Is the sin of Heresy even possible?

In my reading of documents pertaining to Church teaching I’m having trouble understanding the proper meaning of the sin of heresy.

In modern day, the conception of heresy I hear from those in the Church is that in order to be guilty of the sin of heresy, one has to know that the view is false/heretical and still persist in that belief knowing that it is false. But this seems bafflingly irrational to me. How can someone have belief in that which they know to be false? Does any person who preaches heresy believe they are preaching falsehood? Luther was sincere in his erroneous convictions was he not? And yet was he not guilty of the sin of heresy? Or does he get an “out” because he was following his conscience?

This is confusing to me because the impression I get from past treatment of heretics is that it didn’t matter if they sincerely believed they were preaching the truth, if the belief in question was deemed heretical, they were seen as guilty of the sin of heresy and treated accordingly.

And when it comes to the case of cafeteria Catholics, if they contradict the Church on certain doctrines, but do so believing they are speaking the truth, does this conscience factor negate guilt for the sin of heresy?

At first pass, it does seem that one cannot know that a Catholic teaching is true and also believe that it is not.

The only sense I can make of this idea is that one knows that a Catholic teaching is true, but suppresses this knowledge. Knowledge suppression is a well known phenomenon, especially as a mechanism for cognitive dissonance reduction. But, if this is what “heresy” refers to, then it almost certainly doesn’t apply to most of those who have been and still are called “heretics.”

The ego leads one to heresy. And, the ego is patently illogical, often self-destructive.

Take a certain 16th century German man. He knew and studied the truth from his youth. But, toward the end of his rational existence, he redefined the truth, and having been rejected, vowed that he would kiss the feet of the pope if the pope would simply agree with him. Like I said: the ego.

Fr. Hardon made an interesting observation:

… the disbelief must be morally culpable, where a nominal Christian refuses to accept what he knows is a doctrinal imperative.

Objectively, therefore, to become a heretic in the strict canonical sense and be excommunicated from the faithful, one must deny or question a truth that is taught not merely on the authority of the Church but on the word of God revealed in the Scriptures or sacred tradition. Subjectively a person must recognize his obligation to believe.

So I don’t think it’s valid to categorize heresy as believing that which you know to be false. There’s an understanding implicit in heresy, according to Fr. Hardon, that one is culpably and adamantly and obstinately denying what one knows one must believe.

But I would also point out that people do very often believe that which they know to be false. People live in denial and make rationalizations all the time. We also shouldn’t underestimate the hurt many people experience after grave suffering. Do people actively seek to undermine their own faith almost spitefully out of anger at God? You bet they do!

St Thomas Aquinas teaches that a person in error can be known because he accepts the truth when it is explained to him, and the heretic is one who “is obstinate” in espousing error; i.e., he refuses to change his mind when presented with the truth.

The heretic fully knows what the church teaches and considers the Church to be wrong.

Two good examples of heretics are the people who “campaign” for women priests, and “Catholics for Choice” who believe the Church is wrong for not accepting abortion.

One does not have to believe they are wrong to be guilty of heresy. Heresy is about objective rejection of teachings and not an individual’s assent to those teaching. The key as others have mentioned is obstinate refusal to accept the truth when confronted with it.

Lets use Phil19034’s example of women priest. The numbers will be points of reference for further discussion.

[LIST=1]
*]Ms Jones believes that women are just as capable to offer the sacraments as a man, so she she holds that the Church should change the “rules” and ordain women.
*]Ms Jones approaches her priest and says that she thinks that women should be allowed to be priests. Her pastor explains the Pope John Paul II has definitively spoken that it is not possible to do so and provides her information on Ordinatio Sacerdotalis.
*]Ms Jones reads OS and tells her priest that she does not believe it is a infallible teaching. Her priest shows her two responses from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith upholding the infallible nature of OS and stating that the teachings must be positively held (sententia definitive tenenda).
*]Despite repeated correction, Ms Jones continues to hold for that the Church is incorrect and proceeds to write articles and speak against the backwardness of the Church.
*]Ms Jones’ Bishop contacts her to notify her that her writings and speeches are opposed to matters of faith that must be held as true. He definitely lays out the errors and notifies her that she needs to desist.
*]Ms Jones continues to write about how the Church is in error and one day will “open it’s eyes” and ordain women.
[/LIST]
So Ms Jones in our example is obviously convinced of the rightness of her belief. Up through point 3 above, Ms Jones could not be considered to be guilty of Heresy. After being corrected multiple times (pt 4) she has passed into material (if not yet formal) heresy. That is the point where we see obstinate denial of truths that are to be definitively held. By point 6 she is opening herself up for formal proceedings to be found guilty of formal heresy. In today’s age I don’t know that it would ever get to that point as the Church is very much concerned that formal declaration of heresy would result in a schism.

This is where the distinction between material and formal heresy comes to play. Anyone who objectively holds beliefs contrary to the faith after repeated correction would hold heretical beliefs, but would not be considered a heretic in the formal sense.

Since heresy involves rejecting truths about faith and morals I’m not sure if the material versus formal distinction makes a huge deal though. To reject truth is to reject God at some level. At best the distinction might reduce our culpability come judgement, but all heresy does harm to our relationship with God. I would say one of the roots of heresy is the pernicious sin of pride. When one refuses to be corrected, pride would seem apparent in our certitude that we are correct and the successors of the apostles are in error.

Interesting replies so far but I think I need to clarify and elaborate a bit more.

I see people appealing to the corrective authority of the Church as something someone would need to heed in such circumstances, but this seems like begging the question from the perspective of someone unconvinced of the Catholic Church’s claims.

So for example:

If you have a lapsed Catholic who wandered into a Protestant denomination and began to sincerely profess beliefs deemed objectively heretical by the Church, appealing to the authority of the Church on such matters is unpersuasive to this person because they would no longer recognize the Church as being THE Church and an infallible institution as far as the faith is concerned.

In order to convince this person of their error you would first have to convince them that the Catholic Church is THE true Church and that its doctrines of faith are infallible, but if in the sincerity of their heart they don’t find the Church’s claims persuasive how can they be considered guilty of the SIN of heresy? They would not be knowingly going against a doctrine they believed they had a moral obligation to believe in.

Another way to put this would be in the following way:

One cannot logically hold both of the following positions:

A - The Catholic Church is infallible on matters of faith.
B - Transubstantiation is false.

You cannot logically hold both of these views, the acceptance of one excludes the other. So for someone embracing position B, this would exclude belief in position A as well, so appealing to position A to correct this person would ultimately be unpersuasive. Moreover, how can this person be held morally culpable if they sincerely do not believe position A to be true?

So, in other words, this someone has declared themselves omniscient. In this condition, their mind is made up. The truth is not dependent on how many are unconvinced.

So for example:

If you have a lapsed Catholic who wandered into a Protestant denomination and began to sincerely profess beliefs deemed objectively heretical by the Church, appealing to the authority of the Church on such matters is unpersuasive to this person because they would no longer recognize the Church as being THE Church and an infallible institution as far as the faith is concerned.

In order to convince this person of their error you would first have to convince them that the Catholic Church is THE true Church and that its doctrines of faith are infallible, but if in the sincerity of their heart they don’t find the Church’s claims persuasive how can they be considered guilty of the SIN of heresy? They would not be knowingly going against a doctrine they believed they had a moral obligation to believe in.

Another way to put this would be in the following way:

One cannot logically hold both of the following positions:

A - The Catholic Church is infallible on matters of faith.
B - Transubstantiation is false.

You cannot logically hold both of these views, the acceptance of one excludes the other. So for someone embracing position B, this would exclude belief in position A as well, so appealing to position A to correct this person would ultimately be unpersuasive. Moreover, how can this person be held morally culpable if they sincerely do not believe position A to be true?

To me this describes the psychology of those who fall into heresy. In essence they have declared themselves god.

A person can also be culpable for their heresy when one doesn’t care about the truth or has become blinded through their own fault (like through pride or sloth or any other sins). I think this is unfortunately quite common. From the CCC:

1791 This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man "takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin."59 In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.

So in the examples above, it depends why the person was lapsed in the first place. But as you mention, a non-Catholic is in a different position than one who has accepted the authority of the Church–there may be examples where their questioning or disbelief is excusable; not so for a Catholic who has embraced the truth. From the First Vatican Council:

  1. So it comes about that, like a standard lifted up for the nations [22], she both invites to herself those who have not yet believed, and likewise assures her sons and daughters that the faith they profess rests on the firmest of foundations.

  2. To this witness is added the effective help of power from on high. For, the kind Lord stirs up those who go astray and helps them by his grace so that they may come to the knowledge of the truth [23] ; and also confirms by his grace those whom he has translated into his admirable light [24], so that they may persevere in this light, not abandoning them unless he is first abandoned.

  3. Consequently, the situation of those, who by the heavenly gift of faith have embraced the Catholic truth, is by no means the same as that of those who, led by human opinions, follow a false religion; for those who have accepted the faith under the guidance of the Church can never have any just cause for changing this faith or for calling it into question.

Another important point is that the offender must be a Baptized and Confirmed Catholic.

Non-Catholic Christians of course can be in error but are not heretics.

Even Catholics who convert to Protestantism are not heretics, just misguided or perhaps worse.

I don’t think this is true. If a Catholic converts to Protestantism, assuming culpability, that is heresy (he will be denying various Catholic truths by doing so). In fact, this is the quintessential example of the public manifestation of heresy: the public profession of faith in a heretical community.

Non-Catholic Christians can also be heretics. As a general rule, we do not accuse those born into such communities with the sin of separation, but that doesn’t mean they can’t become guilty of remaining separated through a disregard for truth or sinful opposition to the Church’s dogmas–that would be heresy too.

Baptism is the only condition in additional to obstinate denial of revealed truth:

2089…"Heresy is 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

Note, it doesn’t add “by confirmed Catholics” or “by those who remain socially associated with the Church.”

The Church (or individual) does not judge the moral culpability of someone - that is, whether their soul is in the state of sin because of what they believe. That judgment belongs to God alone.

The Church judges objective heresy. (See post #4)

He also said

To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”

The CCC only says post baptism. 2089"*[FONT=&quot]Heresy *is 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;[/FONT]

Confirmation is not mentioned

Can you explain the highlighted, considering **this listing **[FONT=&quot]Great Heresies [/FONT]****?

Luther had his errors identified.They were listed, and he refused to even answer them, so he was excommunicated

Decet Romanum Pontificem
[/FONT]

The CCC defined heresy as

2089"*[FONT=&quot]Heresy *is 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;[/FONT]

Another way to look at it

Here’s God in the flesh addressing His followers from the day before where He had fed the 5000. Now He’s giving the bread of life discourse. John 6:61-67
They aren’t having any of it. Imagine THAT, even Jesus couldn’t convince them?

Why aren’t THEY getting the message?

Jesus knew in advance they had no faith. So EVEN God in the flesh couldn’t convince them. And then comes IMV one of the scariest passages in scripture. Jesus let them go. And He didn’t go after them.

To be fair, we don’t know if any of these followers had been baptized. Even so, they are standing in front of the font of ALL Grace and they rejected Him…

To be a heretic you just have to claim to be a Christian while obstinately refusing to obey the teaching of the Church, e.g. a Protestant who claims to be Christian but refuses to believe in any dogma taught by the Church (perpetual virginity of Mary, the jurisdiction of the Pope, purgatory, indulgences, etc.) is a heretic. That’s all that is required: refusal to obey the Church in matters of faith.

A Protestant who is never taught the Catholic faith may not be guilty of the sin of heresy, but they are still “material heretics”. To be a material heretic is to hold heretical beliefs, while not necessarily having an obstinate denial of the Catholic faith (which is called formal heresy). Only formal heresy is a sin; it is possible to be a material heretic as a Catholic, as long as you change your mind as soon as you are aware that the Church teaches something different to what you erroneously believe. However, as soon as the Protestant is aware of the Catholic Church and resists entering and obeying the Church on matters of faith, they are formal heretics because they wilfully resist the Church.

I understand the distinction between material and formal heresy and its important to make, but in this thread I’m specifically talking about the SIN of heresy, so formal heresy in this context. It’s just a confusing scenario because let’s consider this question:

Was Martin Luther a formal heretic?

If Martin Luther sincerely came to believe that the Catholic Church was not the true Church and that certain teachings were false and came to oppose them, how can he be a formal heretic?

The way I see formal heresy characterized today is that one has to know that the doctrine in question is true, but reject it anyway. And I just don’t see how this is even possible for a sincere person. I’ll repeat what I said in an earlier post:

One cannot logically hold both of the following positions:

A - The Catholic Church is infallible on matters of faith.
B - Transubstantiation is false.

You cannot logically hold both of these views, the acceptance of one excludes the other. So for someone embracing position B, this would exclude belief in position A as well, so appealing to position A to correct this person would ultimately be unpersuasive.

Certainly, he was one of the worst of all heretics.

If Martin Luther sincerely came to believe that the Catholic Church was not the true Church and that certain teachings were false and came to oppose them, how can he be a formal heretic?

Sincerity does not excuse sin. One can be a sincere murderer or rapist. I am sure that Martin Luther did sincerely believe the Catholic Church was false, and that sincere belief was the sin of formal heresy.

The way I see formal heresy characterized today is that one has to know that the doctrine in question is true, but reject it anyway.

No, that it is impossible. You can’t both accept and reject something at the same time. Heresy is simply divergence from the teaching of the Church, and formal heresy is obstinate. If you talk to a Christian and tell them that what they believe is contrary to the Church’s teaching, and they refuse to hear you and/or deny what you say, then, presuming you are correct about it being contrary to the Church, they are formal heretics. A sincere Protestant who rejects the Catholic Church because he believes that the Catholic Church is the “whore of babylon”, is a (formal) heretic.

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