It’s not impossible, just very difficult, to glean ‘heresy’ from conduct

Our question here is: can physical actions or a manner of conduct amount to a verbal assertion of the sort qualifying as heresy?

My observation that Archbishop Blase Cupich of Chicago is not a “heretic” exposed considerable misunderstanding about the notion of “heresy”. Confusion on this matter should surprise no one, for antinomian times, such as those obtaining now, discourage wider familiarity with certain basic terms of ecclesiastical discourse. Among the comments I have received, some run along these lines: “Just look at everything Abp. Cupich does! If he’s not heretic, no one is!”

Oh dear. Shall we examine this claim in light of what the law actually says?

Three points: (1) “Heretic” is not a term used to describe, say, a prelate who one thinks is doing a bad job, but rather, denotes someone given to “the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith” (Canon 751). (2) “Heresy” is not an ‘bad attitude’ but a crime punishable by a latae sententiae excommunication (and yes, automatic sanctions should be abolished from Roman canon law as they have been from Eastern, but the sanction itself—as opposed to the non-process by which it is supposedly incurred—reflects the gravity of the crime). And (3) a variety of canons (e.g., 18, 221 § 3, and several besides) protect the faithful against the unjust infliction of sanctions in the Church. In short, “heresy” means something very specific in canon law and there are criteria for using the word correctly.

Now, setting aside the what “is to be believed” (we’ll take an easy example below), the vast majority of heresy cases with which I am familiar took as their occasion a speech or writing, that is, a verbal proposition or assertion: “Jesus was not God” or “Mary had other children by Joseph” and so on. These assertions directly present, or logically and unequivocally amount to, the ‘doubt or denial’ of a protected truth that, if uttered under the circumstances outlined in Canon 751, constitute heresy—but only such assertions and only if uttered under such circumstances.

Our question here is: can physical actions or a manner of conduct amount to a verbal assertion of the sort qualifying as heresy? Possibly. Let’s take a case wherein there is no question about what is to be believed with divine and Catholic faith.

Suppose a Catholic, contrary to CCC 1374, does not accept that Jesus is present Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, in the Eucharist. He never expresses this opinion in words but steadfastly refuses to make a sign of reverence when passing before a tabernacle. In such a case, his action/omission accurately reflects his heretical views, yes—but, is it not obvious that the evidentiary problems (of trying to parlay someone’s failure to genuflect when passing before a tabernacle into proof of the crime of heresy) are almost insurmountable? In this case, the action or omission might well be evidence of heresy but it is not remotely proof of the crime.

Let’s take a more graphic case: the same man, disgusted by what he regards as idolatry of a piece of bread, breaks open the tabernacle and scatters the hosts on the ground. Some might say, “If that is not proof of a Eucharistic heresy, what would be?” In one sense, they are correct, for scattering hosts on the ground as if they were nothing but bits of bread would be strong evidence of a certain Eucharistic heresy. But here’s the problem: the exact same action—stealing hosts and scattering them on the ground—could be committed by someone who thoroughly believes in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist but does the evil act as a gesture of contempt for Jesus! We see, thus, that without words, or without a very wide and sustained pattern of activity/omission, it is very difficult (not impossible, but very difficult), to glean heresy from someone’s conduct. The burden is on the accuser to prove charges, especially serious charges, and proving heresy by words is, as it should be, difficult; but proving heresy solely by actions or omissions, even repeated ones, is very difficult.

Mind, one’s deleterious actions or omissions might be evidence of other canonical crimes (e.g., as above, sacrilege, per c. 1367) or, as suggested in my earlier post, pastoral negligence (e.g., failure to urge the observance of ecclesiastical discipline per c. 392), but heresy?

I don’t think so. In most heresy cases, words speak louder than actions.

(This essay originally appeared on the In the Light of the Law blog and is reprinted here by kind permission of Dr. Edward Peters.)

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About Edward N. Peters 120 Articles
Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. Since 2005 he has held the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. His personal blog on canon law issues in the news may be accessed at the "In the Light of the Law" site.