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What it feels like to be a heretic

November 2, 2015

The rhetorician would deceive his neighbours,
The sentimentalist himself; while art
Is but a vision of reality.

–William Butler Yeats, “Ego Dominus Tuus”


A kerfluffle arose recently in the world of Catholic public intellectuals when Ross Douthat, NYT Token Conservative, dared speak the name of Heresy. Why Douthat tweeted for a Jesuit priest to “Own your heresy” need not concern us here (it has to do with the controversies at the recent Synod on the Family); things have already progressed to the stage where participants attempt to step back and up and draw (conveniently partisan) lessons from the affair, and where their opponents point out the hypocrisy of doing so, and then attempt it themselves, and so on and so forth. We are on the internet, after all.

What follows is not meant to be any sort of stepping back, but rather a diving in. My goal is to understand what Douthat’s opponents understand the word “heresy” to mean, that they find his use of it so upsetting. An article in America Magazine by Fr. James Martin, S.J. supplies a helpful case study:

Calling someone a “heretic” is like calling a journalist a plagiarist. […] These ad hominem attacks—an attack not on the argument but on the person–has no place in theology. […] Feel free to disagree with us, but questioning our fidelity is out of bounds.


Is calling someone a heretic like calling a journalist a plagiarist?

No, no it is not. At least, not in the relevant way. Both, of course, are serious accusations, but there the similarity ends, and Fr. Martin clearly needs more. The purpose of the analogy is to suggest that, just as “plagiarism” is an ad hominem accusation, so is “heresy,” but this is clearly false. To call something plagiarism is inherently to attack the person who wrote it—or, rather, did not write it, and yet claimed to have done so. To call something heresy is nothing more nor less than to say that it is false because it contradicts the established teaching of the Catholic Church; this constitutes an attack on the person only if the person persists obstinately in his heretical beliefs.

Of course, even if the plagiarism::heresy analogy held, it would not help Fr. Martin’s case, for while no one disputes that idle name-calling is bad, not all ad hominem attacks are idle name-calling, nor are ad hominem attacks always inappropriate. To use Fr. Martin’s example, there are times when “plagiarism” is the right word to use, namely, when someone has plagiarized. But Fr. Martin suggests that “heresy” is never the right word, that its use is always an illegitimate attack on “our fidelity.” A strange sort of argument for a theologian to make, that a theological term has no proper application!


If Fr. Martin suggests two clearly false things: 1) that accusations of heresy are inherently ad hominem, 2) that ad hominem attacks are inherently illegitimate; what is the connection between the two?

I hypothesize that Fr. Martin intended a further application of the plagiarism::heresy analogy. He focused, remember, not on the substance of the accusation, but on the effect the accusation has on the person accused. We might take this as a suggestion to engage in a thought experiment. Imagine you’re accused of plagiarism. You know whether the accusation is true or not, and if it’s not, you know that the accusation is either malicious, or erroneous, the fruit of a justified but untrue belief. Now imagine you’re accused of heresy. Similarly, if the accusation isn’t true (and it never is), it has to be malicious—never erroneous, since nothing could count as sufficient justification for it.

But wait. Whence this “and it never is”? Well, from our imagination: we can imagine having plagiarized (we can imagine the temptation to plagiarize), but we cannot imagine what it feels like to be a heretic. Fr. Martin’s not wrong here. I can easily envision knowingly plagiarizing (the incentives are obvious, the moral peril dubious), but unless I imagine an absurd, comic-book-villain level of malevolence, I cannot imagine knowingly espousing heresy. That would be like—or, rather, it just would be—knowing that my beliefs were false. No one consciously chooses to believe falsely, any more than anyone consciously chooses to be unhappy.

But to think that this proves that nothing is heresy, that no belief is false…. that is a serious error. Insofar as it has theological implications, it is heresy.


If your beliefs are called heretical, you almost certainly think the accusation false, but this certainty is meaningless; you’re not in a privileged position to judge.

This is not because the presence of heresy, unlike the presence of plagiarism, is not a factual matter. Both are facts, and both are facts about you. But they are about different aspects of you. Plagiarism, though we associate it with academia, involves not the intellect but the will. Heresy, by contrast, involves both: the intellect itself grows willful and refuses to listen to the truth. To paraphrase Yeats, the plagiarist would deceive others, the heretic himself.

Yeats spoke of rhetorician and sentimentalist, but the substitution does not alter the substance of the phrase. The plagiarist is the most brazen kind of rhetorician; he did not even write the words by which he seeks to persuade. And heresy is the most dangerous kind of sentimentalism. All sentimentalism confuses the feeling of knowledge with actually knowing. But the sentimentalist typically acknowledges this conflation at least partially; the Romantic egoist makes it central to his philosophy of “to thine own self be true.” The heretic, however, follows his feeling while claiming to be faithful to the theological truths taught by the Catholic Church. He suggests that to think one is faithful, just is to be faithful: that fidelity is a feeling, devoid of doctrinal content.

To call something heresy is to say that it’s pseudotheology: it looks like (Catholic) theology, but it refuses to be bound by the authority which is constitutive of (Catholic) theology, and so it’s not theology at all. This is not a point about the Catholic religion; it is a point about the relationship between belief and truth. The scientist can substitute “while claiming to be faithful to empirical reality”: the scientific heretic, that is, the pseudoscientist, is worse than the religious fundamentalist who dispenses with science altogether. Better to admit that you’re uninterested in an epistemic community’s pursuit of truth than to pretend that you seek to participate it when you do not.


Has the above jeremiad accused Fr. Martin of heresy? Not quite. I’ve suggested that certain of his statements tend towards the heretical. I’m not a theologian, but I don’t hesitate to say this because I do not see in the statements in question some subtle Christological or soteriological error. Rather, they tend to reject the very idea of the Church’s teaching authority. If we reject that idea then of course the word “heresy” is both meaningless and useless. If we don’t, it is neither. It’s a way of saying that something is false while also giving your reason for judging it to be false, namely, that it contradicts the deposit of faith.

The statements quoted at the outset of this post can tend in a heretical direction even if, as I do not doubt, Fr. Martin is certain that he believes there to be such a thing as theological truth, and such a thing as the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. Because it does not feel like anything to be a heretic, and we are not privileged authorities when it comes to judging to what further words our words will drive us on.


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