A bit of heresy now and then does the Catholic Church no harm

Allowing God to do what God does best: write straight with crooked lines

On April 30th last year a group of Catholic theologians wrote an open letter to the College of Bishops accusing Pope Francis of heresy and asking that they deal with the grave situation of a heretical pope.

He stood accused a “comprehensive rejection of Catholic teaching on marriage and sexual activity, on the moral law, and on grace and the forgiveness of sins” in among other things his 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia.

By the following morning an online petition had collected 1,500 signatures and the story had broken worldwide. Although popes have been accused of heresy before, nothing quite like this has occurred in modern times.

These days, the language of heresy is more often used by Catholics to attack other Catholics

Heresy is back. In a big way. You know this is the case when that old rhetorical question “is the Pope a Catholic?” doesn’t work anymore; especially when a vocal minority suspect he isn’t.


In a pre-ecumenical age Catholics commonly regarded their Protestant counterparts as heretics, just as many Protestants viewed Catholics as idolaters. However, these days, the language of heresy is more often used by Catholics to attack other Catholics.

Whereas in the 16th century Martin Luther famously called the papacy "Antichrist", nowadays traditionalist Catholic blogs are far more likely to use this word to describe the Pope than Protestants.

However, those who are quick to cry “heresy!” might reflect on its chequered history and ask whether “heretics” may even have contributed to Christianity’s growth.


"Heresy" was not always a dirty word. Its Greek origin hairesis meant a particular group or school of thought. It only later acquired a pejorative sense when contrasted with standard Christian belief: "orthodoxy".

“Orthodoxy”, at its root, means “correct” opinion or belief. Just as you might go to an orthodontist today to have your teeth aligned, in the past you consulted an orthodox teacher to have your beliefs straightened out.

Yet “orthodoxy” simply wasn’t available as a neat catechetical resource in the early Church. It was something that Christians had to think themselves into.

Today many scholars suggest we should refer to theological ideas that only later gained official approval as “proto-orthodox”. This is because, at the time, no one could have accurately predicted what the outcome of contemporary theological deliberations would be.

“Heretics” sometimes inadvertently act as midwives of orthodoxy. They propose an idea that typically stirs an ecclesiastical hornet’s nest. This then provokes a stream of defenders of a theological point that perhaps hasn’t been fully thought out. And so collective theological intellects are sharpened.

The classic case is that of Arius, a fourth-century preacher who couldn't accept the full divinity of Christ. His problem was with the idea of a subordinate deity, something that was accepted by a great many Christian writers (God the Father being considered greater than the Son, and the Son considered greater than the Spirit).

Many within the Jewish Christian community regarded with deep suspicion St Paul's desire to open the Christian movement to Gentiles

It was largely in reaction to Arius's problem that the idea of the Son being equal to the Father crystallised, and was enshrined in the Nicene Creed in 325. Arius has hardly been given the thanks he deserves for helping to clarify a central doctrine of the Christian faith.

Indeed, when he reportedly died of a massive haemorrhage in a public toilet in Constantinople, his great opponent, the Christian bishop Athanasius, called it a “wondrous” thing.

Numerous figures before and since Arius have been regarded as heretical. Many within the Jewish Christian community regarded with deep suspicion St Paul’s desire to open the Christian movement to Gentiles. And yet, without taking that bold step, Christianity would hardly be the world religion it is today.

In recent times, the Roman Catholic Church has made efforts to rehabilitate "heretical" figures. A joint Lutheran-Roman-Catholic commission in 1983 declared Luther to be "a witness to the gospel, a teacher in the faith, and a herald of spiritual renewal"; while in 1999, Pope John Paul II numbered the Bohemian "heretic" Jan Hus among the reformers of the Church.

The 19th century church historian Ignaz von Döllinger once remarked that, in theological discourse, intervention by Church authorities was rarely needed.

He was confident that for individual theologians at work, their errors would not be fatal. Indeed, he saw it as the very mark of a healthy theology to be able to correct its own mistakes.

There is really something to be said for this. What have heretics ever done for us? For one thing, they have allowed God to do what God does best: write straight with crooked lines.

Salvador Ryan is Professor of Ecclesiastical History at St Patrick’s College Maynooth