The Church is plagued by teachers of heresy. What can be done?

I have frequently written articles against various heresies being promoted among Catholics today. Many of these heresies are taught to Catholics by other Catholics along with the claim that the heresy is either a correct understanding of doctrine, or a sound theological position. The persons spreading these heresies include some priests and theologians, but more often the heresy is spread by online bloggers and commentators.

What surprises me most about this situation is that these teachers of heresy meet with little resistance from anyone. The bishops seldom rebuke them. Their parish priest does not raise any public objection. Some of their readers disagree, but only mildly. Most don’t seem to mind being taught abject heresy as if it were Church teaching. And far too many readers do not even recognize the heresy as an error. They adopt the false teaching in their hearts and minds, and they thank the teacher of heresy for making the teaching of Christ seem so easy to understand and so easy to accept.

Each successive Pope leads and teaches the Church, but without much attention to the problem of heresy. A culture has developed in the Church, among bishops and priests and theologians, not to call anyone a heretic, not to call any idea heresy. This “play nice” culture avoids confrontation and criticism, even when a fellow Catholic is leading souls into grave doctrinal error.

Something must change. What can be done?

1. Approval for books — Requiring the imprimatur on Catholic publications does not solve the problem. Bishops have consistently proven themselves to be poor judges of which books should and should not receive the imprimatur. They usually do not read the books themselves, but delegate this duty to a priest, theologian, nun, or other person. And the Bishop’s judgment in this matter is of the prudential order, so it does not fall under the Magisterium and does not have protection from error.

Moreover, most heresies today are spread over the internet. Most Catholics, seeking answers to questions on faith, morals, and salvation, go primarily or even exclusively to internet sources. Few online sources have the imprimatur. It would not be practical for the Bishops to oversee the vast amount of material about Catholicism on the internet. More material is added daily. There is too much material, and too few Bishops to review it all. In addition, the ease with which printed books are composed, printed, and distributed has led to a large increase in the number of Catholic books, also adding to the large amount of material.

I have noticed that, in online discussions, the fact that a source of information has the imprimatur carries little or no weight with my fellow Catholics. They will believe an anonymous online commentator, who tells them what they wish to hear, over any number of books with the imprimatur.

2. Approval for persons — Requiring all persons who teach Catholicism to obtain approval to teach (the mandatum) also will not solve the problem. Without doubt many persons who teach grave errors will somehow receive this approval. This is proven by the many heresies and doctrinal errors coming from the theology faculties at Catholic colleges. The Bishops have been unable to correct this problem, despite the need for the mandatum by theology teachers at Catholic colleges.

The online problem will not be solved in this way either. Catholics will continue to spread grave errors online, despite lacking this approval (if it were required). They will simply claim that they are “discussing” and not “teaching”. They will continue to spread heresies and all manner of errors.

And if persons who teach grave errors can find a bishop to give them approval, their errors will do even more harm. Approval for books or for persons gives the false impression that everything taught is approved by the Church.

3. Approval or condemnation for ideas — The Pope, the Vatican Congregations, the Bishops’ Conferences, and the individual Bishops should reply to the many various errors that are being spread among the faithful with magisterial documents explaining the teaching of the Church, and the reason why the claim is an error. In past centuries, the Pope or the Holy Office (CDF) used to issues lists of condemned ideas, i.e. false claims on faith, morals, and salvation. But Bishops today have become mainly administrators; they seldom teach individually. And the recent papal documents have not focused on refuting popular errors among the faithful.

Instead of giving or withholding approval from books or persons, the Bishops should participate in the discussions among the faithful on matters of faith, morals, and salvation, giving us the guidance of the Magisterium, and deciding for or against certain popular claims.

Unfortunately, the faithful are poorly-catechized, many priests are poorly-catechized, and even some bishops as well. They lack the understanding of basic Catholic teaching to recognize and refute the most popular theological errors being promoted, mainly on the internet, often by anonymous persons. So while greater participation by Bishops in the theological discussions of the day is necessary, it is not sufficient.

4. People must change — The faithful must strive to be well-catechized, and to reject every heresy and doctrinal error. They must pray, practice self-denial, and undertake humble works of mercy. They must openly reject false teachings and false teachers. They must no longer seek teachers who tell them what they wish to hear and who make excuses for grave sin.

Priests, deacons, and religious are poorly-catechized because the laity are poorly catechized. The clerics and religious of the Church come from the laity. We cannot rid the Church of heretical teachers and heretical ideas until the faithful choose to be well-taught and to reject every type of error.

5. Excommunication — As has been the case throughout the history of the Church, unrepentant heretics — especially those who teach or spread heresies — must be removed from the body of the faithful by public excommunication. Automatic excommunication has not proven to be sufficient. There must be some judicial mechanism in the Church to complain about teachers of heresy, give them a change to defend their ideas, and condemn them publicly if they are guilty.

This condemnation of grave doctrinal errors by the Bishops should include condemnation of specific heresies, with an explanation in a magisterial document as to why these ideas are heretical. Persons who continue to promote or teach these condemned heresies should be excommunicated, and all Catholic organizations should be prohibited from hiring them and from promoting their heretical claims.

It is already the case that anyone who commits formal heresy or formal schism is automatically excommunicated. But this condemnation is not taken seriously by most persons. Catholics who openly teach abject heresy, laugh at the idea that they are automatically excommunicated. Their fellow Catholics do not reject their teachings. They have no difficulty being hired by Catholic publications to spread their claims. And they refuse to be correct, nor even to defend their claims about faith and morals.

6. God’s Plan — As I understand it, God’s plan to address this problem in the Church includes: the Warning, Consolation, and Miracle, a conservative schism, a liberal schism, the sufferings of the first part of the tribulation, the unification of all Christians in one Catholic Church, a great Ecumenical Council, and the Angelic Shepherd as Pope Raphael, and finally the Three Days of Darkness. Only after the first part of the tribulation ends will heresy be utterly conquered (though not permanently) in the Church.

In the meantime, we must cooperate with God’s grace and providence by seeking truth on faith, morals, and salvation, by rejecting every doctrinal error, and by rebuking the teachers of grave doctrinal error. The faithful must strive to learn the faith in the purity of truth, and to spread these truths despite every obstacle.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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