Heresy in History
This article has been written to refute the position of some exclusive sedevacantists, i.e. persons for whom non-sedevacantists are no longer Catholics, for whom most traditional Catholics, by failing to conclude that the putative popes of Vatican II have been heretics, have themselves fallen into heresy. I have explained elsewhere why this conclusion is unacceptable in theology and law. The present article appeals to Church history to show that one should be very slow to judge that someone claiming to be subject to the Magisterium of the Catholic Church is in fact a heretic or schismatic, and that, in the extreme case where this judgment is formed by a private individual, it gives no pretext whatever to condemn or withdraw from communion with those Catholics who do not share that judgment. It is opposed not to those who accuse John-Paul II and the modernist hierarchy of being heretics, but to those who cheerfully include practically all traditional Catholic clergy in the same accusation.
All sedevacantists necessarily hold that private individuals can sometimes recognise heresy even before the culprit has been condemned by the authorities of the Church. They are right to do so, and the same applies to schism. However, it seems that some carry this exceptional principle much too far, and are prompt to condemn others as heretics or schismatics when the fact is not sufficiently founded.
In the case of heresy it is necessary that there should be rejection of a truth which it is manifest that the culprit knows is certainly taught by the Church as an object of divine and Catholic faith. In the case of schism it must be manifest that the culprit has intentionally withdrawn from what he recognises to be the communion of the Catholic Church, either in the person of the pope, or in the person of the great mass of the faithful.
If even one of these elements is lacking, or subject to prudent doubt, the judgment of heresy or schism cannot be made by the private individual — authoritative judgment must intervene.
The aim of this study is to assemble a representative sample of historical examples which show: (i) that good and learned Catholics have traditionally been reluctant to conclude, before the judgment of the Church, that a given person has fallen into heresy and can therefore no longer be counted a Catholic; (ii) what factors are necessary to justify the judgment of heresy and how they were evaluated in practice, and (iii) the attitude traditionally taken when orthodox-believing Catholics disagreed with one another, before the intervention of authority, as to whether this or that person or group were in fact heretics or schismatics.
While on the one hand it is imperative to shun heresy, on the other hand it is no less obligatory to refrain from rashly judging our neighbour to be a heretic — the most horrible accusation that can be conceived against anyone claiming or wishing to be a Catholic. Prudence is therefore needed to avoid all excess in either direction. The lessons of Church history must be of great utility for forming one’s conscience.
1. Erasmus of Rotterdam
On the subject of Erasmus of Rotterdam, St. Alphonsus Liguori tells us that he called the invocation of Our Lady and of the saints idolatry; he condemned monasteries and religious vows and rules, opposed the celibacy of the clergy, jeered at indulgences, relics, feasts, fasts and even auricular confession. He went so far as to claim that man is justified by faith alone and to call into doubt the authority of the Scriptures and of the Councils. St. Alphonsus adds that Erasmus accused of audacity the granting of the name of “God” to the Holy Ghost! So it is not surprising to see St. Alphonsus quote the proverb according to which Luther hatched out the egg that Erasmus had laid. Nor is it surprising to learn from him that “several writers openly accuse Erasmus of heresy”.
But was Erasmus for all that a heretic? He was esteemed by several popes, one of whom asked him to refute Luther. He remained a close friend of St. Thomas More. St. Alphonsus concludes in his own name, with Bernini, that Erasmus died with the character of an unsound Catholic, but not of a heretic, as he submitted all his writings to the judgement of the Church. (History of Heresies and their Refutation)
What is quite certain is that notwithstanding his doctrines, which even before the Council of Trent could scarcely be considered excusable from the censure of heresy, notwithstanding numerous contemporary complaints and refutations, and notwithstanding his great learning, which diminished the possibility of blameless ignorance, it was and is permissible to consider Erasmus a Catholic. Were one to hold him definitely a heretic, it would follow that Pope Paul III, St. Thomas More and many other excellent Catholics remained in communion with a heretic.
Pertinacious heresy is plentiful in our days among the disciples of Vatican II, but those of the school of Martin Gwynne or the Abbé Zins who detect pertinacity even among practically all traditional Catholics could hardly fail to hold that Erasmus was a heretic and therefore to censure all these good Catholics as heretics or schismatics for remaining in communion with him. Such a conclusion is clearly incorrect and can only be based on false premises.
2. John Henry Cardinal Newman
In 1845 an Anglican minister became a Catholic — John Henry Newman. Already learned in patristics, he did not equip himself with an adequate formation in Catholic theology. Ordained priest, he wrote on theological questions, admitting errors in Holy Scripture, salvation outside the Church, etc. One of the propositions later condemned by St. Pius X’s Lamentabili (Prop. 25) appears three times verbatim in different writings of Newman. Naturally in the prelude to the 1870 Vatican Council he opposed papal infallibility. His writings were attacked and refuted by Cardinals Franzelin, Lépicier and Billot, by Perrone and Brownson among others. Cardinal Manning reproached him with ten distinct heresies to be found in his writings. Other bishops spoke of his heresies also. Detailed refutations appeared which he could hardly have been unaware of. Nonetheless he retracted nothing.
So was he a heretic? Far from being excommunicated ... he was raised to the cardinalate! The whole Church remained in communion with him. The only explanation for this must be that, despite appearances, his errors were not deemed to be directly and explicitly heretical ... or else that the Catholics of the day, from the pope down, had a conception of pertinacity considerably more demanding than that in circulation among members of that sedevacantist school which hurls its anathemas so lightly in our days.
(Richard Sartino: Another Look at John Henry Cardinal Newman)
3. The Jansenist “Appellant” Bishops
During the eighteenth century Jansenist controversies, several bishops appealed against the teachings of the Church which infallibly condemned numerous Jansenist errors, some of them as heretical. So were these “appellant” bishops heretics? We can be sure that there were not so publicly and definitely, for the Church maintained them in their episcopal offices and no one at all withdrew from communion with them.
Cardinal Billot explains the case. He says that those inwardly tainted with heresy deliberately hid and veiled their heresies so that it was impossible to be sufficiently sure about what their position really was. He explains too that it was possible at that time for some element of doubt to remain about whether the infallibility of the bulls being rejected was itself an object of divine faith.
Billot shows that it was possible to know that these bishops were not Catholics only from the moment when “they began to reject openly and pertinaciously and unambiguously the bull Unigenitus after the Church had received it with unanimous agreement as a rule of faith.” (De Ecclesia, p. 294) And only from that moment “were they no longer considered to be true and legitimate bishops.”
While it seems to me that the bulk of the Vatican II bishops and clergy “openly and pertinaciously and unambiguously” reject quite a number of dogmas, I suggest that there is no trace of laxism or of wishful thinking in maintaining that the majority of traditionalists, including the clergy, are not in a state of opposition to the Church more blatant than the “appellant” bishops were in the period immediately preceding their rejection of Unigenitus. I do not believe that as a generality they reject “openly and pertinaciously and unambiguously” infallible constitutions as the Modernists do.
4. Fr. Alfred Loisy
Fr. Alfred Loisy, a notorious Modernist for many years, was excommunicated by name as a heretic by the Inquisition under St. Pius X in 1908. Here is the text of the decree:
“It is already known everywhere that the priest Alfred Loisy, currently resident in the diocese of Langres, has taught orally and published in written form many things that overturn the most essential foundations of the Christian faith. However there was some hope that he had perhaps been deceived rather by love of novelty than by depravity of mind and that he would submit to the recent declarations and prescriptions of the Holy See in these matters. That is why hitherto grave canonical sanctions have been abstained from.
“But the opposite occurred, for, despising everything, not only did he not abjure his errors, but he also, by new writings and letters to his superiors, had the hardihood to confirm them obstinately. As his entrenched contumacy after the formal canonical admonitions is therefore now clearly established, this supreme congregation of the Holy Roman and Universal Inquisition, in order not to prove unfaithful to its task, and by express mandate of our holy Lord pope Pius X, pronounces sentence of major excommunication against the priest Alfred Loisy by name and personally, and declares him to be struck by all the penalties of the publicly excommunicated and thus that he is vitandus and must be avoided by all.”
So we see that the Holy See does not blush to avow having long refrained from striking the heretic with excommunication, even though his heresies, which “overturn the most essential foundations of the Christian faith,” were “already known everywhere”. And the justification for this restraint, leaving Catholics in communion with one who no longer believed in the resurrection or the virgin birth of our Lord, was the hope that he might be led astray only by “love of novelty”...which, however, is scarcely a virtue!
Now the fact that Loisy was truly a heretic even before this decree is much more certain than the notion that all SSPX-supporters in our days are heretics, since his doctrines were much more manifestly opposed to those of the Church, even concerning the most essential foundations of the Christian faith, and without having the advantage of being able to offer, by way of excuse, the attempt to explain a truly unheard of and complicated situation such as that which today prevails in the Church.
However, far from condemning those who remained in communion with Loisy before his excommunication, the Holy See knowingly permitted them to do so, in order to wait until the very last minute before fulminating its excommunication!
5. Those Communicating with Loisy after his Condemnation
The decree excommunicating the heretic Loisy was promulgated 7th March 1908 and appeared in the 19th March issue of the French theological review L’Ami Du Clergé for the same year, accompanied by a commentary. This commentary explains the effects of the different excommunications in force at the time (still a decade before the promulgation of the Code of Canon Law currently in force): “in the case of those excommunicated by name by the pope [this was Loisy’s case] the constitution Apostolicae Sedis contains an excommunication...against clergy who communicate in divinis knowingly and willingly with them by admitting them to religious services.” 1
In other words, one incurs excommunication as a result of all religious communication with a heretic on the following conditions:
(a) The heretic must have been excommunicated by name by the Holy See.
(b) The culprit must communicate in religious services with him knowingly and willingly.
(c) The culprit must be a cleric.
(d) Even then, the excommunication incurred by the communicator is a minor excommunication, such that he is not himself regarded as a heretic or as vitandus.
Is there not a slight difference between that and the idea (currently maintained by Mr Martin Gwynne and by Fr Egregyi among others) that one becomes an excommunicated schismatic or heretic by the simple fact of communicatio in sacris with a heretic even when he has not been excommunicated by anyone and when one is not aware that he is a heretic at all, and that this applies not only to the clergy but also to the laity?
And in any event, the excommunication in question was softened yet further by Pope Benedict XV when he promulgated our present Code of Canon Law...
6. COMMUNIST PARTY MEMBERS
On 1st July 1949 the Holy Office replied to several enquiries concerning the status of Catholics who had become members of the Communist Party. It emerges from the replies that every Catholic consciously enrolling himself as a member of the Communist Party is excluded from the sacraments as ill-disposed; but that these persons are not excluded from membership of the Church as heretics or apostates unless they expressly hold the materialistic and anti-Christian doctrines of the Communists. (Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 1949)
In other words, a Catholic could join the Communist party without being deemed to have lost the faith, on condition of not having embraced manifestly anti-Christian doctrines, which could occur if the miscreant simply imagined that the Communist Party represented the best solution to social problems... (See Canon E.J. Mahoney: Priests’ Problems, p. 262)
So the Holy See judges it possible to remain a Catholic while being a member of the Communist Party. And yet some Catholics in our days think that one ceases to be a Catholic by the simple fact of remaining in communion with those who assist at the Masses of the SSPX? These Catholics must recognise that the Holy See seems quite unaware of the supposed duty of presuming pertinacity in the external forum even in cases where the error is much more manifest and hard to excuse than the errors of the SSPX in our days.
7. Czechoslovakian Schismatic “Catholic Action”
Less than two weeks before the above-mentioned decision, the Holy Office had published another decree, this time condemning a group in Czechoslovakia, purportedly belonging to Catholic Action, but which in reality was a fake, set up by the Church’s enemies to seduce the faithful. The Holy Office declared that this organisation was “schismatic” and that any person, cleric or lay, who should knowingly and willingly adhere to it, would incur (or had already incurred) the excommunication of Canon 2314 as a schismatic. (Acta Apostolicae Sedis, XLI, p. 333, Holy Office, 20th June 1949)
This clearly implies that anyone adhering to the schismatic organization in a manner that was not both “knowing and willing” did not incur the excommunication visited automatically on all schismatics. It is therefore possible to be a member of a schismatic group without oneself being either schismatic or excommunicated, even by external forum presumption. Yet it is argued that association with any of the different traditionalist groups who in our days hold positions implying one or more errors convicts those involved automatically of heresy or schism, at least by external forum presumption. NO — where the miscreant does not err from the Catholic faith or communion knowingly and willingly the conclusion clearly does not follow.
8. Michel de Bay
Doctor Michel de Bay (also known as Baius), born in 1513, took part in the council of Trent and became a celebrated theologian at the university of Louvain where he opposed the Protestants, and in particular the Calvinists. “He seems to have been activated by a sincere desire to defend the Church, but...like so many of the Church’s impulsive and ill-equipped champions he fell into the very errors which he had set out to destroy.” (Brodrick: Blessed Robert Bellarmine, Vol. II, p. 3) From his youth he had a love of novelty disguised as a return to more ancient traditions. He affected to disdain the scholastics, without being very familiar with them, and to adhere instead to St. Augustine.
A pronounced vice in his character was the ease with which he described as “heretics” all those who failed to agree with his theological ideas, which, of course, he considered to be manifestly the only orthodox ones. From 1551 onwards he spread his errors from his professorial chair. In 1561 Pope Pius IV imposed silence on him, which he did not respect. In 1567 St. Pius V drew up a decree condemning 79 of his theses, but refrained from immediately promulgating it. De Bay was sent a copy and defended himself; reading his defence determined the pope to give public confirmation to the condemnation, in which several of de Bay’s ideas were qualified as heretical. The bull was promulgated on 1st October 1567. De Bay himself, out of charity, was not named, as it was hoped that his opposition to the doctrines of the Church was not conscious.
De Bay made himself the model of the future Jansenists (who were in many ways his spiritual descendants), by pretending to submit, without changing his beliefs in the slightest. He continued to spread his errors on the pretext that the decree condemned only false interpretations of his thinking.
A little after this condemnation St Robert Bellarmine arrived in Louvain as professor of theology also. From 1570 to 1576 he publicly opposed the errors of de Bay in his lectures, but without ever naming him. In speaking of him he always considered him as a learned Catholic, most worthy of respect, and at this time called him “prudent, pious, humble, erudite”.
Nonetheless St. Robert never ceased to hope for a new condemnation of his errors, and this appeared in 1579 (Pope Gregory XIII).
Bellarmine returned to Rome and later the Venerable Leonard Lessius came to replace him at Louvain. By way of preparatory information, Bellarmine told him that in his opinion the doctrine actually taught by de Bay and his disciples on the subject of predestination was heretical.
Lessius wrote from Louvain to Bellarmine at Rome, informing him that de Bay continued to spread his errors in private, even after the new condemnation, and sometimes even in public, and that his numerous disciples propagated them with great enthusiasm.
Supported by the advice of Bellarmine, Lessius continued to oppose these errors in his lectures, but still without ever naming him or condemning the man who was the source of so much evil, and the precursor of Jansenism.
Now in the light of this account, one is forced to ask whether some of the more extreme sedevacantists of our days are not very much prompter than St. Robert Bellarmine was in identifying pertinacity, and more animated by the bad example of de Bay himself than by the good example of St. Robert and of the Ven. Leonard Lessius. For in the light of the principles of those who call all SSPX followers heretics or schismatics, and place all traditional priests save one or two in the same bag, how is it possible to deny that de Bay was a heretic? And that granted, how is it possible for them not to condemn St. Robert Bellarmine, doctor of the Church, for having remained in communion with (and even praised) one whose heretical doctrines and manifest bad faith he was all too well aware of?
Once again, if the Church presumes all who go astray in doctrine to be pertinacious, St. Robert Bellarmine was clearly not aware of it. And while St. Robert strenuously maintains that it can be possible to recognise someone as a pertinacious heretic even before the intervention of the Holy See, the fact remains that he was slower to draw that conclusion in practice, even after several Roman condemnations, than some are today when relying only on their own judgment of what seems evident.
9. Catholics Frequenting Protestant Services, Using Protestant Schools and Holding Protestant Beliefs
In 1907 (10th January), a parish priest requested the expert advice of the moral theologian on the staff of the Ami du Clergé concerning two or three families among his parishioners. Though baptised as Catholics, they sent their children to the Protestant school and from time to time went to the Protestant services of the same sect. They did not go to the Catholic Church at all, to judge from the priest’s own account, and blasphemed the Blessed Eucharist to the parish priest, relying on typically Protestant arguments. Nonetheless, they refused to be called Protestants themselves, and requested the parish priest to baptise their children.
The parish priest asked whether the parents had incurred excommunication, whether they could be buried as Catholics, and whether, if he should manage to convert any of them, they would have to make a formal abjuration.
Now according to the position of those who think that most “traditionalists” today are excluded from membership of the Catholic Church, only one answer is possible: the culprits are manifest heretics and anyone who dares to consider them still Catholics and remain in communion with them must himself incur excommunication and be avoided by all true Catholics.
However, the Ami du Clergé, a periodical formally approved and encouraged at about this time by St. Pius X himself, was not at all of this opinion. Their moralist argued that there is no proof that the culprits intended, by assisting at the Protestant ceremonies, to apostatise from the Catholic Church — indeed they expressly denied it by insisting that they were Catholics and not Protestants. Similarly, he held that their stated wish to be Catholics gave to understand that these poor misguided souls had no wish knowingly and willingly to reject the dogma of the Church concerning the Holy Eucharist.
So in evaluating the questions posed by the parish priest, the Ami du Clergé replied that the culprits were still members of the Catholic Church, were not excommunicated, had no need to make formal abjuration of their errors, but only to repair the scandal given, and that if, dying with no sign of repentance, they were ineligible for Catholic burial (which would perhaps need to be confirmed by the bishop) this would have been as public sinners and not as heretics.
Now I have no doubt that it will be objected that in this instance the Ami du Clergé did not play the part of a true friend of the clergy, but rather showed evidence of laxism. That is my own opinion of the matter too. I do not accept for a moment that the individuals complained of could have failed to realise that they were denying the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist, and I imagine that when they claimed to be still Catholics, it was because they had completely lost sight of what being a Catholic means — imagining that their Catholic antecedents and baptism made them Catholics irrespective of their beliefs, which were plainly Protestant, when they knowingly rejected the faith of the Church.
So I have no difficulty in disagreeing with the Ami du Clergé. But what is quite different and indeed patently absurd is to claim that by forming its lax judgment of this case the moralist of the Ami du Clergé himself incurred excommunication and ceased to be a Catholic along with all who accepted his solution and therefore remained in communion with uncondemned public heretics. Indeed such a theory would involve the excommunication of the bulk of the clergy of France who all continued to remain in communion with the Ami du Clergé...
10. Saints Thomas More and John Fisher
In 1534 King Henry VIII of England separated himself from the pope, wanting to be recognised as head of the Church in his kingdom — an attitude which could hardly have been more clearly schismatic. He insisted that all the clergy of the kingdom together with the more prominent layfolk should swear an oath accepting that situation. The majority did so, but the two men in England most respected for learning and piety refused: Fisher, bishop of Rochester and Sir Thomas More, who had already resigned the office of chancellor in anticipation of a conflict with the king.
Now according to the doctrine of those who think that they alone today are Catholics, More and Fisher, ready to die rather than sign, ought surely to have considered that those who had signed had abandoned the Church by schism and were no longer Catholics. If they were dying rather than commit a schismatic act, they must surely not have wished to die in communion with those who had already committed the very act they were giving their lives for refusing.
But that was not their attitude at all.
On 13th April 1534 we see More fortify himself for his initial refusal of Henry’s oath, planned for later that day, by receiving the sacraments at the hands of a priest who had already sworn the oath! Later, during the trial which preceded his martyrdom, he directly states that he attaches no blame to those who have sworn the oath he is refusing. Repeatedly while he was in prison we encounter in his words and acts the same attitude and there is no mistaking it. He simply encourages all to respect their conscience and expresses solid hope that they shall all meet again merrily in heaven — an expression which has become almost proverbial. At the moment when he first refused the oath he (a husband and father) stated that he had never discouraged anyone else from taking the oath, and he continued thereafter to behave in the same way.
Fisher’s attitude and behaviour were identical and we know that he also made his confession immediately before his martyrdom to a priest who had sworn the oath — the same is assumed to be the case with More, but not confirmed by contemporary witnesses.
Both are canonised saints of the Church and their behaviour in this regard did not even arouse any objections from the devil’s advocate.
How is this situation to be explained? Could one not ask More: why die for this cause if it was not a matter of faith? And if it was a matter of faith, how could you remain in communion with those who chose the opposing side?
And how would More have replied to such questions? I suggest that only one possible reply makes the slightest sense. He would have said that, while the facts were clear enough for him that he would sin against faith or the unity of the Church by acting otherwise, they were not necessarily equally clear for others.
And suppose that one had pressed him, enquiring whether a Catholic in England could really be in good faith in rejecting the papacy when Henry VIII himself had defended it against Luther and when England was celebrated throughout the world for her devotion to the Holy See. His only possible reply would have been, of course, that the English were at the time very confused — many learned people were sowing confusion, only a small minority was resisting, the memory of the Great Western Schism with the eclipse of the papacy was still fresh... Given all these factors innocent confusion was possible and even probable and it was impossible to conclude that the seduced were guilty of schism or heresy without a formal judgment from the Church’s authorities on the matter.
And is the situation of Holy Church in our on day really clearer?
(Rev. T. E. Bridgett C SS R: Life and Writings of Blessed Thomas More; R. W. Chambers: Thomas More)
11. Mgr Darboy
In 1865 Mgr. Darboy, archbishop of Paris and member of the French senate expressed in an important speech to the senate ideas clearly opposed to the divinely instituted primacy of the Roman Pontiff over the entire Church, which, unlike papal infallibility, already belonged to the corps of Catholic doctrine. The speech was a public defiance of the pope and a refusal to recognise the pope’s ordinary and universal jurisdiction in the dioceses of France.
Pope Pius IX, already aware of the ideas of this wayward bishop, reprimanded him sternly in a private letter in which he reminds him that his stated ideas are comparable to those of Febronius (already condemned) and opposed to the teaching of the IVth Lateran Council. In the same letter the pope complained also of the presence of Mgr Darboy at the funeral of a freemason and other scandals.
Darboy did not reply to the pope for some months and, when he finally did so, adopted a haughty tone to justify himself and to rebuke the pope! He retracted nothing whatever of the errors which had been reported throughout France with glee by the anti-Catholic press! He wrote to Cardinal Antonelli (the pope’s secretary of state), for transmission to the pope, that the doctrinal question amounted to nuances of expression and that the other accusations were no more than puerile gossiping and insidious calumnies.
Nothing was done and in 1867 he met the pope in Rome, but, contrary to the hope he had given, did not mention the subject of this conflict at all.
In 1868 a new clash ensued between Mgr Darboy and Rome, when the private letter of the pope dated 1865 was “leaked” and widely published. Still Rome allowed the situation to continue and meanwhile the Vatican Council was in preparation.
Predictably, both before and during the council, Darboy opposed the project of promulgating the dogma of papal infallibility. For more than five years, despite the rebukes of the pope and of the nuncio, he never withdrew his extremely public errors against the faith. And then when the council proclaimed the dogmas concerning the pope, in 1870, he did not adhere to them. On 2nd March 1871 (more than seven months after the vote), he at last informed the pope privately of his adherence to these dogmas, and even then he continued to delay before carrying out his duty of promulgating these decrees in his diocese. Only that promulgation at last constituted an implicit withdrawal of the false doctrines he was on public record as holding, despite the rebuke of the pope, since 1865.
Now was Mgr. Darboy during that period a public heretic or not? If one answers “yes”, one is in manifest disagreement with Pope Pius IX. And of course those who not only accuse others lightly of heresy, but even hold that remaining in communion with uncondemned heretics is an act of heresy, schism or at best a grave public sin entailing exclusion from the sacraments, must conclude that all the Catholics of Paris, laity and clergy, simultaneously fell from grace by continuing to recognise Darboy as their bishop even when they deplored his behaviour.
(Ami du Clergé, 12th December 1907)
In about 1047 Berengarius of Tours spread scandal by his eucharistic doctrine, denying the true conversion of the elements into the Body and Blood of Christ, and reducing the Blessed Sacrament to a mere symbol. Berengarius justified himself by quoting a work falsely attributed to John Scotus Eriugena, which seemed to express similar ideas. Nonetheless the celebrated Lanfranc condemned this error as heretical.
Then Berengarius tried a trick which worked so well he came to make a habit of it: his doctrine was condemned by a council of the Church. Berengarius himself avoided personal condemnation by retracting. Then he returned to his vomit by spreading anew his heretical doctrine.
Hard though it may seem to believe, Berengarius played this same trick three times in a row over the following years, mingling heresy with hypocrisy, and even after that Pope St. Gregory VII accepted from him yet another retraction and recommended him to the bishops of Tours and Angers, forbidding anyone to inflict on him the slightest penalty or to call him a heretic.
Needless to say, it was not long before Berengarius attacked the text of the last retraction he had made and signed in the hands of the pope himself. However, after the council of Bordeaux he made a final retraction and this time persevered, dying in the communion of the Catholic Church.
Can anyone aware of such historical episodes seriously maintain that in our day it is mandatory to condemn as heretics or schismatics all traditionalists who have gone astray, or claim that one is excommunicated for hesitating to accuse of heresy in our days persons who one thinks may simply be confused?
(Catholic Encyclopaedia, art. “Berengarius”)
13. John Gerson
John Gerson (1363-1429) was one of the most learned ecclesiastics of his age. He maintained that the pope does not have universal authority over all the faithful, is not the universal bishop, can teach heresy while still remaining pope (but, if he did so, can fittingly be put to death by the faithful!), that the Church and the general council have authority over the pope, that the first four general councils were not summoned by the pope, that the laity can sit in a general council or even assemble one! Not only did he hold all of these principles, later to give rise to Gallicanism, but he even held them to be dogmas...
Now let us not waste our time discussing the notion that these ideas, though unorthodox today, were still orthodox and permitted in his days — it is simply not true. But far from being condemned either during his life or after death, Gerson is described as “Blessed” in five martyrologies!
What is the explanation? Quite simply, it is that he lived at the time of the Great Western Schism, when several pretenders to the papacy were reigning at the same time. If he allowed himself to entertain outrageous ideas, and even to think that they were dogmas, the reason was that he saw no other way of putting an end to the schism except on the basis of accepting such ideas. This explanation is not a personal one of the present writer — it is universally admitted: in other words, the Church makes allowances for the confusion which can prevail during times of schism and heresy in the absence of the ordinary authorities whose task is to settle disagreements and rule on which ideas exceed the bounds of orthodoxy.
Should we not act with at least as much tolerance in our days when the crisis is graver and authority yet more universally absent? Are the ideas which certain traditional priests or layfolk permit themselves to explain the present crisis or to account for how it might be ended really more aberrant than those of “the Blessed” Gerson were in his day? … to such an extent that anyone who might think so, and therefore continues to recognise them as Catholics is himself to be considered as outside the fold? Really? In the sight of God can anyone aware of these historical episodes honestly claim such a thing?
(Catholic Encyclopaedia: art. “Gerson, John)
14. MARTIN LUTHER
In 1517 Martin Luther began to attack very publicly the Church’s doctrine concerning indulgences. Tetzel, the official inquisitor, refuted his arguments and condemned his doctrines as heretical. Luther remained obstinate, but in 1518 he wrote to the pope a defence of his heresies, claiming to be ready to accept the pope’s judgment in the matter. Pope Leo X saw the gravity of the errors and summoned him to Rome to defend himself. On various pretexts, Luther declined to appear in Rome, wanting to be judged in Germany. The pope sent the celebrated theologian cardinal Cajetan to Luther, not to debate with him but to obtain his retraction. Cajetan made no bones about the fact that Luther’s doctrines were heretical, but Luther remained obstinate, appealing to the pope in person. Cajetan then wrote to the Elector Frederic that Luther was a heretic. In 1519 the pope condemned several of Luther’s errors, but specifically allowed him two months to amend before being excommunicated. Only after this period had elapsed fruitlessly was the rebel monk finally condemned by official sentence as a heretic.
Now this cause célèbre at once shows that the pope distinguished clearly between condemning Luther’s doctrines as heretical, on the one hand, and condemning Luther himself as a heretic on the other hand. In the light of this it is clearly impossible to maintain, as some do, that whoever defends a heresy is at once to be considered automatically a heretic by presumption of pertinacity.
Moreover, what was Luther’s status between his meeting with Cajetan and his ultimate condemnation? Was he a heretic or not? If he was, how could the pope delay declaring the fact and allow him a period of grace? But if he was not, how can one explain the explicit judgment of Cajetan as papal legate, formed in perfect knowledge of the facts, that he was a heretic?
For my part I see only one explanation: Luther was a heretic, but pending the formal declaration of this fact on the part of the ecclesiastical authorities, it remained possible for a Catholic not to realise this and to remain in communion with Luther without incurring thereby either sin or censure.
But, that being the case, how is it possible to claim that Catholics today incur excommunication by the simple fact of remaining in communion with persons whose errors have never been directly judged by a legate of the pope and who are very far indeed from having been formally judged heretics by the pope himself?
(St Alphonsus Liguori: History of Heresies)
15. St. Hypatius and Nestorius
Another historical example has been invoked in favour of the position of those who condemn all misguided traditionalists as heretics or schismatics: the case of St. Hypatius. This Bithynian monk insisted on omitting the name of the heretic Nestorius from the diptychs from the moment when he began to preach his heresy, denying the unity of person in Our Divine Lord. His ordinary, Eulalius, while refusing the heresy of Nestorius, rebuked the holy monk Hypatius for withdrawing from communion with Nestorius, who was their patriarch, before the judgment of a council. Hypatius replied that he could not insert the name of the patriarch in the eucharistic sacrifice because his Christological errors made him unworthy of the title of bishop in the Church. He insisted that nothing would induce him to change his practice. (See An Extract from the Life of Saint Hypatius translated by the present writer from the original fifth-century Greek of the monk Callinicus)
But in fact this case merely illustrates what all sedevacantists are agreed upon: given a case in which one clearly sees, in all prudence, that a putative bishop or pope is a public heretic heretic, one must at once withdraw from communion with him. That is of course the correct position to hold with regard to Karol Wojtyła and many others in our days.
But when some sedevacantists withdraw from communion with other traditional Catholics or even with other sedevacantists on the grounds that the latter remain in communion not with Karol Wojtyła but with certain traditional clergy or laity that these hard-liners consider heretics ... they are quite mistaken to quote the case of St. Hypatius in their favour. For Hypatius, though he withdrew from communion with Nestorius, clearly did not withdraw from communion with Eulalius, who, though orthodox, mistakenly thought it right to remain provisionally in communion with Nestorius until the Church should have formally pronounced him a heretic.
Hence those who today condemn those of us who reject John-Paul II without rejecting misguided traditionalists ought by the same token to condemn St. Hypatius whose example we follow. They ought to hold that he should never have been considered a saint after such a disgraceful example of liberalism and of schismatic dispositions!
And curiously enough, one of these hard-line sedevacantists who feel that fidelity to the Church in our days is in inverse proportion to the number of persons one recognizes as belonging to her, has even reached that extreme, for when the example of St. Hypatius was quoted to him he replied that Hypatius must have repented of the incident to have been considered a saint by the Church. In other words he made the saint’s chief glory into an act of shame which he spontaneously compared with the youthful indiscretions committed by St. Augustine before his conversion!
16. The Controversies Concerning Grace and Free Will
In the years around 1600 occurred the celebrated controversies concerning grace. Each side believed that certain of the opinions of the opposing party were impossible to reconcile with dogmas of the faith. Accusations of heresy were freely hurled. However, after lengthy and careful study, the Holy See condemned no one, simply forbidding each party to attach the slightest theological censure to the opposing views. Despite that, saints did not hesitate, subsequently, in expounding their view of the matter, to say that they could not see how this or that opposing opinion could be reconciled with such and such a dogma. (See, for instance, St. Alphonsus Liguori: How Grace Acts.)
Now how can it be permissible to think that a given opinion cannot be reconciled with a dogma and yet be forbidden to apply the word “heresy” to this opinion? I suggest the reason is that the word heresy applies only to the direct and manifest negation of a dogma. (“A proposition is termed heretical either when it is opposed directly, certainly and evidently to a revealed truth defined by the Church, or when it contradicts a truth contained in Holy Scripture, or when it has been explicitly condemned as heretical by the Church.” (Herrmann: Institutiones Theologicae, vol. I, n. 33) In every other case one may oppose the opinion one objects to, one may denounce it as worthy of condemnation, one can advance logical reasoning as to why it seems impossible to reconcile it with a dogma…but one may not pronounce the word heresy before the Holy See has judged the case.
17. Blessed Noël Pinot
This martyr of the French Revolution was Parish Priest of Le Louroux Béconnais, a country parish which he served with the aid of a single curate, M. Garanger. Blessed Noël remained submissive to the revolutionary civil power in France as far as conscience permitted between 1789 and 1791, even to the extent of allowing public notice to be given from the Church pulpit of new anti-Catholic legislation. But when it was decreed that the clergy must publicly swear to uphold the new civil constitution imposed on the French church by the revolutionaries, the future martyr resolved never to give his consent to an act he rightly judged to be irreconcilable with Catholic Faith and communion. At first he did not resist publicly, playing for time, though he encouraged his fellow clergy in private not to consent to these measures. But finally on Sunday 23rd January 1791, the representatives of the local revolutionary council arrived at the Church to require his signature before the people, and Blessed Noël refused. However, his curate who was also present, unconvinced by the arguments his parish priest had presented to him in private, yielded and swore the required oath, to the scandal of the parishioners.
Yet Blessed Noël Pinot remained calm. He did not sever communion with his confrère, or denounce him or advise against frequenting the sacraments administered by him. “Had the young priest truly realised that swearing the oath involved a grave fault? His parish priest concluded that the sin was material, not formal, in view of a certain good faith due to a deviation of judgment: the curate had thought he could go that far without ceasing to be a good priest. In any case, as the pope had not yet pronounced upon the subject of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, M. Garanger had not incurred any censure by his oath. So, trusting that the instructions awaited from Rome would open his eyes, M. Pinot allowed him to pursue his parochial activities as before.” (Mgr Francis Trochu: Vie du Bienheureux Noël Pinot) And this tolerance, we recall, was granted despite the fact that Pinot himself had already set out to Garanger as clearly as he was able the reasons why the content of the oath was intrinsically schismatic. Pinot’s trust in his confrère’s good faith was therefore possible by attributing to him a “deviation of judgment” – a failure to think straight on a matter which in itself was quite clear and had been sufficiently drawn to his attention.
This split ministry between one who had refused and one who had accepted the schismatic constitution continued until 27th February of the same year when Pinot saw fit to explain from the pulpit his reasons for refusing the oath and to warn his flock explicitly of its schismatic character. Thereafter he was obliged to go into hiding and continue his ministry in secret (until he was captured and executed in 1794). The Roman condemnation of the civil constitution was finally pronounced in March 1791 and eventually Garanger indeed returned to his senses and withdrew his error. He was later exiled. Returning to France after the Napoleonic Concordat, he exercised his priesthood for some years before becoming insane and dying.
The Judgment of Pope Pius VI
on Louis XVI and Blessed John de Britto
In his allocution Pourquoi Notre Voix of 17th June 1793, Pope Pius VI expressed the opinion that the recently assassinated king of France had died a true martyr to the Catholic Faith and might well one day be found eligible for canonisation. He mentioned that an argument against this might be adduced from the fact that the king had sealed the schismatic civil constitution of the clergy. But the Pope immediately answered his own objection by observing that the apparent approval in question would seem to have been elicited against the king’s will on the pretext that the seal indicated only the conformity of the copy to the original, not the royal assent, and that in any event the king had sufficiently expiated any fault against faith by his death for the faith – and the pope suggested a comparison with the case of Jesuit missionary Blessed (then Venerable) John de Britto.
The interest of the first of these defences considered admissible by the pope is that if Louis did not intend to express his assent to the document by affixing his seal, this fact was quite unascertainable in the external forum at the time (cf. the signatures of the conservative Fathers of the Second Vatican Council on the council’s decrees), yet no one saw fit to consider the king a heretic or a schismatic even presumptively until the Holy See had pronounced on the issue directly.
And the interest of the second defence (martyrdom) is that a defined dogma of our faith teaches that even to lay down one’s life for Christ is of no avail for salvation if one should die outside the Church’s communion (Denz. n. 714). And while it is true that Louis was later to express regret for having given at least exterior consent to the revolutionary constitution, Blessed John de Britto (with whom the king was compared) expressed no regret whatever for his adherence to the Chinese rites after their explicit and vehement condemnation under pain of excommunication by the Holy See. And during this period of his apparent rebellion against the decision of legitimate authority he had displayed the disquieting custom of performing frequent miracles. The explanation is that (a) the rites approved by Blessed John were not intrinsically evil, as were some of the condemned Chinese rites, and (b) his disobedience to the Holy See’s decrees in this matter was mitigated by the existence of a current of cavilling arguments presenting the decrees as less universal in their import than they were in fact clearly intended to be. Thus, though disobedience to the decrees was objectively quite unjustifiable and the arguments against the decrees’ authenticity were worthless (see Benedict XIV: Ex Quo Singulari, 11th July 1742), it was nevertheless perfectly possible for a holy and orthodox priest to be for a time (seventeen years to be precise) deceived by these sophistries and yet to live holily and die for the faith, atoning with his blood for whatever fault there may have been in his want of simple and childlike obedience.
19. A Hypothetical Case?
Let us imagine a bishop who finds himself in disagreement with the pope about a doctrinal question of grave practical importance. The pope formally indicates to him, several times, the sound doctrine to be held on the matter, but the bishop is obstinate in his contrary opinion. Rummaging in his archives he claims to have established the existence of a “tradition” in his region on the subject, contrary to the pope’s doctrine. He replies to the pope haughtily, refusing to accept his doctrine and claiming, on the basis of his “tradition” (which in reality is no older than fifty years!) that those who live in his country have the right to retain their own doctrine on the matter. He loses his cool and becomes angry, addressing to the pope words which no Christian should address to a superior. The pope contemplates excommunicating him with his adherents. He reminds them of the pre-eminence of the See of Rome, but one of the adherents of the first bishop accuses the pope of boasting! Another bishop of sound doctrine on this issue encourages the pope not to have recourse to excommunication, with the possibility of losing many souls in consequence, but to be more understanding, despite the dangers involved in leaving this error without formal and infallible condemnation.
Should I be wrong in thinking that some readers, of inquisitorial persuasion, would find the advice of this latter bishop very liberal? Would they not say that the erring bishop was already a heretic, since his error was objectively opposed to faith and his pertinacity clearly demonstrated by his obstinacy in the face of the public refutations of his errors and the reprimands of the pope, even if these reprimands were not actually infallible? And in any event, pertinacity would surely have to be presumed in the external forum...?
Well, in the case recounted, the erring bishop was St. Cyprian with his doctrine of the invalidity of baptism conferred by heretics and his, for a time, unworthy attitude towards Pope St. Stephen, whose anathema was restrained by the prudent and charitable counsel of St. Dionysus of Alexandria. And let it not be forgotten that we have no evidence that St. Cyprian ever came to accept the true doctrine before his martyrdom…
(Rev. Alban Butler: Lives of the Saints)
I invite all readers to consider honestly and in the sight of God whether these events support the position of those who refuse to consider misguided traditionalists as Catholics, or the milder position of those of us who consider them confused but still members of the Catholic Church.
This short study was written to refute those who are too prompt to judge others to be heretics, and especially those who judge as heretics or schismatics other sedevacantists who maintain some measure of communion with non-sedevacantist traditionalists. It is not intended to support the error of those who think that private individuals may never conclude that someone is a heretic before the direct intervention of the Church condemning him. Other historical events could be invoked showing that this is not the case. Nothing in this study is opposed to recognition of blatant cases of heresy such as that of Karol Wojtyła, alias John-Paul II, of which there are many in our days. The moral is not that we should refuse to recognise the evident, but that we should be slow and reluctant to condemn as heretics or schismatics persons who, however confused, may not have definitely rejected the duty of submission to the Church.
© J. S. Daly 1st May 2000
1 ‘clerici scienter et sponte communicantes in divinis cum personis a Romano Pontifice nominatim excommunicatis, et ipsos in officiis recipientes.’