Saturday, October 9, 2010

St Augustine and Material Heresy

Being wrong is one thing; being wrong because you don’t know any better is another thing entirely. So St Augustine writes:

If, Honoratus, a heretic, and a man trusting heretics seemed to me one and the same, I should judge it my duty to remain silent both in tongue and pen in this matter. But now, whereas there is a very great difference between these two: forasmuch as he, in my opinion, is an heretic, who, for the sake of some temporal advantage, and chiefly for the sake of his own glory and pre-eminence, either gives birth to, or follows, false and new opinions; but he, who trusts men of this kind, is a man deceived by a certain imagination of truth and piety. [De utilitate credendi 1]

I suppose I could add another option (besides just being mistaken) to the non-pejorative possibilities for those who disagree with us: being deceived. And St Augustine shows here that different types of errors warrant different sorts of responses. Generally speaking (for those of us who do not happen to be Doctors of the Church…) the first sort of response ought to be in the range of humility.

But I digress. The point that I wished to make with this post is that there is nothing novel in the Catholic Church’s insistence that the sons and daughters of actual heretics (that is, those who have been formally condemned by the Church as such) are not guilty of formal heresy when they follow in their parents’ footsteps. They err, certainly, if they believe the same heretical things, but they are just not in the same boat with the leaders.

Elsewhere we have seen that St Augustine said basically the same thing.

But though the doctrine which men hold be false and perverse, if they do not maintain it with passionate obstinacy, especially when they have not devised it by the rashness of their own presumption, but have accepted it from parents who had been misguided and had fallen into error, and if they are with anxiety seeking the truth, and are prepared to be set right when they have found it, such men are not to be counted heretics. [Letter 43]

So we see that Augustine agrees with the Catholic Church. We should not be surprised to learn that this is the case; after all, he was Catholic. He doesn’t use the words “material heresy,” but the idea is clearly present, as is the distinction between that and formal heresy. There’s nothing “progressive” or “liberal” about the Church saying today that Protestants are our brothers in Christ by virtue of their baptism, nor in denying that they are subject to the anathemas of Trent. It’s simple justice.


“As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more na├»ve and simple-hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are too”—Dostoyevsky

I think that the second sentence really makes this remark really hit home more. It’s tremendously easy (especially on the Internet) to make the jump from wondering why Joe Bob doesn’t agree with me to concluding that the answer is so totally obvious that his disagreement cannot possibly result from anything other than bad faith, stupidity, or culpable ignorance. But when I go down that road I ignore at least two other explanations: I’m wrong myself, or Joe Bob is just simply mistaken: not devious, not doltish, and not uninformed.

I think that Dostoyevsky’s observation gets at the root of the thing. Sure, it’s possible that Joe Bob is Satan’s bagman. Yeah, he might be as dumb as a bag of hammers. Yeah, he might not have read all the coolest books like I have. But in the end it’s far more likely that Joe Bob is doing his best, and he happens to have reached different conclusions than I have. No malice, doltishness, or ignorance necessary. After all, if we look around the world we find smart and well-informed people on opposite sides of practically any question that you might happen to ask. Yet it’s tremendously easy to just be a jerk and think the worst of the other guy.

I don’t want to be a jerk. I’m going to try hard not to be. And I don’t want to waste my time bickering with jerks. There are better things to do.