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January 31, 2007


Rich Leonardi

Do conservative bloggers really use the word "heretic" that often? I can't recall the last time I came across it.


It does seem like a for a person to be meaningfully declares a heretic they need to represent themselves as being orthodox. So calling protestants heretics is useless because nobody thinks they are in line with Catholic teaching. When a Catholic priest contradicts one of the core doctrines of the faith then the word should be used. Still it should not be up to individual Catholics to publicly call people heretics. The church needs to make that determination. We might privately suggest to a bishop or priest that such a person's teaching should be called heresy but to do so on our own authority invites evceryone else to do the same. Some folks feel virtually every bishop is a heretic. I don't feel that kind of talk is helpful.

Joe Marier

I liked this piece. Here was my favorite bit...

"The odd twist in the plot is that the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century–especially in France–represented a kind of subterranean Jansenism fused to a bourgeois “ledger morality” of Do’s and Don’ts."

The nineteenth century was, without a doubt, the absolute worst period in human history for Catholic liturgical music... and I guess that's why.

In any case, he makes the case that Protestantism is somewhere between schism and heresy. I would agree.

My recommendation for the word he's looking for? Stnank.


I told some of my fellow Hoosiers that I'm rooting for the Bears this Sunday - that makes me one of the worst heretics.


JP....it does indeed. May you burn in...never mind. :-)

Doug, Carmel

Brad C

I agree, Rich, that I've never seen a conservative blogger use 'heresy'. If Father Oakes' goal is to provide clarity about the use of 'heresy', as he claims in the first paragraph, then he fails miserably. This ramble on the etymology of 'heresy' is particularly embarassing:

"So, in a way, heresy can be the appropriate word to use to describe dogmatic disputation but only provided one first gives priority to its etymological meaning, which comes from the Greek word for “choice.” But of whom does that not apply? As Peter Berger observed in his fine book The Heretical Imperative, not many people in this multicultural setting of ours can keep to the religion they were born into without a lot of conscious choices being made along the way. Even orthodoxy is, in that sense, a choice, a “heresy.”

But that (essentially sociological) observation of Berger’s doesn’t really get at my point either. After all, in ordinary language heresy does not mean just any old choice but usually denotes doctrinal error. But that doesn’t get us too far either. For if that’s all the word means, then we’ll never find anyone who has declared himself a heretic. To do so would be as nonsensical as someone saying, “In my–of course entirely wrong–opinion, I am convinced that…”

Who on earth believes that anyone who makes a "conscious choice" is a heretic or that the etymology of the words warrants this inference? And of course no one who is a heretic believes he is a heretic. But he obstinately denies something that he is obligated to believe as a matter of divine faith even though he mistakenly thinks he is not obligated to believe it. What is wrong with heresy is that it involves choosing what to believe in the sense of "picking and choosing". It involves a kind of pride to prefer your own theological opinions to the authority of the Church.

Thus, Luther was "picking and choosing what to believe". Even though Luther was partially right about a complicated matter like justification, he was wrong about a lot of other things. Rather than clarifying the nature of justification within the Church he chose to separate himself from it.

Why not just say it is impolite and imprudent to call Protestants heretics even though, technically speaking, they are (as he seems to admit in the barely coherent closing paragraphs)? Instead of making this simple point, which is the only thing he really manages to prove, he attributes widespread error to multitudes of post-Trent Catholics. He makes the great unwashed of the Catholic faithful sound like they were in darkness until the great light of the post-Vatican II ecumenical movement shone upon them. The Church must have suppressed the works of St. Augustine, leaving Catholics to be re-educated by their Protestant peers.

As Father says, "All I can say is this: We live in strange times when I find greater doctrinal fellowship among many Protestants than I do among far too many Catholic theologians!" This makes me rethink this sentence from the first paragraph: "I have no doubt that the prospect of eventual ecclesial unity can only be achieved when, among other milestones, consensus is reached about the dogmas that separate Christians." You cannot mean that the "consensus" that is the goal of the modern ecumenical movement will involve the repudiation of dogmas by Roman Catholicism. But if you don't mean that, then what do you mean in light of what you say at the end of your article?


Wow, I'm reading a really great book on the subject called, "Heretics". Now what was that authors name? Chuckie...Chester....Chesterson? That sounds right. Chesterson. Quite the guy wonder if he has a lecture circut?


I gotta say, I found that blog entry at FT less than convincing. He all but says so himself. It came off as more of a whimper on behalf of his Protestant acquaintances than a compelling argument.

Unapologetic Catholic

"Do conservative bloggers really use the word "heretic" that often? I can't recall the last time I came across it."

Short memory.

The answer to the question is, "Yes," although "heterodox," "Catholic Lite," "Jesuit," "Cafeteria Catholic," are the usual synonyms.

I can sum up the heretic hysteria in four letters. V O T F.

If you wish to agree that you do not consider such Catholics who are identified on conservatve blogs as "cafeteria" or "lite" as heretics, then you are free to do so right now.

Susan Peterson

My one concern is with his last line, which says approximately , "We have come to strange times when I feel I have more in common with Protestant theologians than with many of my fellow Catholic theologians."

He hasn't really prepared us for this statement, for one thing. Up until then he is showing us (as Kung did so tellingly in his one good book, Justification) writings of a great saint (Kung has many more citations along these lines) which sound absolutely Lutheran. He is saying, it seems, that therefore these views do have a place in Catholicism.

So then, is he saying that other Catholic theologians don't recognize this? Which other Catholic theologians? More so now than at some other time? Which other time.

Also, what the times have come to, and where the author has come to are two different issues. Conceivably the author could have gone astray. And what do the times have to do with it? These are perennial issues between Catholics and Protestants, nothing new.

Is he maybe saying that after VII there was a lot of reaching out towards Protestantism, but that now there is a Catholic re-entrenchment?

Perhaps that is true. For instance I see among younger "orthodox" Catholics, an attitude of "Lets all try and gain lots of indulgences," either in ignorance of all the doctrinal issues and Protestant sensibilities touched upon by the word "indulgence" or in triumphalist reassertion and reclaiming of the practice. Maybe that is what the writer is thinking of.

For myself, I look upon indulgences as the church saying "This would be a very good thing to do, and it will put you in touch with all the holiness and graces which belong to the communion of saints (which holiness and graces all flow from Christ and belong to Him, and to the Church because it is His body.)" I don't think the "Treasury of Merit" image is the best one to describe this truth about the Church, and I myself will not join the rush back to embrace that language.

But the author spoiled the impact of his article by leaving himself open to the interpretation that maybe he has just become a Protestant and by ending on the note of criticism of unnamed fellow Catholic theologians. He ought not to leave us guessing of what and to whom he is speaking. And in the end, he does.

Susan Peterson

Boko Fittleworth

The only thing I'm interested in reading by Fr. Oakes is an apology for his shameful treatment of Alyssa Pitstick in the von Balthasar heresy trial (FT Dec & Jan). I thought Pitstick raised some good points, but could have framed better arguments from her material. I thought Fr. Oakes was insulting and even sexist (I'm no member of the PC police, but he made one little jab that was really uncalled for).

I should note that Fr. Neuhaus, in his Feb On the Square musings, seems to allude to, shall we say, dissatisfaction with Fr. Oakes's treatmetn of Pitstick, so it ain't just me.

After reading Fr. Oakes's defense of von Balthasar, it appears to me that he has a vested interest in watering down the notion of heresy. Okay, that part was just me.


It seems to me that this post was an extension to the exchage he recently had with Alyssa Pitstick over Balthasar (FT December and January issues).

It also seems to me that Oakes misses the point that when modern catholic bloggers call protestants heretics they are doing so not becasue they disagree about justification but because they find their views on other issues (that Mary is the Mother of God, that the successor of Peter is a sign of unity for the whole church, that Christ is truly present body, blood, soul and divnity in the Eucharist, etc...)to be heretical.

I'm more sympathetic to the approach of Pitstick to protestant theologians than is Oakes. I don't have the inclination to study protestant theologians because I KNOW there are errors present, and it takes work to sift any truth from these errors.

James Maliszewski

If Protestants don't count as heretics in Fr. Oakes's mind, then no one does. He seems, like certain prelates I won't mention, to be more concerned with politeness than with realizing that there is a standard of orthodoxy, deviation from which necessarily entails heresy. Perhaps he's also forgotten the difference between a formal and a material heretic. Whatever the case, this is a very poor blog entry and I pray that he's a better teacher of seminarians than he is a writer.

Brad C

I also agree with Boko that his treatment of Pitstick in the FT exchange was shameful. He was snide and unnecessarily combative and he preferred to mock her with epithets like "uber-traditionalist" rather than engage her arguments.


I was particularly disappointed in the January part of the exchange where after repeated requests by Pitstick that Oakes address the substance of her argument he primarily offered an ad hominem attack focusing on Pitsick's view of protestantism.

Upon reflection, and after today's post by Oakes, It is particuarly offemsive that he called her a heretic (viz. "...a conclusion she calls - "reasonable," which it no doubt is, given her monophysite presuppositions") and then proceeded to attempt the rescue of all protestants from the same accusation.

I had better stop thinking about this lest I get angrier.

Jordan Potter

Oh, I'm finding less and less reason to read Fr. Oakes . . . .

Okay, he has a point, an important one, that one shouldn't carelessly and uncharitably sling the word "heretic" around.

However, having spent most of my life as a heretic (all of the time before my conversion), and part of that time as a Protestant, I can personally attest to the fact that, yes, in a very real sense, Protestants are heretics and the innumerable versions of Protestantism are heretical. Yes, call them "separated brethren," because that is what they are, but that doesn't mean they're not also something else that they shouldn't be.

As for the suggestion that we wait for the Church to formally declare someone a heretic before we notice that he is espousing a heresy, well, the Church at this time doesn't formally declare people heretics. Does that mean that there aren't any more heretics, that everybody is now orthodox? I also know enough church history to know that for most of Christian history most Christians have not adhered to the rule that only formal heretics should be called heretics, and that material heresy should be winked at or treated like an elephant in the living room.

Mac in Alberta

It seems to me that "heretic" is fairly mild compared to some of the remarks that are tossed around like grenades in the culture war.


Fr. Augustine Thompson O.P.

Let's define heresy before we define heretic.

I myself would go with the defintion crafted by the great twelfth-century English bishop and theologian, St. Robert Grossteste. "Heresy is an opinion chosen by human perception, created by human reason, founded on the Scriptures, contrary to the teachings of the Church, publically avowed, and obstinately defended." This was the classic definition of "heresy" until the 20th-century, perhaps, for some of us, till now.

Which means: "by human perception," this means chosen by the person by his own lights, not merely the result of their environment. "by human reason," that is chosen because of some process of thought, not a simple garbled understanding or misconception or something held out of simple prejudice. "founded on the scriptures," that is claiming divine sanction as a belief, not merely because of science or learned opinion. "contrary to the teachings of the Church," that is, contrary to a defined doctrine. "publically avowed," that is not a private opinion kept to one's self. "obstinately defended," that is, professed even after being formally correct by Church authorities.

Now the definition of heretic: "one who professes a heresy." That was easy. (I think.)

By this standard, most Protestants are probably not formally heretics. They usually just parrot what they are told by their ministers (rather than exercising human perception) and they have never been corrected directly by a Church authority (and so are not pertenacious). That doesn't mean they don't profess doctrinal errors. All to the good that we label the errors of Protestants as errors, and, if pertinaciously professed by Catholics, heresies.

On the other hand, it does seem that all sorts of "Catholic" theologians might easily fall under this defintion of "heretic." Perhaps this is what the good Jesuit meant. On the other hand, after reading some of what he said about Dr. Pitstick, I don't know. Perhaps Jesuits have a different understanding of heresy than I do. Something perhaps not unexpected.

Christopher Fotos

I also agree with Boko that his treatment of Pitstick in the FT exchange was shameful.

I don't know about shameful, but it sure seemed uncalled for. I'm glad to learn I'm not the only one who had a negative reaction. I was surprised--disappointed--to see that kind of approach in First Things.

I learned some interesting details from the heresy item, but the finer distinctions of what he's talking about are probably over my head.

Rich Leonardi

If you wish to agree that you do not consider such Catholics who are identified on conservatve blogs as "cafeteria" or "lite" as heretics, then you are free to do so right now.

U.A.: Unlike the terms you cite, "heretic" has a specific meaning. See Fr. Thompson's entry two spots up.


This is by no means an important point, but let me toss it in here.

In Protestant layman discussions about theology, I have on various occasions heard the term heretic used to label people who don't adhere to the statements of the creeds (Nicene, Athanasian, Apostles). It wasn't a sense of whether they agreed with the Catholic perspective, just a creedal agreement.

Of course, creeds themselves, much like Scripture, need to be interpreted by human readers/hearers. So, for example, Protestants have a vastly different understanding of the term "Communion of saints" than Catholic. So in Protestant circles, someone who outright doesn't believe in a Communion of Saints in some loose way might be called a heretic. And so on.

Obviously Catholics and Orthodox wrote the creeds. Just as they wrote the N.T. and determined which books of scripture are in the canon. These almost never are taken into account. So be it.

Not sure this adds much to the discussion. Hope it helps in some way.


"Do conservative bloggers really use the word 'heretic' that often?"

O yes. Although I'd say it's more common in the commentariat. Using "heresy" is more common, and in that frequency, it has become much easier to dismiss talk of "heresy" and "heretics" simply as what conservative Catholics don't like.


I was laughing with a friend this weekend. I'm doing a 19th annotation retreat. When I tell one kind of people, they are confirmed in their impression that I am a hidebound conservative, a bit unbending. When I tell another sort, they wonder why I would sell my soul to the devil under the guidance of a (certainly) godless Jesuit.

I think that the thing that would make us all a bit more civil in these conversations is a trust that we all are just trying to get to heaven and that charity is the virtue that we could practice a bit more. (I'm not trying to be sanctimonious. I work with someone who today I would have cheerfully slammed a door on, if given a chance, and I realize that charity is best learned at home and not in the abstract.) However, a focus on 'where do people stand'in terms of 'with us or agin' us' is less useful perhaps than "What can we learn from each other?"

RP Burke

Some evidence to support the view that conservatives on this very weblog throw around the word "heresy" (or its close derivatives):

April 4, 2006, a commenter named "padrechillin" wrote, "John Paul II appointed many bishops who were not only weak but some were heretical."

Nov. 20, 2006, a commenter named "Cin" wrote, "'We are question, we are creed' This is from the song 'Anthem' -- NOTHING makes my skin crawl like this heresy sung before the Blessed Sacrament.

Now when they start this or some other OCP heretical gem, I pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet in my head, ask the Lord to take my anger, pray for the liturgists, hum the tune, and refuse to sing the words."

That's just two for starters. Lots more. Sometimes, when intended to insult a person, the word of choice is "heterodox." But name-calling is common here and so also is adding 1 and 1 to get 13.

John Henry

"The ruptures that wound the unity of Christ's Body - here we must distinguish heresy, apostasy, and schism - do not occur without human sin...However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers..." (CCC 817-8)

Seems pretty clear to me that Protestants should no longer be referred to as heretics. Not because they don't believe erroneously (because they do), but because they are not the ones who are guilty of "the sin of the separation". However, those Catholics who embrace heresy with full knowledge and deliberate consent would be formal heretics, or material if such knowledge and consent is lacking.


RP Burke:

Aw, come on, those are just playful uses of the term "heretic." It's all in good faith.

John Henry

And I will add that I am glad to see I was not the only one who was "put off" (shall we say) by Fr. Oakes' attitude towards Ms. Pitstick in the exchange in FT. So much so that I was compelled to write a letter to the editor.


Over on the Catholic Answers Forums, there is a lot of tossing about of the word "heretic".
I have to say, it doesn't seem particularly helpful. Telling people that their opinions are shaded towards Docetism or whatever -- that might make a good point. But there's a lot of difference between that and calling someone a heretic.

Also, let's remember that some Protestants identify heavily with heretics as supposedly forerunners of their faith, and the only _real_ Christians of that time. So that wouldn't be particularly helpful, either.

David Deavel

Fr. Augustine Thompson is quite correct that the old categories of formal and material heresy are perfectly cogent and perfectly useful. Like Jordan Potter, I was a Protestant heretic before, though as Fr. Thompson says, not all my views were exactly the fruit of reason. It seemed Fr. Oakes should have had recourse to these definitions and simply made the point that the use of certain words ("heretic" and "invincible ignorance" do come to mind) in apologetic and ecumenical situations create more heat than light and should be avoided. As it was, I found the post disappointing.

c matt

By this standard, most Protestants are probably not formally heretics. They usually just parrot what they are told by their ministers (rather than exercising human perception)

Well, that is a bit condascending. I would think most Protestants believe they spend a lot of time exercising human perception over scripture verses, probably more so than your average Catholic, and not just parroting what they are told by their pastor.

RP Burke

Contra, when I want to play I usually find more fun things than calling bishops appointed by JPII "heretical".

Father Elijah

While I was not fully aware of the context of Father Oakes comments (vis a vis a previous debate had) the subject -calling people heretics-is nonetheless timely.

Father Thompson's post addresses the substance of the issue very well: what IS a heresy/heretic. There is indeed something called 'heresy' and thus, there can be those who are called heretics, but the glib use of the word troubles me greatly.

Even on this blog, there are some who are ready to accuse others of 'heresy', even if they do not use the word outright. I have stated this before-but it undermines the communion of the Church which indeed has been established in Christ in truth and love----not just truth nor just love, but truth and love.

And the measuring rod used? Is it always 'the teachings of the Church'? How often is it one's own ideological or even devotional 'preferences'.

Back when East and West [Orthodox and Catholic] went their sad separate ways, both sides were accusing the other of 'heresy' about such issues as -not using the right liturgical language [Greek or Latin depending on who was speaking] using leavened or unleavened bread and the (non)marital status of priests. Now there were some substantial issues that needed and need to be addressed-but these? Heresy?

While there have been historical figures in the history of the Church who have obstinately set out to teach something they knew was contrary to Church teaching, or to refute or rebel against a Church teaching, how many other figures have been thought heretical or questioned by some "Grand Inquisitor" figure and in fact WERE representing the deepest and finest example of real orthodoxy--Saint Joan of Arc, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Theresa of Avila.

I have often wondered how Catholics with real questions and yes, perhaps doubts, who would like to raise them 'in here' feel when they see some 'conversations'. This is NO reflection on Amy but on 'us'. I doubt they feel safe enough to ask their questions or 'worse' raise their doubts. Thus sadly, many who perhaps are on their way back into the Church get stuck on their way.

Or other Christians-who we know visit with us-wow! They are probably seeking Light and warmth but get a lot of smoke instead. I don't believe the Catholic Church should be all warm and fuzzy and not teach the "Splendor of the Truth".
There is Truth and our Catholic Faith is expressed in truths-thus there is and can be 'error' and heresy. However, using 'heresy', 'heretic' as one's trump card when someone is simply wrong, or worse when the other is getting the best of 'you' in debate--it is sad, real sad.

paul zummo

in case anyone is interested, Stephen Barr has responded to Oakes at First Things.


I have often wondered how Catholics with real questions and yes, perhaps doubts, who would like to raise them 'in here' feel when they see some 'conversations'.

Fr. Elijah makes a good point. I was surely naive, but one of the biggest surprises to me concerning Catholic blogdom was how uncharitable and dog-eat-dog the threads are.


Discussion moving upstairs

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