My webposting last week asking whether it is legitimate anymore for Catholics to call Protestants heretics has caused quite a stir, both on this page ( here from Stephen Barr and here from Alyssa Lyra Pitstick ) and elsewhere (see, for example, here and here ). I meant my reflections merely to serve as a trial balloon in my search for a better word than heresy to describe the doctrinal differences that are still outstanding between Catholics and Protestants; and given my own confusion on the matter I am neither surprised nor dismayed that reaction was heated. At the very least, the controversy will give me a chance to try to get my own mind clear on the exact meaning of such terms as heresy, dissent, schism, ecumenical dialogue , and so forth.

First of all, let me correct an egregious error in my posting. A reader from Australia has pointed out to me that the two passages I cited from Thérèse de Lisieux were in fact published in the original edition, and not later as I had erroneously asserted. (The passages restored in the 1950s mostly pertained to her temptations to atheism, not to God’s all-embracing mercy.)

Fortunately, I am quite sure that there is no substantial difference between me and Stephen Barr, although I think he misunderstood the import of my use of the word feeling to describe my dilemma. At all events, it was not remotely my intention to raise my feelings (which are a buzzing, cacophonous chamber of confusion in the best of circumstances) as the standard for determining what does and does not constitute heresy. Quite the opposite. For part of my request asking readers to submit a better term was driven by my need for a more exact standard by which to judge different species of heresy.

In my own mind, at least, I was using the word feeling in the way Germans speak of Fingerspitzengefühl , which translates literally as “fingertip feeling” but more broadly means that vague sense one has about something but can’t put into words (a “hunch” in English). We all recall Justice Potter Stewart’s famous remark that he couldn’t define pornography but knew it when he saw it. Unfortunately, his failure to come up with a legally clear definition of obscenity has now resulted in the flood of pornography now besetting us. Similarly, I fear that unless we get clear about what heresy is and is not, then either doctrinal rigor will be lost or the prospect of ecumenical progress will be scuppered by a too-sweeping and too-univocal application of the word heresy .

What I’m searching for is a term for two different kinds of heresies: one in which no agreement is possible between the orthodox position and a heretical position (docetism, for example), and one in which agreement can, at least in principle, be reached (like justification by faith). Again, extreme cases are best for illuminating what I mean, which I hope will explain to Dr. Pitstick and others what I mean by Catholic theologians who are “selling the company store.” The following sentences represent a catena of quotations from the chapter on the Resurrection from Roger Haight’s Jesus, Symbol of God :

My understanding of the resurrection does not support the necessity of an empty tomb in principle . Resurrection faith today is not belief in an external miracle, an empirical historical event testified to by disciples, which we take as a fact on the basis of their word. Although that may describe in fact the belief of many Christians, it is no ideal. A reflective faith-hope today will affirm Jesus risen on the basis of a conviction that Jesus’ message is true; because God is the way Jesus revealed God to be, Jesus is alive . . . . Because it was Jesus whom people experienced as risen, and not someone else , one must assume that Jesus had a forceful religious impact on people . . . . In the view proposed here, the external event that helped mediate a consciousness of Jesus risen was Jesus himself during his ministry . Or, to be more exact, after his death, the disciples’ memory of Jesus filled this role. ( All emphases added. )

I certainly hope I don’t have to argue the point here that an orthodox understanding of Christology and the Resurrection can reach no common understanding whatever with these sentences, either now or at any time in the future. Here surely Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’ famous law can be invoked: “When orthodoxy becomes optional, it will sooner or later be proscribed.” Tragically, Haight’s views are part of a long trend in Catholic theology that began right after the Second Vatican Council, a point that Joseph Ratzinger was one of the first to notice. In his epochal Introduction to Christianity (1968), he describes the Neuhaus law—with remarkable prescience, I might add—using one of the fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm:

Anyone who has watched the theological movement of the last decade and who is not one of those thoughtless people who always uncritically accept what is new as necessarily better might well feel [ feel! ] reminded of the old story of “Clever Hans.” The lump of gold that was too heavy and troublesome for him he exchanged successively, so as to be more comfortable, for a horse, a cow, a pig, a goose, and a whetstone, which he finally threw in the water, still without losing much; on the contrary, what he now gained in exchange, so he thought was the precious gift of complete freedom . . . .

The worried Christian of today is often bothered by questions like these: Has our theology in the last few years not taken in many ways a similar path? Has it not gradually watered down the demands of faith, which had been found all too demanding, always only so little that nothing important seemed to be lost, yet always so much that it was soon possible to venture on to the next step? And will poor Hans, the Christian who trustingly let himself be led from exchange and exchange, from interpretation to interpretation, not really soon hold in his hand, instead of the gold with which he began, only a whetstone that he can safely be advised to throw away?

Note that Haight is shilling his views as a Catholic theologian (indeed, he was once elected president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, which just goes to show how pervasive his views are, at least among the professor-set). It is precisely against trends represented here so garishly by Haight that Cardinal Ratzinger struggled during his tenure as Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which explains the relevance of Ad Tuendam Fidem , Ex Corde Ecclesiae , and (above all) Dominus Iesus .

In fact, the controversy aroused by that last document highlights my point. Because they lacked a proper terminology for different modes of heresy, the bien-pensants of the world press largely took Dominus Jesus to be an unwarranted insult to Protestant churches and to other religions. In point of fact, however, it was a warning against pluralistic trends in Catholic theology . But because it was promulgated in a pluralistic world, it was taken as a declaration abjuring all dialogue of whatever stripe. That this was far from Cardinal Ratzinger’s mind can be seen in his book Truth and Tolerance , a painstakingly worked-out set of reflections on how the intentional community of the Catholic Church can authentically dialogue with positions so different from her own.

Although I find much to agree with in Dr. Pitstick’s distinction between material and formal heresy, I am surprised that she would say “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.” For it was the gravamen of my posting that the more radical heresies inside the Catholic Church made me recognize greater orthodoxy among some Protestants than I do with some Catholic theologians. Surely Haight’s heresies are more radical than anything one would ever encounter among the evangelicals of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.

I do, however, happily accept her rebuke for my poor formulation of what the Reformers took with them. I think I did rather give the impression that, under my reading, the Reformers were raiding the larder of Catholic doctrine and that the purpose of ecumenical discussion is to get it back. While rejecting her charge that I subscribe to a Protestant ecclesiology, I basically agree with her when she says “From the official Catholic perspective, then, the Catholic Church conserves the whole truth, while the ‘separated brethren’ share in many elements of it.” In that sentence, I think I can detect agreement between the two of us: Reformation heresies are not of the irreconcilable kind like docetism, otherwise ecumenical dialogue would be rendered pointless from the outset.

I will take up this distinction a bit further below, but I first need to take up the case of Lefebvrism, which can perhaps illuminate my point better than I have so far been able to do. On that issue, I see no substantive difference between myself and Stephen Barr, as he too declines to tar them with the charge of heresy, and for reasons he too can’t quite put into words. For those like me and Dr. Barr, who don’t quite know how to categorize Lefebvrism, Pope John Paul II comes to our rescue here. In his officially promulgated Apostolic Letter, Ecclesia Dei , given on the occasion of Archbishop Lefebvre’s unlawful and schismatic ordination of four bishops on June 29, 1988, in Écone, Switzerland, the pope magisterially declares:

The root of this schismatic act can be discerned in an incomplete and contradictory notion of Tradition. Incomplete, because it does not take sufficiently into account the living character of Tradition, which, as the Second Vatican Council clearly taught, “comes from the apostles and progresses in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on.” ( Emphases in the original. )

Ironically, it is out of precisely that defective understanding that the Lefebvrists were led to accuse the popes of heresy. But their own positive assertions of doctrine are not so much wrong per se (the way Haight’s are) as they are defective. In that regard, there are also many crypto-Lefebvrists inside the Catholic Church, among whom I would include—and their name is legion—any and all self-styled traditionalists who haven’t bothered to learn the tradition they claim to be defending. They take a snapshot, so to speak, of some period of church history and then judge all that follows as heretical.

But history always defeats them; and I mean by that not just the movement of history forward in time but also the study of past history. In a famous observation in his Essay on Development Cardinal Newman said that “To be deep into history is to cease to be a Protestant.” Whether or not he was being fair to the Protestantism of his time, I cannot judge. So let me revise his line for the contemporary intra-Catholic scene: To be deep into history is to cease to be a Lefebvrist, a crypto-Lefebvrist—or a Pitstickian.

Far from being an ad hominem attack on her, I merely mean to say that one need only to quote from history in order to refute her view that no one until Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) ever held that Christ’s human soul continued to suffer in the underworld. For example, in his Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed (written in the last year of his life), Thomas Aquinas says that the first and primary reason Christ descended into hell was “to endure the entire punishment due to sin and thereby to atone [ expiaret ] the whole of guilt.” (I am particularly fond of this sentence because I consider the mystical insights of Adrienne von Speyr to be but an extended commentary on that single, lapidary line from Aquinas.)

And then there is Augustine’s letter to Evodius:

If Holy Scripture had said that Christ after death came into [the] bosom of Abraham, without naming hell and its sorrows, I wonder if anyone would dare to affirm that He descended into hell. But because this clear testimony [of 1 Peter] mentions both hell and its sorrows, I can think of no reason for believing that the Savior went there except to save souls from its sorrows. I am still uncertain whether He saved all those whom He found there or certain ones whom He deemed worthy of that boon. I do not doubt, however, that He was in hell, and that He granted this favor to those entangled in its sorrow.

Brian Daley’s The Hope of the Early Church contains many other such texts. For those who want a more rapid run-through of the Eastern Fathers’ general approach to this theme, I recommend Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev’s lecture ” Christ the Conqueror of Hell ,” delivered at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Minneapolis on November 5, 2002. My favorite passage is this: “The doctrine of the descent of Christ into Hades occupies an essential place in the works of Cyril of Alexandria. In his Paschal Homilies , he repeatedly mentions that as a consequence of the descent of Christ into Hades, the devil was left all alone, while hell was devastated: ‘For having destroyed hell and opened the impassable gates for the departed spirits, He left the devil there abandoned and lonely.’”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church echoes this view when it says that the “descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places” (no. 634).

These matters are all obviously intra-Catholic squabbles. But how does all this relate to Protestantism, which prompted my reflections in the first place? Again, I have to restrict myself here solely to the issue of justification, and even on this issue I can only speak of Catholics and those members of the Lutheran World Federation who agreed to the Joint Declaration on Justification . (Methodists signed on to the statement last year in Seoul, South Korea.)

Based on that Declaration, I hold that Catholics can no longer regard the issue of justification as inherently church-dividing. I would further add that once the Vatican formally signed it, Trent must henceforth be seen through the lens of that Joint Statement. Of course, neither that statement nor later joint statements, should they come about, can be interpreted to countermand Trent either. But isn’t that the job of the Magisterium to make sure they don’t? And once the Vatican signs on to a joint statement, should that not become the primary doctrinal determinant for interpreting Trent in light of Vatican II? Come to think of it, should not Trent always be interpreted through the lens of Vatican II as well?

In other words, the real intent of my first posting was this: Now that agreement has been reached (however volatile the reception of the statement might still be among some Lutherans), Luther’s original heresy cannot have been of the irreconcilable kind. That’s the kind of heresy that renders all future convergence self-evidently impossible, no matter how much tradition continues to develop. The other, Reformed kind—as history shows— can be eventually reconciled with orthodoxy, gratia Sancti Spiritus .

So what do we call the doctrinal differences that still divide Protestants from Catholics if not heresy? Well, I suppose “doctrinal differences” gets at it as well as any other term, unless someone else wishes to suggest a better nomenclature. Nor am I trying to deny that heresy sensu stricto cannot be found among Protestant divines.

Admittedly, inside the Catholic Church the term heresy has a wider application, as Dr. Pitstick rightly points out, though again I confess my confusion as to how to separate heresy from dissent. One helpful blogger, a Dominican priest, offered this lucid definition from the medieval bishop of London, Robert Grosseteste (c.1173-1253): “Heresy is an opinion chosen by human perception, created by human reason, founded on the Scriptures, contrary to the teachings of the Church, publicly avowed, and obstinately defended.” (The phrase “founded on the Scriptures” sounds puzzling, as if heretics had Scripture on their side; but it means that it is a misuse of the technical word heresy if one uses it to tar Jews, Muslim, atheists, etc., as heretics, since these groups deny the validity of the Christian Scriptures in their fullness from the outset. Heresy is always an intra-communal phenomenon.)

I favor Grosseteste’s definition both because of its careful, juridical exactitude and because it raises the bar against overhasty accusations. (I have even read bloggers who claim that the position of the tabernacle in a church or certain melodies are heretical.) I would only add one additional element to his definition for a juridical determination of heresy: Ultimately, heresy has to be officially declared as such by a competent churchman, meaning primarily, of course, the pope and his institution for protecting the faith (the CDF, acting on his behalf and with his knowledge), or a bishop in communion with the Bishop of Rome (and in the latter case, a declaration of heresy by the local ordinary would usually have to be followed up with some later validation from Rome if its sway were to extend beyond the diocese in question).

Of course, I am only speaking here of a juridical definition of heresy. No doubt Arius’ position was heretical before the Council of Nicea said so. One could even say Arius began harming the Church before the council met. But care needs to be exercised here, for St. Augustine rightly says that heretics benefit the Church by compelling her to come to a more exact formulation of her teachings—although I presume he would not be so sanguine about heresy’s benefits to the Church if the heretic remained contumacious after a competent declaration of heresy has been made.

As to my prior disputes with Dr. Pitstick and in her favor, let me say that she is (so far) the only anti-Balthasarian writing in English who has paid him the respect of actually reading most of his (extremely large) body of work. Furthermore, precisely because we both take the reality of heresy so seriously, she is perfectly within her rights to accuse him of such if that’s how she sees the reality.

But I also grant myself the same latitude if I think her arguments for a sinless limbo rely on monophysite principles, or if I see her attempts to give catechism lessons to Pope Benedict as smacking of Lefebvrism. These are not tu quoque retorts but are based on my analysis of her reasoning, though I fear that my latest reply—the third part of our exchange, in the March issue of First Things (due out soon)—lapses once more into my wonted hot-and-bothered mode. But I gladly concede her assiduous scholarship. (She has read works in the secondary literature on Balthasar that I’ve never even heard of.)

At all events, I meant my rhetorical attacks not to be ad hominem but merely forensic. Because she has obviously tried to mount a prosecutor’s case against Balthasar, I felt I had no choice but to play the role of defense attorney, and my heated rejoinders come from the fact that she has, as I read her argument, impugned his integrity. The way I read its history, Balthasar has not “consciously” parted from the tradition but in fact is trying to build on it (that’s certainly his intention). But just as prosecuting and defending attorneys can get together for drinks afterward on Law & Order , I would hope that, if I should ever get a chance to know her personally, Alyssa Pitstick and I could raise a drink in common.

With these concluding remarks, I wish to make my valedictory on this debate. As to the substantive disagreements that yet remain between me and Dr. Pitstick, whenever anyone asks me in the future what I think of the strife over Balthasar and heresy, I shall simply reply: “Oh, in that battle, I stand solidly on the side of Pope Benedict XVI.” As the Holy Father said so well on October 6, 2005 ( the full text is here , then go to the archives for October 10, 2005): “We remember him [Balthasar] as a man of faith, a priest who, in obedience and hiddenness, never sought personal affirmation, but full of the Ignatian spirit always desired the greater glory of God. With these sentiments, I wish that all of you continue with interest and enthusiasm the study of von Balthasar’s work and that you find paths for its efficacious application.”

Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake.

Articles by Edward T. Oakes

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