Tuesday, November 24, 2009


There is a scene from A Man for All Seasons, the play and film about the life and death of St. Thomas More, that stands out in my mind. Roper, who has been courting More’s daughter, asks More for her hand in marriage, and More replies, “Roper, the answer is ‘no.’ And will be ‘no’ so long as you’re a heretic.” Roper says to More, “That’s a word I don’t like, Sir Thomas.” Now comes the line from More that really nails it for me, “It’s not a likeable word. It’s not a likeable thing.”

Heresy is not the same thing as apostasy or schism. Heresy is defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “the obstinate denial after Baptism of a truth which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith.” Apostasy, on the other hand, is “the total repudiation of the Christian faith.” Schism is “refusal of submission to the Supreme Pontiff, or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.” A heretic, therefore, is a Christian who refuses to believe an infallible doctrine taught by the Church, even after his error has been pointed out to him.

Recently, a friend of mine who is taking classes for the Lay Pastoral Ministry Program with the intention of continuing to the diaconate formation program came to our Saturday morning men’s group and announced that one of his instructors had called him a heretic. It wasn’t just him that she called a heretic, it was the whole class. I had had this instructor when I took the LPMP classes, and she had called all of us heretics as well. She calls every class heretical during this particular lesson.

The point of contention was the dual nature of Christ. It took the Church centuries and several councils to hammer out the doctrine. The heresies of Arianism (one person with one non-divine nature) and Nestorianism (two persons with two natures) arose and had to be corrected. Numerous creeds have been formulated and approved by ecumenical councils of the Church affirming that Jesus Christ was both god and man. In him is found one person with two natures. This instructor typically asks the class who believes that Jesus is God. When the hands go up, she declares that they are heretics. Then she asks who believes that Jesus is (or was) man. When the hands again go up, she again declares that the whole class is full of heretics. She then attempts to convince the class that the formula “god and man” is incorrect and the only acceptable way to formulate the nature of Christ is with the hyphenated “god-man.” She might have used “god-human,” I can’t remember for sure.

I never liked the hyphen. To me, it connotes some kind of hybridization, with the implication that in Jesus there are not two natures, but one nature that is a combination of the two. The god-man is like a demigod: more than human, but less than full god. That idea has been condemned by the Church and declared anathema. In other words, you can’t hold that belief and remain a member of the Church. My friend went on to relate that his entire class had decided that their instructor’s formulation was anathema.

We have been warned about heresy. I won’t go into the details here, but the Catholic Encyclopedia entry for heresy has a good roundup of statements from scripture and the fathers of the Church. I’ve been listening this week to The Great Heresies by Fr. Charles Connor. It’s a bit awe-inspiring to ponder all of the ways in which the Church could have gone astray and some tried to steer the Church astray. Indeed, in some cases, such as Arianism, it seemed that most of the church had gone astray before the madness was corrected.

Aside from the rare instance cited above, you don’t hear much about heresy these days. It is still not a likeable word or thing, and most of us want to be liked. The Second Vatican Council, I am told, was not a doctrinal council (nevertheless, the four constitutions produced by the council are doctrinal documents). There were no anathemas. It was not called to combat a persistent heresy so much as to complete the unfinished business of The First Vatican Council. During the course of the council, the culture of the world changed. The Church doesn’t corner well, so when the world zigged, the Church lost it’s footing as it tried desperately to zag, and some who weren’t wearing their seatbelts nearly flew out the window.

It’s been a long time since the last time the Church issued an anathema. Unless the eschaton is immanent (maybe especially if the eschaton is immanent), we might be able to use a few now, to protect the faithful from heresies that refuse to go away and the multiplying unidentified heresies that confuse those who want to be orthodox and provide cover to those who don’t care about orthodoxy, but just want to pick what they like from the buffet.

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