THE RIGHT TO JUDGE HERESY
CAN PRIVATE INDIVIDUALS RECOGNISE SOMEONE AS A HERETIC BEFORE THE DIRECT JUDGMENT 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 must be in manifest and direct opposition to a truth that must certainly be believed with divine and Catholic faith.
2.It must be morally certain that the culprit is aware of the conflict between his opinion and the teaching of the Catholic Church.
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.
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.
Pitfalls to be avoided:
1.Giving 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;
2.Giving 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;
3.Accusing of schism or heresy those who, while not embracing the heresy in question, refuse to accept that it is in fact heretical or to count its devotees as heretics pending the Church's formal judgment;
4.Affirming that pertinacity is present when other explanations could reasonably be supposed.
1."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, 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. See too the present writer's study of the distinction between canonical and theological pertinacity in Heresy, Schism and their Effects (revised).)
2."Such a judgment inevitably constitutes a usurpation of the rights of ecclesiastical authority."
Answer: The sentence of ecclesiastical authority resolves doubtful cases and obliges every Catholic to adhere to it. Where the facts admit no doubt, the individual who anticipates the judgment of authority by realising that a given individual is clearly a heretic does no injury to that authority. But he must, of course, distinguish between his private conviction and the official judgment, of which the former is of force only in his own conscience.
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 treats 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 only 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 times distinguish suspicion of heresy from certainty and can recognise the presence or absence of pertinacity. (Theologia Moralis, lib. 5, n. 250)
3.Canon 1325 gives the classic definition of the word "heretic", taken from 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.
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 to join any particular sect, but only 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 effect of heresy if no one could ever take account of it in any concrete case?
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." 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 to 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 much 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 by that very fact be considered legitimately dismissed.
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 the 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 Jone 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.
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 Hypathius, a Bithynian monk of the fifth century, insisted on suppressing the name of Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, from the sacred diptychs from the moment when Nestorius began to preach his heresy, which denied the unity of person in Our Lord. Hypathius'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. Hypathius replied: "I cannot insert his name in the Canon of the Mass, because a heresiarch is not worthy of the title of pastor in the Church; do what you like with me; I am ready to suffer all, and nothing will induce me to change my behaviour." (Petits Bollandistes, 17th June)
9.St Hypathius's judgment relative to Eulalius 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 Bellarmin: 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) 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. 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? Internet 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 Wojtyla'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 rejection 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.
J. S. Daly
In Festo Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis 2000