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Heresy is Rare and Everywhere

In the comments section of another thread, I wrote in response to a commenter:

“. . .it is extremely distressing to me that so many Catholics are willing to make a decision about our fellows, stick a label on them and figure they know all about them and can ever-dismiss them as “that sort” of Catholic, or not as good a Catholic or the wrong sort of Catholic than you know…”better” Catholics.”

To that another commenter wrote:

This is where you completely lose me . . . a broad question in general: Are you asserting that there is no such thing as a heretic?

Is a “catholic” who openly opposes The Church on matters such as gay-marriage, birth-control, abortion, women priests, masturbation….etc, a “good” Catholic, or a bad Catholic? And if we can’t label what is “bad”- then how can we possible recognize what is “good”?

This “no labels” business smacks of the root cause of most of our societal ills. It is (I believe) the calling card of progressive moral relativism. Where am I wrong here?


Anyone who believes that I am either a progressive or a moral relativist
is quite mistaking the matter; in a way, though, this commenter helpfully demonstrated exactly my concern; I used the world “labels” and he immediately associated that with something he distrusts, and began to assign the worst possible motives to my meaning. I appreciate, though, that he actually asked for clarification, rather than calling me a name and stomping off, mind all made up. We are doing the latter too much, too frequently, in our society, and it is destroying us.

My point was not about the failed and silly “no labels” movement, but about the ragtag way we dismiss others because we think we know all about them, based (usually) on slender evidence and (often) misunderstanding, just as the reader misunderstood me. I’ve had several people ask me why I have linked to certain writers or websites because “he’s not a perfect Catholic; she admits she struggles with some things, and that’s not a good example of faith; it’s not what you should be promoting here, blah, blah, blah, I thought you were a good Catholic, but you’re not. There are hardly any true Catholics left! Woe! Woe! Woe!”

Okay, that’s a paraphrase, but it’s a pretty accurate reflection of what I routinely see in my emails from “true” Catholics, who seem not to realize that the Body of Christ has many members, each in various stages of formation, understanding, knowledge, detachment and states of grace; each struggling with something because the life of faith is always one of struggle, and — unless you are supremely gifted and graced outside the norm — questioning. God has shown himself, throughout scripture, to be pretty tolerant of questions — he heard them often enough in both testaments. It is perfectly possible to be unsettled on some issues and still be — as both Dorothy Day and Elizabeth Ann Seton called themselves — “obedient [children] of the church.” In Day’s case, where she wondered, and questioned, she submitted in obedience, trusting that the church had the truth and that she would one day comprehend it all, and that, to my way of thinking, is what mattered.

But Day’s obedience was informed obedience, not blind. So, yes, I can see a world of Catholic people who are often uninformed, often undereducated in their faith — so much so that they really don’t even know what it is they don’t know, or what to do with their questions, because they think they do know — and staggering along as best they can, and I can respect the struggle and feel called to atone for it.

And yes, I can resist the urge to cry “heresy.”

Given the woeful state of Catholic catechesis and the fact that (I think we can agree, here) most of the world is not in its right mind, I am extremely reluctant to throw the word “heretic” around so easily, in any case. A large component of sin is “intention.” While some things are obvious to people (we must not murder, we must not steal . . .) much — very much — has become amorphously gray and relative in people’s understanding. We’ve had five decades of blaring media propaganda serving the dictatorship of relativism, and during the media’s ascendancy and domination the church dropped the ball on explaining itself, teaching itself, nurturing right-reason and sacramental awareness. Our schools stopped teaching critical thinking a long time ago, and our church dumbed itself down, not in its official pronouncements (which let’s face it most Catholics do not read) but in its CCD programs and from its pulpits. If one is uninformed — if the only understanding someone has of, say, the abortion issue, comes from what one sees of the extremists highlighted by the press, arguments made in highly emotional states and represented by wild-eyed screamers (you do not see the youthful, joyful annual March for Life covered in the mainstream, after all) and that caricature is played against years of secular indoctrination — do you think that person truly understands the issue enough, or that their uninformed (and probably hardly thought about) opinion can then speak to intention which I believe must be a part (but certainly not the whole) of any heretical pronouncement?

We have a rule in our family: you may disagree and argue with someone on any topic as long as you can first state your opponent’s position to his satisfaction. Most folks cannot state the Catholic position on birth control, gay marriage, abortion or divorce with any understanding beyond crude bumperstickerspeak and caricature. They may say “the church hates abortion and gay marriage” but they won’t be able to articulate an understanding as to why. In this case, the heresy may be rooted in an ignorance that distorts intention, and the fault of their ignorance lies with all of us. In that case, if there is heresy, then we all of us have contributed to it, either by refusing to learn, refusing to teach, or teaching in a manner so off-putting as to foment resistance or dismissal.

Critical thinking contains within it a component of discernment,
one that moves beyond keenness of thought and into the realm of transcendent thinking — thinking that weighs all matters of substance and dares to incorporate the language and lessons of faith-orientation, in order to come to one’s fullest understanding. For Catholics, an attitude of “discernment” ought rightly be part of our every undertaking, including our political cognizances, but discernment has the potential to turn our ideas topsy-turvy, and surprise us in where we are led. During the height of the “torture and rendition” debate I struggled to align what I considered a “logical” support for torture with my Church’s position against it and could not do it; weighing feelings and worldly logic against scripture and the deeper reasonings of the church, I had no choice but to finally admit — no matter how resistant I tried to be — that the church’s teaching held the fullness of truth (how inconvenient!) and I could not simply ignore it or will the truth away.

If Catholics routinely applied a mindset of discernment to all of the issues that engage their passions, I do believe they would find that their ideologies would not align well with their theologies, with the “progressives” forced to admit to the Just truths that undercut their feelings, and “conservatives,” likewise compelled to blur the starkest of their hard lines, for the sake of truth’s Mercy. In Christ, Justice and Peace are met, and his church is forever teaching at that line of theological scrimmage, which is why both left and right find themselves alternately applauding and damning the bishops, depending on the issue.

To teach discernment is to teach a depth of thinking that precludes ignorance (which tries to ignore), and that sort of informed thinking would necessarily then clarify and form our intentions. It would force, for instance, a man who believes he intends “good” things for women to ultimately confront the fact that his support for abortion is harmful to a woman’s spiritual (and possibly her physical) well-being, and that it is an absolutely negative act against life and thus inherent and objective evil.

The “concern” or “love” for humanity that so often animates our position may be a genuine feeling of sympathy or empathy, but discernment roots such sentiments into the non-negotiable and solid commitment we must make to the dignity of the human person, which is where the depths of our love is tested and found true or false. It is there, in discernment bound by love, that all of our comfortable assurances can suddenly vanish. And yes, then we’re a bit vulnerable, and in vulnerability, we turn ever-Godward.

Just this morning in my email I got a note regarding a prominent pro-lifer who said of the death of Betty Ford,

“While I empathize with the loss Betty Ford’s family and friends must be feeling at her death, I do not lament the passing of any unrepentant leader of the pro-abortion movement, bluntly speaking. The world is a safer place for children with one less person facilitating their murders.”

That sort of false-empathy and stridency does much more to hurt the pro-life movement than to help it. It is an almost inhuman pronouncement. It takes in to account nothing about Mrs. Ford’s life but her pro-choice stance, and is so narrow in focus and so extreme that it comes perilously close to suggesting that a) the complex totality of a human being’s life is meaningless and b) reducing the worth of human beings to their (often poorly thought out) political positions is acceptable and c) the death of an ideological opponent can be shrugged off for the cause.

Those three suggestions, if given credit, would create a dreadful world for the very children the pro-lifer is intending to save.

The statement by this woman, who earnestly believes that she is all about life, is ultimately all about destruction. She creates another extremist caricature that the media can use against pro-lifers; she reduces our church’s extremely nuanced and reasonable teachings about the nature of sin, human understanding and God to a stark and merciless pronouncement that — in a profoundly ironic way — strips Mrs. Ford, and the pro-lifer and her whole movement, of precisely that dignity of the human person she says she is devoted to. Further, she distorts and misrepresents the whole idea of a loving and merciful God.

Seen in that light, her pronouncement seems so harmful to the faith, to life, and to the Body of Christ that it could be counted every bit as heretical as the pronouncements of excommunicated women who ordain other women and then call themselves Roman Catholic priests.

But I don’t think the pro-lifer’s intention was to dehumanize Mrs. Ford or to misrepresent God or life or sin or mercy, and that is why I neither provide her name, nor fling the charge of heresy in her direction. I think she is simply so caught up in what she is doing (and perhaps in her media outlet) that she was thoughtless, and not calling on all she does know about her faith, about her own sinfulness, her own imperfect understanding and the mercy of God.

And we all do that, from time to time.

Heresy resides in all of us, in one way or another, and increasingly I am coming to realize that the corny old song “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me…” is speaking a truth. Pope Benedict XVI has said, “God does not force us to believe in Him, but draws us to himself through the truth and goodness of his incarnate Son.” This is for all of us; its truth belies all of the divisions we create, and negates all of our excuses; it calls to the stabilization of all our excesses and the righting of all of our intentions, through discernment. If we want to change the world, we begin here, allowing ourselves to be drawn to Jesus Christ, sitting at the Master’s feet and taking his instructions to heart.

Perhaps if all of us turned off the TV, shut down the internet, silenced the iPods and spent 15-30 minutes a day taking instruction in his presence or beneath his Cross, our humility would be such that we could never cry out “heretic” without first proclaiming it for ourselves.

UPDATE:
By the purest of co-incidences,
Max is touching on a little of this, as well.

Gerard Nadal on Betty Ford

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About Elizabeth Scalia