Saint Thomas on Heresy and Pertinacity
A MISCELLANY OF TEXTS RELATING TO HERESY FROM VARIOUS WORKS OF SAINT THOMAS
(1) Commentary on Book IV of the Sentences, dist. xvii, expos. text. (p. 517)
St Thomas is commenting on the text in which the Master of the Sentences discusses the notion that confession may be made directly to God instead of to a priest.
“To some it has seemed sufficient if confession be made to God only. This view, which is here called an opinion, is a heresy – not because it is explicitly opposed to any article [of faith], or what leads to or from one, but because it implicitly contains something contrary to faith because it follows [if this idea be accepted] that the Church’s keys are not necessary for salvation; and in such matters, before it is determined that something follows which is contrary to the faith, heresy is not judged to be present. That is why the Master and Gratian call this notion an opinion. But now, following the Church’s determination under Innocent III [Lateran IV; Dz. 437 (1215 A.D.)], it is to be considered a heresy.”
(2) Quodlibet. III, Art. IX and X (pp. 405-6)
“Whether disciples who follow the various opinions of their masters are excused from the sin of error?
“To the second point it is proceeded as follows. It seems that those listeners who hold the various opinions of various masters are excused from the sin of error if the follow the opinions of their masters, for the Lord says: ‘the scribes and the Pharisees have sitten on the chair of Moses. All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do.’ (Matthew xxiii, 2) Much more therefore should those things be observed which are passed on by the teachers of Holy Writ; so they do not sin who follow their opinions.
“But to the contrary is what is said in Matthew xv, 14: ‘If the blind lead the blind, both fall into the pit.’ But whoever errs is blind, insofar as he errs. So whoever follows the opinion of an erring master falls into the pit of sin.
“I reply that we should say as follows: as to the various opinions of the doctors of Holy Writ, if they do not pertain to faith and good morals, listeners may without danger follow either opinion; for then is applicable what the Apostle says in Romans xiv, 5: ‘Let every man abound in his own sense.’ But in matters which belong to faith and good morals, no one is excused if he follows the erroneous opinion of some master; for in such matters ignorance does not excuse; otherwise those who followed the opinions of Arius, Nestorius and other heresiarchs would have been immune from sin. Nor does the simplicity of the listeners furnish an excuse if in such matters someone follows an erroneous opinion. For in such matters assent is not to be accorded lightly. Indeed, as Augustine says in Book III of his De Doctrina Christiana, ‘One should consult the rule of faith which he has received from the more straightforward passages of Holy Writ and from the authority of the Church.’ So one who assents to the opinion of some master against the manifest witness of Scripture or against what is publicly held according to the authority of the Church, cannot be excused from the vice of error.
“So to what is objected in favour of the opposing view, it should be said that the reason why He first said, ‘the scribes and Pharisees have sitten on the chair of Moses’ was so that His subsequent words, ‘All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do’ should be understood with reference to what belongs to the Chair, and whatever is opposed to faith and good morals does not belong to it.’”
(3) Commentary on Book IV of the Sentences, article 3, Whether heretics should be tolerated?
Third Objection. Moreover, in Matthew xiii the Lord commanded that the cockle be permitted to grow until the end of the world.
To the third objection the reply is that the Lord commanded that the cockle be not uprooted lest perchance the wheat might also be uprooted with it; hence this passage is applicable to those concerning whom it is uncertain whether or not they be heretics.
(4) Quæstio VIII, De Vitiis Capitalibus, art 1.
Whether there be only seven capital vices?
Seventh Objection. Moreover heresy is a vice. But in one who falls into heresy out of pure ignorance the heresy is not brought about by any of the aforesaid vices. So there is a vice which does not arise from the aforesaid and thus the principal vices are insufficiently assigned.
To the seventh objection the reply is that there seem to be four ways in which knowledge can be defective, to wit: nescience, ignorance, error and heresy. Among these, nescience is a common element since it implies simple want of knowledge; wherefore even in the angels Dionysius admits a certain nescience as is apparent in Chapter VI of his Ecclesiastica Hierarchia. Ignorance however is a particular sort of nescience – namely of those things which man is born to know and should know. In addition to ignorance, error adds the application of the mind to the contrary of the truth, for the property of error is to approve false things for true. But heresy, beyond error, adds an element relating to the subject matter, for it is an error concerning those things which pertain to faith, and an element relating to the person who errs, for it implies pertinacity, which alone makes someone a heretic. Now this pertinacity arises from pride, for it is due to great pride that a man should prefer his opinion to divinely revealed truth. So heresy arising from simple ignorance, if it be a sin, arises from one of the aforesaid vices. For it is imputed to a man as sin if he does not care to learn those things which he is bound to know. But it seems that this arises from sloth [acedia], the property of which is to flee spiritual good if it impedes bodily good.
(5) Dist. XIII, Q. 1, art. 3 and Q. 2 art. 1
The next enquiry concerns heresy, concerning which three questions are considered:
1. What makes someone a heretic…?
Whether heresy means perversity of faith.
To the first question it is proceeded as follows.
Objection 1. It seems that heresy does not mean perversity of faith because…
Objection 6. Moreover there are many things concerning matters which pertain to faith in which conflicting opinions are held; and thus one or other of them must be false, but it is not for all that judged to be heretical. Hence the whole nature of heresy does not consist in perversity of faith.
Objection 9. Moreover many hold a perverse opinion in matters of faith, without hoping for any temporal advantage thereby. But to hope for temporal advantage is essential to heresy as is plain from Augustine (loc. cit). Hence, etc.
But on the other hand, heresy is a sin. So it must be opposed to some virtue. But no knowledge is numbered among the virtues except faith. So as heresy relates to knowledge, as is clear from Augustine’s definition above, it seems that heresy is perversity of faith.
Moreover this is plain from the common manner of speaking.
I say that…
…But the first assembly among men exists by way of knowledge, because from this all the others are derived, so heresy consists in a singular opinion other than the common opinion. Hence those philosophers who held certain positions different from the common opinion of others established their own sects or heresies. But as nothing takes its name from what is in it only imperfectly, but only when the thing is confirmed in it, as we do not call someone irascible because the passion of anger exists in him but because he is easily susceptible to it, and we do not call a man healthy just because he is not ill, so no one is called a heretic unless he has firm stability in a singular opinion. wherefore the word heresy applies to him also in its meaning of election [choice] because what takes place in election proceeds as from a confirmed habit. The word “heresy” also applies to him in its Latin meaning derived from “adhering”, because he vehemently adheres to his opinion. And because the congregation of the Mystical Body is first comprised by the unity of the true faith, therefore according to us someone is called a heretic if he departs from the common faith which is called Catholic, vehemently adhering by election to a contrary opinion.
To the sixth objection it should be said that in faith there are some matters which every man is bound to know explicitly, so if anyone were to err in these things, he is considered an infidel, and, if he adds pertinacity, a heretic. If however there are some things which a man is not bound to believe explicitly, he does not become a heretic by erring in respect of them - for instance if some simple person should believe that Jacob was the father of Abraham, which is contrary to the truth of scripture professed by faith - until it becomes known to him that the faith of the Church holds the contrary. Because per se no one departs from the faith of the Church unless he knows that what he is departing from is the faith of the Church. And since some matters are contained implicitly in the faith of the Church, as conclusions in principles, so diverse opinions are permitted in these matters until the Church determines that any of these opinions is contrary to the faith of the Church because something directly contrary to faith follows from it.
To the ninth objection it should be said that those who invent new heresies certainly expect some advantage thereby, if only that of leadership, for they want to have followers. This also proceeds in everyone from pride, which is love of one’s own excellence on account of which, through levity of mind or perversity, men depart from the common path.
(6) Summa Theologiæ, I, q. 32, art. 4
Whether it is lawful to have various contrary opinions of [these] notions [concerning the Trinity]?
Objection 1. It would seem that it is not lawful to have various contrary opinions of the notions. For Augustine says (De Trin. I, 3): “No error is more dangerous than any as regards the Trinity”: to which mystery the notions assuredly belong. But there cannot be contrary opinions without error. Therefore it is not right to have contrary opinions of the notions.
Objection 2. Further, the Persons are known by the notions. But no contrary opinion concerning the Persons is to be tolerated. Therefore neither can there be about the notions.
On the contrary, the notions are not articles of faith. Therefore different opinions about the notions are permissible.
I answer that, anything is of faith in two ways; directly, where any truth comes to us principally as divinely taught, as the trinity and unity of God, the Incarnation of the Son, and the like; and concerning these truths a false opinion of itself involves heresy, especially if it be held pertinaciously. A thing is of faith indirectly, if the denial of it involves as a consequence something against faith; as for instance if anyone said that Samuel was not the son of Elcana, for it follows that the divine Scripture would be false. Concerning such things anyone may have a false opinion without danger of heresy, before the matter has been considered or settled as involving consequences against faith, and especially if one does not adhere pertinaciously thereto; but when it is manifest, and especially if the Church has decided, that consequences follow against faith, then the error cannot be free from heresy. For this reason many things are now considered as heretical which were formerly not so considered, as their consequences are now more manifest.
Thus it must be said that anyone may entertain contrary opinions about the notions, if he does not mean to uphold anything at variance with faith. If, however, anyone should entertain a false opinion of the notions, knowing or thinking that consequences against the faith would follow, he would lapse into heresy.
From what has been said all the objections may be solved.
[Footnotes to this article in the 1889 Fretté et Maré edition of the complete works of Saint Thomas:
Conclusion: When the notions pertain only indirectly to faith, it is lawful to hold contrary opinions concerning them, if nothing is present, or is considered to follow, which is contrary to faith.
Observe the clarity, prudence and charity of this article. For we should not carelessly call anyone who disagrees with our orthodox views a heretic, even if he holds his opinion pertinaciously, unless the judgement of the Church has declared his opinion heretical.]
(7) Quodlibet. IV, Art XIV
Whether one must avoid excommunicated persons concerning whom experts disagree as to whether they are in fact excommunicated?
To the third question it is proceeded as follows.
It seems that those excommunicates should not be avoided concerning whose excommunication wise men hold conflicting opinions. Because according to the laws a bishop cannot remove a benefice which he has granted to a cleric without some fault on the cleric’s part. But the communion of the faithful is as much due to any of the faithful as a benefice is due to a cleric to whom a bishop has granted it. So neither is the communion of the faithful to be withdrawn from anyone without fault. And when it is doubtful whether a cause is present, the mind of a good man ought to be more prompt to interpret the facts in the milder direction. Hence, when it is doubted whether some persons are excommunicated, one ought rather to take the position that they are not excommunicated, in which case there is no need to avoid them.
But on the other hand, should someone die as a result of having been struck in war and it is unknown who struck him, on account of this doubt anyone who took part in the war is considered irregular by the laws. So analogously [“a simili”] it seems that when there is a doubt as to whether some persons are excommunicated, for greater safety they ought to be avoided.
I reply that doubt as to whether certain persons are excommunicated either precedes the sentence of the judges or else follows it. If it comes before, for instance when it has not yet been declared by the consensus of the judges that certain persons are excommunicated, they are not to be avoided until the matter has been closed by definitive judgment. For in this case it is true that we ought to follow the milder interpretation. Hence Deuteronomy xvii, 8 says: If thou perceive that there be among you a hard and doubtful matter in judgment…and thou see that the words of the judges within thy gates do vary…thou shalt come to the priests and to the judge…and thou shalt ask of them…and thou shalt do whatsoever they shall say. But should a doubt arise after the concordant decision of the judges, one ought rather to adhere to the judges’ verdict, for two reasons. First, because judges discuss matters more solicitously and can therefore more fully perceive the truth, even if they are less learned, than others who fulfil the task casually and extraordinarily. Secondly, because it would be gravely harmful to the common usefulness of men’s status if sentences were not respected, but might be impugned by anyone at whim: that would lead to interminable arguments. Hence in such cases one ought to stand by the judges’ sentence unless perchance it has been suspended by appeal.
This explanation makes clear the answer to the objections.
© Copyright translations by John S. Daly 2017