Thursday, 6 June 2013

The Question of Occult Heretics

This is a theological problem I've been mulling over a bit lately, and I think, much thanks to the writing of Monsignor Joseph Fenton, it is becoming clearer in my mind now. (However, what follows is by no means definitive... I am still learning.)

There are two aspects of faith that are particularly important when it comes to speaking about membership in the Church.

First, there is the interior theological virtue of faith itself, which can be defined as the habit by which one adheres, as to an infallible rule, to that whichever is revealed by God through the teaching of the Church - not because of a credibility of evidence gathered by reason, but because of the infallible authority of the teacher, namely God through the Church. This is the virtue of faith. 

Secondly, there is the external profession of faith, which is defined as that act by which one makes it publicly known that one adheres to the truths taught by the Church. All that suffices for this external profession is that one not intend to keep it a secret that one is Catholic, and that, in one's relations with the general public, one professes to be a Catholic. 

Note that if one externally professes the faith, one does not necessarily actually have the virtue of faith. For one can profess to believe what the Church teaches without actually believing what the Church teaches. Thus, both these aspects of faith can exist separately from each other. This is, of course, not proper to either of them - they belong together - but it can be the case. 

Also note that it is the external profession, that makes one a member of the Church (along with baptism and unity under authority). The theological virtue of faith is not necessary to make one a member of the Church, but rather makes one a living member, as it were, living according to the soul of the Church, the Holy Spirit. But this is different from being a member of the Church's body, the society; one does not have the name of a Catholic by having the inner virtue of faith, but by externally professing the faith. This is because membership in the Church is a visible thing. As such, the conditions of membership can themselves only pertain to visible things as well. The external profession of faith is a visible thing, whereas the internal virtue of faith is not visible. Therefore it is the external profession and not the internal virtue of faith which makes one a member of the Church.

Now, the sin of heresy is normally defined as an obstinate or pertinacious rejection of one or more truths which are taught by the Church. We often see a distinction between material and formal heresy. The definition just given actually applies strictly only to formal heresy, since formal heresy requires obstinacy or pertinacity of the will; whereas material heresy need only imply that one holds in the intellect a truth which is contrary to faith, but without knowing that it is contrary to faith. Material heresy, then, is not strictly speaking the sin of heresy; the sin of heresy, as defined above, refers only to formal heresy.

Now, heresy, whether it is material or formal, can also be either internal or external. As stated above, external faith (the external profession) is what makes one a member of the Church, whereas internal faith does not do this. Thus, it would seem to follow that if one is internally a heretic, but externally professes the faith nonetheless, one would remain a member of the Church. This is true of both material and formal heresy.

Hence, a material heretic who does not externally profess the faith (i.e. an external or public material heretic) is not a member of the Church. But a material heretic who does externally profess the faith (i.e. merely an internal material heretic) is really and truly a member of the Church. And likewise, a formal heretic who does not externally profess the faith (i.e. an external or public formal heretic) is not a member of the Church. But a formal heretic who does externally profess the faith (i.e. merely an internal formal heretic) is really and truly a member of the Church.

So it should made clear again here that it is not the distinction between material and formal heresy which determines one's membership within the Church. This distinction determines, not membership, but the culpability or inculpability of the heretic, i.e. whether there is a sin committed. It is the distinction between internal and external heresy which determines one's membership within the Church. Merely internal heretics, by our reasoning, are within the Church, but external heretics are not. And this is regardless of whether they are material or formal heretics.

Just to restate that conclusion in other words: one who is a heretic internally, but who nonetheless continues to profess the faith externally - i.e. what is called an occult heretic - is a member of the Church.

Now, although this follows from our reasoning, some prominent theologians have claimed otherwise. In fact, the question of occult heretics has been a topic of hot dispute between the scholastics, as it has never been officially resolved by the Church. The opinion I have expressed here is most notably defended by St. Robert Bellarmine in his treatise on the Church.

But some have objected by pointing out the fact that Pope Pius IX, in defining the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in his document Ineffabilis Deus, condemned as separated from the unity of Church whoever would dare to even think in their hearts otherwise than he defined. Now, to merely think is an internal act, not an external one. From Pope Pius IX's words it would seem to be implied, then, that internal heresy could in fact sever one from membership in the Church, contrary to the conclusions of my reasoning in this post. Another example is often taken from Pope Eugene IV's bull, Cantate Domino, from the Council of Florence, in which he condemns as separated from the unity of the Church those who have opinions contrary to what he defined in that document.

Monisgnor Joseph Fenton, near the end of this article (the whole of which I recommend), answers this objection with relative ease, saying that Pius IX was not teaching about the status of occult heretics, but rather about the Immaculate Conception; hence his words need only be interpreted as saying that whoever thinks contrary to what was defined severs himself in some way from the unity of the Church, which would indeed be true. The same is to be said of Pope Eugene's pronouncement in Cantate. The use of the term unity does not necessarily imply visible unity. Further, separation from the unity of the Church need not be visible in order for one to have committed the sin of heresy, which is exactly what one would do in thinking contrary to what the Church teaches - whether or not it is done externally or merely internally. Hence, the words of the Popes in these cases can hardly be used as definitive evidence against the membership of occult heretics.

So that's a basic treatment of the question. There are, of course, many other sources whom I have not yet read (I'm just a beginner at this!) and whose arguments I have not yet encountered, so this is probably not complete by any stretch. If I have more to say about this later, I will certainly be posting it here.

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