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  • Writer's pictureFr. Scott Haynes

Who is a Heretic?

Rev. Scott A. Haynes

The “Fortress of Faith” besieged by unbelievers and heretics and defended by the pope, bishops, monks,

clerics, and theologians; chromolithograph after a 15th-century French manuscript.

People bristle at the use of the word heresy, but technically speaking, anyone who dissents from the true faith is a heretic. The word heretic comes from the Greek word hairetikos (“able to choose”). Simply put, a heretic is someone who accepts some Christian doctrine and rejects other teachings taught by Christ and His Church.

To tell someone he is in danger of becoming a heretic is to sound a warning bell. The individual ought to reflect upon which Christian teachings he has set aside in favor of some novelty. It is well that he should consider his own spiritual state if he is rejecting the authoritative teaching of Christ and His Church.

When one accused of a crime stands before a judge in a court of law, he may hear the judge say,

“You have been found guilty by this court of law and now you will be sentenced to the fullest measure of the law.”

To make such a statement is to make a judgment. In a similar way, when someone says to his neighbor, “Go to hell,” that, too, is judgment.

By contrast, to tell someone that he is in grave danger of ending up in hell by following teachings contrary to the perennial teaching of the Gospel is to sound a warning, not to pronounce a definitive judgment. As for what will actually happen to this poor soul in eternity is only for Christ to say, for He alone is the Judge of the living and the dead.

The word heretic conjures up frightful images in our imagination of controversial figures of the past being burned at the stake for their beliefs. To our modern ears, it sounds rather “intolerant,” because modern man tends to believe each ought to be free to pursue his own ideas. But, in an age where everyone is encouraged to follow his own ideas, G. K. Chesterton remarks:

Ideas are dangerous, but the man to whom they are least dangerous is the man of ideas. He is acquainted with ideas, and moves among them like a lion-tamer. Ideas are dangerous, but the man to whom they are most dangerous is the man of no ideas. The man of no ideas will find the first idea fly to his head like wine to the head of a teetotaller.

Christians who seek to be rooted and grounded in Jesus Christ form their consciences on the unchanging teaching of Our Lord and His Church. But to speak "dogmatically" today, one risks being perceived as backwards and intolerant. There is something ironic about “tolerance” being an ideal, and that it is connected to religious freedom. In reality, “tolerance” has often suppressed religion more than has any persecution. Sadly, "tolerance" has left us rather tense. We are afraid to debate and discuss our beliefs. As Chesterton says:

“We now talk about the weather, and call it the complete liberty of all creeds.”

This strange silence about religion leaves the impression that religion is not important. If we would be so bold as to distinguish the true teaching of Christ from the heresies of the day, we would acknowledge that a heresy is at best a half-truth, a fragment of the truth that is exaggerated at the expense of the whole truth. Because the mind of man has been created to crave truth, nothing will satisfy us except Jesus Christ, for, as Our Savior said:

I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No man cometh to the Father, but by me. (John 14:6).


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