Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Heresy Question

One question that keeps getting asked by atheists and sometimes even by Protestants is why the Catholic church was so slow to declare the killing of heretics to be sinful. Sure they arrived there eventually but it took many centuries and many executions before they did. Isn't this principle a pretty easy one? Does this not show that religion has an inherent tendency to produce violence towards people who disagree?

It is a good question. The trouble is it has a bit of an assumption behind it. That is that heresy is no big deal. The modern secular mind has this notion that any ideas about religion are obviously of little consequence and people should be able to say whatever they want. The trouble is that is not true. Very few things can destroy a society like a heresy can. What people believe matters. It does not just matter in terms of whether they go to heaven or hell. It matters politically, socially, militarily, etc.

So we should not ignore heresy. What should we do? First of all, we should teach. Explain exactly why a teaching is wrong. When that does not work you simply let the bad impacts start to happen. Yes, that can mean many people die or many people get abused or we end up in bad wars. 

Bad impacts can be terrible but they are not as terrible as using violence to prevent them. Having the Church, the mystical body of Jesus, associated with violence and murder is just unacceptable even when there seems like it can avoid a serious error. The number of people raising this objection proves the point. It has presented Jesus in a bad light and we can't do it. 

So what happens next? Well, sin when it is full grown leads to death. It can be the death of the heretics. That is often much more destructive than killing the heretics earlier would have been. Yet letting it play out respects people's freedom. It becomes clear that sin is not destructive because the church has so much power but rather because of its nature. 

There is another possibility. When sin is full grown it leads to death. Yet sometimes that death is not our death but the death of Jesus. It can happen with heresy to. The church as the body of Christ can become the object of hatred just like Christ Himself did. The death we allow to happen can be our own. This can ultimately lead to the resurrection of the church and the salvation of society. 

This is not a persecution complex. It is just a recognition that this is the way history flows. When society falls into sin the church goes onto the cross. The faithful remnant become annoying to the sinners because they keep speaking the truth. That eats at people's consciences and they overreact. At the end of the day it becomes obvious that the one on the cross is the Holy One and the ones who put them there is not. 

So you can see why people are slow to go here. People who have power don't tend to give it up right to the point of letting themselves be killed. Jesus did it and we are called to do it yet it is not easy. It is not the obvious moral principle people often assume when they ask the question. It is the stuff of heroic virtue.