Heresy (Canon Law)

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In canon law heresy is the offense of one who, having been baptized and retaining the name of Christian, pertinaciously denies or doubts any of the truths that one is under obligation of divine and Catholic faith to believe (cf. Codex iuris canonici [Rome 1918; repr. Graz 1955]c. 751). The element of pertinacity distinguishes heresy from inculpable error with regard to a truth of faith, although such error is sometimes called material, as distinguished from formal, heresy. The truth that is denied, or from which assent is deliberately and culpably withheld, must be one of Catholic as well as of divine faith, i.e., it must be explicitly proposed by the Church as a truth of divine faith (Codex iuris canonici c. 750 §1; Codex canonum ecclesiarium orientalium c. 598).

The term "heresy" is no longer used by the Catholic Church in reference to those persons who are outside her visible communion (cf. Vatican II, Unitatis redintegratio 3). Total heresy, i.e., the total rejection of faith, is known as apostasy.

Pertinacity in error does not require a protracted period. It means simply that, despite certainty that a truth is of Catholic faith, the heretic with culpable obstinacy refuses to assent to it, even if he does not give positive assent to the contrary error. If all the conditions necessary for a deliberate act are verified, this does not demand a lapse of time, and the sin may be committed in the secrecy of the heart, although one is not subject to the canonical penalties unless the heresy has been externally manifested.

Most Catholic moralists agree that heresy destroys the virtue of faith even though the dissent or doubt concerns but a single revealed truth. To refuse assent to anything God has revealed is equivalent to refusing assent to God as revealing and thus to all He has revealed. If a heretic continues to accept other truths of faith, it is because he elects to accept them on his own authority rather than that of God.

Doubt in this context is to be understood as the deliberate suspension or withholding of assent and is by no means to be confused either with indeliberate hesitation of mind that may occur when one considers a particular truth or with temptations, even vehement temptations, to disbelief.

Propositions contrary to divine and Catholic faith are called heretical, and those who profess such doctrine are sometimes referred to as heretics. Most of these, it may be assumed, are heretics only in the material sense of the term and are either in completely inculpable error or their responsibility is attenuated to a greater or lesser degree by ignorance. Formal heresy in the full sense, implying the rejection of a doctrine known certainly to be of faith by one who sees himself as willing to accept the authority of God revealing in other matters, appears somewhat unrealistic and psychologically improbable.

See Also: faith, 3; heresy.

Bibliography: j. a. mchugh and c. j. callan, Moral Theology, 2 v. (New York 1960), v. 1. b. hÄring, The Law of Christ, tr. e. g. kaiser, v. 1 (Westminster, Md. 1961) 5457. d. m. prÜmmer, Manuale theologiae moralis, ed. e. m. mÜnch, 3 v. (12th ed. Freiburg-Barcelona 1955). k. rahner, On Heresy, tr. w. j. o'hara (New York 1964).

[g. a. buckley/eds.]