If I had been very publicly and explicitly accused of pertinaciously adhering to seven heresies by a large group of fellow Catholics, including clergy and academics, then I should be keen to explain either that the propositions in question were not heretical or else that I did not hold them.  I should imagine that this would be the reaction of anyone who possessed the Catholic faith.

This is rather obvious.  It is disappointing, then, to see that the mainstream Catholic media have been unwilling to comment on the fact that Pope Francis, more than 8 months after the Open Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church, has refused either to disavow the heresies there ascribed to him, or to explain why they are not heretical, even though he has shown that he is quite aware of the letter in question.  His response, rather has been to say this:

Q. On being a heretic, how do you take that?

A. With a sense of humour, my daughter.

Q. You don’t give it much weight…

A. No, no. Besides I pray for them because they are wrong and, poor people, some of them are manipulated. And who are those who signed? No, really, a sense of humour and I would say tenderness, paternal tenderness. That is, it doesn’t hurt me at all. Hypocrisy and lies hurt me, these, yes, they hurt me. But a mistake like that, where there are even people who have filled their heads with – no, please, you have to take care of them too (from an interview with Valentina Alazraki).

Not exactly a ringing profession of faith.

It is disappointing, as I say, that media such as EWTN, the Catholic Herald or the National Catholic Register, are refusing to pursue this question.  Is this not the kind of thing that Catholic reporters should be doing?


Vivi missi sunt hi duo in stagnum ignis ardentis sulphure … Nullus enim mortalium durius peccat haereticis, qui Christum postquam cognoverint, negant.”

– Beda Venerabilis, Explanatio Apocalypsis, Liber III

These two were thrown alive into the pool of fire burning with sulphur …. No mortal sins more greviously than do the heretics who deny Christ after they have known Him.”

Bede the Venerable, Commentary on Revelation, Book 3

Pretty good stuff. The jurisdiction of the college of Bishops over the universal church is extraordinary. Jews and Muslims do not have supernatural faith. The state must recognise and worship the One True God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. False religions may only be tolerated. We should seek a Catholic state… (I’m not sure about the bit at the end about the rights of the majority being the basis for the civil position of the Church).

1. Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and, as laws may determine, on the bishop.

2. In virtue of power conceded by the law, the regulation of the liturgy within certain defined limits belongs also to various kinds of competent territorial bodies of bishops legitimately established.

3. Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.

– Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium

I went to Mass for the Assumption last week in St Mary’ Cathedral, Newcastle upon Tyne. I was a little late due to unforeseen traffic problems. It appears the priest (an elderly gentleman) has some sort of difficulty with his eyes. He seems to have taken this as the green light to invent almost the entire text of the Mass. He exercised the distressing option in the Novus Ordo of giving little talks before every reading. He did not read the Gospel himself but had a layman do so. All the orations were invented on the spot as was the preface. The Eucharistic Prayer was, I think, variations based on number 2. The priest decided to say “for all” and not “for many” in the words of consecration making it impossible to go and receive communion. It seemed likely from the tone of the priest’s invented orations and semonettes that his use of “for all” represented a taste for the heresy of universalism.  He also asserted that St Luke had made up the Magnificat and that these were not really the words of our Blessed Lady. He used the Apostles’ Creed instead of the Roman Liturgical Creed (another distressing option in the Novus Ordo). When there are so many Arians around the use of the Apostles’ Creed is a wholly inadequate safeguard of orthodoxy as well as a totally random innovation. At the end he processed out singing from memory Immaculate Mary complete with the verses about the Pope and the restoration of Mary’s Dowry.

The overall impression was of a man wholly confused as to what is and is not Catholic doctrine and what is and is not acceptable behavior in a Catholic Priest. It is absurd that someone should have served out their priestly life in such a state, it is also a cause of great scandal to the faithful. In general, England is in a far better condition (especially in the South) than mainland Europe but the scourge of ‘extraordinary ministers’ (supposedly justified by the obsessive compulsion to administer the chalice to the laity) is a serious obstacle to renewal. Hexham and Newcastle has generally been very good for the extraordinary form. It is good to see that Fr Brown has been moved to St Joseph’s in Gateshead. One hopes he will resume his daily low Mass which suffered from the inaccessibility of St Mary’s Forest Hall. Sadly the longstanding Missa Cantata at St Dominic’s Newcastle had perished because the Dominican Friars now stationed there refuse to celebrate the authentic liturgy of the Roman Church.

Those who have attentively read Iota Unum, Romano Amerio’s magisterial study of the doctrinal chaos in the Church since the last Ecumenical Council, will never, I think, forget its ending. After 750 pages of analysis almost incredible, and painful, in its objectivity and patience, a supernatural afflatus seems to touch the old man in his final pages, and he speaks as if by personal right those words spoken once by Isaias in Jerusalem:-

Custos, quid de nocte? Custos, quid de nocte? Dixit custos: venit mane et nox. Si quaeritis, quaerite; convertimini, venite.

(Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night? The watchman has said: the morning comes, and so does the night. If you are seeking, seek on; be converted, come.)

Iota Unum was published in 1985, still within the first generation of the great chaos. Twenty eight years have passed over us since then. What news now of the night? Last week has been not untypical. We have heard the president of the German bishops’ conference advocate the heresy that women can receive the sacrament of Holy Orders {not so, apparently: see first comment}, and the official ‘spokesman’ for the Holy See and and the President of the Pontifical Commission for Eucharistic Congresses both declare that friendships rooted in unnatural desire should receive the benefit of law. More to the point, no one expects for a moment that these eminent churchmen will be publicly rebuked by the vicar of Christ, let alone suspended a divinis. 

There are gleams of hope? Of course, and there always will be, since God loves His people. Yet for the moment, the night is still upon us. Is it the dawn or deeper gloom that lies ahead? None can  say.

I’ve discussed before the question of the criteria by which to judge whether a person is truly a heretic or simply in error about revealed truths. I quoted three criteria, any one of which, according to an ‘approved author’, was by itself a sign of an error being simply an error, not a heresy.

None of the three criteria mentioned seems entirely satisfactory. The first – would the person be ready to accept the Catholic Church’s ruling if he knew it? – certainly applies to the Catholic who is simply in error, but it doesn’t apply to those in other denominations. If they had this disposition, they wouldn’t be in the other denominations (unless some other motive like human respect intervened).

The second – ‘if he knows nothing about the Catholic faith and has never wondered about it’ – is a sufficient proof that the person’s failure to join the Catholic Church is not culpable per se, but it hardly establishes that he has the virtue of faith. He may know nothing about the Catholic faith and yet still culpably reject certain revealed truths taught him by his non-Catholic preacher, and which he finds distasteful, thereby becoming a heretic in God’s sight.

The third suggested criterion – ‘if, wondering about the Catholic faith, he has sought the truth as far as he is able’ – seems like a good one, but it is difficult to apply. How does one judge of someone else, unless one knows him extremely well, whether he has sought the truth as far as he is able?

Yet it seems useful to make some kind of judgement in this matter when dealing with non-Catholics who profess a faith in Christ: not a definitive judgement, since that belongs to God alone, but at least something that can guide one for practical purposes: to form at least a suspicio, if not an opinio

The problem is that there are two considerations that seem to pull in opposite directions. On the one hand, we are bade think as well of other people as we can. St Thomas tells us that, even though most people are bad, we should still attribute good intentions to other people in particular cases ‘unless manifest signs of their malice appear’; we will be wrong most of the time, he says, but the mind suffers no harm in being wrong about such contingent matters!  This principle suggests that we should think of separated brethren as merely erring.

On the other hand, it is to the honour of God and of Christ that the Church should not be difficult to recognise; that it should be, as our Lord has foretold, a city set on a hill. This principle suggests that we should think of separated brethren as culpable.

How can we resolve this antinomy? Perhaps by judging, according to the second principle, that culpable error is more likely in general; while in particular cases refraining for as long as possible from making any judgement, and making a favourable judgement if some judgement is necessary and no ‘manifest signs of their malice’ appear (for example, when a priest agrees to anoint an unconscious non-Catholic).

Yet there is perhaps one other criterion that could be applied effectively. Does the person desire that there should be on earth an infallible guide to the truth that Christ taught to the apostles? The virtue of faith is an inclination to believe all this truth. So whoever has the virtue would surely welcome the idea that there was an infallible guide to what this truth is, as this will make it much easier for him to realise his inclination. He may regretfully think that there is in fact no such guide; but if he desires that there should be, that is a good sign. On the other hand, if he is clear that he doesn’t want there to be any such guide, that he thinks such a thing would be contrary to his own dignity, then we seem to have the ‘manifest signs of malice’ which on St Thomas’s principle would allow the judgement that someone is a heretic.

An example of what I mean by a desire that an infallible authority should exist even while not believing that one does is found in Newman’s 1848 novel, Loss and Gain. In this passage two friends, Charles and Sheffield, both Anglican ordinands, are lamenting the conversion of a third ordinand to the Roman Church. Sheffield speaks first:-

“The idea of his swallowing, of his own free will, the heap of rubbish which every Catholic has to believe! in cold blood tying a collar round his neck, and politely putting the chain into the hands of a priest! … And then the Confessional! ‘Tis marvellous!” and he began to break the coals with the poker. “It’s very well,” he continued, “if a man is born a Catholic; I don’t suppose they really believe what they are obliged to profess; but how an Englishman, a gentleman, a man here at Oxford, with all his advantages, can so eat dirt, scraping and picking up all the dead lies of the dark ages—it’s a miracle!”

“Well, if there is anything that recommends Romanism to me,” said Charles, “it is what you so much dislike: I’d give twopence, if some one, whom I could trust, would say to me, ‘This is true; this is not true’. We should be saved this eternal wrangling. Wouldn’t you be glad if St. Paul could come to life? I’ve often said to myself, ‘Oh, that I could ask St. Paul this or that!'”

“But the Catholic Church isn’t St. Paul quite, I guess,” said Sheffield.

“Certainly not; but supposing you did think it had the inspiration of an Apostle, as the Roman Catholics do, what a comfort it would be to know, beyond all doubt, what to believe about God, and how to worship and please Him! I mean, you said, ‘I can’t believe this or that’; now you ought to have said, ‘I can’t believe the Pope has power to decide this or that’. If he had, you ought to believe it, whatever it is, and not to say, ‘I can’t believe’.”

Sheffield looked hard at him: “We shall have you a papist some of these fine days,” said he.

“Nonsense,” answered Charles; “you shouldn’t say such things, even in jest.”

“I don’t jest; I am in earnest: you are plainly on the road.”

Sheffield, I think we are meant to judge, is a formal heretic; Charles merely a material one.

The phrase ‘partial’ or ‘imperfect communion’ has come into vogue in official Catholic discourse since Vatican II to refer to the relation which baptised non-Catholics have to the Church. It was put into Unitatis Redintegratio without being defined, as if it were an unproblematic phrase, being put forward there as the reason why the Catholic Church accepts such people as brothers (UR 3). The modern Catechism quotes this same passage of Vatican II, again without defining the phrase.

Obviously there is a sense in which baptised non-Catholics are closer to us than, say, Jews and Muslims. So St Augustine remarked that Catholics use the word fratres, brothers, of the Donatists, and not of the pagans. The problem is in the word ‘communion’. It suggests that the baptised non-Catholic as such has a share, albeit a lesser one, in the good things of the Church, in particular in the life of grace and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Now this can only be true when the non-Catholic in question is in good faith; if he is not, but is a formal heretic, he is to that extent in a worse position than the Jew or Muslim. It is probably a good idea in our dealings with a baptised non-Catholic to assume good faith, as an application of the principle that we should always interpret people’s behaviour in the best way possible. But are we to assume not just that some given baptised non-Catholic but that all such people are in good faith? How would that fit with the honour due to God, who has not hidden His church under a bushel? Yet it seems that some such assumption would have to be made if we are to make a blanket statement such as ‘Protestants are in partial communion with the Catholic Church’.

I suggest, then, that not the doctrine of Unitatis Redintegratio, but its vocabulary is unsatisfactory. Rather than ‘partial communion’ it might be better to say, ‘a baptismal relationship’.

In disentangling the question of religious liberty it seems useful to distinguish four typical cases of coercion:-

(1) Coercion by the spiritual power of the baptised

(2) Coercion by the spiritual power of the unbaptised

(3) Coercion by the temporal power of the baptised

(4) Coercion by the temporal power of the unbaptised

It is a matter of faith that (1) is licit. According to the 14th Canon of Trent on baptism, the baptised can be coerced to a Christian life by certain penalties, other than by simple refusal of the sacraments. The present Code of Canon Law allows for certain people to be deprived of their jobs or confined within a monastery as a punishment for heresy. In a Catholic society, the bishop could call on the civil power to help enforce such penalties. That would, however, still be an example of coercion (1) in my schema, since I am considering who the prime mover is in the coercion.

(2) is generally illicit, since the unbaptised are not subject to the jurisdiction of the Church. Nor can she ask the civil power e.g. to freeze the bank accounts of Muslims so that they will be induced to convert. However St Thomas believes that the Church has the radical power to deprive independent pagan rulers of their jurisdiction over the faithful (IIa IIae 10,10), only she doesn’t use it, so as to avoid scandal. He says that the Church has the radical power to do this, ‘having the authority of God’, and pagan rulers have merited  – since they would not even be negative infidels without some mortal sin – to lose their dominion. I am not quite sure how this fits with the idea of baptism as what gives the Church jurisdiction over people. Perhaps one could say that she would not be exercising her own jurisdiction, but being a pure instrument of God’s jurisdiction. In any case, it is purely hypothetical, as St Thomas explains, never being done ‘so as not to scandalise them’.

(3) appears to be illicit in the sense that the civil power cannot legitimately impose penalties for heresy, schism and apostasy except at the will, implicit or explicit of the ecclesiastical power. From the very fact that the spiritual power is higher than the temporal power, the latter must yield to the former when they deal with the same subject-matter.

(4) is perhaps the most controversial point. St Thomas teaches (IIa IIae 10,11), in words that are used by Leo XIII for discussing the same subject, that the rites of pagans (the Jews are a special case) are per se to be suppressed because they are sinful, except when this would lead to some greater evil or prevent some greater good. But from whom is the initiative to come, ecclesiastics or politicians? Since the pagans would be under the jurisdiction of the latter, it would seem to come from them. The civil ruler is the one who has the charge of the temporal common good, and so it seems to be he who must decide, e.g. if a small group of Muslims who have taken refuge in his Catholic country after a civil war back home should be allowed a mosque or not. The question then arises of how a refusal by the civil ruler of the Muslims’ request would square with Dignitatis Humanae. I think it can do if you take into account the clause about ‘public morality’ in DH as a reason to limit religious liberty. In the actual order of providence, every non-Catholic cultus tends to weaken the clarity with which the average citizen, not specially firm in the faith, grasps the truth of the Catholic Church as the one ark of salvation; which surely is a ‘moral’ truth, and therefore a matter of public morality. Only, unlike the case with (1), the civil rulers here cannot aim at coercing the beliefs of the pagans, since, as DH teaches, no merely human power has jurisdiction over the conscience as such.

Heresy is either material or formal. The material heretic denies the authority of the Church to declare the faith, but without pertinacity… The formal heretic has a sufficient knowledge of the Church’s authority, but refuses to accept the faith of the true Church, and denies it in at least one point.

These are the signs that are customarily given by which one may judge someone to be a material heretic:-

1. If he would be ready to submit himself to the Church’s judgement when he knew his error, even if in the meantime he tenaciously defends his own opinion.

2. If he knows nothing about the Catholic faith, and has never wondered about it.

3. If, wondering about it, he has sought to know the truth as far as he was able.

Now, if someone delays his conversion from human respect or from carelessness, he is not on that account a heretic; yet he sins against the positive commandment of acquiring the faith, if he delays for a long time.

(Benedict Merkelbach, Summa Theologiae Moralis, I, 746)