Persecution of the Church from Within: Heresy

Persecution of the Church from Within: Heresy August 10, 2011

This is part II of a three part series of sermons by Fr. Cornelius Joseph O’Connell on the ever-persecuted Church. Today, the good priest turns his attention to persecution inflicted by members of the Church. That is, until they break away and leave the barque of St. Peter. Remember that line by the character “Chef” in the movie Apocalypse Now? “Never get off the boat!”

But it’s tempting to grab control of the tiller in the midst of the storm. By not steering, see, you give up your autonomy, and with faith only in yourself, you delude yourself that you could do this better on your own. You can pilot the ship better, you say to yourself. Of course, what you wind up doing is pulling what St. Peter did when he saw Christ walking on the water. Instead of staying in the boat and waiting for the Master, you walk out towards Him, only to succumb and to founder. Better to be tied to the mast like Odysseus, than listen to that song of the Siren.

How do you know if you’re are staying “in the boat?” Well, what does the Church say? She really doesn’t keep her opinions secret, you know. She’s pretty bold about sharing them with the world, which is why she is persecuted in the first place.

In this section, Fr. O’Connell spells out some of the major historical heresies that have plagued the Church in the past. New ones arise constantly, as they have from the beginning. That is why St. John the Apostle mentions the Antichrist repeatedly in his letters. So let’s take a look at what Fr. O’Connell say about the persecutors within the Body of Christ.

The Catholic Church, the Ever Persecuted and Suffering Spouse of Christ

“Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”—Matthew, 16:18.

Part II: Heresy

But the really heart-rending affliction to the Church has not been persecution but heresy. The utmost her persecutors can ever do with all their ingenuity of torment, is, to kill the body; while heresy pierces into her soul and life. It is her own children who invented this species of adversity; and hence she may say of herself in the words of her bruised ancf, wounded Redeemer, “These wounds I have received; in the house of my friends.”

Of course she has triumphed over her enemies of every sort. But, in this case, it was to her as the triumph of David over Absalom, when that parent wept and cried out in his grief: “Oh Absalom! my son, Absalom! would to God that I might die for thee.”

What heresy is we may perhaps best understand from an example taken out of the Holy Scriptures. We there read of the crowds that followed our Savior everywhere, and who were all in admiration of His
doctrine, because, as they said, He was teaching them as one having power and not as the Scribes and Pharisees.

This admiration and docility continued until He came to tell them that “He was the living bread that came down from heaven.” Here they began to murmur and to question: “Is not this,” said they, “Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How then, saith He, ‘I come down from heaven?'” A little further on, in the same discourse, He told them that He would give them His flesh to eat and His blood to drink. This statement also they subjected to their own judgment, and settled it by declaring it was a “hard saying,” and one not to be listened to. The Scripture here adds that many of them went “back and walked no more with Jesus.” They had already fully accepted and praised His sermon on the mount, and His other doctrines up to this, but here they balked; here they questioned His power to do what He said, for they asked, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” And so retaining what they had already admired of His truth, they left Jesus and the remainder of His doctrine to those who cared still to follow Him and to believe Him.

That the Divine Teacher saw them depart with sorrow is manifest from what follows. “Then Jesus said to the twelve, will you also go away?” And Simon Peter answered Him: “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” In that trying moment He found His only consolation in the fidelity of His chosen twelve, and in their firm, open confession that His words, whatever they might be, are the “Words of eternal life,” and accordingly that whoever turns away from them puts his feet in the way of death. These words of life were then coming, not through any appointed channel as they come to us, but were issuing directly from their divine source, out of the very mouth of the Son of God. For them to be gainsaid under such circumstances, tells at once the essential arrogance of heresy, and forecasts all the miseries it was doomed to bring upon the Church.

Every heresy that has rent the Church has done no more than copy this heresy, originating in the company of His own followers. In her are now deposited all His words of eternal life. To her has been given dominion of all nations, to teach them all things whatsoever he commanded. “As the Father sent me, so I also send you.” Now, as Christ was sent into the world to teach among other things; that He was the living bread from heaven, so His Church has received from Him and put in the body of her teaching, the doctrines of the divinity of Christ; of His Incarnation; of original sin; of the necessity of grace; of His real presence in the Blessed Eucharist, and the truth of the supreme authority of the Church in the matters of faith and morals. All these truths she received and was sent to teach, and she taught them from the first, and teaches them still.

Nevertheless, as she passed through the nations on her mission, there arose among her followers, men who thought one or other of these doctrines “a hard saying,” and who, accordingly, turned away and walked no more with her. Thus, Arius went out from her, vaunting aloud that he had discovered an error in the Church’s doctrine, namely, that Christ was not the Son of God, but only a creature made by God.

The deplorable part is, that there were numbers to believe that Arius was right and the Church altogether wrong. Such multitudes, indeed, were perverted, that whole provinces in the domain of the Church were, for years and years, made black and barren with this outrageous and pestilent heresy. And all this time the Church was doomed to look on and see it everywhere, giving new death to thousands on thousands who had received life in the resurrection of Christ, the Son of God.


Then followed Nestorius, who erased from the creed the doctrine of the Incarnation; Jesus Christ was not God, but a man united to God by a more special and more intimate union than any other; and consequently the Virgin Mary could not be called the Mother of God.

Pelagius was the next to mutilate the Church’s creed, and he cut out the doctrines of original sin,
and of the necessity of grace, thereby aiming a blow at the entire sacramental system, for if there is no need of grace to aid our good actions, what use to have channels to convey grace to our souls. The same independent dealing was familiar to heresiarchs of lesser note in the early Church, each one rejecting or retaining such words of “Eternal Life” as he might determine for himself.

The last great heresy of all, the consequences of which are rife everywhere in our own day, was one of terrific power, because it has had in aid of its spread and development all the appliances of modern invention and modern activity. We may say, indeed, that it has opened a way for all possible heresies. It dethroned the Redeemer of the world from, we might say almost every altar in England, in Switzerland, in Germany, and from many in France. Sacrifice and sacrament were swept away alike. The authority of the Church to teach at all as a living and divine voice, was treated as an arrogant assumption, and the more effectually to supplant the true religion in the minds of men; each one was now sent to a printed volume, there to find out a religion as best he could. That volume is the work of God, it is true, but only such a work, we may say, as the body of Adam was before a living soul was breathed into it.

It belongs to the Holy Spirit alone, the author of the Scriptures, to give vitality and full meaning to His own work. The breath of man is too short, and too fitful to do more than inflate fragmentary portions of so complete and intricate a production, and these will only be such parts of the sacred book as most please each one’s peculiar fancy.

The Jews, for instance, admired the sermon on the mount, yet turned away in disdain from our Savior’s teaching, respecting His sacred body and blood. So, in our day, there are persons who accept the moral lessons of the Bible, but who will have nothing to do with its transcendent mysteries, which are, in fact, the very kernel of the whole. Now, can it be seriously supposed that, to such multiplied scraps and fragments of belief God is going to attach the virtue, the promise and the reward which He solemnly settled upon the whole body of His doctrine? If so, we may be sure that there is one word of His that will go back to Him empty, for when sending His Apostles to teach all things whatsoever He gave them to teach, He added: “He that believeth not shall be condemned.”

It is not within the reach of any created intellect to measure the disaster brought by heresy upon those once redeemed, nor to tell the anguish and sorrow it has caused the heart of the Redeemer. The track of a plague is not to be compared to the destructive course of heresy; nor is war, with all its horrors; nor is famine. For these evils terrible as they are, do not necessarily rob their victims of a faith and hope in a life where earth’s evils are all to cease.

Lucifer falling

To find a true parallel we must look above and beyond this world. We must think on the damage and irreparable evil caused by Lucifer when he refused to accept the ordainment of God. His angel intellect, in its pride, thought it saw an improvement that might be made in the dispensations of infinite wisdom. He got other spirits to share this arrogant assumption, and they, too, set their individual judgment against the eternal decree of their Maker. This was their sin, or if you prefer it, their heresy, and the consequence of it was, that in less time than words can utter it, light unspeakable was changed into darkness, and heaven was robbed in an instant of one-third of its happy dwellers; never again to enter there. Do you imagine that God saw with indifference, myriads of His gifted beings, thus opening of their own accord, an abyss under their feet?

Or, when in His mercy, He has made a heaven on earth, His holy Church; and peopled it with souls made, by the light of faith brighter than angels; can you think that in view of heaven’s catastrophe, it will be all the same to Him, if these wilfully fling away that gift of faith, and go out into darkness and unbelief? And all this because some heresiarch as ambitious as Satan, and his equal in pride, has had the impious daring to set his judgment in opposition to the eternal Spirit of God guiding His Church. “Fear not those who can kill the body,” says Eternal Truth, “but fear him rather who can cast both body and soul into hell.” This is the reason why all the evils of destruction earth can ever know, are not to be compared to the single evil of heresy.

This subject will always be a mournful one, for the reason that its treatment must adhere to the uncompromising rule of God’s truth. Seeing, moreover, that this sin is visited on the children, far beyond even the third and fourth generation, it is peculiarly sad to think of the numbers who come to be involved in it without any fault of theirs. Of these, many are serving their God according to the light and knowledge they possess; and since on His coming to this world He has promised He would “not break the bruised reed,” we may have the assurance that towards the truly sincere and upright of heart, He will always deal in mercy. One or another of them comes back now and again to the faith their fathers abandoned, and like to persons shipwrecked on a tempestuous sea, they would wonder how or why to them only a speedy rescue has come, out of so many who are left to struggle on unaided in the waves of unbelief.

Why, let me ask, are these not oftener helped by our prayers, which is their only help in a crisis like this? Why is not the fervent exhortation of the Apostle ever sounding in our ears saying to Timothy, “I desire first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for all men, for this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who will have all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Oh, if there were mortal lives in danger, instead of immortal souls, many a sympathetic heart would respond to their peril; many a strong arm would be reached out to their relief. If our common humanity calls forth such feelings, and such efforts, why not also our higher kinship with them in Christ? Who will have all men come to the knowledge of His truth, and who accounts it “good and accountable in His sight,” when anyone helps them to this knowledge?

Remember that, although the Church abhors in her inmost soul the sin of heresy; as she must abhor it by her divine mission; she has never renounced the heretic. Volunteer defenders may have sometimes acted without orders, as Peter did when he drew his sword on the servant of the High Priest; but the Church has always rebuked their passionate zeal, and after the example of our divine Savior would willingly heal any wound it caused. Having been sent to all, the Church has for all the heart of Jesus Himself, who wills not the death of the sinner.

Hence, she looks for their return to her, as the father of the prodigal stood with open arms and hoped that some day he would see his wayward son come back, that he might make him again his child ten times more than before.

You, too, must take your stand with her, and together with her pray God that all may one day “Come to the knowledge of the words of eternal life,” which deposited in His Church, have alone attached to them the promise of that blessed life.

Tomorrow, Part III: Scandal

The Church, The Bride of Christ

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