Heresies That Prevent a Culture of Life
By Brian Murphy
Perhaps for many, the word “Heresy” conjures up images of the first phony trial of Joan of Arc (who was later redeemed posthumously at a second trial) or images of some of the corrupt, cruel and unjust rulings of the Inquisition. Some may conclude that heresy is outdated or anachronistic. However, throughout the history of the Church, heresy has really been an important subject for Saints and Church authorities alike. That is because heresy is so damaging. One may say that suicide voluntarily destroys the body while apostasy voluntarily destroys the soul. In a like manner, on a much larger scale, war destroys bodies and heresy destroys souls. The point of this simplified comparison is simply to show that heresy is on par with war as a spiritual evil to be overcome. The Church has always considered heresy to be a dangerous pervasive enemy capable of subverting the souls of the entire Church community. In our time, it behooves us to resurrect the word heresy. I see three major heresies from the world that have invaded and reached full bloom inside the Catholic Church.
1. The first heresy is the Primacy of Conscience Heresy. This heresy says that every individual has the right, if not the complete obligation, to nullify, or change the moral law according to his conscience and to apply that change not only to his own life but to the public arena. The truth is that man is forbidden by God to nullify or change the moral law.
God loves us and wants man to have great freedom. However, he has mandated that man must not eat the fruit of the “tree of knowledge of good and evil.” Gen. 2:17. Man must not establish the moral law. If he does, history has proven over and over that he gets it all messed up. So, man’s freedom under God’s plan for life has a definite limit. This limit is for our benefit, our survival and our prosperity. God knows full well that our enemy, Satan, is constantly trying to deceive us in order to destroy us. To prevent that from happening, God instructs us to allow him to use His infinite wisdom to establish the moral law. For example, he wrote the Ten Commandments. He did not inspire Moses to dream them up. He did not ask Moses to call a council of the elders and prophets to create them. He wrote them himself in stone – twice, because the first tablets became broken. Then, he says to us “choose.” We have free will to choose what is good or what is evil. If we over-step our boundary and decide to try to re-establish morals, we immediately participate in evil, which leads to more evil and finally destruction. For a more detailed discussion of how we use our conscience, see Role of Conscience.
2. The second heresy is the Contraception Heresy. It says that contraception is necessary, good and that it leads to greater personal freedom and more financial stability in one’s life. The truth is that it does just the opposite. The Contraception Heresy derives its energy from the Primacy of Conscience Heresy. Even though God says that contraception is evil, in our culture man uses the Primacy of Conscience Heresy to over-step his limit on freedom and declare that contraception is good. Rebellious men become duped into thinking that contraception is good. This flawed reasoning is based on his superficial perception of various criteria:
- The difficulty of remaining chaste
- False notions of what is needed to maintain a stable marital relationship
- The burdensome nature of life
- A false understanding of what makes good economics
- False notions of the need for population control.
However, the true Christian man discovers and embraces the great freedom of chastity. He uses the gift of chastity to maintain a stable marriage. He knows that the burdens of life do not go away with fewer children and he knows that investment in his bountiful offspring is the best economic investment that he can make – not for his own reward, but for joy in the Kingdom including the wider community. He also knows the joy he will personally see in watching that reward unfold. He knows that overpopulation is a myth and that his own offspring will make the world a better place.
3. The third heresy is the Right-To-Murder Heresy. It derives its energy from the first and second heresies above. It teaches that one has the right to kill unborn children as well as the infirm and those deemed useless or too expensive for society to maintain. It’s baffling that such a heresy even exists, given the obvious horrible insult that it inflicts on humanity – millions of murders.
These three heresies feed each other and enjoy each other’s company. Like all heresies, they come from the world and will require excruciating effort and energy to exorcise them from the Church. Let the effort begin by naming them as heresies and proclaiming the damage that they cause. Then, let’s denounce them as heresies at every opportunity. This will most certainly lead to and require fraternal correction of the heretics. A heretic, by formal definition, is a baptized Catholic who publicly or obstinately repudiates some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith or who expresses an obstinate doubt concerning the same. I would like to offer the idea that there are two kinds of heretics – public and clandestine. Public heretics satisfy the formal definition and can be dealt with using traditional methods in Canon law. Clandestine heretics are by far the most numerous, the most devious and the most difficult to deal with. They do not publicly proclaim their heresy, so as not to be called heretics. Yet, quietly, they promote it with silent approval of every instance that comes before them. The Church will have the difficult challenge of dealing with clandestine heretics. Yet, the most effective way of dealing with heresy is to go to the source – the heretics. They need to be called to repentance or removed from positions of teaching or pastoral care.
“Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same.” CCC 2089. In essence, a heresy is the denial of a dogma. So, to understand heresy, one must first explain the meaning of dogmas.
A dogma is a truth of divine and Catholic faith. Divine faith is directly and principally, either implicitly or explicitly contained in Sacred Scripture or Sacred Tradition. Catholic faith is the teaching which is formally, directly and principally proposed by the Magisterium as definitive and binding on all faithful. Stated another way, dogmas are directly supported by divine revelation and by the teaching authority of the Magisterium. (See the Catechism of the Catholic Church #88-95, and the Codex of Canon Law #747 to 755). Dogmas are the more substantial elements of our religion. Dogmas are infallible. Dogmas may be elements of faith or elements of the moral law. The lists below are not complete but offer some examples of dogmas:
- The tenets of the Apostle’s creed (e.g. Jesus rose from the dead; Jesus is divine.)
- The Immaculate Conception of Mary
- The natural law
- The Ten Commandments
- The prohibition of divorce, abortion, sterilization or contraception
- The new law or the law of the Gospel (e.g. the Sermon on the Mount, the golden rule, the new commandment to love one another)
- The precepts of the Church (You shall attend Sunday Mass, confess your sins…)
By contrast, a few examples of beliefs that are important but are not dogmas are:
- Support for particular economic models of social justice such as the right to private property and the right to migrate
- Liturgical rules and norms
- Matters of discipline, such as fast days
Consequently, open rebellion against legal immigration because of bigoted fear of aliens is sinful but is not heresy. The Primacy of Conscience Heresy directly contradicts a dogma. The dogma that it contradicts is a very important one - neither, man, woman nor the Magisterium may nullify, or change the moral law. This dogma is defined and taught in several places. For example, the natural law is “immutable and eternal.” CCC 1956. The Ten Commandments are “fundamentally immutable and they oblige always and everywhere.” CCC 2072. Even though the Ten Commandments are an image of the future and must be fulfilled through the new covenant of the Holy Spirit, they cannot be changed. The words of Christ sum up the Church’s mission and man’s role: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations… teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:19-20). The mission of the Church is to teach what Christ commanded. If she did otherwise, she would be unfaithful to Christ. The Church cannot change what Christ commanded. Neither can an individual, if he/she wishes to remain righteous and faithful to Christ. Doctrine can develop and evolve to become more clearly expressed, but it cannot be created or altered in its fundamental meaning. Culture can change, requiring new ways to express the truth, but the truth does not change.
This is the reason why "the Church affirms that underlying so many changes there are some things which do not change and are ultimately founded upon Christ, who is the same yesterday and today and for ever". Veritatis Splendor #53.
The Church can formulate applications of moral principles to new circumstances but is forbidden to create new moral principles or nullify or change existing ones. The Church cannot and will not change a moral principle.
Primacy of Conscience Heresy
In order for a teaching or belief to be a heresy (heretical), it must simply and directly contradict a dogma. The Primacy of Conscience Heresy is a heresy because it simply and directly opposes the dogma that man is not permitted to nullify, formulate or change the moral law. The term “Primacy of Conscience” does not mean judgment of conscience, (which is permitted). It does not mean obedience to conscience or to choose according to one’s conscience, which is necessary for a healthy Christian life. It does not simply refer to the importance of conscience. The Church supports the importance of conscience, exhorts man to follow his conscience and even declares that man should not be prevented by external factors from obeying his conscience. (CCC Article 6 of Part III Life In Christ.) However, the Primacy of Conscience Heresy goes much further. To understand its full implication, it is necessary to look at the meaning of the word “primacy” in our culture and our time. The word “primacy,” according to Webster’s Dictionary means the state of being first in order, rank or importance. It means chief. So, the meaning of Primacy of Conscience goes much further than just freeing one’s conscience to act in accord with the demands of human dignity. Primacy of Conscience is a heresy because it purports to place one’s conscience first in rank. It is placed first before the Word of God, the Magisterium, the long-standing teaching of the Church and the witness or advice of others. With this doctrine, conscience ranks first before the moral law with the inevitable intent to nullify or alter the moral law. That makes Primacy of Conscience heretical.
Pope John Paul II writes about this elevation of conscience to first rank in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor:
“Certain currents of modern thought have gone so far as to exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values. This is the direction taken by doctrines which have lost the sense of the transcendent or which are explicitly atheist. The individual conscience is accorded the status of a supreme tribunal of moral judgment which hands down categorical and infallible decisions about good and evil. To the affirmation that one has a duty to follow one's conscience is unduly added the affirmation that one's moral judgment is true merely by the fact that it has its origin in the conscience. But in this way the inescapable claims of truth disappear, yielding their place to a criterion of sincerity, authenticity and "being at peace with oneself", so much so that some have come to adopt a radically subjectivistic conception of moral judgment…” Veritatis Splendor #32
“…In the Book of Genesis we read: "The Lord God commanded the man, saying, 'You may eat freely of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die' " (Gen 2:16-17).
"With this imagery, Revelation teaches that the power to decide what is good and what is evil does not belong to man, but to God alone. The man is certainly free, inasmuch as he can understand and accept God's commands. And he possesses an extremely far-reaching freedom, since he can eat "of every tree of the garden." But his freedom is not unlimited: it must halt before the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil", for it is called to accept the moral law given by God. In fact, human freedom finds its authentic and complete fulfillment precisely in the acceptance of that law. God, who alone is good, knows perfectly what is good for man, and by virtue of his very love proposes this good to man in the commandments.” Veritatis Splendor #35
“God's law does not reduce, much less do away with human freedom; rather, it protects and promotes that freedom. In contrast, however, some present-day cultural tendencies have given rise to several currents of thought in ethics which centre upon an alleged conflict between freedom and law. These doctrines would grant to individuals or social groups the right to determine what is good or evil. Human freedom would thus be able to "create values" and would enjoy a primacy over truth, to the point that truth itself would be considered a creation of freedom. Freedom would thus lay claim to a moral autonomy which would actually amount to an absolute sovereignty.” Veritatis Splendor #35.
Pope John Paul II did not declare the heresy of Primacy of Conscience but he clearly laid the ground work for others to do so. The need to make this declaration is driven by events in our culture and our time. Primacy of Conscience is being used to thwart the moral law on a grand scale. It feeds two other heresies – the Contraception Heresy and the Right-To-Murder Heresy which are destroying humanity on a scale that is unprecedented in human history.
Examples of the Primacy of Conscience Heresy
On February 28, 2006, a majority of Catholic Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives led by Congresswoman Rosa L. DeLauro (Connecticut) released a statement of principles on how their faith influences them as lawmakers. It was signed by 55 House Democrats. Democrats have unceasingly for decades held to a pro-abortion party platform as well as a pro-abortion active policy position for abortion funding. Catholic Democrats in Congress have shown no publicly manifested willingness to resist or change that platform or policy. In their statement of principles, the 55 Catholic Democrats wrote:
“In all these issues, we seek the Church’s guidance and assistance but believe also in the primacy of conscience. In recognizing the Church's role in providing moral leadership, we acknowledge and accept the tension that comes with being in disagreement with the Church in some areas.”
Here “primacy of conscience” is placed higher in order than the Church’s guidance, assistance and “moral leadership.” They say this causes “tension,” a polite euphemism for the horrible consequences of their persistent defiance and rebellion against the Church’s moral teaching. That defiance is manifested by maintaining a solidly pro-abortion voting record which has effectively stifled the vast majority of pro-life motions to enter Congress for the past 35 years. In effect, they have used and continue to use the primacy of conscience to change the moral law.
In the now infamous “Winnipeg Statement” promulgated by the bishops of Canada in 1968 in response to the release of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, the bishops wrote in paragraph 26:
“…if these persons have tried sincerely but without success to pursue a line of conduct in keeping with the given directives, they may be safely assured that, whoever honestly chooses that course which seems right to him does so in good conscience.”
By this statement, Canadian Catholics were told that they could follow their conscience even if they knowingly found it to be in disagreement with the moral law regarding contraception as proclaimed in Humanae Vitae. Primacy of conscience was sanctioned by the Canadian bishops, leading Canadian Catholics to effectively nullify the encyclical Humanae Vitae, and change the moral law as it applied to them in their personal lives. Primacy of conscience also was used to change the moral law in Canadian Catholic hospitals which sell contraceptives and routinely perform tubal ligations.
Accounts abound of men and women who are told by their confessor to simply follow their conscience when dealing with their personal struggle with contraception. In effect, this poor advice uses primacy of conscience to nullify the moral law. Many other Catholics pay no attention to the Church’s teaching and use primacy of conscience to make up their own mind about the moral law – in effect, nullifying or changing it.
The Contraception Heresy simply and directly contradicts a dogma. The dogma is that “it is necessary that each and every marriage act remain ordered per se to the procreation of human life.” CCC 2366. Direct sterilization or contraception is evil. CCC 2370. This dogma is infallible. Many Catholics are confused into thinking that this doctrine is not infallible because it was never pronounced “Ex Cathedra.” “Ex Cathedra” means from the chair of Peter and is a modality in which the Pope, on his own, may make a formal pronouncement of doctrine that is infallible. The doctrine of the “Immaculate Conception” was made by Pope Pius IX in this manner. However, most dogmas have not been pronounced “Ex Cathedra” yet all remain infallible because they have been proclaimed on numerous occasions by the Magisterium. This is the more conventional route for the faithful to receive the gift of infallible truth. One good example is the Ten Commandments.
One does not have to look far to uncover the contraception heresy. It is practiced by a majority of baptized Catholics throughout the U.S.A., Canada, Europe and many other countries.
The Right-To-Murder Heresy
The Right-To-Murder Heresy simply and directly contradicts a dogma. The dogma that it contradicts is one of the Ten Commandments – “Thou shalt not kill.” The heresy has its greatest influence over those who support, promote or carry out abortions. The dogma has been expounded upon by the Church many times and in many ways. “Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed as either an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law.” CCC 2271 The Right-To-Murder Heresy uses the Primacy of Conscience Heresy to change this moral law. The heresy then proceeds with vigor in the public arena to promote the “right” to abortion, or euthanasia and to obstinately resist every effort to restrict the wide scale murder of human beings through abortion and euthanasia.
In our culture and our time, three heresies can be named – the Primacy of Conscience Heresy, the Contraception Heresy and the Right-To-Murder Heresy. All three contradict in a simple and direct manner, established dogmas of the Catholic Church. All three impede the development of a culture of life. They promote a culture of death. Examples abound in speech and in actions in the public square around the world where these three heresies are promoted by baptized Catholics very publicly and in a very obstinate manner. Finally, to quote the Catholic Encyclopedia, “Heresy, being a deadly poison generated within the organism of the Church, must be ejected if she is to live and perform her task of continuing Christ's work of salvation.”
I would like to thank Fr. Matthew Habiger, PhD, OSB whose doctorate is in moral theology, and Abbot Charles Wright, OSB, for suggestions that were incorporated into this article.
Coto de Caza, CA
November 11, 2008