A Case of Confusion
No one can be a heretic or a schismatic without being truly pertinacious. That is clear from St Augustine, from St Thomas, from Canon Law and from all the Church’s approved authors. Moreover, to be pertinacious implies conscious rejection of the Catholic Faith or communion. It is not enough to err as a result of negligence, even if the negligence is gravely sinful. One who holds a belief that is incompatible with the Catholic Faith is not pertinacious if he does not realise this, even if he should have realised it. One who submits to a false pope instead of a true one is not a schismatic if he thought he was the true head of the Catholic Church, even if he ought to have known better. Once again the authors are all in agreement about this.
No one with an ounce of charity, or even common sense, has ever imagined that all who have been misled in the present crisis have been pertinacious in their errors. Those who have consciously abandoned fidelity to the Magisterium (which clearly applies to a great many of those who frequent the Novus Ordo, for instance) are pertinacious in the sense understood by canonists, but for the rest it is impossible to generalise. They are not heretics unless they are pertinacious. Whether they are or are not pertinacious depends on whether or not they have really adopted a heretical or schismatic position while seeing that it was not compatible with Catholicism. I doubt whether that applies to many traditional Catholics. Others may think it does. But surely no one can seriously suggest that it applies to all.
Why then do those who hold the “hard line” position treat all who have erred as heretics or schismatics? They often do so on that basis of what they take to be a legal presumption. They argue that the profession of an externally un-Catholic position, even in good faith, creates a duty to presume the person responsible to be pertinacious — to presume it in the external forum, i.e. for all practical purposes.
I am convinced that this view is based on a confusion and has no foundation in fact.
Some theologians do indeed say that pertinacity is presumed when someone externally professes heresy while retaining the orthodox faith in his heart. But they are referring to the external profession of what he knows to be heresy. They refer to those who make heretical statements through fear, or out of interest, or while under the influence of drugs. They tell us that such individuals are interiorly orthodox, but are to be treated for practical purposes as pertinacious heretics.
No single theologian can be found who says that this presumption applies when someone holds, expresses or acts on a heretical position that he sincerely believes to be orthodox.
Similarly in the case of schism, some hard-line sedevacantists hold that anyone who rejects a true pope or accepts a false one is to be deemed a schismatic for all practical purposes, even if interiorly in the sight of God he is in good faith. But it is clear beyond controversy that the theologians hold exactly the opposite. The texts relied on by the hard-liners in fact refer to persons who well know that they are separating themselves from the Catholic Church’s communion. No author suggests that those who wish to belong to the Catholic communion, but err, in days of confusion, about who is pope or who is a Catholic, must therefore be deemed excluded from the Church.
Hence the hard-line sedevacantists are deeming excluded from the Church many persons who are in fact still members. Worse still, they are rejecting priests for giving the sacraments to persons to whom they are in fact strictly bound to give them.
If you are convinced that a given individual is truly a heretic (i.e. pertinaciously rejecting the Catholic Faith), you must treat him as a non-Catholic. But in the absence of an official judgment, your opinion binds only yourself. You cannot legitimately infer that anyone who disagrees with you as to whether this or that person is in fact pertinacious is therefore a non-Catholic also.
Moreover to conclude that anyone is a heretic you should be sure that his doctrine is directly heretical — i.e. that the Church has condemned what he believes, not just that his beliefs seem logically to lead to heresy(1). In addition you need to establish that he is aware of that fact and holds his position anyway.
The Church has been through many crises, and the present one is the worst of the New Testament era. It is unsurprising that many should be led astray despite the sincere will to believe with the Church. Authority is normally needed to ensure unity, and today that authority is wanting. The minimal unity of faith and charity which is essential to the Church remains, but not all Catholics clearly understand the right answers to the various questions that arise from the crisis itself. Whenever this has happened in the past, the misguided were not deemed to be heretics or schismatics until they proved obstinate in the face of the direct judgment of the authorities. Today the same should apply.
This is not to fall into the error of those who deny that we can ever recognise a heretic in the absence of direct condemnation. It is merely to insist on the charitable duty not to believe anyone to be guilty of heresy, or any other sin, when the facts admit of another interpretation. And above all not to refuse communion with those who differ from us on mere questions of fact and opinion, such as whether this or that individual is in fact pertinacious.
Needless to say there may well be prudential reasons why someone may decide to keep away from this or that priest or layman. Errors held in good faith may still be dangerous and mingling with their patrons may be imprudent. But this decision need not imply the view that those avoided are non-Catholics, or that all who judge differently must also be avoided.
(1) “Nothing is understood to be dogmatically declared or defined unless this is manifestly established.” (Canon 1323§3)
© Copyright John S. Daly