On Punching Heretics

Editor’s Note: The Catholic Thing has never aspired to be the hammer of the heretics – though the temptation, as Fr. Longenecker explains today, to reply with violence to soul-destroying falsehood is strong. We do make use, however, of every one of the strong weapons of spirit, soul, and intelligence. And we sorely need your help just now to keep up this spiritual struggle. As many of you know, I’ve been away on a walking pilgrimage this week along the Camino to the Cathedral of Saint James of Compostela in Spain. (I’ll tell you a bit about the experience in a few days.)  I’ve carried along on every step of that journey intentions for all of us associated with TCT – including you the readers. This funding period has been promising, but we still need to continue a bit longer to reach our Spring goals. Please, if it is at all possible for you at this point, go the extra mile (you see I have distance on the mind). There aren’t many places on the whole world-wide web where you will find as consistently incisive and reliable commentary on the Faith and the world as The Catholic Thing. – Robert Royal

There was an odious man named Frank in our fundamentalist church when I was a boy who had a brood of badly behaved children. When one of them would act up, Frank would haul the miscreant out of the sanctuary and wallop him. When he would re-appear with the unfortunate sprog, Frank would mutter sanctimoniously, “Sometimes we need to administer love to our children.”

The memory brings to mind another fracas at church in an earlier time. At the Council of Nicea, Bishop Nicholas of Myra punched the heretic Arius in the face. Arius had been asked to defend his doctrine that Jesus Christ was only a created being and not God incarnate. The future Santa Claus, fed up with this nonsense, got up and administered some love. St. Nicholas is also known as Nicholas the Wonderworker. Some work. Some wonder.

Nicholas was not the only one of the Fathers inclined to physical expressions of orthodoxy. St. John Chrysostom was so troubled by Christians who advocated teetotalism that he preached a homily encouraging the faithful to revolt: 

Paul is not ashamed. . .in writing to Timothy, to bid him take refuge in the healing virtue of wine drinking. Not to drink wine?  God forbid! For such precepts belong to heretics. . . .Should you hear any one in the public thoroughfare, or in the midst of the forum, blaspheming God; go up to him and rebuke him; and should it be necessary to inflict blows, spare not to do so. Smite him on the face; strike his mouth; sanctify your hand with the blow, and if any should accuse you, and drag you to the place of justice, follow them, and when the judge. . .calls you to account, say boldly that the man blasphemed the King of angels!

Most of us would hesitate to follow John Chrysostom’s robust advice. Explaining to the sheriff that we had struck the progressive Christian because he had “blasphemed the King of Angels” is not our style. Our new beatitude is “blessed are the milquetoast for they shall inherit a peaceful life.” We prefer to do battle with words, not swords, for we are sure that fingers tapping keyboards are more effective than fists striking faces.

Nevertheless, virulent, vituperative, and even violent attitudes towards heretics are part of Scripture itself. St. Paul inveighed against the legalists who insisted that the Gentile converts should be circumcised, saying that he wished they would go the whole way and castrate themselves. (Gal.5:12)

          Nicholas strikes Arius: detail from a fresco depicting the Council of Nicea
        (Holy Monastery of Panagia Soumela in Turkey)

Meanwhile St Peter wrote these choice words about heretics:

There will be false teachers among you, who will introduce destructive heresies. . .Many will follow their licentious ways, and because of them the way of truth will be reviled. In their greed they will exploit you with fabrications. . .these people, like irrational animals. . .revile things that they do not understand. . .thinking daytime revelry a delight, they are stains and defilements as they revel in their deceits while carousing with you. Their eyes are full of adultery and insatiable for sin. They seduce unstable people, and their hearts are trained in greed. Accursed children!. . .These people are waterless springs. . .for them the gloom of darkness has been reserved. . . .What is expressed in the true proverb has happened to them, “The dog returns to its own vomit,” and “A bathed sow returns to wallowing in the mire.” (2 Peter)

Indeed, while the New Testament sings sweetly of the joys of following Christ, it also echoes with the most severe imprecations against both legalistic and licentious false teachers. The apostles may not condone physical violence against heretics, but they certainly have no time for compromise, weasel words, ignoring immorality. and sentimental half-truths that paper over lies and pretend divisions do not exist.

Without becoming Westboro Baptists, our lily-livered age could use the odd theological pugilist. Few of us will take the risk of punching a heretic, but what are the options? First is clarity. There is such a thing as false teaching because there is such a thing as true teaching. The Catholic faith is true. Therefore it is dogmatic. It has boundaries. Not everything goes. It is possible to be outside the Church, and we come to know the boundaries through solid and substantial catechesis.

If we are clear that there are boundaries, then we are also clear that false teachers blur the boundaries, water down the faith, and obscure the truth. They do so in both doctrine and morals. If we are clear that heresy exists, then we must also hate it. We hate false teaching because the fate of souls is at stake. False teaching leads to bad beliefs and bad behaviors, and bad beliefs and behaviors propel souls on that broad way that leads to destruction.

Clarity is first. Charity is second. In the second chapter of the Book of Revelation St. John recounts Christ’s words to the believers in Ephesus. He says, “You have this in your favor. You hate the works of the Nicolaitans which I also hate.” (The Nicolaitans were a sect notorious for their sexual profligacy and false teaching.) Notice however, that gentle St. John says he hates the works of the Nicolaitans. So then, hate the heresy, love the heretic.

Clarity, then charity, and I would add a spice of hilarity. Chesterton was an effective warrior for the faith because he was a happy warrior. Heretics are rarely happy. Good humor, therefore, is often the best antidote to the sour-faced and self-righteous seriousness of heresy.

Unfortunately, the heretics are often as odious as the heresy. It is not easy to disentangle sin from the sinner, and it is not easy to sift the heresy from the heretic. The temptation to slap remains and therefore our prayer also remains, “Lead us not into temptation,” and teach us to administer love in better ways.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is an Anglican convert to Catholicism. He is married with four children and lives in Greenville, South Carolina where he serves as pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church. He is an acclaimed author and blogger.