What would it be like, as faithful Catholic Christians, to live during the time of the Arian heresy? It is said that very many persons fell into this error, including many Bishops. More than a few local Councils supported its errors. The first Ecumenical Council (Nicaea) in 325 condemned the heretical teachings of Arius. But the controversy continued, and many subsequent local Council of Bishops continued to promote the error and to give authority to its adherents. It took a second Ecumenical Council (the first at Constantinople) in 381, about 56 years later, to crush this heresy and depose from authority its principle proponents.
Here is an article on Arianism from the old Catholic encyclopedia. It is noteworthy how Saint Athanasius was victorious in fighting the heresy at the first Ecumenical Council, and yet subsequently he was harassed, exiled, forced to flee from one city to another, and treated with great malice. Even an Ecumenical Council did not suffice to convince Christian leaders and the faithful to reject this popular heresy.
The Arian heresy denied that Jesus, the Son of God, is consubstantial with the Father. That heresy is why we say “consubstantial with the Father” in the Creed, even today, at Mass. The heresy had many adherents, teachers, and differing versions. Typically, they would say that Jesus was created before the rest of Creation, and that only God the Father is uncreated. Sometimes they would say that Jesus was a similar substance to the Father; other times that he was unlike the Father in substance (nature). The essential problem, apart from the falsity of this assertion of course, is that Arianism denigrated Jesus, making him part of Creation, not only in his human nature, but as the Son of God. The reduces Jesus to be less than fully God.
There are whisperings of Arianism in the Church today, not that anyone would assert the same false doctrine, but in so far as some persons see Jesus as fallible, as overly influenced by the culture of his time, as being so very human that they seem to forget that Jesus has two natures, human and Divine.
So we should take this lesson to heart. The popularity of an idea is not what makes that idea true. A heresy, even one as severe as Arianism, can be widely accepted, even by Bishops and local Councils of Bishops.
Today, the Church is under attack by several popular heresies: one is the perverse theology of the body of Christopher West et alia. They have sexualized all of Christianity, and have proposed the body as an idol to be worshipped, in which all the truths of salvation are to be found. This heresy seeks to replace Christianity with a neo-pagan religion that worships the body and sexual pleasure.
Another common heresy is the radical reinterpretation of the doctrine on intrinsically evil acts. The error here is in redefining popular sins so that the intrinsically evil act is approved as if moral by being redefined. For example, it is claimed that contraception is only “contraception” or is only intrinsically evil, when it is used within a valid marriage. There are other examples: lying, the mass destruction of cities, abortifacients, sexual sins. All these intrinsically evil acts are suddenly moral by redefinition of the act itself. This heresy is an attack on the very foundations of Roman Catholic moral teaching.
Another common heresy is the restriction of salvation mainly to baptized Christians, a type of semi-Feeneyism. Salvation by baptism of desire or of blood is admitted, but kept to very few cases, and said to be very uncertain. This error also claims that only Christians are children of God by spiritual adoption.
On the liberal side of Catholicism, the main heresy is the rejection of the Magisterium itself as a teaching authority, and the rejection of most teachings on sexuality and sexual ethics.
And then there is the gathering schism among critics of Pope Francis. Their errors are very serious:
* the claim that a Pope can possibly teach material heresy
* the claim that a Pope can possibly commit formal heresy
* the idea that conservatives has the role of correcting the Pope and of warning the faithful if a Pope teaches error
* the exaltation of their own understanding of doctrine above the teachings of the papal Magisterium
And so many Catholics cannot see that these errors are contrary to the Faith. They tend to adhere to ideas that are popular within their own socio-political subculture. They think that if an idea is popular, and widely accepted by many respected Catholic leaders, that it cannot be heresy. They err by putting their faith in teachers they like, rather than in Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium.
It is particularly clear, at this point, that a conservative schism is developing against Pope Francis. And yet the participants in the schism are so convinced of their own superior understanding, they cannot see that they are heading for the cliff of formal schism. Faith in Christ requires humility in submission to the Papal Teaching Authority. And while some faithful disagreement is possible, many papal critics are already very far past that line.
It is fascinating and appalling to watch as my fellow Catholics fall into heresy and/or schism right before my eyes. It is like watching a train-wreck in slow-motion. How do they not see what is happening all around them? They can’t see the forest for the trees. They can’t recognize the schism because they are so fascinated with each particular criticism of the Pope.
Faith requires us to trust in the providence and grace of God, and to trust that God will not permit any Pope to teach or commit heresy.
By the way, each Pope is chosen by the grace and providence of God, specifically. It is not merely a decision of a group of Cardinals. God’s participation is not limited only to keeping the process from being a complete disaster. God chooses each Pope from all eternity. God guides each future Pope from conception and birth, knowing that he will be a future Pope. God shapes each Pope’s experiences, along with free will and grace, so that he will be sufficient for the purposes chosen by God.
How, then, can there have been so many sinful or, in various ways, inadequate Popes? The sinful Popes were chosen by God to show the faithful of the Church their own sins. They cannot pretend to be holy, when a sinful Pope, such as Alexander VI, is in office. Some Popes were chosen by God to show the Church its faults.
Other Popes are only inadequate or deserving of criticism from a human point of view. Pope Saint Celestine V was a very holy Pope, certainly, for he was canonized. Yet he was a poor administrator. And this shows us that God cares most about the heart of the Pope, that he be holy and faithful, and not so much about whether he makes the most expedient decisions in discipline and administration.
Pope Francis was chosen to put the conservative Catholics to the test. For they dared to boast that they alone are faithful and orthodox, merely by being conservative. Pope Francis has his faults, and God is using those faults to test the faithfulness of conservative Catholics. Are you truly faithful? Or are you only faithful when the Pope is of like-mind to yourself? Many conservative Catholic leaders are filled with pride, and they cannot imagine submitting their minds and hearts to a liberal Pope, whose understanding of the Faith differs from their own.
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