Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

My lucubrations for today’s webposting would like to argue just this one single point: Doctrinal clarity is lost when Catholics call Protestant heretics. To be sure, that habit of unthinkingly hurling accusations of heresy at Protestants pretty much died out after the Second Vatican Council, when talk of “separated brethren” became all the rage. But a random spot-check of some Catholic blogsites of a conservative bent—where heresy is often used as the term of choice when these bloggers are in their Colonel Blimp harumphing mood—tells me it’s time for some clarity here. Which prompts the following reflections.

First of all, I wish to stress that I am not trying to ban the word heresy by Catholics when speaking of Protestants out of some wishy-washy ecumenical latitudinarianism, as if dogmas are merely matters of opinion without objective truth value of their own. Nor I am denying that there are genuine doctrinal disputes that have become church-dividing. I have no doubt that the prospect of eventual ecclesial unity can only be achieved when, among other milestones, consensus is reached about the dogmas that separate Christians.

So, in a way, heresy can be the appropriate word to use to describe dogmatic disputation but only provided one first gives priority to its etymological meaning, which comes from the Greek word for “choice.” But of whom does that not apply? As Peter Berger observed in his fine book The Heretical Imperative , not many people in this multicultural setting of ours can keep to the religion they were born into without a lot of conscious choices being made along the way. Even orthodoxy is, in that sense, a choice, a “heresy.”

But that (essentially sociological) observation of Berger’s doesn’t really get at my point either. After all, in ordinary language heresy does not mean just any old choice but usually denotes doctrinal error. But that doesn’t get us too far either. For if that’s all the word means, then we’ll never find anyone who has declared himself a heretic. To do so would be as nonsensical as someone saying, “In my—of course entirely wrong—opinion, I am convinced that . . . ” Lutherans no more call themselves heretics than Catholics do. That means that to call someone else a heretic will be to use, as they say, a “fighting word.” So, naturally enough, in the warm glow of ecumenical good feelings, the H -word will be avoided. But, as I said above, that’s not my point, nor why I am calling Catholics of a conservative bent to ease up on the word.

To see what I am driving at, let me use two extreme examples: docetism and Martin Luther’s views on justification.

Docetism was a heresy that arose in the late first century and lasted for a while into the second. It claimed that Jesus had only an apparent body (the word docetic comes from the Greek word meaning “to appear”). Now, on that issue, no agreement is possible between the orthodox party and the “choosers.” For Jesus either has a real body, made of flesh and bones, that will die someday, or he doesn’t. Furthermore, to assert that his body was merely apparent, a diaphanous vesture and nothing more, would be to alter the whole schema of salvation as proposed by the Christian gospel. Everything in Christian dogmatics changes if we are allowed to hold that Jesus had no real body. A proper evaluation of the flesh would be lost, for starters, as would the meaning of what we have been saved from: not from the body as such but from sin, which condemns the body to corruption and death. Which is why St. Ignatius of Antioch in the late first century fought so vigorously against docetism in his letters: There’d hardly be anything left of the gospel if that view had won out. And which is also why, if there were still any docetists living today, you would never see a group sponsored by Religion and Public Life called “Docetists and Catholics Together,” or one by Wheaton College called “Evangelicals and Docetists Together.”

But such is not the case with Luther on justification. This issue is notoriously complex, and to cite it for my purposes I will need to call upon the indulgence, so to speak, of my readers. For my rough-and-ready purposes, let’s just say that Luther stressed the forensic side of justification, while the Council of Trent insisted that justification brought about a real transformation in the soul of the incipient Christian—justification in the literal sense, a making just. Luther, however, insisted that Paul’s Greek word for justification was drawn from the law courts (true enough) and thus can never lose its forensic dimension. By that he meant—drawing on the obvious fact that Christians continue to sin—that the most central meaning of justification is God’s acquittal of the sinner in spite of and still in view of the Christian’s status as mired in sin, the verdict notwithstanding.

Luther’s point can be easily satirized and misconstrued—and by Catholic polemicists was—as if he were saying that behavior doesn’t matter, and that God was “letting us off the hook.” To take a modern analogy, the Catholic controversialists were in effect comparing Luther’s view of God to the California jury that acquitted O.J. Simpson of charges of murdering his wife even though he was obviously guilty—and here he is now living the high life and playing golf in Florida! Is that really the kind of justice we want to ascribe to God? But such a charge abuses Luther’s position, for he was more than willing to insist that a Christian’s justification must be reflected in the transformation of his behavior if a genuine faith were really the material cause of his justification.

Similarly, the Council of Trent was extremely nuanced in its decree on justification. For one thing, it had Paul’s letters to consider, which could hardly be made to say the opposite of what they do say. Additionally, the overpowering authority of St. Augustine on the matter could not be gainsaid. Thus the path to a superficial works-righteousness was blocked from the outset. No doubt, later Protestant polemicists claimed that Catholics were taught that they could “earn” salvation by going on pilgrimages, doing works of charity, and the like. But if Catholics believed that (and maybe a lot did on the popular level), they had no support in Trent’s carefully crafted decree.

This is not the venue for outlining the complicated nuances of Lutheran and Catholic teaching on justification. So please indulge me again (if you will allow the Tridentine pun for the last time) and let me assert my conclusion without all the attendant footnotes to establish my case (this blog entry, after all, is not my Habilitationsschrift ).

I do hereby conclude: 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.

This conclusion can be established by looking at later history, both Protestant and Catholic. As is well known, in his student days John Wesley did not like the excessive emphasis placed on justification by faith. Nonetheless, and ordained as a priest in the Church of England, he operated for a while within the confines of the Established Church, although relations between him and his hierarchs were strained almost to the breaking point. But when he got to the American colonies, he felt he had to “ordain” bishops for reasons of missionary exigency, even though he obviously had no sacramental status or canonical authority to do so. That made the break between Methodism and Anglicanism official, at which point Wesley, again on his own authority, dropped fifteen of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, most of which pertained to justification. (He also dropped the one that treated of Christ’s descent into hell, after which the Methodist Book of Common Prayer dropped that line from the Apostles’ Creed altogether. It was only restored in 1968, for ecumenical reasons. But that is a topic for another day.)

As a Catholic, I obviously don’t have a dog in this fight and am only pointing out that Wesley’s ambivalence about justification as the basis for church reform shows that, on purely historical grounds, we know that a doctrine of justification by faith alone could not historically sustain itself as the touchstone of Protestant orthodoxy.

But something similar also happened in a reformed Catholicism, now robbed of key portions of its patrimony. First of all, there was the phenomenon of Jansenism, a kind of revived Augustinianism in the post-Tridentine Church. This school of theology (if not its program for moral reform) was ultimately condemned by the Church, but its vigor surely testifies to the fact that something had remained yet unresolved by Trent.

Even among Trent’s most avid supporters, tensions eventually arose, as the rest of my reflections will show. No church historian doubts that the Catholic Church after Trent began to emphasize behavior as the marker of Catholic identity in ways unique in her history. For example, St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, says the following in his Spiritual Exercises (the best—indeed the only reliable—English translation is here :

358. We should show our esteem for the relics of the saints by venerating them and praying to the saints. We should praise visits to the station churches, pilgrimages, indulgences, jubilees, crusade indults, and the lighting of candles in churches.

Tellingly, Ignatius also disliked an excessive appeal to Augustine, lest the spirit of Calvinism begin to affect/infect his retreatants:

369. Likewise we ought not to speak of grace at such length and with such emphasis that the poison of doing away with liberty is engendered. Hence, as far as possible with the help of God, one may speak of faith and grace so that the Divine Majesty may be praised. But let it not be done in such a way—above all not in times which are as dangerous as ours—that works and free will suffer harm, or that they are considered of no value.

The ferocious debate in seventeenth-century France between the Jesuits and the Jansenists itself points out how much the issues that (supposedly univocally) divided the Reformation from the Church of Rome also raged inside the ancient precincts of the Church. The Jesuits ultimately won out over the Jansenists (often by tarring them as crypto-Calvinists, a charge they found difficult to counter), although the Jesuits’ victory proved Pyrrhic in their case. For Blaise Pascal took the side of the Jansenists and hurled a polemic against the Jesuits in his Provincial Letters so ferocious that it inflicted on the Society of Jesus a wound that, because it was left unaddressed, eventually led to the suppression of the Order by Pope Clement XIV in 1774.

The Order was restored in 1815, at which point my story shifts. The odd twist in the plot is that the Catholic Church in the nineteenth century—especially in France—represented a kind of subterranean Jansenism fused to a bourgeois “ledger morality” of Do’s and Don’ts. It was in this hothouse atmosphere that Ste. Thérèse of Lisieux was raised. Although brought up in a thoroughly Catholic household, and pious to an almost preternatural degree, she was assaulted toward the end of her short life (she died at the age of 24 of tuberculosis) by fierce temptations to atheism, which she could only resolve when she came to these “Lutheran” insights, four months before her death:

I am very happy that I am going to heaven. But when I think of this word of the Lord, “I shall come soon and bring with me my recompense to give to each according to his works,” I tell myself that this will be very embarrassing for me, because I have no works . . . . Very well! He will render to me according to His works for His own sake.

And in her Offrande à l’Amour miséricordieux , she prays to Jesus thus:

In the evening of this life I shall appear before Thee with empty hands because I do not ask Thee, Lord, to count my works. All our just acts have blemishes in Thine eyes. Therefore I want to wrap myself up again in Thy justice, and to receive from Thy love the eternal possession of Thee Thyself. ( All emphases added. )

So why am I bringing all this up? Partly it comes from my experience with ecumenical dialogue, especially in Evangelicals and Catholics Together, of which I am privileged to be a member: Disconcertingly, I find I have a lot more in common with this group than I often do with my fellow Catholics who don’t belong to that group! Also, I think it no abuse of language for a Catholic to speak of “orthodox” Protestants (Karl Barth, for example), as opposed to other theologians who are pretty much selling the company store in front of our eyes. (I think I won’t name any names here, lest I risk becoming more controversial than I already am.)

Having afflicted readers with these night-musings, I wish I could come up with a term that Catholics could use when they want to speak of the church-dividing doctrines of classical Protestantism without having to be either insulting or falling to the trap of “anything goes” latitudinarianism. But I can’t. Canon law unfortunately only recognizes schism and heresy, the former being a refusal to recognize duly constituted church authority without any attendant doctrinal deviation (like the Donatists in Augustine’s time), while the latter term is applied to those who explicitly deny key doctrines of the faith, however conceived, and whether they’ve abjured their membership in the Church or not.

Another complicating matter is what goes by the name of dissent. There, too, I don’t think one is using language exactly when one calls dissenters heretics without further ado. In concrete cases, dissenters and heretics no doubt overlap and even coincide, but sometimes they don’t. Lefebvrists, for example, are clearly schismatics, and they explicitly dissent from key teachings of Vatican II. But I just don’t feel it’s accurate to call them heretics. (And I don’t say this out of any affection for that oddball bunch.) I admit, though, I can’t explain why I feel that way. I am, of course, not mitigating the damage that dissent does to church unity. Cardinal Newman called dissent a sin in one of his sermons, and I agree. But I have trouble calling all forms of dissent by the word heresy , sensu stricto . Nor I am saying that no Catholic dissenter is a heretic. But that too is a topic for another day.

All I can say is this: We live in strange times when I find greater doctrinal fellowship among many Protestants than I do among far too many Catholic theologians!

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

Dear Reader,

We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.

Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on

Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.

Will you give today?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles