Heresy and Schism, Past and Present

The current conservative schism is very revealing about the schisms and heresies of past centuries. Read any article on a heresy or schism of the distant past, e.g. Arianism, and you will find the heresy portrayed as one main error, promoted by a certain leader or a few leaders. That’s probably not what happened. As we can see from the present situation, heresy and schism must have a broad preexisting base among the laity, for anyone to be a leader of heresy or schism. And there is usually a set of errors that combine to cause the group to depart from unity, not a single error.

Would Arianism exist without Arius, the founder of the heresy? Probably, yes. The people of that time, between the first and second Ecumenical Councils, 325 to 381, were living in and among societies which had many god and goddesses, of differing rank. So it was easier for them to see Jesus as different from the Father, and of lower rank. The Trinity was a difficult concept for them to accept, whereas other heretical ideas were much closer to what sinful pagan society taught. That is why Arius found a large and willing audience for his ideas. But the followers of Arius were not so concerned with the specific theological arguments. They simply had difficulty accepting a Triune God, three Persons who are co-equal, but only one Divine Nature, one God. And I don’t think Arius spread his error by theological arguments, but rather by playing to the biases present in his audiences.

Similarly today, the papal critics are just playing to what their audience wishes to hear. It is difficult for conservative Catholics, who unfortunately tied conservatism to Catholicism, who dogmatized conservative theological opinions, to accept a liberal Pope. They wish for some leaders to come along who will argue against the Pope, and offer some explanation that will allow them to avoid having to admit that they are in need of correction, that conservatism does not have all the answers. I’m sure that, at some point, an individual or a small group will emerge as the leaders of the conservative schism. But it will only be because they are riding a wave of popular conservative opinion, telling people what they want to hear.

One problem is pride. Conservative Catholics do not want to accept correction from anyone. They have long prided themselves on being 100% faithful to the Magisterium. But over time, this was transformed into faithfulness to their own understanding and to the majority opinion in the conservative Catholic subculture. They prided themselves on defending orthodoxy, but in doing so, they set themselves up as the final and supreme judges of what is and is not orthodox. So when God appointed a liberal Pope, in order to correct them, they rejected him instead of accepting the humiliation of correction.

Another problem is that the faithful are poorly-catechized. They have a poor understanding of the fundamental teachings of the Catholic faith. So, over the years, they have fallen into a series of theological errors, leading them away from true orthodoxy. In addition, in order to portray themselves as judges and guardians of orthodoxy, they have over-simplified the teachings of the Church. They lack the theological depth and breadth for true orthodoxy, so they over-simplify everything. This allows them to speak as if they understand it all. But it also results in many distortions.

Having an over-simplified understanding, which they then treat as if it were identical to Church teaching, they went on to the next error of dogmatizing their own errors and their limited understanding. This prevents them from being corrected by a Pope or Council, let alone one of their peers. It results in them speaking as if they were infallible, as if anything contrary to their own thoughts must be error. And it prevents them from delving into theological arguments, which might lead them to correction. They simply pontificate their opinions, and condemn any who disagree, like dictators over the Faith.

So the problem is not Pope Francis. Show me a Catholic who thinks Pope Francis is wrong, and I’ll show you a Catholic who also thinks Pope Saint John Paul II and Vatican II were wrong. They judge all Popes, based on their dogmatized erroneous understanding, and so they reject any teaching, even from a Pope-Saint or an Ecumenical Council, which disagrees with their own ideas.

What’s next? Pope Francis will teach that the Church has the authority to ordain women deacons, and the Bishops of the world will begin to ordain deaconesses. Then Pope Francis will teach that non-Christian believers and non-believers can be saved without converting. The conservatives will cry out against him, and accuse him, falsely, of heresy. They will claim that either he never was a valid Pope, or that he ceased to be Pope due to automatic excommunication for heresy. And so they will depart into formal schism.

The great conservative schism is about to begin. To remain faithful, you must set aside your own reasonings and understanding, and accept on the basis of faith whatever the Pope and the body of Bishops teach. Turn aside from your favorite conservative priests, theologians, speakers, and authors. Depart from any group that opposes the Pope. Remain faithful to Christ. For the Church, the Body of Christ, enlivened by the Holy Spirit, can never fall into heresy. She is indefectible, and therefore, so too are Pope and the body of Bishops indefectible.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian
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