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Connotation and definition

The term heresy connotes, etymologically, both a choice and the thing chosen, the meaning being, however, narrowed to the selection of religious or political doctrines, adhesion to parties in Church or State.

Josephus applies the name (airesis) to the three religious sects prevalent in Judea since the Machabean period: the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Essenes (Bel. Jud., II, viii, 1; Ant., XIII, v, 9). St. Paul is described to the Roman governor Felix as the leader of the heresy (aireseos) of the Nazarenes (Acts 24:5); the Jews in Rome say to the same Apostle: "Concerning this sect [airesoeos], we know that it is everywhere contradicted" (Acts 28:22). St. Justin (Dialogue with Trypho 18) uses airesis in the same sense. St. Peter (II, ii, 1) applies the term to Christian sects: "There shall be among you lying teachers who shall bring in sects of perdition [aireseis apoleias]". In later Greek, philosophers' schools, as well as religious sects, are "heresies".

St. Thomas (II-II:11:1) defines heresy: "a species of infidelity in men who, having professed the faith of Christ, corrupt its dogmas". "The right Christian faith consists in giving one's voluntary assent to Christ in all that truly belongs to His teaching. There are, therefore, two ways of deviating from Christianity: the one by refusing to believe in Christ Himself, which is the way of infidelity, common to Pagans and Jews; the other by restricting belief to certain points of Christ's doctrine selected and fashioned at pleasure, which is the way of heretics. The subject-matter of both faith and heresy is, therefore, the deposit of the faith, that is, the sum total of truths revealed in Scripture and Tradition as proposed to our belief by the Church. The believer accepts the whole deposit as proposed by the Church; the heretic accepts only such parts of it as commend themselves to his own approval. The heretical tenets may be ignorance of the true creed, erroneous judgment, imperfect apprehension and comprehension of dogmas: in none of these does the will play an appreciable part, wherefore one of the necessary conditions of sinfulness--free choice--is wanting and such heresy is merely objective, or material. On the other hand the will may freely incline the intellect to adhere to tenets declared false by the Divine teaching authority of the Church. The impelling motives are many: intellectual pride or exaggerated reliance on one's own insight; the illusions of religious zeal; the allurements of political or ecclesiastical power; the ties of material interests and personal status; and perhaps others more dishonourable. Heresy thus willed is imputable to the subject and carries with it a varying degree of guilt; it is called formal, because to the material error it adds the informative element of "freely willed".

Pertinacity, that is, obstinate adhesion to a particular tenet is required to make heresy formal. For as long as one remains willing to submit to the Church's decision he remains a Catholic Christian at heart and his wrong beliefs are only transient errors and fleeting opinions. Considering that the human intellect can assent only to truth, real or apparent, studied pertinacity — as distinct from wanton opposition — supposes a firm subjective conviction which may be sufficient to inform the conscience and create "good faith". Such firm convictions result either from circumstances over which the heretic has no control or from intellectual delinquencies in themselves more or less voluntary and imputable. A man born and nurtured in heretical surroundings may live and die without ever having a doubt as to the truth of his creed. On the other hand a born Catholic may allow himself to drift into whirls of anti-Catholic thought from which no doctrinal authority can rescue him, and where his mind becomes incrusted with convictions, or considerations sufficiently powerful to overlay his Catholic conscience. It is not for man, but for Him who searcheth the mind and heart, to sit in judgment on the guilt which attaches to an heretical conscience.


Heresy differs from apostasy. The apostate a fide abandons wholly the faith of Christ either by embracing Judaism, Islamism, Paganism, or simply by falling into naturalism and complete neglect of religion; the heretic always retains faith in Christ. Heresy also differs from schism. Schismatics, says St. Thomas, in the strict sense, are they who of their own will and intention separate themselves from the unity of the Church. The unity of the Church consists in the connection of its members with each other and of all the members with the head. Now this head is Christ whose representative in the Church is the supreme pontiff. And therefore the name of schismatics is given to those who will not submit to the supreme pontiff nor communicate with the members of the Church subject to him. Since the definition of , schism usually implies the heresy of denying this dogma. Heresy is opposed to faith; schism to charity; so that, although all heretics are schismatics because loss of faith involves separation from the Church, not all schismatics are necessarily heretics, since a man may, from anger, pride, ambition, or the like, sever himself from the communion of the Church and yet believe all the Church proposes for our belief (II-II, Q. xxix, a. 1). Such a one, however, would be more properly called rebellious than heretical.

Degrees of heresy

Both matter and form of heresy admit of degrees which find expression in the following technical formula of theology and canon law. Pertinacious adhesion to a doctrine contradictory to a point of faith clearly defined by the Church is heresy pure and simple, heresy in the first degree. But if the doctrine in question has not been expressly "defined" or is not clearly proposed as an article of faith in the ordinary, authorized teaching of the Church, an opinion opposed to it is styled sententia haeresi proxima, that is, an opinion approaching heresy. Next, a doctrinal proposition, without directly contradicting a received dogma, may yet involve logical consequences at variance with revealed truth. Such a proposition is not heretical, it is a propositio theologice erronea, that is, erroneous in theology. Further, the opposition to an article of faith may not be strictly demonstrable, but only reach a certain degree of probability. In that case the doctrine is termed sententia de haeresi suspecta, haeresim sapiens; that is, an opinion suspected, or savouring, of heresy (see THEOLOGICAL CENSURES).

Gravity of the sin of heresy

Heresy is a sin because of its nature it is destructive of the virtue of Christian faith. Its malice is to be measured therefore by the excellence of the good gift of which it deprives the soul. Now faith is the most precious possession of man, the root of his supernatural life, the pledge of his eternal salvation. Privation of faith is therefore the greatest evil, and deliberate rejection of faith is the greatest sin. St. Thomas (II-II, Q. x, a. 3) arrives at the same conclusion thus: "All sin is an aversion from God. A sin, therefore, is the greater the more it separates man from God. But infidelity does this more than any other sin, for the infidel (unbeliever) is without the true knowledge of God: his false knowledge does not bring him help, for what he opines is not God: manifestly, then, the sin of unbelief ( infidelitas) is the greatest sin in the whole range of perversity." And he adds: "Although the Gentiles err in more things than the Jews, and although the Jews are farther removed from true faith than heretics, yet the unbelief of the Jews is a more grievous sin than that of the Gentiles, because they corrupt the Gospel itself after having adopted and professed the same. . . . It is a more serious sin not to perform what one has promised than not to perform what one has not promised." It cannot be pleaded in attenuation of the guilt of heresy that heretics do not deny the faith which to them appears necessary to salvation, but only such articles as they consider not to belong to the original deposit. In answer it suffices to remark that two of the most evident truths of the depositum fidei are the unity of the Church and the institution of a teaching authority to maintain that unity. That unity exists in the Catholic Church, and is preserved by the function of her teaching body: these are two facts which anyone can verify for himself. In the constitution of the Church there is no room for private judgment sorting essentials from non-essentials: any such selection disturbs the unity, and challenges the Divine authority, of the Church; it strikes at the very source of faith. The guilt of heresy is measured not so much by its subject-matter as by its formal principle, which is the same in all heresies: revolt against a Divinely constituted authority.

Origin, spread, and persistence of heresy

Origin of heresy

The origin, the spread, and the persistence of heresy are due to different causes and influenced by many external circumstances. The undoing of faith infused and fostered by God Himself is possible on account of the human element in it, namely man's free will. The will determines the act of faith freely because its moral dispositions move it to obey God, whilst the non-cogency of the motives of credibility allows it to withhold its consent and leaves room for doubt and even denial. The non-cogency of the motives of credibility may arise from three causes: the obscurity of the Divine testimony ( inevidentia attestantis); the obscurity of the contents of Revelation; the opposition between the obligations imposed on us by faith and the evil inclinations of our corrupt nature. To find out how a man's free will is led to withdraw from the faith once professed, the best way is observation of historical cases. Pius X, scrutinizing the causes of Modernism, says: "The proximate cause is, without any doubt, an error of the mind. The remoter causes are two: curiosity and pride. Curiosity, unless wisely held in bounds, is of itself sufficient to account for all errors. . . . But far more effective in obscuring the mind and leading it into error is pride, which has, as it were, its home in Modernist doctrines. Through pride the Modernists overestimate themselves. . . . We are not like other men . . . they reject all submission to authority . . . they pose as reformers. If from moral causes we pass to the intellectual, the first and most powerful is ignorance . . . . They extol modern philosophy . . . . completely ignoring the philosophy of the Schools and thus depriving themselves of the means of clearing away the confusion of their ideas and of meeting sophisms. Their system, replete with so many errors, had its origin in the wedding of false philosophy with faith" (Encycl. "Pascendi", 8 September, 1907).

So far the pope. If now we turn to the Modernist leaders for an account of their defections, we find none attributing it to pride or arrogance, but they are almost unanimous in allowing that curiosity--the desire to know how the old faith stands in relation to the new science--has been the motive power behind them. In the last instance, they appeal to the sacred voice of their individual conscience which forbids them outwardly to profess what inwardly they honestly hold to be untrue. Loisy, to whose case the Decree "Lamentabili" applies, tells his readers that he was brought to his present position "by his studies chiefly devoted to the history of the Bible, of Christian origins and of comparative religion". Tyrrell says in self-defence: "It is the irresistible facts concerning the origin and composition of the Old and New Testaments; concerning the origin of the Christian Church, of its hierarchy, its institutions, its dogmas; concerning the gradual development of the papacy; concerning the history of religion in general--that create a difficulty against which the synthesis of scholastic theology must be and is already shattered to pieces." "I am able to put my finger on the exact point or moment in my experience from which my 'immanentism' took its rise. In his 'Rules for the discernment of Spirits' . . . Ignatius of Loyola says . . . etc." It is psychologically interesting to note the turning-point or rather the breaking-point of faith in the autobiographies of seceders from the Church. A study of the personal narratives in "Roads to Rome" and "Roads from Rome" leaves one with the impression that the heart of man is a sanctuary impenetrable to all but to God and, in a certain measure, to its owner. It is, therefore, advisable to leave individuals to themselves and to study the spread of heresy, or the origin of heretical societies.

Spread of heresy

The growth of heresy, like the growth of plants, depends on surrounding influences, even more than on its vital force. Philosophies, religious ideals and aspirations, social and economic conditions, are brought into contact with revealed truth, and from the impact result both new affirmations and new negations of the traditional doctrine.

A strong man in touch with his time, and supported by material force, may deform the existing religion and build up a new heretical sect. Modernism fails to combine into a body separate from the Church because it lacks an acknowledged leader, because it appeals to only a small minority of contemporary minds, namely, to a small number who are dissatisfied with the Church as she now is, and because no secular power lends it support. For the same reason, and proportionately, a thousand small sects have failed, whose names still encumber the pages of church history, but whose tenets interest only a few students, and whose adherents are nowhere. Such were, in the Apostolic Age, the Judeo-Christians, Judeo-Gnostics, Nicolaites, Docetae, Cerinthians, Ebionites, Nazarenes, followed, in the next two centuries, by a variety of Syrian and Alexandrian Gnostics, by Ophites, Marcionites, Encratites, Montanists, Manichæans, and others. All the early Eastern sects fed on the fanciful speculations so dear to the Eastern mind, but, lacking the support of temporal power, they disappeared under the anathemas of the guardians of the depositum fidei.

Arianism is the first heresy that gained a strong footing in the Church and seriously endangered its very nature and existence. Arius appeared on the scene when theologians were endeavouring to harmonize the apparently contradictory doctrines of the unity of God and the Divinity of Christ. Instead of unravelling the knot, he simply cut it by bluntly asserting that Christ was not God like the Father, but a creature made in time. The simplicity of the solution, the ostentatious zeal of Arius for the defence of the "one God", his mode of life, his learning and dialectic ability won many to his side.

In particular he was supported by the famous Eusebius of Nicomedia who had great influence on the Emperor Constantine. He had friends among the other bishops of Asia and even among the bishops, priests, and nuns of the Alexandrian province. He gained the favour of Constantia, the emperor's sister, and he disseminated his doctrine among the people by means of his notorious book which he called thaleia or 'Entertainment' and by songs adapted for sailors, millers, and travellers. (Addis and Arnold, "A Catholic Dictionary", 7th ed., 1905, 54.)

The Council of Nicaea anathematized the heresiarch, but its anathemas, like all the efforts of the Catholic bishops, were nullified by interference of the civil power. Constantine and his sister protected Arius and the Arians, and the next emperor, Constantius, assured the triumph of the heresy: the Catholics were reduced to silence by dire persecution. At once an internecine conflict began within the Arian pale, for heresy, lacking the internal cohesive element of authority, can only be held together by coercion either from friend or foe. Sects sprang up rapidly: they are known as Eunomians, Anomoeans, Exucontians, Semi-Arians, Acacians. The Emperor Valens (364-378) lent his powerful support to the Arians, and the peace of the Church was only secured when the orthodox Emperor Theodosius reversed the policy of his predecessors and sided with Rome. Within the boundaries of the Roman empire the faith of Nicaea, enforced again by the General Council of Constantinople (381), prevailed, but Arianism held its own for over two hundred years longer wherever the Arian Goths held sway: in Thrace, Italy, Africa, Spain, Gaul. The conversion of King Recared of Spain, who began to reign in 586, marked the end of Arianism in his dominions, and the triumph of the Catholic Franks sealed the doom of Arianism everywhere.

Pelagianism, not being backed by political power, was without much difficulty removed from the Church. Eutychianism, Nestorianism, and other Christological heresies which followed one upon another as the link, of a chain, flourished only so long and so far as the temporal power of Byzantine and Persian rulers gave them countenance. Internal dissension, stagnation, and decay became their fate when left to themselves.

Passing over the great schism that rent East from West, and the many smaller heresies which sprang up in the Middle Ages without leaving a deep impression on the Church, we arrive at the modern sects which date from Luther and go by the collective name of Protestantism. The three elements of success possessed by Arianism reappear in Lutheranism and cause these two great religious upheavals to move on almost parallel lines. Luther was eminently a man of his people: the rough-hewn, but, withal sterling, qualities of the Saxon peasant lived forth under his religious habit and doctor's gown; his winning voice, his piety, his learning raised him above his fellows yet did not estrange him from the people: his conviviality, the crudities in his conversation and preaching, his many human weaknesses only increased his popularity. When the Dominican John Tetzel began to preach in Germany the indulgences proclaimed by Pope Leo X for those who contributed to the completion of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, opposition arose on the part of the people and of both civil and ecclesiastical authorities. Luther set the match to the fuel of widespread discontent. He at once gained a number of adherents powerful both in Church and State; the Bishop of Würzburg recommended him to the protection of the Elector Frederick of Saxony. In all probability Luther started on his crusade with the laudable intention of reforming undoubted abuses. But his unexpected success, his impetuous temper, perhaps some ambition, soon carried him beyond all bounds set by the Church. By 1521, that is within four years from his attack on abuse of indulgences, he had propagated a new doctrine; the Bible was the only source of faith; human nature was wholly corrupted by original sin, man was not free, God was responsible for all human actions good and bad; faith alone saved; the Christian priesthood was not confined to the hierarchy but included all the faithful. The masses of the people were not slow in drawing from these doctrines the practical conclusion that sin was sin no longer, was, in fact, equal to a good work.

With his appeal to the lower instincts of human nature went an equally strong appeal to the spirit of nationality and greed. He endeavored to set the German emperor against the Roman pope and generally the Teuton against the Latin; he invited the secular princes to confiscate the property of the Church. His voice was heard only too well. For the next 130 years the history of the German people is a record of religious strife, moral degradation, artistic retrogression, industrial breakdown; of civil wars, pillage, devastation, and general ruin. The Peace of 1648 established the principle: Cujus regio illius et religio; the lord of the land shall be also lord of religion. And accordingly territorial limits became religious limits within which the inhabitant had to profess and practise the faith imposed on him by the ruler. It is worthy of remark that the geographical frontier fixed by the politicians of 1648 is still the dividing line between Catholicism and Protestantism in Germany. The English Reformation, more than any other, was the work of crafty politicians. The soil had been prepared for it by the Lollards or Wycliffites, who at the beginning of the sixteenth century were still numerous in the towns. No English Luther arose, but the unholy work was thoroughly done by kings and parliaments, by means of a series of penal laws unequalled in severity.

Persistence of heresy

We have seen how heresy originates and how it spreads; we must now answer the question why it persists, or why so many persevere in heresy. Once heresy is in possession, it tightens its grip by the thousand subtle and often unconscious influences which mould a man's life. A child is born in heretical surroundings: before it is able to think for itself its mind has been filled and fashioned by home, school, and church teachings, the authority of which it never doubted. When, at a riper age, doubts arise, the truth of Catholicism is seldom apprehended as it is. Innate prejudices, educational bias, historical distortions stand in the way and frequently make approach impossible. The state of conscience technically termed bona fides, good faith, is thus produced. It implies inculpable belief in error, a mistake morally unavoidable and therefore always excusable, sometimes even laudable. In the absence of good faith worldly interests often bar the way from heresy to truth. When a government, for instance, reserves its favours and functions for adherents of the state religion, the army of civil servants becomes a more powerful body of missionaries than the ordained ministers. Prussia, France, and Russia are cases in point.

Christ, the apostles, and the fathers on heresy

Heresy, in the sense of falling away from the Faith, became possible only after the Faith had been promulgated by Christ. Its advent is clearly foretold, Matthew 24:11, 23-26: " . . . many false prophets shall rise, and shall seduce many. . . . Then if any man shall say to you: Lo here is Christ, or there, do not believe him. For there shall rise false Christs and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch as to deceive (if possible) even the elect. Behold I have told it to you, beforehand. If therefore they shall say to you: Behold he is in the desert, go ye not out: Behold he is in the closets, believe it not." Christ also indicated the marks by which to know the false prophets: "Who is not with me is against me" (Luke 11:23); "and if he will not hear the Church let him be to thee as the heathen and the publican" (Matthew 18:17); "he that believeth not shall be condemned" (Mark 16:16). The Apostles acted upon their Master's directions. All the weight of their own Divine faith and mission is brought to bear upon innovators. "If any one", says St. Paul, "preach to you a gospel, besides that you have received, let him be anathema" (Galatians 1:9). To St. John the heretic is a seducer, an antichrist, a man who dissolves Christ (1 John 4:3; 2 John 7); "receive him not into the house nor say to him, God speed you" (2 John 10). St. Peter, true to his office and to his impetuous nature, assails them as with a two-edged sword: " . . . lying teachers who shall bring in sects of perdition, and deny the Lord who bought them: bringing upon themselves swift destruction . . . These are fountains without water, and clouds tossed with whirlwinds, to whom the mist of darkness is reserved" (2 Peter 2:1, 17). St. Jude speaks in a similar strain throughout his whole epistle. St. Paul admonishes the disturbers of the unity of faith at Corinth that "the weapons of our warfare . . . are mighty to God unto the pulling down of fortifications, destroying counsels, and every height that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God . . . and having in readiness to revenge all disobedience" (2 Corinthians 10:4, 5, 6).

What Paul did at Corinth he enjoins to be done by every bishop in his own church. Thus Timothy is instructed to "war in them a good warfare, having faith and a good conscience, which some rejecting have made shipwreck concerning the faith. Of whom is Hymeneus and Alexander, whom I have delivered up to Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme" (1 Timothy 1:18-20). He exhorts the ancients of the Church at Ephesus to "take heed to yourselves, and to the whole flock, wherein the Holy Ghost hath placed you bishops, to rule the Church of God, . . . I know that, after my departure, ravening wolves will enter in among you, not sparing the flock . . . Therefore watch, . . ." (Acts 20:28-31). "Beware of dogs", he writes to the Philippians (3:2), the dogs being the same false teachers as the "ravening wolves". The Fathers show no more leniency to perverters of the faith. A Protestant writer thus sketches their teaching (Schaff-Herzog, s.v. Heresy): "Polycarp regarded Marcion as the first-born of the Devil. Ignatius sees in heretics poisonous plants, or animals in human form. Justin and Tertullian condemn their errors as inspirations of the Evil One; Theophilus compares them to barren and rocky islands on which ships are wrecked; and Origen says, that as pirates place lights on cliffs to allure and destroy vessels in quest of refuge, so the Prince of this world lights the fires of false knowledge in order to destroy men. [Jerome calls the congregations of the heretics synagogues of Satan (Ep. 123), and says their communion is to be avoided like that of vipers and scorpions (Ep. 130).]" These primitive views on heresy have been faithfully transmitted and acted on by the Church in subsequent ages. There is no break in the tradition from St. Peter to Pius X.

Vindication of their teaching

The first law of life, be it the life of plant or animal, of man or of a society of men, is self-preservation. Neglect of self-preservation leads to ruin and destruction. But the life of a religious society, the tissue that binds its members into one body and animates them with one soul, is the symbol of faith, the creed or confession adhered to as a condition sine qua non of membership. To undo the creed is to undo the Church. The integrity of the rule of faith is more essential to the cohesion of a religious society than the strict practice of its moral precepts. For faith supplies the means of mending moral delinquencies as one of its ordinary functions, whereas the loss of faith, cutting at the root of spiritual life, is usually fatal to the soul. In fact the long list of heresiarchs contains the name of only one who came to resipiscence: Berengarius. The jealousy with which the Church guards and defends her deposit of faith is therefore identical with the instinctive duty of self-preservation and the desire to live. This instinct is by no means peculiar to the Catholic Church; being natural it is universal. All sects, denominations, confessions, schools of thought, and associations of any kind have a more or less comprehensive set of tenets on the acceptance of which membership depends. In the Catholic Church this natural law has received the sanction of Divine promulgation, as appears from the teaching of Christ and the Apostles quoted above. Freedom of thought extending to the essential beliefs of a Church is in itself a contradiction; for, by accepting membership, the members accept the essential beliefs and renounce their freedom of thought so far as these are concerned.

But what authority is to lay down the law as to what is or is not essential? It is certainly not the authority of individuals. By entering a society, whichever it be, the individual gives up part of his individuality to be merged into the community. And that part is precisely his private judgment on the essentials: if he resumes his liberty he ipso facto separates himself from his church. The decision, therefore, rests with the constitutional authority of the society--in the Church with the hierarchy acting as teacher and guardian of the faith. Nor can it be said that this principle unduly curtails the play of human reason. That it does curtail its play is a fact, but a fact grounded in natural and Divine law, as shown above. That it does not curtail reason unduly is evidenced by this other fact: that the deposit of faith (1) is itself an inexhaustible object of intellectual effort of the noblest kind, lifting human reason above its natural sphere, enlarging and deepening its outlook, soliciting its finest faculties; (2) that, side by side with the deposit, but logically connected with it, there is a multitude of doubtful points of which discussion is free within the wide bounds of charity--"in necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus charitas." The substitution of private judgment for the teaching magisterium has been the dissolvent of all sects who have adopted it. Only those sects exhibit a certain consistency in which private judgment is a dead letter and the teaching is carried on according to confessions and catechisms by a trained clergy.

Church legislation on heresy

Heresy, being a deadly poison generated within the organism of the Church, must be ejected if she is to live and perform her task of continuing Christ's work of salvation. Her Founder, who foretold the disease, also provided the remedy: He endowed her teaching with infallibility (see CHURCH). The office of teaching belongs to the hierarchy, the ecclesia docens, which, under certain conditions, judges without appeal in matters of faith and morals (see COUNCILS). Infallible decisions can also be given by the pope teaching ex cathedra (see INFALLIBILITY). Each pastor in his parish, each bishop in his diocese, is in duty bound to keep the faith of his flock untainted; to the supreme pastor of all the Churches is given the office of feeding the whole Christian flock. The power, then, of expelling heresy is an essential factor in the constitution of the Church. Like other powers and rights, the power of rejecting heresy adapts itself in practice to circumstances of time and place, and, especially, of social and political conditions. At the beginning it worked without special organization. The ancient discipline charged the bishops with the duty of searching out the heresies in their diocese and checking the progress of error by any means at their command. When erroneous doctrines gathered volume and threatened disruption of the Church, the bishops assembled in councils, provincial, metropolitan, national, or ecumenical. There the combined weight of their authority was brought to bear upon the false doctrines. The first council was a meeting of the Apostles at Jerusalem in order to put an end to the judaizing tendencies among the first Christians. It is the type of all succeeding councils: bishops in union with the head of the Church, and guided by the Holy Ghost, sit as judges in matters of faith and morals. The spirit which animates the dealings of the Church with heresy and heretics is one of extreme severity. St. Paul writes to Titus: "A man that is a heretic, after the first and second admonition, avoid: knowing that he, that is such a one, is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned by his own judgment" (Titus 3:10-11). This early piece of legislation reproduces the still earlier teaching of Christ: "And if he will not hear the church, let him be to thee as the heathen and the publican" (Matthew 18:17); it also inspires all subsequent anti-heretical legislation. The sentence on the obstinate heretic is invariably excommunication. He is separated from the company of the faithful, delivered up "to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 5:5).

When Constantine had taken upon himself the office of lay bishop, episcopus externus, and put the secular arm at the service of the Church, the laws against heretics became more and more rigorous. Under the purely ecclesiastical discipline no temporal punishment could be inflicted on the obstinate heretic, except the damage which might arise to his personal dignity through being deprived of all intercourse with his former brethren. But under the Christian emperors rigorous measures were enforced against the goods and persons of heretics. From the time of Constantine to Theodosius and Valentinian III (313-424) various penal laws were enacted by the Christian emperors against heretics as being guilty of crime against the State. "In both the Theodosian and Justinian codes they were styled infamous persons; all intercourse was forbidden to be held with them; they were deprived of all offices of profit and dignity in the civil administration, while all burdensome offices, both of the camp and of the curia, were imposed upon them; they were disqualified from disposing of their own estates by will, or of accepting estates bequeathed to them by others; they were denied the right of giving or receiving donations, of contracting, buying, and selling; pecuniary fines were imposed upon them; they were often proscribed and banished, and in many cases scourged before being sent into exile. In some particularly aggravated cases sentence of death was pronounced upon heretics, though seldom executed in the time of the Christian emperors of Rome. Theodosius is said to be the first who pronounced heresy a capital crime; this law was passed in 382 against the Encratites, the Saccophori, the Hydroparastatae, and the Manichæans. Heretical teachers were forbidden to propagate their doctrines publicly or privately; to hold public disputations; to ordain bishops, presbyters, or any other clergy; to hold religious meetings; to build conventicles or to avail themselves of money bequeathed to them for that purpose. Slaves were allowed to inform against their heretical masters and to purchase their freedom by coming over to the Church. The children of heretical parents were denied their patrimony and inheritance unless they returned to the Catholic Church. The books of heretics were ordered to be burned." ( Vide "Codex Theodosianus", lib. XVI, tit. 5, "De Haereticis".)

This legislation remained in force and with even greater severity in the kingdom formed by the victorious barbarian invaders on the ruins of the Roman Empire in the West. The burning of heretics was first decreed in the eleventh century. The Synod of Verona (1184) imposed on bishops the duty to search out the heretics in their dioceses and to hand them over to the secular power. Other synods, and the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) under Pope Innocent III, repeated and enforced this decree, especially the Synod of Toulouse (1229), which established inquisitors in every parish (one priest and two laymen). Everyone was bound to denounce heretics, the names of the witnesses were kept secret; after 1243, when Innocent IV sanctioned the laws of Emperor Frederick II and of Louis IX against heretics, torture was applied in trials; the guilty persons were delivered up to the civil authorities and actually burnt at the stake. Paul III (1542) established, and Sixtus V organized, the Roman Congregation of the Inquisition, or Holy Office, a regular court of justice for dealing with heresy and heretics (see ROMAN CONGREGATIONS). The Congregation of the Index, instituted by St. Pius V, has for its province the care of faith and morals in literature; it proceeds against printed matter very much as the Holy Office proceeds against persons (see INDEX OF PROHIBITED BOOKS). The present pope [1909], Pius X, has decreed the establishment in every diocese of a board of censors and of a vigilance committee whose functions are to find out and report on writings and persons tainted with the heresy of Modernism (Encyclical "Pascendi", 8 Sept., 1907). The present-day legislation against heresy has lost nothing of its ancient severity; but the penalties on heretics are now only of the spiritual order; all the punishments which require the intervention of the secular arm have fallen into abeyance. Even in countries where the cleavage between the spiritual and secular powers does not amount to hostility or complete severance, the death penalty, confiscation of goods, imprisonment, etc., are no longer inflicted on heretics. The spiritual penalties are of two kinds: latae and ferendae sententiae. The former are incurred by the mere fact of heresy, no judicial sentence being required; the latter are inflicted after trial by an ecclesiastical court, or by a bishop acting ex informata conscientia, that is, on his own certain knowledge, and dispensing with the usual procedure

The penalties (see ECCLESIASTICAL CENSURES) latae sententiae are: (1) Excommunication specially reserved to the Roman pontiff, which is incurred by all apostates from the Catholic Faith, by each and all heretics, by whatever name they are known and to whatever sect they belong, and by all who believe in them ( credentes), receive, favour, or in any way defend them (Constitution "Apostolicae Sedis", 1869). Heretic here means formal heretic, but also includes the positive doubter, that is, the man who posits his doubt as defensible by reason, but not the negative doubter, who simply abstains from formulating a judgment. The believers (credentes) in heretics are they who, without examining particular doctrines, give a general assent to the teachings of the sect; the favourers (fautores) are they who by commission or omission lend support to heresy and thus help or allow it to spread; the receivers and defenders are they who shelter heretics from the rigours of the law. (2) "Excommunication specially reserved to the Roman Pontiff incurred by each and all who knowingly read, without authorization from the Apostolic See, books of apostates and heretics in which heresy is defended; likewise readers of books of any author prohibited by name in letters Apostolic, and all who retain possession of, or print, or in any way defend such books" (Apostolicæ Sedis, 1869). The book here meant is a volume of a certain size and unity; newspapers and manuscripts are not books, but serial publications intended to form a book when completed fall under this censure. To read knowingly (scienter) implies on the reader's part the knowledge that the book is the work of a heretic, that it defends heresy, and that it is forbidden. "Books . . . prohibited by name in letters Apostolic" are books condemned by Bulls, Briefs, or Encyclicals emanating directly from the pope; books prohibited by decrees of Roman Congregations, although the prohibition is approved by the pope, are not included. The "printers" of heretical books are the editor who gives the order and the publisher who executes it, and perhaps the proof-reader, but not the workman who performs the mechanical part of printing.

Additional penalties to be decreed by judicial sentences: Apostates and heretics are irregular, that is, debarred from receiving clerical orders or exercising lawfully the duties and rights annexed to them; they are infamous, that is, publicly noted as guilty and dishonoured. This note of infamy clings to the children and grandchildren of unrepented heretics. Heretical clerics and all who receive, defend, or favour them are ipso facto deprived of their benefices, offices, and ecclesiastical jurisdiction. The pope himself, if notoriously guilty of heresy, would cease to be pope because he would cease to be a member of the Church. Baptism received without necessity by an adult at the hands of a declared heretic renders the recipient irregular. Heresy constitutes an impediment to marriage with a Catholic (mixta religio) from which the pope dispenses or gives the bishops power to dispense (see IMPEDIMENTS). Communicatio in sacris, i.e. active participation in non-Catholic religious functions, is on the whole unlawful, but it is not so intrinsically evil that, under given circumstances, it may not be excused. Thus friends and relatives may for good reasons accompany a funeral, be present at a marriage or a baptism, without causing scandal or lending support, to the non-Catholic rites, provided no active part be taken in them: their motive is friendship, or maybe courtesy, but it nowise implies approval of the rites. Non-Catholics are admitted to all Catholic services but not to the sacraments.

Principles of Church legislation

The guiding principles in the Church's treatment of heretics are the following: Distinguishing between formal and material heretics, she applies to the former the canon, "Most firmly hold and in no way doubt that every heretic or schismatic is to have part with the Devil and his angels in the flames of eternal fire, unless before the end of his life he be incorporated with, and restored to the Catholic Church." No one is forced to enter the Church, but having once entered it through baptism, he is bound to keep the promises he freely made. To restrain and bring back her rebellious sons the Church uses both her own spiritual power and the secular power at her command. Towards material heretics her conduct is ruled by the saying of St. Augustine: "Those are by no means to be accounted heretics who do not defend their false and perverse opinions with pertinacious zeal (animositas), especially when their error is not the fruit of audacious presumption but has been communicated to them by seduced and lapsed parents, and when they are seeking the truth with cautious solicitude and ready to be corrected" (P.L., XXXIII, ep. xliii, 160). Pius IX, in a letter to the bishops of Italy (10 Aug., 1863), restates this Catholic doctrine: "It is known to Us and to You that they who are in invincible ignorance concerning our religion but observe the natural law . . . and are ready to obey God and lead an honest and righteous life, can, with the help of Divine light and grace, attain to eternal life . . . for God . . . will not allow any one to be eternally punished who is not wilfully guilty" (Denzinger, "Enchir.", n. 1529). X.

Ecclesiastical jurisdiction over heretics

The fact of having received valid baptism places material heretics under the jurisdiction of the Church, and if they are in good faith, they belong to the soul of the Church. Their material severance, however, precludes them from the use of ecclesiastical rights, except the right of being judged according to ecclesiastical law if, by any chance, they are brought before an ecclesiastical court. They are not bound by ecclesiastical laws enacted for the spiritual well-being of its members, e.g. by the Six Commandments of the Church.

Reception of converts

Converts to the Faith, before being received, should be well instructed in Catholic doctrine. The right to reconcile heretics belongs to the bishops, but is usually delegated to all priests having charge of souls. In England a special licence is required for each reconciliation, except in case of children under fourteen or of dying persons, and this licence is only granted when the priest can give a written assurance that the candidate is sufficiently instructed and otherwise prepared, and that there is some reasonable guarantee of his perseverance. The order of proceeding in a reconciliation is: first, abjuration of heresy or profession of faith; second, conditional baptism (this is given only when the heretical baptism is doubtful); third, sacramental confession and conditional absolution.

Role of heresy in history

The role of heresy in history is that of evil generally. Its roots are in corrupted human nature. It has come over the Church as predicted by her Divine Founder; it has rent asunder the bonds of charity in families, provinces, states, and nations; the sword has been drawn and pyres erected both for its defence and its repression; misery and ruin have followed in its track. The prevalence of heresy, however, does not disprove the Divinity of the Church, any more than the existence of evil disproves the existence of an all-good God. Heresy, like other evils, is permitted as a test of faith and a trial of strength in the Church militant; probably also as a punishment for other sins. The disruption and disintegration of heretical sects also furnishes a solid argument for the necessity of a strong teaching authority. The endless controversies with heretics have been indirectly the cause of most important doctrinal developments and definitions formulated in councils to the edification of the body of Christ. Thus the spurious gospels of the Gnostics prepared the way for the canon of Scripture; Patripassian, Sabellian, Arian, and Macedonian heresies drew out a clearer concept of the Trinity; the Nestorian and Eutychian errors led to definite dogmas on the nature and Person of Christ. And so down to Modernism, which has called forth a solemn assertion of the claims of the supernatural in history.

Intolerance and cruelty

The Church's legislation on heresy and heretics is often reproached with cruelty and intolerance. Intolerant it is: in fact its raison d'être is intolerance of doctrines subversive of the faith. But such intolerance is essential to all that is, or moves, or lives, for tolerance of destructive elements within the organism amounts to suicide. Heretical sects are subject to the same law: they live or die in the measure they apply or neglect it. The charge of cruelty is also easy to meet. All repressive measures cause suffering or inconvenience of some sort: it is their nature. But they are not therefore cruel. The father who chastises his guilty son is just and may be tender-hearted. Cruelty only comes in where the punishment exceeds the requirements of the case. Opponents say: Precisely; the rigours of the Inquisition violated all humane feelings. We answer: they offend the feelings of later ages in which there is less regard for the purity of faith; but they did not antagonize the feelings of their own time, when heresy was looked on as more malignant than treason. In proof of which it suffices to remark that the inquisitors only pronounced on the guilt of the accused and then handed him over to the secular power to be dealt with according to the laws framed by emperors and kings. Medieval people found no fault with the system, in fact heretics had been burned by the populace centuries before the Inquisition became a regular institution. And whenever heretics gained the upper hand, they were never slow in applying the same laws: so the Huguenots in France, the Hussites in Bohemia, the Calvinists in Geneva, the Elizabethan statesmen and the Puritans in England. Toleration came in only when faith went out; lenient measures were resorted to only where the power to apply more severe measures was wanting. The embers of the Kulturkampf in Germany still smoulder; the separation and confiscation laws and the ostracism of Catholics in France are the scandal of the day. Christ said: "Do not think that I came to send peace upon earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34). The history of heresy verifies this prediction and shows, moreover, that the greater number of the victims of the sword is on the side of the faithful adherents of the one Church founded by Christ (see INQUISITION).

Bibliography Information
Obstat, Nihil. Lafort, Remy, Censor. Entry for 'Heresy'. The Catholic Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​h/heresy.html. Robert Appleton Company. New York. 1914.
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