Dissent From the Creed: Heresies Past and Present


One of the depressing conclusions to which the reading of history can give rise is that bad ideas never really quit. Discredit a bad idea, and it simply goes underground, gets a face-lift, a new name, and a new suit of clothes, then reappears years, decades, or even centuries later to bedevil and confuse the unwary all over again.

Surely that is how it is with bad religious ideas. One reads with a recurring shock of recognition Fr. Richard Hogan's accounts of ancient heresies — Gnosticism, Pelagianism, and the rest. Good grief, these erroneous notions beset us right now!

"They rejected the Church's teaching authority, the hierarchy, Tradition . . . , the sacraments (especially the Sacrament of Reconciliation), as well as the veneration of saints, images, and relics." Does that sound like somebody you know? Those were the 12th-century Waldensians, condemned in the year 1184.

Or how about this: "[T]he path to union with God, even on earth, was to 'quiet' or abandon all use of any human faculties . . . the interior powers of mind, will, imagination, and memory were to be entirely emptied." That could pass for a New Age prayer technique with a fashionably Eastern tinge. In fact, though, it's a summary of the thinking of Michael de Molinos, spiritual father of Quietism, whose ideas and work were condemned by the Church in 1687.

Fr. Hogan's book is a useful popular overview of heresies throughout the centuries. But today it is necessary to persuade some people that questions of religious truth and falsity make a difference. Parodying this fatuous way of thinking, John Henry Newman wrote: "What is the harm of being a Sabellian or Arian?" The correct answer, as Newman knew better than almost anyone, is: "All the harm in the world."

Still, in God's providence even heresy can serve a useful purpose. For one thing, at the core of every heresy lies a kernel of truth; heresy raises its head when this kernel is pushed too far, understood in a fundamentalist way, set in isolation from other truths required by a rounded picture of reality. When this happens, it becomes necessary for the Church to confront the error and say definitively what is so. Time and again, this necessity has been the engine driving the process of development-that is, the progressive bringing to light and clarity — of Christian doctrine.

It is important to bear in mind the distinction between material heresy and formal heresy. Material heresy is error, but error in good faith. Formal heresy is error persisted in by someone who should know better, after the Church has rendered her definitive judgment. Heretics properly so called are those who so persist. For example, Origen (c. 185-254) appears to have been in material heresy on some points, but was far from being a formal heretic. On the other hand, Tertullian (c. 160-c. 222), a great defender of the faith at first, was led by rigorism to join the heretical Montanist movement and eventually to found his own, even more rigoristic heretical sect.

The organizing thesis of Dissent from the Creed is that the chronological emergence of heresies has in general traced the order of the Creed. In the first period (33-325 A.D.) errors focused on whether and how God is both One and Three; errors of the second period (325-843 A.D.) concerned Christ as God and Man; the heresies of the third era (843-1789 A.D.) usually turned upon the sacraments and grace.

And today? According to the author, the central issue in the last two-plus centuries has been the Church herself. This is exemplified not only by "liberal" heretical groups like the Old Catholics and the Modernists, but also by "conservatives" like the Feeneyites, whose error lay in taking a fundamentalist view of the truth that there is no salvation outside the Church.

For the most part, though, it is the Modernism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that continues to shape contemporary heresy. That stands to reason, since it is generally agreed that, although St. Pius X and his collaborators drove Modernism underground, they did not fully deal with the challenge to the faith that it posed. Based upon a rationalistic reading of Scripture and an equally rationalistic interpretation of history, upon evolutionism run amok, upon an ideologically derived dichotomy between "the Jesus of history" and "the Christ of faith," and upon pervasive relativism and the emphasis of subjective experience to the detriment of objective truth, Modernism undermines faith at its roots.

"In the end," Fr. Hogan writes, "the goal of the Modernists was not to transform society and culture, but to accommodate Christianity to the culture so that it would ever be modern!" Who can believe that we are out of those particular woods yet?

At the heart of the struggle today are questions of truth, freedom, and the authority of the Church. The conflict boiled over in 1968 with the rebellion — by many theologians, clergy, and religious educators, and even some bishops — that greeted Pope Paul VI's condemnation of contraception in the encyclical Humanae Vitae. Since then, things have quieted down on the surface, but the fundamental issues remain in dispute. It is all too likely that battle will be publicly joined again early in the pontificate of the next pope.

The author concludes that the "new synthesis" of phenomenology and Revelation developed by Pope John Paul II will be the salvation of orthodox faith. Perhaps that is so — and then again, perhaps it is not. Pope John Paul II undoubtedly is an interesting and original philosopher and theologian, but whether his work will bear quite that much weight is something only time will tell. Meanwhile, despite his best efforts, heresy is alive and well. We owe Fr. Hogan a debt of thanks for helping us understand it a bit better.


Russell Shaw. "Dissent From the Creed Heresies Past and Present." Lay Witness (July/August 2002).

This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine. Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.


Russell Shaw is a writer and journalist in Washington and a contributing editor of Crisis magazine and Our Sunday Visitor national newspaper. His books include Personal Vocation: God Calls Everyone By Name, Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church, Good News, Bad News: Evangelization, Conversion, and the Crisis of Faith. He is editor of Our Sunday Visitor's Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine.

Copyright © 2002 LayWitness

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