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February 01, 2007


Mike Petrik

Superb response.

Joe C

To quibble:

With all due respect for Fr. Thompson(and a lot is due), Robert Grosseteste, though proposed for canonization, was never canonized. Perhaps the Anglicans mark his feast.

John Cox

I read Oakes' post yesterday. I can't image that he would disagree with the substance either of the above responses.

But both of those responses strike me as missing the point, or at least missing Oakes' point, which was NOT "What is the technical meaning 'heresy.'

As someone who until the most recent Easter Vigil was a "catholic-Reformed" Episcopalian, I thought his comments were clearly aimed at the non-technical uses to which the term is applied by the non-technical rank and file.

In my limited experience, the general lay Catholic ignorance of Protestant positions is only equalled by the lay Protestant ignorance of Catholic positions. "Heresy" in practice becomes a crutch, a scapegoating tool, a label, which (again, in practice) acts like the inkjet from a squid.

I've been struck by how, in contrast, measured and reasoned are the comments by John Paul II and Benedict XVI on these differences. And they without doubt understood the technical meaning of heresy.

One reads them (at least I read them) with a sense of dawning illumination of what these things mean, and how they differ, and why, and therefore why they matter. These differences thus become grist for the mill of genuine ecumenicism, of the hoped for, longed for, entire union of all believers in Christ.

I had sent an email to First Things, saying I appreciated that Oakes appreciated the complexities in these discussions but even more that he appreciated the odd, even weird, congruence between what he rightly calls "orthodox Protestants" and Cathollics, who love with equal passion the same passionate God.


RP Burke, you wrote:

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

Suit yourself. But some of us find it great fun indeed. (BTW, learn to take a joke.)

Brad C

Fr. Oakes made this comment: “Lefebvrists, for example, are clearly schismatics, and they explicitly dissent from key teachings of Vatican II. But I just don’t feel it’s accurate to call them heretics. . . . I admit, though, I can’t explain why I feel that way.”

This response by Barr to Oakes was key:

"With all due respect, this is not a question of how Edward Oakes feels about it. The definition of heresy either fits Lefebvrists or it doesn’t. This is a question of facts and definitions, not sentiment."

That's what was so bizarre about the original post by Oakes. He did not provide a definition of 'heresy' from the Cathechism or canon law and then examine whether it applied to Protestants. He provided some off-the-cuff red-herring definitions of 'heresy' (as Barr points out), criticizes them, and then ends the piece with the expression of his personal sentiments on the matter. Along the way he suggests that most Catholics since Trent have been wrong about the doctrine of justification and they continue to be so today:

"So why am I bringing all this up? Partly it comes from my experience with ecumenical dialogue, especially in Evangelicals and Catholics Together, of which I am privileged to be a member: Disconcertingly, I find I have a lot more in common with this group than I often do with my fellow Catholics who don’t belong to that group! Also, I think it no abuse of language for a Catholic to speak of “orthodox” Protestants (Karl Barth, for example), as opposed to other theologians who are pretty much selling the company store in front of our eyes."

Thank goodness we have Karl Barth to show us the way!

It is trivially true that we should not throw about the word 'heresy' like those horrible conservative bloggers when they are "in their Colonel Blimp harumphing mood", as he says. But aside from the lesson in kindergarten morality ("don't call names!"), there is nothing but confusion in the original post as well as a sweeping attribution of error to a large group of Catholics who are not privileged to belong to the Evangelicals and Catholics Together ecumenical movement.

Ed Mechmann

Mr. Barr is correct in citing the Code of Canon Law's definition of heresy as "the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same..." (CIC 751).

But he is wrong when he limits the reach of heresy to matters defined by Councils, or to which anathemas are explicitly attached.

The issue is actually more complicated than that. In its explication of the Profession of Faith that is required of all theologians (see http://www.ewtn.com/library/CURIA/CDFADTU.HTM), the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith distinguished between different levels of Church teaching, and the degree of assent that is required for each:

The first, and highest level, relates to "those doctrines of divine and catholic faith which the Church proposes as divinely and formally revealed and, as such, as irreformable. These doctrines are contained in the Word of God, written or handed down, and defined with a solemn judgment as divinely revealed truths either by the Roman Pontiff when he speaks 'ex cathedra,' or by the College of Bishops gathered in council, or infallibly proposed for belief by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. These doctrines require the assent of theological faith by all members of the faithful. Thus, whoever obstinately places them in doubt or denies them falls under the censure of heresy, as indicated by the respective canons of the Codes of Canon Law." These are the truths that have been divinely revealed to us -- and not just through the decrees of Councils.

The second level of teaching relates to "all those teachings belonging to the dogmatic or moral area, which are necessary for faithfully keeping and expounding the deposit of faith, even if they have not been proposed by the Magisterium of the Church as formally revealed. Such doctrines can be defined solemnly by the Roman Pontiff when he speaks 'ex cathedra' or by the College of Bishops gathered in council, or they can be taught infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Church as a "sententia definitive tenenda". Every believer, therefore, is required to give firm and definitive assent to these truths... Whoever denies these truths would be in a position of rejecting a truth of Catholic doctrine and would therefore no longer be in full communion with the Catholic Church." These are the truths of Catholic doctrine.

The third level of teaching concerns "all those teachings ­ on faith and morals - presented as true or at least as sure, even if they have not been defined with a solemn judgment or proposed as definitive by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Such teachings are, however, an authentic expression of the ordinary Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff or of the College of Bishops and therefore require religious submission of will and intellect." These are matters that aid us in having a deeper understanding of revelation, or keep us away from error.

For clear examples of the kinds of teachings that are included in each level, check out the CDF's document. Note that the Congregation did not use the term "heresy" for the second and third levels of teaching, but the obligation to believe is still very grave.

Sorry for the long post, but it's an important point -- a Catholic's obligation to accept divinely revealed truths is much, much broader than those teachings defined by Councils, and our duty to believe also extends to many other truths that are taught by our Church at a lesser level of authority.

John Henry

But he is wrong when he limits the reach of heresy to matters defined by Councils, or to which anathemas are explicitly attached.

I don't think he did limit it to those matters. He said:

"The Catholic Church says that all things (though not only those things) taught by Ecumenical Councils as revealed truths under pain of anathema are to be believed “by divine and Catholic faith.”"

Brian John Schuettler

Ordinarily Father Oakes is eminently logical and precise in his language and I am fondly quote him often. What I read yesterday at FT was not the Father Oakes that I know. I will chalk it off to a bad day...something we all are familiar with. If you want to read the brilliant and articulate Oakes that is renowned as a scholar and von Balthasar expert then I suggest this site:

Mike Petrik

John Cox,
You raise valid points, but you stated your case much better than did Fr. Oakes. Either one is making a technical argument regarding the definitional boundaries of heresy or one is making a prudential case regarding the efficacy of the term in apologetics or other discourse. I read Fr. Oakes as uncharacteristically blurring the definitional boundaries in an effort to advance a prudential case that the use of the term is generally best avoided. Perhaps I mis-read him.


"With all due respect, this is not a question of how Edward Oakes feels about it. The definition of heresy either fits Lefebvrists or it doesn’t. This is a question of facts and definitions, not sentiment."

I couldn't have said it better myself.


"With all due respect, this is not a question of how Edward Oakes feels about it. The definition of heresy either fits Lefebvrists or it doesn’t. This is a question of facts and definitions, not sentiment."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Mike Petrik

"I couldn't have said it better myself."

Indeed. And it bears repeating! ;-)


Fr Oakes comment about the use of the term heresy on Catholic blogs seems to have little to do with protestantism. In my (admittedly limited) experience this concept is much more often applied to avowed members of Catholic Church or abuses in parish churches than it is to protestants.
In a quick canvass of this and other blogs I found the word applied to a Catholic politician who was a public supporter of abortion. To a Catholic Church which was celebrating Mass in violation of requirements of the GRIM (which included an obvious misunderstanding on the part of the celebrant of Catholic teaching on why only a member of the clergy can do the homily) and a reference to a hymn which has questionable adherence to the concept of the Real Presence (in the mind of the poster.)
I would call its use in the first case valid, in the second case questionable and in the third case wrong, (which doesn't make use of the hymn in a Catholic Mass proper.)
In any case none of the references were indicated its use in describing protestants.


Here's an example of the word heresy being used just today:


Heresy? Dissent? Heterodex? Yup. Used quite extensively at some of St. Blogs most visited sites!


Interesting that Jesus always talked about or described humility and charity. When did he talk about a set of beliefs? He talked about how official religious people were not honoring their parents, how they were making the Sabbath sterile instead of infused by the Spirit, how the hated enemy of the faith did better in helping a stranger, how the meek would possess everything, and the merciful would receive mercy, how mercy is preferred over sacrifice by God, how those who visited him when he was sick, in prison, abandoned would inherit life...........

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