Heresy, Pertinacity and Canon 2229
We know that to be a heretic it is necessary to deny (or to call into question) a dogma, and that it is necessary to do so with pertinacity; that is, knowingly. But what should be said of the case of someone who, while claiming to be a Catholic, denies a dogma in culpable ignorance – that is to say he is ignorant of the fact that his position is heretical, but his ignorance is the result of unjustifiable sinful negligence? Would he be, in spite of this, a heretic? The canonists are united in stating that in a case of this kind the individual is not a heretic, and is not liable to the punishment of excommunication incurred by heretics. So much is evident from Canon 2229§2, the text of which is given below:
If a law includes the words ‘shall have presumed’, ‘shall have dared’, ‘shall have acted knowingly’, ‘expressly’, ‘imprudently’, ‘deliberately’, or of other similar words requiring full understanding and consideration, [then] whatever diminishes culpability, whether it be on the part of the intellect or of the will, exempts from all latae sententiae censure.
According to this provision everything which diminishes culpability, for example in removing “full understanding and consideration”, excuses the individual from censure, if the law contains one of the phrases cited or any other similar phrases. Now in fact, when defining heresy, Canon 1325§2 requires that the dogma be denied pertinaciter (‘with pertinacity’), and it is undisputed that this is one of the words targeted by Canon 2229§2. Thus Naz states:
“The words apostate, heretic, schismatic are to be taken in the sense defined by Canon 1325§2. Let us briefly remind ourselves, so as not to have to refer to it again: punishment falls only upon delicts, that is acts which are exterior and gravely culpable. What is more, the word pertinaciter, used in Canon 1325§2, exempts from punishment those whose heretical acts present some diminution in imputability (Canon 2229§2).” (Traité de Droit Canonique, Tom. IV, n. 1139)
Numerous other canonists agree on this point, including Chelodi (Jus Poenale, p. 30, n. 1), M. a Coronata (Institutiones IV, pg. 120, n. 4), Beste (Introductio in Codicem ad can 2229§2), and Mackenzie (The Delict of Heresy in its Commission and Penalisation).
To be a heretic, then, it is necessary to deny a dogma in full knowledge that it is a dogma that one denies. Ignorance acquits the misbeliever of heresy, even if not from grave culpability in the moral order. “What!” I hear you ask. “So someone can deny with impunity a doctrine of the Church, providing he protects his ignorance so as to remain unaware of whether or not what he denies is really a dogma?” Not quite, I would say, due to the fact that there is more than one form of ignorance:
Ignorance is defined as a lack of knowledge morally due. It is vincible or invincible according to whether, in consideration of the circumstances and the person in question, it could have been dispelled by an act of moral diligence. It is called merely vincible if one has employed, in order to dispel it, a diligence which has proved insufficient; crass or supine if one has employed no, or almost no, diligence; and affected if one has deliberately avoided means to dispel it. (Arregui, Summarium Theologiae Moralis, n.11.)
In this division of ignorance it is clear that one is not pertinacious, and therefore not a heretic, if one errs by ignorance which is vincible, even crass. Certain canonists do not excuse those whose ignorance is affected, that is deliberately sought out with a view to erring freely:
“Should anyone commit these sins [apostasy, heresy, schism] as a result of ignorance which is even gravely culpable (though not affected), he is free from the delict which requires pertinacity.” (Vermeersch, A., S.J., JCD, Professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University (1936) Epitome Iuris Canonici Cum Commentariis (Mechlin), ed. 5, iii, 311)
However, most seem more generous even than Vermeersch, excusing also those who leave the path of orthodoxy in affected ignorance. Thus Father Heribert Jone O.F.M. Cap., J.C.D. declares that:
He will be called a heretic who, having received baptism, pertinaciously denies or calls into question any of the truths proposed for belief with divine Catholic faith, but continues to call himself a Christian… He alone denies or calls into question pertinaciously a truth who knows that this truth is proposed for belief by the Church… Even one who is in affected ignorance of a doctrine of the Church seems not to be a heretic. (Commentarium In Codicem Juris Cononici, ad can. 1325§2)
The controversy dates back to the pre-Code era. Such an authority as Cardinal de Lugo states that:
The fifth opinion, which is the truest and most common, affirms that all ignorance, even crass and affected, absolves the individual of heresy and the punishments incurred by the heretic... The main reason is that the habit of infused faith is not driven out by the sin against faith committed due to ignorance; because in fact the habit of faith is not lost, in as much as a man retains the capacity for an act of faith concerning the articles which have been adequately proposed to him.” (Disp XX, sect. vi, de ignorantia et quomodo excuset vel non excuset ab haeresi)
And in our own day Father Cancé summarises his doctrine in similar terms:
When a law contains the following expressions: (if anyone) presumes, dares, knowingly, intentionally, imprudently, expressly or others similar (e.g. pertinaciter) all diminution of responsibility on the part of the intelligence or the will exempts the individual from latae sententiae censure (cf. 2229§2) irrespective of the cause of this diminution: ignorance (whether grave or otherwise), intoxication, lack of due diligence, weakness of mind… (n. 225)
According to Canon 1325§2 one must consider: (a) as a heretic one who, having received baptism and retaining the name of Christian, obstinately denies or in the same manner calls into question one of the truths which must be believed with divine Catholic faith; (b) as an apostate one who utterly abandons the Christian faith; (c) as a schismatic one who refuses to submit to the Pope…; but the censures of heresy, apostasy, and schism fall only upon acts which are exterior (public or occult), gravely culpable (so also interior), and, in the case of heresy (or even schism), accompanied by obstinacy (denies pertinaciter)… It is generally accepted that supine and crass ignorance exonerate from the crime of heresy and it is probable that the same applies to affected ignorance.” (Le Code de Droit Canonique – Commentaire, Tom. III, ed. 8, 1952, n. 273)
Anyone who wishes to understand these matters in order to better penetrate the mysterious state in which the Church finds herself today, could undoubtedly do worse than to recall what is certain, as expressed in the following words of St Alphonsus Liguori:
Heresy is an error of the intellect, free and pertinacious, against faith on the part of someone who has received faith. That is why for heresy two elements are necessary: 1. erroneous judgement…, 2. pertinacity… But in this case to err pertinaciously does not mean to maintain or defend the error keenly and obstinately, but to hold to it once the contrary has been adequately proposed; that is to say when one knows that the contrary is held by the universal Church of Christ on earth and yet maintains his own opinion. Thus, someone is not a heretic so long as he is disposed to submit his judgement to the Church or is ignorant of the fact that the Church holds the contrary view, even if he tenaciously defends his own opinion as a result of culpable, or even crass, ignorance.” (Theologia Moralis, lib. III, n. 19)
It may be added that the numerous authors cited in this essay on the subject of Canon 2229 and pertinacity clearly did not believe that this pertinacity ought to be presumed present even in its absence. It is unthinkable to want to emphasise so firmly that pertinacity is strictly necessary for heresy and absolutely incompatible with ignorance, even culpable or crass, if in fact all these distinctions would have no practical effect as a result of an alleged presumption of law. Indeed several authors emphasise that pertinacity is necessary not only to be a heretic, but even to be supposed one (see Jone and Saint Alphonsus, above). Hence this enquiry enables us to draw two conclusions:
A Catholic who falls into error in matters of faith without being explicitly aware of the conflict between his opinions and the teaching of the Church is not a heretic, even if his ignorance of the true doctrine is shown to be gravely and scandalously culpable.
Canon law does not presume as a rule the presence of this pertinacity every time that a Catholic errs in doctrine, but only when it cannot be conceived that the individual in question does not know that his position is not that of the Catholic Church.
© Copyright John S. Daly 2017