The Terminology of "Heresy": Catholics, Protestants and the Ecumenical Dialogue

There has been an discussion on the First Things Blog “On the Square” on the terminology of “heresy”, and its usefulness or otherwise in regard to ecumenical dialogue. Well worth reading. Here are the links:

Edwards T. Oaks, SJ. “Are Protestants Heretics?”

My lucubrations for today’s webposting would like to argue just this one single point: Doctrinal clarity is lost when Catholics call Protestant heretics. To be sure, that habit of unthinkingly hurling accusations of heresy at Protestants pretty much died out after the Second Vatican Council, when talk of “separated brethren” became all the rage. But a random spot-check of some Catholic blogsites of a conservative bent–where heresy is often used as the term of choice when these bloggers are in their Colonel Blimp harumphing mood–tells me it’s time for some clarity here. Which prompts the following reflections

Stephen Barr, “Response to Oakes on Protestants and Heresy”

While I agree with the general sentiment of Fr. Edward Oakes’ observations yesterday concerning the invidious or vituperative use of the word heresy, I feel that he is turning into a matter of sentiment what should be a matter of precise definition. If the word heresy is thought of merely as an insult or a taunt, then I agree that it is improper for Catholics to use it of Protestants, or Protestants to use it of Catholics. We should not be attempting to wound one another. Much better to call each other brothers.

The word heresy in Catholic teaching, however, has a very precise technical meaning today. It is not, as Oakes would have it, “explicitly [to] deny key doctrines of the faith.” The word key is not part of the definition of heresy given in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which reads: “Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith.”

Alyssa Lyra Pitstick “A Heretic Is as a Heretic Does”

Fr. Edward Oakes has been thinking about what constitutes a heretic. Let us take the next step with him in upping the ante of precision for the use of the word.

He is right that “unthinkingly hurling accusations” is counterproductive. But if heresy concerns dogmas with “objective truth value of their own,” such that they even “become church-dividing,” then to identify heresies thinkingly and clearly is essential to ecumenical efforts, because doing so points out precisely what still divides us. Indeed, it highlights what is most church-dividing, for the heretics (from whichever perspective) were willing to part company with their brethren rather than compromise their principle of choice. We can’t work on those points unless we know what they are.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J. “On Heresy: A Final Word (Until the March Issue of First Things)”

…Fortunately, I am quite sure that there is no substantial difference between me and Stephen Barr, although I think he misunderstood the import of my use of the word feeling to describe my dilemma. At all events, it was not remotely my intention to raise my feelings (which are a buzzing, cacophonous chamber of confusion in the best of circumstances) as the standard for determining what does and does not constitute heresy. Quite the opposite. For part of my request asking readers to submit a better term was driven by my need for a more exact standard by which to judge different species of heresy.

…Although I find much to agree with in Dr. Pitstick’s distinction between material and formal heresy, I am surprised that she would say “Formal heresy also does not require that the heretic abjure his church membership, as Oakes claimed. Indeed, it would be surprising if a heretic did so abjure, since he has convinced himself that his doctrine is the correct one.” For it was the gravamen of my posting that the more radical heresies inside the Catholic Church made me recognize greater orthodoxy among some Protestants than I do with some Catholic theologians. Surely Haight’s heresies are more radical than anything one would ever encounter among the evangelicals of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.

I do, however, happily accept her rebuke for my poor formulation of what the Reformers took with them. I think I did rather give the impression that, under my reading, the Reformers were raiding the larder of Catholic doctrine and that the purpose of ecumenical discussion is to get it back. While rejecting her charge that I subscribe to a Protestant ecclesiology, I basically agree with her when she says “From the official Catholic perspective, then, the Catholic Church conserves the whole truth, while the ’separated brethren’ share in many elements of it.” In that sentence, I think I can detect agreement between the two of us: Reformation heresies are not of the irreconcilable kind like docetism, otherwise ecumenical dialogue would be rendered pointless from the outset.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *