionalists represented by, say, the FSSP are not necessarily in error whatsoever. 

6. By way of a thumping irony, Luther was not alone saying this — ignoring for a moment reformers within the Church who did not schism, consider that The Pardoner’s Tale predates the Reformation by nearly two centuries, and Dane puts some popes in the Inferno. 

7. Less appropriate would be “old guard,” because these days, they are often very young or have young families. These folks would not be liturgically sensitive if they were not liturgically sore. 

8. How do you do this? Counter indignation with righteousness, impatience with patience, rationalization with reason, and obstinate with the love of truth. This is, of course, a very long way to say a very old, very Christian teaching: Love them with the love of Christ, for if wayward they are often from righteousness; even they are not without some truth. 

  1. I think I am probably reading you wrong here, but I suspect that your bit about truth being dangerous is incorrect. I think your concern is that a love for truth “at the expense of all else” will lead one away from God. This worries me because Christ himself said that the truth will make you free. Seeking truth in general, if the Christian faith is true, will lead us invariably back to the Christian faith.

    • In an absolute sense, you are right. The trouble I mean to describe is that the all-consuming pursuit of truth is distorted by intemperate men into the all-consuming defense of one’s theories, because intemperate men rely not on truth in the abstract but truth in the subjective. That is to say that they rely not on God and the Church but God and themselves without the Church. But because God operates through the Church, intemperate men really rely on themselves.

      It is true that a perfect love of truth will lead folks to the true faith and the true Church — and an imperfect love, when God makes up the remainder — but those who most loudly proclaim their perfect love of truth seldom have it.

    • It’s been a while since I’ve used this blog, so it’s been a while since I’ve read this. Still, here’s the quote I mean to emphasize.

      In speaking the truth you are noble; in thinking you speak only truth, you become ignoble.

  2. I agree that heretics don’t know when to stop. They betray their own sincerity to do the work of God in subsequently undermining God’s work. I would also like to point out that in departure from the Church, Luther betrayed not only the house of God promised to last into eternity but additionally the vows of honor with which he bound himself to a Catholic monastery. Calvin’s precept of preordination denies the mission of Christ to all, not only Jews, that we are children of God who may choose in what way we do His will. 🙂

    • Are you aware that the Church teaches pretty forcefully about Predestination — and in favor of it? The idea is now cloaked in the word “foreknowledge” but, comparing Calvinism and Thomism, roughly the same conclusions (regarding predestination of final perseverance) are drawn from the same evidence.

      There are sharper disagreements elsewhere, including the role of man in salvation after the free grace of God, and the relation between grace and nature in general, and some Calvinists but not all say those not in Heaven are predestined to Hell — “double predestination” is not held by all Calvinists — but on the matter of final perseverance there is not much disagreement.

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