Cover Story News Analysis Opinion & Features

From Washington to Rome, heresy accusations are back

Christians including Bishop Michael Curry gather outside the White House to accuse Donald Trump of heresy (Getty)

The word seemed to have lost its force, but in the age of Trump and Francis it's making a comeback

On the evening of May 24 last year, 2,000 left-leaning Christians gathered for a candlelit vigil outside the White House. The group’s leaders, including the Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry – fresh from his starring role at Britain’s Royal Wedding – read out a statement against Donald Trump’s presidency. “We reject ‘America first’,” they announced, “as a theological heresy.”

The word might sound outdated. But Trump has helped to make heresy accusations fashionable again. When he invited the pastor Paula White to pray at his inauguration, conservative Protestants such as Russell Moore and Erick Erickson denounced White as a “heretic” for her views on the Trinity. (She rejects the charge.) Heresy accusations transcend the left-right divide.

They also predate the Trump era. In 2012, the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a Catholic, published Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. It was widely praised by traditionally minded Christians, because it upheld the importance of orthodoxy and authority – but also by secular progressives who shared Douthat’s alarm at new pseudo-Christianities preaching nationalism or the prosperity gospel.

Our great-grandfathers would not have predicted that “heretic” would regain its power as an insult. A century ago it was glamorous. As GK Chesterton remarked in 1905, the modern thinker “says, with a conscious laugh, ‘I suppose I am very heretical,’ and looks round for applause.” In the 20th century, figures like Galileo who had stood trial for heresy were celebrated: they were thought to have made a heroic stand against the Church. Heretics, supposedly, were pioneers, misunderstood by the authorities but later vindicated. No longer were dogmatic deviations something to be frightened of. “To believe in heresy,” wrote the historian Jonathan Wright in his 2011 study of the subject, “is now the heresy.”

But as the criticisms of President Trump show, that may have been premature. Within the Church, too, belief in heresy is alive and well, as shown by the debates over Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried. Cardinal Walter Brandmüller told Der Spiegel in 2016: “Anyone who thinks that continuous adultery and the reception of Holy Communion are compatible is a heretic and promotes schism.”

Was there some kind of “pastoral” solution, which left intact the teaching on marriage and the Eucharist, but was adapted to difficult realities? Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Vatican’s former doctrinal chief, has denounced such an idea: “It is a heresy to think one could preserve the teaching of the Church, but invent a new pastoral approach for the sake of the weakness of man which would soften the truth of the Word of God and Christian morality.” Cardinal Sarah similarly said that such a division between doctrine and practice was “a form of heresy”.

Since it isn’t clear where Pope Francis stands on the matter, these eminent churchmen were able to avoid bringing the Holy Father into it. But last week, an open letter signed by dozens of priests and academics took what the signatories admitted was “an extraordinary step”. “We are accusing Pope Francis,” they declared, “of the canonical delict [crime] of heresy.” The open letter was addressed to bishops and asked them to take action – first by admonishing the Pope, then by having recourse to canon law. The signatories included Britain’s best-known exorcist Fr Jeremy Davies, and arguably Britain’s foremost theologian, Fr Aidan Nichols.

The letter was immediately attacked. The weaker criticism was, effectively, “Who do they think they are?” It’s quite true that our duty is to submit to the Pope. But as St Thomas Aquinas observed, it can be also be a duty to rebuke a superior if the faith is endangered – a principle you can find throughout Catholic history and theology. That doesn’t give us carte blanche to say what we like, and certainly not to be aggressively defiant – but it means that, if there really is a doctrinal crisis, and if the Pope is partly responsible, some Catholics may be obliged to say something – even something pretty strong.

The better criticism was that the letter bit off more than it could chew. The signatories didn’t just claim that some of the Pope’s statements were dangerously ambiguous – as many people have said, including the four cardinals who made a still-unanswered request for a Vatican clarification of Amoris Laetitia. They didn’t just claim that the Pope had, wittingly or unwittingly, helped doctrinal errors to spread. They went further and said that he had committed heresy.

“Heresy” has a common, useful meaning: a serious attack on the Church’s doctrine. But in canon law it has a specific definition: the denial or doubt, by a baptised person, of a truth which has been taught with the highest level of authority (not just irreformable or even infallible, but a matter of “divine and Catholic faith”). Also, that denial must be “obstinate” – which implies that the heretic has been given the chance to reconsider. Moreover, the “principle of benignity”, described by Dr Edward Peters in this issue, gives the benefit of the doubt to the accused.

It’s a high threshold, and the letter struggled to show that Pope Francis had cleared it. For instance, the signatories made much of a letter Francis wrote to the bishops of Buenos Aires, congratulating them on their reading of Amoris Laetitia. According to the signatories, the Argentine bishops’ Amoris guidelines support Communion for the remarried.

But in truth, the bishops’ guidelines were so confusingly written that it was impossible to be sure what they meant: people are still debating it. So does the Pope really support Communion for the remarried? Even if he does, has he definitely done so “obstinately”? And while previous popes have repeatedly taught that Communion for the remarried is a doctrinal error, would its approval necessarily “imply”, as the letter-writers claimed, a bigger error about marriage or morality which gets to the level of canonical heresy?

Demonstrating all that is a tall order – and the letter seemed unsure how to do so, digressing into irrelevancies. Even if it had presented a tighter case, it would still come up against two obstacles: the Catholic instinct to be especially charitable towards the Holy Father (“What he really meant was…”), and the Pope’s ambiguous manner of speaking, which makes direct charges of heresy difficult to sustain.

Indeed, such accusations often are – especially as, over the last 60 years, the language of heresy has been downplayed. There has been less effort to draw a sharp line between truth and falsehood. In his opening address to the Second Vatican Council, Pope St John XXIII said that the Church used to condemn errors “with the greatest severity”, but that she “meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations”. He both encouraged and confirmed a more relaxed attitude to heresy.

It is not just capital-T Traditionalists who have remarked on the possible downsides of this cultural shift. Henri de Lubac, one of the major influences on Vatican II, asked in 1987 why “heretics no longer horrify us today, as they once did our forefathers.” It wasn’t necessarily, de Lubac thought, because we were nicer or cleverer; it might be that our faith was weaker.

Perhaps for us dogmas are no longer the Mystery on which we live, the Mystery which is to be accomplished in us. Consequently then, heresy no longer shocks us; at least, it no longer convulses us like something trying to tear the soul of our souls away from us … It is not always charity, alas, which has grown greater, or which has become more enlightened: it is often faith, the taste for the things of eternity, which has grown less.

We’re less appalled by heresy, de Lubac thought, because we’re less interested in God.

But history can take strange turns. Even without the heresy letter, Catholics would still be increasingly preoccupied by these questions. It is not only doctrinal “conservatives” who are using the H-word more freely. When Fr James Martin, the controversial Jesuit, was accused of holding heretical views about the Incarnation, he did not roll his eyes at the idea, but charged his accusers with their own heresy: docetism. Cardinal Joseph Tobin, another figure often criticised for a perceived lack of orthodoxy, has said: “My favourite definition of heresy is an unwillingness to deal with complexity.”

The critics of Donald Trump and Pope Francis agree that Christianity is more than a feeling or a community: it’s also supposed to be true, which means that other things aren’t. Whatever the critics’ specific arguments, they have caught the spirit of the age. Rebellion has lost its glamour: youth icons are no longer tragic heroes like James Dean, the “rebel without a cause”, but earnest, responsible figures like Malala Yousafzai who give speeches at the UN. Rock’n’roll, the genre of rebellion, has spectacularly declined. And heretics, the original rebels, are out of fashion too. If the Church wants to meet the needs of the present day, it may soon be time to issue a few more condemnations.

Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald