by Rev. Nicholas L. Gregoris

It’s not very common or popular nowadays to speak of heresy. Perhaps the word conjures unpleasant notions of the Spanish Inquisition and witch hunts. Nevertheless, the reality of heresy still exists, even if some find it difficult to admit or explain.

Sometimes we have a tendency to go to extremes in the Church: from focusing perhaps too much on heresy in the period before the Second Vatican Council to barely recognizing its existence since the Council ended 50 years ago. Let’s attempt here to find a middle road between those two extremes.

We begin with the simple definition of the term"heresy," which derives from the Greek word "haeresis," meaning "to pick and choose one"s beliefs." Theologically speaking, there are two principal forms of heresy – "material" and "formal."

A material heretic is one who espouses heretical notions (let’s suppose this is due to ignorance but not with any malicious intent). A formal heretic is a person who knowingly and willingly teaches heresy in open and direct opposition to the teachings of the Catholic Church. It is probably fair to say there are more material heretics than formal heretics.

It might also be useful here to define two other terms related to but distinct from heresy, namely, "schism" (schismatics) and "apostasy" (apostates). Schism refers to a formal act by which bonds of hierarchical communion with the See of Rome are broken. One of the saddest events in Church history was the great schism of 1054, which marked the official separation of the Greek Orthodox Church from the Catholic Church, persisting until the present day. Apostasy refers to the act of renouncing Christianity, in order to adhere to a non-Christian religion or no religion at all.

As much as the Church is called to be merciful when she deals pastorally with heretics, schismatics and apostates – indeed all sinners – she must nevertheless remain steadfastly faithful to her own truthful teachings.

The Church cannot change her doctrines just because she wants to sympathize with wayward souls. Some think that by bending the rules as much as possible, the Church will succeed in attracting more people back to the fold, helping them feel better about themselves and, consequently, more welcomed in their particular ecclesial communities. This would be an expression of "false compassion," just as euthanasia is an expression of "false mercy" toward the gravely ill. Too much flux and flexibility in the Church ends up creating a "slippery slope" of doctrinal and moral relativism.

From my perspective as a theologian, the Synod on the Family was skating on thin ice because it ran the serious risk of abandoning well-established Catholic doctrines in favor of implementing "pastoral solutions" that can easily serve to undermine the indissoluble bond of Matrimony (even if only at the local level of dioceses and the national episcopal conference). The Church has absolutely no authority to dissolve a valid marital bond because the sacraments are institutions of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, not mere human or ecclesial/ecclesiastical creations.

Just as the Church cannot "undo" (for lack of a better term) a valid baptism, confirmation, or priestly ordination, the Church cannot "undo" a valid, sacramental and consummated union that has been contracted with free will, full knowledge of the Church’s teaching on the Sacrament of Matrimony, and full spousal consent.

Furthermore, it must be noted that Catholic dogma and doctrine cannot be up for grabs every time the Pope and bishops get together in a synod hall. The teachings of the Church are much more important than any individual pope, council, or synod of bishops. "Synodality" and "collegiality" are both wonderful theological concepts and useful instruments in the life of the Church, but they are means, not ends in and of themselves.

On the other hand, "synodality" and "collegiality," if exercised inappropriately, can lead the Church astray and likewise cause scandal (that is, lead people into sin). This is not unheard of in the history of the Church because invalid synods and councils have occurred. Let us recall the so-called "Robber Synod" ("Latroncinium") which sought to justify the heresy of Nestorius against the teachings of the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus, held in A.D. 431. Nestorius denied the vallidity of the Marian title "Theotokos" ("God-bearer") in favor of the title "Christotokos" ("Christ-bearer"). The Council of Ephesus, in defending the oneness of Christ’s divine Person, vindicated the doctrine of Mary"s Divine Motherhood of Jesus the Word-made-flesh.

Perhaps we need to relearn a history lesson or two to put the present Synod on the Family into a larger historical context and perspective. The Pope as Successor of St. Peter exercises the charism of infallibility and is absolutely preserved from error when he intends to teach the universal Church on matters of faith and morals by an explicit act. He is not infallible when, for example, he expresses his personal opinions, gives pastoral advice, or implements disciplinary measures.

In the history of the Church, there have even been popes who were material but not formal heretics like Pope Honorius, who privately held, but never formally taught, the yet undefined heresy of "monothelitism," according to which Jesus Christ, the God-Man, possessed only "one will," that being a divine will because His human will had been absorbed into His divine will, such that the former was indistinguishable from the latter. The Ecumenical Council of Constantinople II in A.D. 481 condemned "monothelitism" as a heresy, while reaffirming the doctrine of the two wills, human and divine, perfectly united and harmonized in the one Divine Person of Jesus the Christ.

If a pope were to teach heresy, formally speaking, he would cease to be pope. He would have to be deposed as an anti-pope and a new pope who adhered to the Catholic and Apostolic faith would have to be elected. This has never happened in the history of the Catholic Church! We have had corrupt popes like the Borgias, but they never taught heresy. We have also had several anti-popes like Hippoltyus of Rome because they were invalidly elected, not because they taught heresy.

Perhaps the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith should be required to administer a theological exam to papal candidates to determine if they are competent to be the supreme teacher of Catholic faith and morals!

The Magisterium of the Church, as the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation ("Dei Verbum") of the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council instructs us, is called to be the principal servant of God"s Word, not its master. In other words, popes and bishops do not have the right to change God"s unalterable Word to suit their own fancies or to assuage those who have chosen to violate certain norms for which violations there are consequences, like everything in life. Jurisprudence teaches us that if a person commits the crime of murder, he may very well deeply regret and repent of that evil act, but that doesn’t mean that the judge and jury should give that person a "pass" for his crime. Perhaps a person’s sentence may be lessened on account of proven remorse and good behavior, but justice still must be served.

Justice and mercy go hand-in-hand. You cannot legitimately separate the two without falling into some sort of grave theological and moral error.

Lastly, we cannot have Catholic doctrine upheld in some dioceses and not in others, in some episcopal conferences and not in others. This is a dangerous proposal.

Just as Pope Francis has indicated the Synod of Bishops is not intended to function like a "parliament," so too the Magisterium is not supposed to function as a "lottery" commission charged with selecting by chance those Catholic doctrines to uphold while ignoring others.

If the Church were to put her doctrines and dogmas up to a democratic vote each time they were challenged from within or outside her ranks, she would have to rewrite the Catechism on an almost daily basis, given the ever-changing contemporary landscape. No, the Catholic Church’s teachings are not a matter of arbitrary selection. We do not "pick and choose" those doctrines and dogmas corresponding to our personal likes or dislikes, while conveniently discarding those we consider outdated and unfashionable.

In Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation "Evangelii Gaudium," he described the contemporary "throwaway culture," and in his encyclical "Laudato Si," the Pontiff underscored the need for a holistic understanding of "human ecology." These are truly necessary points for reflection.

Perhaps the Synod Fathers learned in the final stretch of the Synod to understand better how theology, like ecology, has its own internal, cohesive unity which permits us to view Catholic doctrines and dogmas not as mere individual entities but as integral parts of a grand mosaic or tapestry: Take one piece out of a mosaic, remove one thread out of a tapestry, and the integrity of an entire work of art is destroyed.