Fr. Edward Oakes has been thinking about what constitutes a heretic . Let us take the next step with him in upping the ante of precision for the use of the word.

He is right that “unthinkingly hurling accusations” is counterproductive. But if heresy concerns dogmas with “objective truth value of their own,” such that they even “become church-dividing,” then to identify heresies thinkingly and clearly is essential to ecumenical efforts, because doing so points out precisely what still divides us. Indeed, it highlights what is most church-dividing, for the heretics (from whichever perspective) were willing to part company with their brethren rather than compromise their principle of choice. We can’t work on those points unless we know what they are.

Of course, the Orthodox were also so willing, which brings us to Oakes’ perspicuous point that no one declares himself a heretic. That implies, of course, that one becomes a heretic by choice, compared with some external standard, that is, an authority, if only the authority of the commonly held belief of his community of faith. Any declaration of someone as a heretic is then merely recognition and publication of the fact that some person’s choice of belief is radically incompatible with that standard. The radicality required and why that line must be drawn in the sand was captured with precision by Stephen Barr , at least as regards the Catholic perspective. No one declares someone a heretic the way wizards in fantasy novels declare someone a rabbit!

If heresy is a choice, then this choice must be examined if we are to understand what a heretic—the one who makes this choice—is. A heretic is as a heretic does. And, if the H -word is off-limits, a heretic by any other name remains a heretic by what he does.

Now about this choice, a very simple, accurate, and useful distinction used to be made between a material heretic and a formal heretic: The material heretic errs in his facts, believing something to be true church doctrine which in fact is not. His choice is made in ignorance. If he learns from reliable sources that the Church teaches otherwise, he readily changes his belief, because his concern is to believe what the community of faith believes, since he believes it is Christ’s Church.

In contrast, the formal heretic knows what the Church teaches and believes something else, namely, the object of his choice. His belief is defined over against the Church’s, and his concern is to hold fast to his choice. His choice is made in knowledge. Of course, a formal heretic often enough begins with the innocent error of a material heretic, but the difference is that he clings obstinately to it in the face of new information. Note that formal heresy does not require efforts at official correction by church authorities, nor a declaration on their part. It only requires that the individual know what the Church teaches in essential matters and that he persists in holding something incompatible with that teaching.

Formal heresy also does not require that the heretic abjure his church membership, as Oakes claimed. Indeed, it would be surprising if a heretic did so abjure, since he has convinced himself that his doctrine is the correct one. Implicitly, therefore, he represents the “true (or pure, or original, or whatever) Church”—at least to himself.

With his example of docetism, Oakes rightly highlights the radical, and hence church-dividing, nature of heresy: that particular choice changes “everything in Christian dogmatics” and “alter[s] the whole schema of salvation as proposed by the Christian gospel.” The choice of one heretical doctrine has a ripple effect that ultimately transforms or tweaks all other doctrines. And the more essential the original doctrine that is changed—for example, the meaning of the articles of the creed, including the article of Christ’s descent—the more radical the repercussions.

What remains to be touched upon is the standard against which this choice is made. Oakes considers it a reasonable use of language for a Catholic such as himself to refer to some Protestants as orthodox. But the standard here is unclear: He does not appear to mean that they are orthodox by Protestant standards, though they may also be. Rather, it seems he judges them orthodox by a Catholic standard, as opposed to those (Catholics?) “selling the company store.” If he means that Catholics and Protestants share some doctrines and certain aspects of Christian life, then I agree with him in regard to those specifics, but his language is misleading: Precisely because heresy is a choice to disagree on one part of the standard, orthodoxy in contrast requires agreement with the whole .

We must also ask what constitutes “selling the company store”? Without knowing those Catholic theologians from whom Edward Oakes feels himself estranged, it is difficult to tell precisely. His comment suggests, however, he is willing to apply the O -word to some cases not because they fully meet that standard but because they conserve more than others. The standard of “objective truth value” has been replaced by one of relative conservation. And, as we know from relativity theory, all depends on one’s frame of reference. So once we abandon the absolute frame of reference established by commitment to certain beliefs as objectively true, can’t even those who sell the store be called orthodox? And then doesn’t all discourse and dialogue cease, since we’re all the same anyway, at least in name? A quicker way to agreement has not been found than to say that words and their meanings don’t matter.

Since, however, Oakes thinks words have enough meaning to make it worthwhile to distinguish between the orthodox and those selling out the Church, we can look for his standard. He decrees it explicitly: “When the Western Church fissiparated in the sixteen century, the Reformers took a portion of the essential patrimony of the Church with them, and they thereby left both the Roman Church and themselves the poorer for it.” The Catholic Church has been “robbed of key portions of its patrimony”—so not only have some of Mother Church’s children become estranged, but, Oakes suggests, they have also made off with part of the deposit of faith, leaving the pantry half-empty. In short, Oakes’ standard for orthodoxy is additive: The yin of the Romans must be brought together again with the yang of the Reformers for truth to be complete.

Which puzzles me. For Oakes surely knows Vatican II clearly taught that “the sole Church of Christ . . . subsists in the Catholic Church,” and that “nevertheless many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible confines.” (For an up-to-the-minute analysis of the Council fathers’ understanding of the controversial “subsists,” one may refer to the 2007 tesina of Fr. Robert Fromageot at the Angelicum.)

From the official Catholic perspective, then, the Catholic Church conserves the whole truth, while the “separated brethren” share in many elements of it. The contribution to a deeper appreciation and appropriation of Christ’s truth that can result from Protestant emphases on different aspects of the shared truth might then be likened, in an anemic analogy, to fluorescent highlighting on portions of a text: The words were there but merit more attention. Then again, if Fr. Oakes’ standard is what he says, it doesn’t puzzle me that he finds “greater doctrinal fellowship among many Protestants” than among “far too many Catholic theologians”: His standard is one of Protestant ecclesiology.

Alyssa Lyra Pitstick received her doctorate in theology from the Angelicum in Rome. Her dissertation, Light in Darkness: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Catholic Doctrine of Christ’s Descent into Hell , will soon be published by Eerdmans. Part III of her exchange with Edward T. Oakes, S.J., on “Balthasar, Hell, and Heresy” will appear in the March issue of First Things .

Articles by Alyssa Lyra Pitstick

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