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Articles written, translated or selected by John S. Daly

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Cardinal Wiseman

Can a Private Individual Recognize an Uncondemned Heretic?



Can a Private Individual Recognize Someone as a Heretic Before the Direct Judgement of the Church?

What would be the point of the rule of faith and morals if in every particular case the simple layman could not himself apply them directly?” (Don Felix de Sarda y Salvany: Liberalism is a Sin, Chap. xxxviii, p. 203)

Thesis: Yes, private individuals can recognise someone as a heretic before the direct judgment of the church, on certain conditions, namely:

1. The false doctrine held by the culprit must in manifest and direct opposition to a truth that must certainly be believed with divine and Catholic faith.(1)

2. It must be morally certain that the culprit is aware of the conflict between his opinion and the teaching of the Catholic Church.(2)

3. The private individual may “judge” that someone is a heretic in the sense of recognising a fact — the epistemological meaning of the word “judge” — and not in the juridical sense of pronouncing a definitive sentence. Hence such judgments can oblige only the conscience of the person forming them, in full awareness of the facts, and no one else.(3)

4. It is obligatory to incline, out of charity, as far as is reasonably possible, in favour of a suspect, and to reach the conclusion that anyone is a heretic only as a last resort.(4)

Pitfalls to be avoided:

  1. It is incorrect to give the name “heresy” to an error which is opposed to a doctrine taught by the Church, but not as having to be believed with divine and Catholic faith, or which does not certainly belong in this category;

  1. It is incorrect to give the name “heresy” to an error which is opposed to a doctrine to be believed with divine and Catholic faith, where the opposition is not direct and manifest but depends on several steps of reasoning: in such cases the qualification “heresy” is not applicable before a definitive judgment on the part of the Church;

  1. It is incorrect to accuse anyone of heresy on the grounds that, while not embracing the heresy in question, he refuses to accept that it is in fact heretical or to count its devotees as heretics pending the Church’s formal judgment;

  1. It is incorrect to affirm that pertinacity is present when other explanations could reasonably be supposed.


Before stating the proofs of our thesis, let us quote, and answer, the two most commonly heard objections to the thesis defended in this article:

First Objection: “A heretical proposition is one which is directly and clearly opposed to a doctrine which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith — the private individual can judge whether or not that is so in a particular case. But the act of heresy, which makes its perpetrator a heretic, requires not only assent to an objectively heretical proposition, but also moral culpability — the conscious rejection of Catholic doctrine on the part of one is not unaware of the duty to accept it. This element is called pertinacity. It exists invisibly in the soul and cannot therefore be the object of the judgment of a private individual who sees only externals.”

Answer: As with every other sin, Christians must strive not to attribute the sin of heresy to their neighbour as long as another explanation remains possible. But charity does not require mental gymnastics in order to excuse what is manifest. However, the thesis here defended does not depend on identifying pertinacity as defined by the moralists, but as defined by canonists: conscious rejection of dogma on the part of a baptised person. This prescinds from the moral order altogether, forming a judgment which need concern only the external forum, yet which has no connection with the error of those who “presume” pertinacity where some other reasonable explanation of the external data remains available, such as simple ignorance or inadvertence. “Obstinacy may be assumed when a revealed truth has been proposed with sufficient clearness and force to convince a reasonable man.” (Dom Charles Augustine: A Commentary on Canon Law, Vol. 8, p. 335.)

Second Objection: “Such a judgment inevitably constitutes a usurpation of the rights of ecclesiastical authority.”

Answer: The sentence of ecclesiastical authority that a man is a heretic differs from the judgement of private individuals in two main respects: (i) the judgement of authority is authoritative, and therefore commands the adherence of all Catholics; (ii) authority alone can resolve doubtful cases. The judgement of the private individual would be a usurpation if it claimed either of these prerogatives. But where the facts admit no prudent doubt and no pretence is made to constrain the judgement of others, the individual who anticipates the judgment of authority by concluding that a given miscreant is clearly a heretic does no injury to authority. There can be no law against recognizing facts.

Proofs of the Thesis

(1) Denzinger 1105: Pope Alexander VII condemned the statement that one is not obliged to denounce to the authorities someone whom one knows to be certainly a heretic if one does not have strict proof that he is a heretic. This condemnation directly implies that private individuals can sometimes know that someone is a heretic before the authorities of the Church realise this, and even without having strict proof.

(2) St Alphonsus Liguori discusses the duty of denouncing heretics even among the members of one’s own family. He declares that this duty obliges without exception, but only when the miscreant is truly and formally a heretic and not merely suspected or erring in good faith. This distinction, presented in a clear and detailed manner, would be perfectly otiose if individuals were unable to recognise heretics before the authorities had intervened. So St Alphonsus clearly presumes that individuals can, at least sometimes, distinguish suspicion of heresy from certainty and can, at least sometimes, recognise the presence or absence of pertinacity. (Theologia Moralis, lib. 5, n. 250)

(3) Canon 1325 gives the classic definition of the word “heretic”, based on St Thomas: “a baptised person who, while continuing to call himself a Christian, pertinaciously denies or doubts a truth which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith.” Canonists are agreed that the pertinacity in question consists in knowing that the doctrine one denies (or doubts) is taught by the Church as revealed. No other condition, such as authoritative judgment is required to make someone a heretic.

(4) Canon 2314 declares that all heretics incur latae sententiae excommunication. Some other penalties incurred by heretics must be specifically inflicted by the authorities, and only after a warning has proved fruitless, but the excommunication itself is automatically incurred from the very instant that the heresy is externally expressed. The express stipulation that this censure is immediately incurred by the fact of heresy and not as a result of sentence would clearly be pointless and inapplicable if no one could know in any concrete case that it had been so incurred.

(5) Canon 188§4 declares that if a cleric should publicly fall away from the Catholic faith, all his offices would become vacant ipso facto and without need of official declaration. Canonists agree that this falling away is verified by public heresy as defined in Canon 1325: there is no need, they say, to join any particular sect, but only publicly to reject what one knows the Church teaches. Now this canon would be deprived of any meaning or value if no one could recognise the presence of heresy before an official judgment. How could an office become automatically vacant by the very fact of heresy, and without any declaration, if in fact a formal trial and a declaration were necessary to know that anyone was a heretic? What would be the point of advising us of this pre-judgement, pre-declaration effect of heresy if no one could ever take account of it?

(6) The meaning of Canon 188§4 is quite clear in itself and requires no commentary to understand it, in accordance with the canonists’ axiom: “Clara verba non indigent interpretatione sed executione.”(6) Indeed all canonists are unanimous that it means exactly what it says: public heretics forfeit all offices ipso facto and without any need for trial or declaration by anyone. However, Canon 188§4 has never been the object of official interpretation emanating from the Holy See. By contrast, it has a sister-canon — Canon 646§1 n. 2, concerning religious life — which has been officially explained and which sheds considerable reflected light on Canon 188§4 too and on the whole principle according to which private individuals can recognise manifest heretics irrespective of authoritative condemnation. This is because Canon 646§1 n. 2 declares that any religious who publicly abandons the Catholic Faith must be considered by that very fact to be legitimately dismissed (from his or her religious order or congregation) .

The second paragraph of the same canon requires that the fact in question (public heresy and consequent automatic dismissal) be declared by the superior. The canonists agree that public abandonment of the Catholic Faith would be fulfilled by any case of public heresy. In view of this second paragraph, the Holy See was consulted as to whether the dismissal was conditional upon the superior’s declaration. The Commission for the Interpretation of the Code replied, 30th July 1934, in the negative. The canonist Heribert Jone O.F.M. cap. explains that the superior’s declaration does not involve any trial and serves simply to make known facts that have already taken effect: the heresy and the dismissal which it produces.

Manifestly, therefore, the superior and the other religious must be able to recognise the fact of heresy in order to draw the practical conclusions that flow from it and to make the obligatory declaration of what has already happened.

(7) A very large number of theologians have discussed whether a pope could fall into heresy subsequent to his election, and if so what consequences would follow. Their discussion of this hypothesis also sheds light on the effect of public heresy, pending the Church’s judgment, when perpetrated by someone of lower rank. A few authors considered that a heretical pope would still have to be recognised as pope by the Church — Cajetan, Suarez, John of St Thomas, Journet and Bouix. But the weight of authority is massively in favour of the opposing view — namely that the miscreant pope would automatically forfeit his office by virtue of the very fact of public heresy and that the faithful would thereby be absolved of all duty of obedience towards him because he would no longer be pope at all. The principle advanced is that one who is not in the Church, cannot possibly hold office in her, and particularly not be her head. (St Robert Bellarmine, St Alphonsus Liguori, Ballerini, Naz, Billot, Sylvius, Melchior Cano, Wernz-Vidal, et al.)

Now this theological teaching would be worthless and indeed absurd if the faithful were unable, at least sometimes, to recognise heretics and to draw practical consequences from their recognition. St Robert Bellarmine’s treatment of this topic in his De Romano Pontifice is of exceptional value and weight. He considers as utterly without theological probability the opposing opinion (i.e. that a manifestly heretical pope — if God permitted such to exist — would not be automatically deprived of all offices, in common with all other manifest heretics). And among the five recognised theological opinions which he lists concerning the case of a heretical pope, the idea that it would be impossible to recognise such a case because pertinacity cannot be known with sufficient certainty does not even figure at all.

(8) St Hypatius, a Bithynian monk of the fifth century, insisted on suppressing the name of Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, from the sacred diptychs (equivalent to the Canon of the Mass) from the moment when Nestorius began to preach his heresy, which denied the unity of person in Our Lord. Hypatius’s ordinary, the bishop Eulalius (who was a suffragan of Nestorius), refused Nestorius’s heresy, but rebuked the monk for having withdrawn from communion with their patriarch before he had been condemned by a council. Hypatius replied: “Ever since I learned that Nestorius teaches error about our Lord, I am not in communion with him neither do I include his name in the Eucharistic sacrifice, for he is not a true bishop. Do as you wish to me, for I have made up my mind to suffer all things and nothing will induce me to change my behaviour.” (See An Extract from the Life of Saint Hypatius translated by the present writer from the original fifth-century Greek of the monk Callinicus)

(9) St Hypatius’s judgment relative to Nestorius seems to be confirmed not only by the approval of the hagiographers, but also by the decree of Pope St Celestine deciding that all of Nestorius’s acts were to be considered null from the moment when he began to preach heresy, “… for he who had abandoned the Faith by such preaching can neither deprive nor depose anyone.” (St Robert Bellarmine: De Romano Pontifice, Cap. XXX) The excesses of one school of traditional Catholics call for a reminder, however, that St Hypathius withdrew from communion only with Nestorius, not with Eulalius also!

(10) It has occurred several times that a saint has suspected a reigning pope of heresy, even to the extent of threatening to withdraw from obedience to him if the pope failed to manifest his orthodoxy by withdrawing the grounds for suspicion. St Bruno, St Hugh of Grenoble and St Godfrey of Amiens all took this attitude towards Pope Pascal II. Moreover, though St Yvo of Chartres disagreed with his three fellow-saints, the disagreement did not concern the principle of how to react if “the person placed in the chair of Peter...should manifestly depart from the truth of the Gospel” (Patrologia Latina, tom. 162, col. 240), but only the practical question of whether this had in fact happened in Pascal’s case.

(11) Holy Scripture often warns us to beware of heretics. It does not seem possible to understand all these texts as referring exclusively to those who have been condemned as such in person by the Church or who belong to sects which are notoriously outside her communion.

(a) The most striking is the passage in St Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians: “But though we or an angel from heaven preach a gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema. As we said before, so now I say again: if anyone preach to you a gospel besides that which you have received, let him be anathema.” (1:8,9) St Paul does not simply warn his converts to reject the novel doctrines; he instructs them to pass judgment — the most severe of all judgments — on the person responsible for disseminating them: anathema, with all that the word implies. And since it is clearly not appropriate to pronounce anathema against a Catholic who errs in good faith, it is plain that St Paul believes that the Galatians are able to distinguish pertinacious heresy from innocent mistakes in the doctrinal order.

(b) St Paul commands 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.” (3:10, 11) The greatest Catholic scriptural commentators, such as Cornelius a Lapide and St Robert Bellarmine, understand this passage as meaning that the warnings are required when it is doubtful whether or not someone is truly pertinacious in heresy. The former writes, in his commentary on this text: “the Apostle speaks not of a pertinacious and formal heretic, but of one who errs and follows an erring sect through ignorance or bad instruction, or of whom there is doubt whether or not he be pertinacious.” An alternative interpretation, favoured by Cardinal de Lugo (loc. cit.) and Suarez (as quoted by de Lugo), maintains that the “man that is a heretic” must already be a heretic before the warnings, as the syntax implies, and is rebuked to see if it be possible to reclaim him. In this view, the bishop (St. Paul is addressing St. Titus, the Bishop of Crete) is required to try to reclaim the delinquent and to avoid him only after failing to do so; but the ordinary faithful would avoid him even before the warnings, as already a heretic and therefore a source of danger. Whichever interpretation one chooses, both make it plain that the warnings are not envisaged as invariably necessary to establish every case of pertinacity, since both recognise that an individual may well be sufficiently exposed as a heretic even without having received any warnings. In the case of manifest heresy, no warning would be necessary. Our Code of Canon Law retains this distinction. (See J. F. Lane: The Loss of Ecclesiastical Offices: Is Holy Church Unprotected? Perth 1999)

(c) “Beware of false prophets who come to you in the clothing of sheep, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” (Matthew 7:15) Such is the solemn warning of Our Lord Jesus Christ on the subject of those heretics who disguise their errors by pretending to be faithful Catholics. Some of Karol Wojtyła’s apologists seem to have the impression that Catholics must take great care to avoid accidentally rejecting an innocent sheep which had the misfortune to be dressed as a wolf, but Our Lord declares the opposite. He tells us to beware even of disguised heretics (explanation of Cornelius a Lapide, ad locum), which would not be possible if we were unable to penetrate beyond their disguise (“sheep’s clothing”) to recognise their obstinate corruption of the Church’s faith, despite their deceptive protestations of orthodoxy.

(12) Cardinal de Lugo, considered by St Alphonsus to be the greatest theologian since St Thomas, devoted the most detailed study we are aware of to the subject of the pertinacity required to make someone a heretic. He discusses whether a warning is needed in order to establish that someone is a heretic, and concludes, after considering the opinions of all the noted theologians and canonists, that such warnings are not always necessary — nor are they always required in practice by the Holy Office. The reason for this is that the warning serves only to establish that the individual is aware of the opposition existing between his opinion and the Church’s teaching. If that were already evident, the warning would be superfluous. (Disputationes Scholasticae et Morales, Disp. XX, De Virtute Fidei Divinae, Sectio vi, n. 174 et seq.)

(13) Pope Paul IV’s bull Cum Ex Apostolatus (15th February 1559, Bullarium Romanum vol. iv. sect. i, pp. 354-357) provides that if ever the cardinals should elect as pope someone who was guilty of prior heresy, the election would be simply null and the faithful would have the entire right to withdraw from obedience to the person elected, as he would not be their head. Historians inform us that this bull, in the mind of Pope Paul IV, aimed particularly at excluding the possibility that after his death the conclave might elect Cardinal Morone, widely believed to be a heretic, but never condemned by the Church. Hence the bull clearly admits that the faithful in such a case (of any rank) could recognise the presence of heresy and withdraw from obedience to the “pope” infected thereby, without waiting for an official judgment.


(i) Those who claim that private individuals can never know that this or that person is a heretic until the Church has pronounced on his case are clearly mistaken.

(ii) Such judgments are certainly possible, but are usually exceptional and should be reserved for cases of peculiar blatancy or when the intervention of superior authority is in abeyance.

(iii) Those who recognise someone as clearly a heretic are bound in conscience to treat him as such, but their conviction does not bind others who do not share it. This is the chief distinction between heretics who have been condemned by the Church (or belong to condemned sects) and those who are uncondemned and still claim to be Catholics.


(1) While Canon 1325 brands as a heretic whoever pertinaciously denies or doubts a truth that must be believed with divine and Catholic faith, Canon 1323 underlines that no doctrine is considered to belong to this category “nisi id manifeste constiterit” (unless it is manifestly certain that it does). Herrmann sums up the common doctrine of the theologians when he states that a heretical proposition is one which is opposed directly, certainly and manifestly to one of these truths. (Inst. Theol. Dogm. I. 32)

(2) St Alphonsus Liguori: “No one is a heretic as long as he is disposed to submit his judgment to the Church, or does not realise that the true Church of Christ holds the opposite, even if he defends his opinion doggedly as a result of ignorance that is culpable or even crass.” (Theol. Moral. lib. 3, n. 19) To learn how to recognise this pertinacity, see de Lugo: (Disputationes Scholasticae et Morales, Disp. XX, De Virtute Fidei Divinae, Sectio vi) and A. V. Xavier da Silveira: Actions, Behaviour, Attitudes and Omissions Can Reveal a Heretic, in the Brazilian theological review Catolicismo, n. 204, December 1967.

(3) See Don Felix Sarda y Salvany: Liberalism is a Sin, chapter 38, for the distinction between the judgment of the individual and that of authority in doctrinal matters. Notice also, for instance, that in his bull Cum Ex Apostolatus declaring null any election of a heretic to the papacy, Pope Paul IV invites those who become aware of this nullity to withdraw their obedience from the heretic thus invalidly elected, but in no way censures those who, failing to perceive the reality, remain in his communion.

(4) In evaluating facts, we must above all conform our judgment to objective reality, but St Thomas reminds us that in judging men, “we must strive rather to judge them good, unless there be manifest proof of the contrary.” (Summa Theologiae : II-II, Q.60, A.4 responsio ad secundum)

St Augustine applies the law of charity more explicitly to the case of doctrinal deviation, in the following words: “And yet, if, within the Church, different men still held different opinions on the point, without meanwhile violating peace, then till some one, clear and simple decree should have been passed by a universal council, it would have been right for the charity which seeks for unity to throw a veil over the error of human infirmity, as it is written, ‘For charity covers a multitude of sins.’ For seeing that its [sc. charity’s] absence causes the presence of all other things to be of no avail, we may well suppose that in its presence there is found pardon for the absence of some missing things.” (On Baptism, against the Donatists, bk. 1)

(5) “The intention not to submit to ecclesiastical authority is necessary and sufficient to constitute pertinacity against the faith.” (Suarez: Opera, XII, p.474, ed. Vivès) Numerous authors could be cited to confirm the simple truth that when a baptised person knowingly denies a doctrine of divine and Catholic faith, he is deemed a heretic in the external forum. In the internal forum, in some cases, indeed he may be innocent of the sin of heresy — perhaps he was acting in consequence of mental illness, grave fear or under the influence of narcotics. Perhaps, if brought up outside the Church, he is simply unaware of the duty of submission to the Magisterium. In these hypotheses the sin of heresy is not committed. But in the eyes of the Church, the person involved is not one of her children. He is deemed a heretic for all practical purposes. (See Card. Billot: De Ecclesia, 4th ed., p. 289-90, and canon E. J. Mahoney, writing in The Clergy Review 1952, vol. XXXVII, p.459 where the subject is analysed in detail.)

(6) “Clear words call for obedience, not interpretation.” Cf. St Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 120, a. 1, resp. ad tertium.

(7) And this paradoxical hypothesis of an apostle or an angel from heaven preaching a false gospel — is it not an image of the paradox of our days: “the heretical pope”?

© John S. Daly 2000 A.D.