What is a Heresy?

Published February 19, 2021

My pieces are starting to pop up over at the Catholic Weekly in Sydney! Here’s a taste of one that ran recently:

The Catholic intellectual tradition is committed to intellectual liberty for the very good reason that it is committed to truth. It fears no truth because God is truth and truth cannot contradict truth. The truths revealed by the natural sciences and human wisdom cannot contradict supernatural revelation because the God who creates is the same God who redeems.

This is why St Thomas Aquinas was fearless in his explorations of the world of thought and why Catholic scientists from Albert the Great to Gregor Mendel to Monsignor Georges Lemaître could examine the world with no fears that something they discovered would topple their Faith.

Not that there are not religious approaches to truth that are indeed cramped, rigid, and unable to cope with new ideas. There are. But the thing is, that is what is known as heresy.

Heresy is not bold. It is not forward-thinking or creative or even particularly clever. Heresy is the urge to take some one or two truths out of the grand cornucopia of Catholic mystical ideas and blow them up to monstrous proportions. Heresy is to the world of ideas what cancer is to the body: a metastasised truth.

The word haereses from which we derive our English “heresy” is a Greek term referring to drawing a thread out of a whole weave. The weave is the Catholic tradition handed down from the apostles. That Tradition is a wonderful complex whole made of seemingly incompatible ideas and paradoxes.

It requires skill, wisdom, insight, and docility to the Magisterium to navigate the Tradition. And throughout our history, there have been impatient, know-it-all, prideful, and simple-minded souls who got carried away with one monomaniac idea or other and used that idea to attack the whole weave of the Faith.

Because heresy is not so much a lie as an inflamed truth, the bigger and more important the truth, the harder it is to bring the heretic back to sanity, because every attempt to restore balance is seen by the heretic as an assault on The Only Thing That Matters.

This can be seen for instance, in the great archetypal heresy in the Church’s history, the Arian Heresy. Arius (who, by the way, has nothing to do with Aryanism or white supremacy) was a churchman in the early 4th century who took the greatest truth the Church has to proclaim—the glory and majesty of God the Father—and weaponised it to attack the equally important truths that the Son and the Spirit are God too.

Every assertion of the truth of the deity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit was regarded as an attack on the majesty of the Father by the Arians. It was to reply to the monomania of the Arians that the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed—which we say every Sunday—was formulated.

The thing that is notable is that it is the Creed that is capacious and patient of a wide and complex reading of Scripture and the Tradition. It is Arianism that is cramped and narrow.

Read the rest over here. It’s the first of a three-part series. I will post a taste of the second part on Monday.

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