The word 'heresy' is often misused - Catholic Courier

The word ‘heresy’ is often misused

To the extent that people use theological terms, they usually do so in a non-theological way. Thus, they speak of certain items, as yet undecided, as languishing in “limbo.” Faculty members and business leaders are complimented for their “collegiality.”

“Heresy” is one of those crossover words. A recent book review in the Cleveland Plain Dealer noted that the author’s contention that a 2-year-old can be potty trained is “heresy” to other psychologists.

But unlike words such as “limbo” and “collegiality,” when “heresy” is used in a consciously theological way, it is often misused. Certain Catholics apply the word “heresy” all too freely — and recklessly — to viewpoints that appear to them to be at odds with a particular church teaching or policy — any church teaching or policy.

The theological meaning of “heresy” is the formal rejection of a dogma of the church. A “formal” rejection is one that is deliberate and with full understanding of what is at issue, and where the rejection persists even after an equally formal admonition by church officials that the assertion is contrary to Catholic dogma.

A “dogma” is, in turn, a doctrine, or official teaching, that is proclaimed with the highest church authority, that is, by the bishops in union with the pope (as at an ecumenical council) or by the pope teaching in the name of his brother bishops.

The truth of a dogma is guaranteed by the charism, or gift, of infallibility, by which the Holy Spirit preserves the teaching from error.

While there have been literally thousands of doctrines over the course of centuries, there have been relatively few dogmas.

A well-known example of a non-dogmatic doctrine would be Pope Paul VI’s teaching in his 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, that every act of sexual intimacy within marriage must be open to the transmission of life. According to the encyclical, contraception by artificial means is seriously sinful.

An example of a dogma is the teaching of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 that Jesus Christ had both a human nature and a divine nature and that the two natures were “hypostatically” united in one divine person.

Any formal rejection of this teaching of the Council of Chalcedon would be heresy in the theological meaning of the word. But the rejection of Paul VI’s teaching on contraception would not be heretical. It would be at most an expression of dissent, which is frequently confused with heresy.

The legitimacy of such a dissent is not at issue here. The reference to the encyclical is for illustrative purposes only.

There was a letter-to-the-editor in a recent issue of The Boston Globe that charged a local pastor with “heresy” for allegedly promoting the idea that there is more than one Catholic Church: the “them” of the “institutional church” and “the people in the pews.” According to the letter writer, the pastor holds that the latter group “must struggle against” the former.

There is, of course, a factual question here. Does the pastor actually hold the view he is accused of holding, and has he, in fact, “promoted” it? In reality, however, the question is moot, because the church has never defined the matter. To be guilty of “heresy,” one must formally reject a dogma of the church. There is no dogma in this case.

The reason is that no one in the history of the church has ever seriously held, in any formal theological way, that there are two Catholic Churches — the one comprised of the hierarchy and the other comprised of the rest of the church.

The church only defines a dogma when an essential matter of faith or morals is openly challenged and when the church determines that the issue is so important that it requires a definitive teaching by all the bishops acting in union with the Bishop of Rome, or by the pope on behalf of the other bishops. It is not as if the church makes new dogmas just to meet some mythical quota.

So if the Boston pastor really does hold and promote the view attributed to him, it will only come to the attention of the Vatican if a sufficient number of other Catholics, including theologians and perhaps even a few bishops as well, are seen to hold and publicly advocate the same view.

None of this is likely to happen in the foreseeable future — or ever. Consequently, the charge of heresy in this instance, as in so many others, is premature at best, calumnious at worst and irresponsible in any case.

One can only hope that this unhealthy and divisive obsession with heresy will somehow gradually drift away. Into limbo, perhaps?

Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Copyright © 2023 Rochester Catholic Press Association, Inc. All rights reserved. Linking is encouraged, but republishing or redistributing, including by framing or similar means, without the publisher's prior written permission is prohibited.

Choose from news (Monday), leisure (Thursday) or worship (Saturday) — or get all three!

No, Thanks

Catholic Courier Newsletters