Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Against Heresy Hunters

There is A Certain Kind of Catholic out there that I would designate a “Heresy Hunter.” I think once you read the description, you'll know the sort. My purpose in describing the Heresy Hunters is to help bring them to self-knowledge, that they might amend their ways.

The Heresy Hunter operates with the intention of preserving the orthodox faith of the Church. A noble cause, to be sure, but while an admirable intention is the beginning of a virtuous act, virtue can easily slide into vice when the method used and the circumstances in which the act takes place are not fitting. How does this happen? What does it look like?

The most frequent way in which the Heresy Hunter slips into sin while on his quest is in his method, specifically his neglect of his most effective and most necessary tool: charity. When I appeal to charity, I do not mean simple “niceness,” meaning a bland desire to not offend another’s sensibilities—so please, refrain from jeremiads against “the Church of Nice” and appeals to Jesus flipping over the money changers’ tables in the Temple. When I speak of charity, I mean it in its deepest sense: the love of the other, willing the good of the other, for the sake of the love of God; so, to speak to another charitably means to speak with them out of a desire for their good and salvation. St. Peter reminds us of this: while we are always to be ready with a defense for the hope that is in us, we must offer that defense "with gentleness and reverence" (1 Peter 3:16). Niceness may not be a Christian virtue, but kindness is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.

When you speak to another about the orthodox faith with charity, your goal is to open their mind to see the truth and persuade them to put aside any biases they may have against it. Your goal is not to berate them for having an incorrect opinion and to put them into a verbal armbar until they tap out and admit that you were right. When you do this, you put the person off and erect a new barrier in their minds against the truth of the faith. Even if your argument is persuasive and your evidence incontrovertible, your interlocutor may still refuse to acknowledge it and may still balk at the notion of entering the Church, because you’re a jerk, and they’d rather not associate with a jerk. This person has been driven away from the faith, not because “they can’t take the truth,” not because “this is a hard saying, who can do it,” not because they have found Catholicism difficult and left it untried, not because they are stupid or wicked or lazy, but because of you and your cold, harsh, joyless presentation of the faith.

There are also many occasions upon which the Heresy Hunter’s hyper-sensitivity causes him to see heresy where none exists. In my experience, this happens because the Hunter is overly familiar with one era of Church teaching but ignorant of others—one further proof of Alexander Pope’s maxim that “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” The Heresy Hunter may have memorized the canons of the Council of Trent but be less versed in Scripture (pun intended). To give an example, I knew of a priest who publicly excoriated his choir for singing a hymn that contained the line “this bread that we share is the Body of Christ,” denouncing the verse as an example of the Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation, in which the bread and wine remain really present along with the presence of Christ (like a eucharistic version of Nestorianism, for you nerds playing at home). However, this phrase comes directly from 1 Corinthians 10:16: “The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” It is an understatement to say that one should probably refrain from calling a verse of Scripture heretical. This is the mirror image of the tendency of some of our Protestant brethren to reject any extra-Scriptural term as “unbiblical.” Though its texts are inspired, the words of Scripture do not exhaust the concepts they describe, nor do the quaestiones of the Summa Theologiae, nor the anathemas of Trent.

These two tendencies, the lack of charity and the hypersensitivity to language (and over-emphasis on certain expressions), often come together in that greatest of discussion spaces: Facebook. A prime example often occurs when people write paeans to their lost loved ones. Someone might write, "Grandma's gone, but that just means we have another angel watching over us." This is an expression of their belief in the communion of saints, in their grandmother's continued charitable concern and intercession for them. And most people will take this in the spirit in which it is offered. But the Heresy Hunter does not. Rather than offering condolences to the family member or prayers for the departed person, the Heresy Hunter believes it most pressing to point out that people do not become angels when they die, that angels are pure intellectual forms as opposed to substantial relations of matter and form as humans are, and that It's a Wonderful Life is a terrible movie for spreading such fallacious ideas. The Heresy Hunter here has missed the point, and in his zeal to technically correct a sentimental statement, he has no doubt made that person ill-disposed toward anything further he has to say. (I would like to see someone respond to that by noting that the Greek word angelos simply means "messenger," so that it is appropriate in an analogical sense to refer to any intercessor as an angel.)

The nub of my gist here is that the Heresy Hunter treats a means as an end: the purpose of our seeking to refine our theological language is not to end up with a fine set of spiritual encyclopedias all perfectly accurate and up to date; rather, the purpose of such precision is to aid us in our contemplation of God, and our growing in friendship with Him. We write theological books not to bash others over the head with them, but, in a sense, as love letters to the Lord. The great saints and the great theologians are marked by a joy and serenity. The Heresy Hunter is marked by anger and sourness. I would encourage the Heresy Hunter to keep his eyes fixed on the Lord. Contemplating His face brings us peace, a peace that compels us to draw others in to enter into their Master's joy.

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