Good Zeal, Bad Zeal and Sniffing Out Heresy

It puzzles me that some Catholics seem to be obsessed with the sins of others and claim to be able to sniff out heresy without any doubt in the matter. Tackle them, and one will find oneself treated with scant courtesy, even if one belongs to one of the ‘traditional orders’ they usually profess to love and respect.

Recently there have been two occasions when I thought I should challenge some statements I came across online. In one case, the pope was said to be a heretic for whom the fires of hell were already being kindled (yes, really). Now, it is undeniable that Pope Francis has made several statements capable of more than one interpretation, some of which even the most charitable may consider unwise, but selective quotation, bad translations and a parti pris position do not always allow us to get to the truth of the matter. We judge without full knowledge, certainly without full knowledge of intention. What bothers me is that the charge of heresy, unless proven, is actually detraction and may even be calumny. That is a serious sin. Unfortunately, among some Catholics it has become so habitual to call the pope a heretic that they do not stop to consider the gravity of what they are doing.

I am old-fashioned enough to believe that bishops and pastors are entitled to respect no matter how much we may disagree with them or find them or their teaching personally objectionable. Unless we are absolutely sure of our facts (and I have to say, the level of theological erudition among Catholics isn’t always what one might wish) and are prepared to engage in the proper processes, bandying charges of heresy around does not often result in anything more than bad temper and division. It does nothing to encourage people to follow Christ. How can it, when all the outsider sees are angry people eager to condemn the faults of others? I made the mistake of saying something to this effect and very soon discovered that love of the traditional orders didn’t extend to this particular nun! Those whose zeal for the purity of religion makes them feel entitled to pour scorn upon others tend to make full use of their privilege, but fun though it may be at one level, at a deeper and more important one, I am sure it does much harm. Truth matters, so does justice, and I believe we have a duty to speak up when someone is being condemned in absentia, as it were. In the case of the pope, attacks on him create a climate of opinion that damages the whole Church and destroys her unity. It says, in effect, we don’t actually believe what we profess to believe and have substituted private judgement for the authority of the pope and bishops.

A second instance concerns what appears to have been a Service of Word and Communion led by someone known to be a prominent supporter of abortion. This is a little more complicated because the published report of the event left several questions unanswered. I am, as readers know, wholly opposed to abortion and all for reverence in the celebration and administration of the sacraments. What struck me forcibly was the the way in which a perfectly legitimate sense of outrage led to an explosion of anger directed at the person and a refusal to consider the circumstances of the Service. The woman was a heretic, the bishop was failing in his duty, and that was all that needed to be said, other than to make a few ungracious remarks to any who wished to nuance the argument. I could have told my interlocutors that, as a Benedictine, I have sometimes had to receive the sacraments at the hands of paedophiles and adulterers, but I suspect it would have made no difference. Support for abortion (as distinct from involvement in abortion) would appear to be worse than paedophilia or adultery, and the Church’s view, that the sacraments are for those who receive them (which is why an unworthy priest can still validly administer them), was an idea too far.

It is possible I’m being unfair to the people I’ve mentioned. I hope not. I recognize their zeal, but, as St Benedict says in chapter 72 of the Rule, there is ‘an evil zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell’. (RB 72.1) It is dangerously easy to fall into that kind of zeal. We believe, genuinely, that the faith we have been taught is what motivates us and that we have a duty to defend it. Indeed we do, but sometimes the faith we have been taught requires a little more from us to be fully understood . In any case, I think spreading the faith is more necessary than defending it. I suppose in the end it comes down to a kind of humility, a readiness to be convinced by the truth, no matter how difficult we find it. I can chart my own moment of capitulation, so to say, when I realised that God so far transcended every thought and notion of mine that I could only ever approach him on my knees. Well, try being angry on your knees. It doesn’t work. It just makes us ridiculous. Love, forgiveness, mercy, yes, they work on your knees, but not anger; and as to sniffing out heresy, why would you? Isn’t the good zeal St Benedict describes a better remedy for one’s own sin and the sins of others? And in case you think good zeal is no more than the gospel of nice dressed up in a few fine phrases, let me assure you it takes a lifetime to learn and requires much humility and sacrifice along the way. I hope one day I’ll learn it myself.

Please note:

This is my chemo week so I’ll be offline for a few days except for pre-scheduled prayer tweets and FB intentions.