The sin of heresy

Heresy occurs when a person who is a baptised Christian obstinately denies or obstinately doubts any revealed truth that must be believed with the full assent of faith (also called theological assent, or a divine and catholic faith). The teachings that must be so believed are the infallible teachings of the Magisterium, whether taught under papal infallibility, or the infallibility of an Ecumenical Council, or the Universal Magisterium.

The non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium require the religious submission of will and intellect (also called religious assent). The obstinate denial or obstinate doubt of a non-infallible teaching is not heresy, but may be a lesser sin. Since non-infallible teachings admit a limited possibility of error, denial or doubt of such a teaching is not necessarily contrary to the virtue of faith.

Canon 751: “Heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith”

Canon 1364 §1: “an apostate from the faith, a heretic, or a schismatic incurs a latae sententiae [automatic] excommunication.”

Mere material heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt of an infallible teaching without the knowledge that the teaching is infallible, or that the idea is in fact a teaching. Mere material heresy does not excommunicate.

Formal heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt by a knowing choice. All acts of formal heresy inherently automatically excommunicate the offender. By the very nature of the sin itself, apostasy, heresy, and schism excommuniate, i.e. these sins cut the person off from the Church. But only when the sin is both formal heresy and to the extent of a mortal sin. The term ‘obstinate’ in the definition of formal heresy indicates that the choice is free and full, and that the knowledge of the sinfulness of the act is also full. So the type of heresy that automatically excommunicates is formal heresy to the extent of an actual mortal sin.

Many Catholics in the Church today are in a state of at least material heresy. And they do not seem to mind at all.

Generally speaking, Protestants are in a state of material heresy; Protestantism is a type of heresy. Many Protestants are in a state of formal heresy.

Orthodox Christians are in a state of formal schism. However, schism is often accompanied by heresy, and in fact Orthodox Christians generally reject, formally, a number of infallible teachings of the Magisterium.

Apostasy, heresy, and schism are particularly serious sins, because each inherently separates the Christian from the teachings of the Church, which are our guide to eternal life.

Not only is it a serious sin to commit apostasy, heresy, or schism, but it is also a serious sin to lead someone else into these sins. Many persons are guilty of using the internet, websites, and discussion groups, to commit the objective sin of attempting to lead people into apostasy, heresy, or schism (especially heresy).

There are also some ignorant and arrogant Catholics who are using the internet to teach what they imagine is Catholic teaching, but what is in fact material heresy or at least serious doctrinal error. They teach without having first learned. They make foolish arguments. They misunderstand the Catechism and the magisterial documents that they cite. They distort and oversimplify the holy Catholic Faith. And they are uncorrectable.

They are leading many persons astray, adding the sin of scandal, often to a grave extent.

Many of these persons have hundreds or thousands of posts, and they have put substantial time and effort into this gravely sinful promotion of heresy and serious doctrinal error. This type of sin is an objective mortal sin, and for some persons may be an actual mortal sin. And they don’t seem to care at all if they are sinning.

Doubt, is not heretical. It’s something every person of faith will eventually wrestle with, including St. Peter who’s doubt got him in trouble after he walked on water.

Teaching condemed teachings is what will earn you the “heretic” label. If you have doubts, then you just seek counsoling from your spiritual director, or pastor/priest and you’ll be fine once you’ve had time to flesh out your doubts.

Obstinate doubt or obstinate denial of any infallible teaching of the Magisterium is the sin of heresy. This sin need not be expressed exteriorly in order to be a sin. Even if an act of heresy is hidden in the heart and mind (which is called ‘occult heresy’), it is a mortal sin.

Teaching heresy includes several sins. First, there is the sin of heresy itself in rejecting one or more infallible teachings of the Magisterium. Second, there is the sin of active scandal, giving a bad example to others by your sin of heresy, a bad example that leads others into sin. Third, there is the sin of choosing to teach the heresy. And there may be other sins, such as the sin of arrogance when a person chooses to teach before having learned, or the arrogance of putting one’s own ideas above the infallible teaching of the Magisterium.

When someone is teaching heresy online, it is often the case that they teach anonymously. They have a blog under a pseudonym, or they post articles online without giving the author’s name, or they promote heresy in a discussion group, even attempting to actively convince others to abandon one or another of the infallible teachings of the Magisterium in favor of their own ideas.

There is nothing inherently wrong with being anonymous in a discussion group. But if you are going to teach the Catholic Faith to other persons, why should anyone believe what you are saying if you are not willing to put your real name on your own words? Often such persons offer little in the way of a theological argument to support what they are saying; they seldomn cite the writings of Saints, Fathers, and Doctors of the Church; they seldom cite Scripture or the Magisterium. Yet whenever someone asks a question on faith or morals, they have a ready answer, an answer that is often erroneous, even to the extent of serious doctrinal error or heresy.

I have run across many persons online who are behaving in this way. They clearly have not studied the Catholic Faith in any substantial way, for any substantial length of time. And yet they are teaching from their ignorance. And they don’t seem to mind that they are teaching heresy.

As Ron said obstinate doubt is heresy.

CCC 2089 Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. "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; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him."

There are two types of excommunication that are applied to persons who commit the sin of formal heresy:

  1. automatic excommunication (latae sententiae) - which is applied as soon as the act of formal heresy is committed. This type of excommunication is either inherent to the very nature of the act (e.g. apostasy, heresy, schism), or is a penalty established by the temporal authority of the Church (e.g. abortion).

  2. juridicial excommunication (ferendae sententiae) - which is applied by a brought judgment, i.e. by a particular person with proper authority (usually, but not always a Bishop) in a particular case. This type only occurs if such a judgment occurs in a particular case.

Example: The leaders and formal members of the SSPX were excommunicated under both types of excommunication: automatically for the sins of heresy and schism, and juridicially by the decree of Pope John Paul II. Recently, in order to clear the path for the possible return of some of the members of the SSPX, Pope Benedict XVI lifted the juridicial excommunication. But the leaders of the SSPX and most of its members did not abandon their heresy and schism, and so they remain automatically excommunicated.

All very good and properly cited. But your interpretation comes perilously close to telling people:

“Don’t share your faith with others. You might explain something wrong and excommunicate yourself.”

I sure hope that isn’t the message you are trying to send!

If a person misunderstands or is ignorant of an infallible doctrine, this would not be formal heresy, and there would be no penalty of excommunication. Formal heresy only occurs when someone knows that the Magisterium infallibly teaches a particular dogma, and freely chooses to reject that teaching. So you cannot fall into formal heresy inadvertently.

However, the danger of explaining a doctrine incorrectly is that souls may be harmed.

The field of theology is like the field of medicine. Both are vast fields of knowledge, which no one scholar can know entirely in this life (even setting aside that theology also considers mysteries beyond complete human comprehension). Medicine pertains to the health of the body; theology pertains to the health of the soul.

Most persons would not go into an online discussion group on medicine and post one medical claim after another on serious medical topics without being sure of the answer. They would be afraid to cause harm to the body with an incorrect or overly-simplistic answer. If a person asks a question on the topic of medicine, and someone has very little understanding of the topic, he does not give an answer off the top of his head. Nor should he look up an answer in a medical book, and then post it online – he might have misunderstood what the book says (for lack of study), or the topic might be more complex than he realizes. And no one considers himself to have expertise in medicine without many years of study.

The same ought to be true for theology. For an incorrect or overly-simplistic answer might harm souls – especially in moral theology.

But unfortunately many Catholics who have not studied theology much, if at all, have no reservations about answering any and all questions, either with whatever answer seems to them to be correct, or by quickly looking up an answer by surfing the internet. They seem to have no regard for the harm that might be done to souls by a wrong answer. Theology is a vast and complex field of knowledge, but they treat it as either a vast and complex field of mere opinion, or as a small and simplistic field.

Often times, this arrrogant and ignorant approach leads to posts filled with one serious doctrinal error after another, sometimes to the extent of heresy.

There is nothing wrong with a group of Catholics discussing Catholicism online. But many posters are not discussing, are not learning; they are teaching without having first learned, and they teach serious errors.

A good distinction that needed to be made.

I certainly agree that we should all beware “self-proclaimed expert syndrome.”
It seems especially infectious on the internet.

If conversation about these matters can give rise to these charges, than I think you should take this up with the owner of this site at once, so you can morally be at rest you are not co-operating in anything that could be a sin, if that is truly what you are worried about.

Mere conversation or discussion about matters of faith and morals, even with a great diversity of opinion, is not what I am cautioning against.

I’m referring to persons who are teaching on faith and morals, without having first learned. They are teaching serious doctrinal error. Not mere discussion, but teaching.

Can you point us to a Church Document that spells out the material heresy definition you have used here? I have not seen such a thing from the Church.

Also as to Orthodox Christians. How do you respond to the Church and its Teaching in the Catechism?

818 “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 . . . . All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church.”

This is taken from the Vatican II Document Unitatis Redintegratio.

The answer to your first question is found in your second question. You asked about mere material heresy, speaking as if this were not mentioned in any document to your knowledge, and then you cite a document that gives an example of mere material heresy.

Those who were brought up in a Protestant community are not charged with actual sin, but certainly they have committed mere objective sin, since they are believing what the Council of Trent infallibly taught to be heretical errors. This is exactly the distinction between formal heresy (which is always actual sin) and mere material heresy, which is mere objective sin.

Notice that Vatican II (as a recent CDF document also explained) does not use the term ‘Church’ to refer to the Protestant denominations. They are separated to such a great extent that they are only called communities. This is due to what can only be called heresy. To say that their failure to believe is not material heresy would be to contradict the Council of Trent.

But the schismatic Orthodox Church is called a Church by Vatican II, because they retain all Seven Sacraments. That is not to say that they have no material heresy, such as denying the dogma of papal infallibility.

It is also true that, in particular cases, someone who commits the sin of material heresy by believing Protestant errors, may eventually in their lives attain to a sufficient understanding of the true Church and her teachings that to continue to reject those teachings would constitute actual sin, i.e. formal heresy.

Finally, I will point out that your questions speak as if the teachings of the Faith are only found in written magisterial documents. The teachings of the Catholic Faith are found in all that is explicitly or even implicitly taught by Tradition, and Scripture, and Magisterium, not solely in written magisterial documents.

So you are saying that the words material heresy appear in the document?

And can you also add why the definition of “material heresy” is absent from the actual documents where the Church defines heresy, the Code of Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

There are also some ignorant and arrogant Catholics who are using the internet to teach what they imagine is Catholic teaching, but what is in fact material heresy or at least serious doctrinal error. They teach without having first learned. They make foolish arguments. They misunderstand the Catechism and the magisterial documents that they cite. They distort and oversimplify the holy Catholic Faith. And they are uncorrectable.

They are leading many persons astray, adding the sin of scandal, often to a grave extent.

Many of these persons have hundreds or thousands of posts, and they have put substantial time and effort into this gravely sinful promotion of heresy and serious doctrinal error. This type of sin is an objective mortal sin, and for some persons may be an actual mortal sin. And they don’t seem to care at all if they are sinning.

eeehh!! thanks for warning me! I talk alot on here…:thumbsup:

And ALL teachings are found summarised in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

As so often happens in this discussion group, you are making a false claim, without presenting any basis for that claim.

Not all teachings of the Faith are summarized in the Catechism:

For example, what about documents issued after the Catechism was written? Does the Catechism need to be updated everytime the CDF or the Pope issues a new document? The Catechism is a useful summary of many of the principle teachings of the Faith, but it does not contain all teachings; it does not even contain all infallible teachings. If it is intended to contain or at least mention every teaching, then it would have to be revised every time a new document is issued. Or we would have to take the absurd position that the teaching of the Magisterium is the Catechism, plus any documents issued afterward, but what was issued before.

There are important teachings of the Magisterium not found in the Catechism. For example, the Council of Trent has many infallible Canons. These are not each and all quoted, cited, or even summarized in the Catechism. Neither is each and every past papal document cited or summarized or mentioned in the Catechism. Those persons who think that the Catechism contain ALL teachings of the Faith have in effect abandoned or deprecated (reducted in worth) all the past documents that are not mentioned, with their teachings.

The Catechism does not contain, cite, or even summarize the teachings of Unam Sanctam: on the authority of the Church, spiritual and temporal, and that submission to the Roman Pontiff arises from the necessity of salvation. And this teaching is also found in the Fifth Lateran Council.

When the Catechism was first issued, I was very happy to have this additional resource to add to my study of Tradition, Scripture, and the numerous documents of the Magisterium. But not long afterward, I began to notice a disturbing trend among my fellow Catholics: to believe only what is in the Catechism, as if all other magisterial documents, as well as Tradition and Scripture, were now no longer needed. This ‘solus Catechismus’ attitude is similar to the ‘sola Scriptura’ error of Protestants, except that it is more absurd. At least Scripture is inspired by God and has existed since the early Church (and before for the OT). How can the whole Faith be based solely on a book published in 1994? The super-exalation of the Catechism borders on idolatry.

If you only believe what is explicitly stated in Church documents, and not also what is taught by Tradition and Scripture, then you are not believing and practicing the whole Catholic Faith. If you only believe what is explicitly stated by the Magisterium, and not also all that is implied by those statements, **then you are not truly believing all that the Magisterium teaches. **

Also, in order to understand the teachings of Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium, we need theology. There is a very disturbing trend among the faithful today to think of themselves as more faithful if they cast aside all theology, and believe only explicit written statements by the Magisterium. The value of theology, and also of philosophy and reason, in understanding the Faith was taught explicitly by the Magisterium in Humani Generis, and in Fides et Ratio. But, ironically, those Catholics who think they are being more faithful by believing only explicit written statements by the Magisterium usually have not read many magisterial documents.

Tradition has always taught the distinction between merely objective sin and actual sin. Theologians use the terms material heresy and formal heresy to apply this teaching to the particular sin called heresy. This distinction is implicit in magisterial documents, as I explained above. If it is not, if all heresy is formal heresy, or if all heresy is the same, without this distinction, then how do you explain that the Protestants, who adhere to heresies condemned by the Council of Trent, are still said to be brothers in Christ by the Vatican Council? Is it not because many of them have committed the objective sin of heresy, called material heresy, but not the actual sin of heresy, called formal heresy?

Or if you think that all heresy is the same: Canon Law gives the penalty of automatic excommunication for heresy, so then you would have to hold that anyone who committed mere material heresy (without actual sin), by holding the wrong belief by mistake or in ignorance, was thereby excommunicated. Obviously, such is not the case, but without the distinction between material and formal heresy (only the latter of which involves excommunication), we would be forced to such an absurd conclusion.

Here is a sound summary of Catholic theology on heresy, including the distinction between material heresy and formal heresy.

Yet in this case we have the Magisterium actually providing definitions of something and not including the one that you are putting forward.

We also have the Magisterium stating that those who are born into “schism” are not guilty of schism yet you state that this is not so.

Who are we to believe in these two cases? The Magisterium or some anonymous poster on the Internet?

There are no teachings which are not summarised in the CCC and reference to scripture, councils etc are footnoted. There can be no new teachings as the Deposit of Faith is closed. There may be clearer explanations of some teachings but that does not mean new teachings.


Para 3. The Doctrinal Value of the Text

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which I approved 25 June last and the publication of which I today order by virtue of my Apostolic Authority, is a statement of the Church’s faith and of catholic doctrine, attested to or illumined by Sacred Scripture, the Apostolic Tradition and the Church’s Magisterium. I declare it to be a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion. May it serve the renewal to which the Holy Spirit ceaselessly calls the Church of God, the Body of Christ, on her pilgrimage to the undiminished light of the Kingdom!

The approval and publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church represent a service which the Successor of Peter wishes to offer to the Holy Catholic Church, to all the particular Churches in peace and communion with the Apostolic See: the service, that is, of supporting and confirming the faith of all the Lord Jesus’ disciples (cf. Lk 22:32 as well as of strengthening the bonds of unity in the same apostolic faith. Therefore, I ask all the Church’s Pastors and the Christian faithful to receive this catechism in a spirit of communion and to use it assiduously in fulfilling their mission of proclaiming the faith and calling people to the Gospel life. This catechism is given to them that it may be **a sure and authentic reference text for teaching catholic doctrine **and particularly for preparing local catechisms. It is also offered to all the faithful who wish to deepen their knowledge of the unfathomable riches of salvation (cf. Eph 3:8). It is meant to support ecumenical efforts that are moved by the holy desire for the unity of all Christians, showing carefully the content and wondrous harmony of the catholic faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, lastly, is offered to every individual who asks us to give an account of the hope that is in us (cf. 1 Pt 3:15) and **who wants to know what the Catholic Church believes. **
This catechism is not intended to replace the local catechisms duly approved by the ecclesiastical authorities, the diocesan Bishops and the Episcopal Conferences, especially if they have been approved by the Apostolic See. It is meant to encourage and assist in the writing of new local catechisms, which take into account various situations and cultures, while carefully preserving the unity of faith and fidelity to catholic doctrine.

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