The Histrionics of Heresy

by Ken Briggs

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It's been a while since a rousing heresy dust-up captured attention, but it appears we have a rowdy one in progress among the white glove element of American Catholicism.

I refer to the drop-the-gloves clash between the attackers and defenders of Ross Douthat, the New York Times columnist who takes a dim view of Pope Francis' leadership. Douthat, whose passion for protecting traditional Catholic teaching is pungent and incisive, has dared speak of Francis' reform agenda as bordering on the heretical. A cadre of more liberal minded Catholic scholars has fired back, accusing Douthat of practicing theology without a license (no PhD or university standing, they'll have you know) and for evoking the "h" word in violation of theological correctness. A cohort of these occupants of establishment positions wrote to the Times in high dudgeon to protest this alleged travesty. Some saw this as an effort to pull rank on a subordinate in the great chain of Catholic expertise, and for that and other reasons their protest boomeranged on them.

The continuing squabbling among the high-rank commentators has revealed how deeply Francis has stirred the waters in mostly just hinting that some crucial planks are being replaced on the deck of the church. Lacking anything concrete that may emerge only adds to the edginess. Meanwhile the hysteria over the wording that applies to those including Francis who suggest departing from embedded practices has fixed on the old diabolically imprecation "heresy." 

That was the satanic threat that dominated the early centuries of the church. Rooting out the likes of Donatists, Arianists, Manicheeans and gnostics was a constant preoccupation in an attempt to weed out that considered foreign and pernicious in order to fashion creeds that were deemed true to the true faith. It remained a blood sport with the harshest of consequences, the word "heresy" itself invested with the flames of hell.

The often monstrous efforts to eliminate the bad guys overwhelmed the basic reality that there were many theologies at work in the church at all times. Diversity was rampant and remains so. For examples, recent surveys show that large percentages of Catholics divert from the church's dogma that the Eucharistic elements are the actual body and blood of Jesus. Heresy is a way of life, whatever the efforts to impose uniformity or stamp out alternative views. It is departure from the stated norm. Where doesn't it exist in fact? No fiat or demand can do much but throw out those who break the rule. It doesn't change the reality. And, yes, I'm aware of the "deposit of faith" conviction that purports to settle the matter once and for all.

It seems as if Francis is drawn to a church that accepts a good deal of those differences so long as they are vetted by conscience. As mentioned before, evidence supports the idea that he granted communion to those who'd remarried without an annulment while archibishop of Buenos Aires. The problem is that he hasn't yet made his tolerant perspective, his penchant for mercy, a clear green light to depart from the rules.

Nearly all the church greats were slapped with the heresy label at one time or another. It is telling that one person's heretic is another's hero, and vice versa. I was given a tee-shirt that proclaims "Heretics in Good Company" and includes on its honor roll everyone from Joan of Arc and Galileo to Teilhard de Chardin and Hans Kung. Agree or disagree, they were non-conformists on hot button issues. Heresy therefore can prove to be a badge of honor and it's unfortunate under current circumstances that the combatants in this latest fight want to banish it as impolite or unworthy of serious pursuit. Use the word to further a super significant debate over the refashioning of the faith for a time when the authority to speak has gone far beyond departments of theology. It seems to me that both Ross Douthat and those he has enraged has a perfect right to call heresy as they see it and argue for their respective sides.   


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