Catholic moral theology teaches that there are two ways of sinning: either we can do what we shouldn’t have done, or else, we can fail to do what we should have done. The first is called a sin of commission and the second a sin of omission. These two moral categories offer insight into sins against faith as well.
The Compendium says,
“Faith believes in God and rejects everything that is opposed to it, such as deliberate doubt, unbelief, heresy, apostasy, and schism” (#442).
The Catechism teaches,
“Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same” (#2089).
In order to commit a sin of heresy against the faith, one must first know that a particular belief belongs to that deposit of faith taught by the Church and intended for all the faithful to believe. The person who, in ignorance, rejects such teaching is a material heretic, while the person who knowingly rejects such teaching is a formal heretic. The guilt of a material heretic can be minimal or non-existent, while the guilt of a formal heretic is grave.
An example of a material heretic is a child who was born and raised in a Protestant or Catholic home in which the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist was denied. The child’s duty is to accept and respect that faith and religious practice which his or her parents provides. Of course, eventually the child will reach the age at which he or she has the duty to more carefully examine the parents’ faith and decide for or against its veracity. If, after examining the doctrine, the adult person realizes that their parents’ faith is in error and that the Real Presence actually belongs to the ancient and Apostolic faith, then he or she has the duty to renounce the heresy and embrace the truth. Otherwise, the guilt of that heresy will cease being merely material and become formal and grave.
My concern with this post is not with the actual heretic or his or her guilt, but rather, with the methods used in spreading heresy. The modern Church offers us countless demonstrations of the point I’d like to make.
As with the two ways of sinning, so with the two methods of teaching heresy. The simpler and more obvious method is heresy by commission. This consists of asserting either that something false is true, or else, that something true is false. The heretic boldly and openly proclaims the heresy, and by comparing it with the true faith, any person who cares can, with research, come to realize the teaching is an error.
However, the far more effective and shrewd method of teaching heresy is heresy by omission. This approach ultimately involves no false statements or contradictions of the truth. There is no asserted doctrine that is heretical, but only a long-term effect. The false teaching is more of an impression, and this keeps it virtually invisible. Heresy by omission consists of teaching only a portion of the truth as if it were the whole truth. When this is done week after week and year after year, those who receive such teaching and look no further develop an incomplete and warped faith – one that is lacking fundamental elements of the Gospel and is, therefore, truly heretical.
Now for a few examples. Let’s again take the Real Presence. According to the heresy by omission method, one can effectively deny this doctrine simply by never teaching about it. Simply assert, year after year, that the Holy Mass is a commemoration of Jesus’ love for us, and nothing more. There’s no need to deny a doctrinal truth; just avoid it in both preaching and music. The people will slowly get the erroneous message that the Holy Mass is no different from a Protestant communion service – juice and crackers for every single member of the community of faith, no exceptions. Without an uttered word of heresy, belief in the Real Presence, Transubstantiation, and the sacrificial nature of the Mass will simply melt away and appear to peoples’ memories to have been discarded as “old Church” dogma.
Consider also death, judgment, purgatory, hell, and heaven. By following the heresy by omission method and omitting from the pulpit all except the last item, the preacher can effectively wipe out the “last things” from Catholic consciousness, minus the most pleasant one – heaven. He merely has to let the Advent and Lenten seasons pass, as well as the Feast of Christ the King and the funerals, week after week and year after year, without uttering a syllable about the temporal and eternal consequences of mortal and venial sin. The method will invariably bear its insipid fruit. Having heard nothing about judgment, purgatory, or hell, but only constant assurances about easy salvation, the faithful will cheerfully conclude that everyone and their pet goes to heaven.
Consider especially the love and mercy of God. On any given Sunday, regardless of the themes of the Scripture readings, one can expect to hear a sermon in which it is asserted that God is love and mercy ad infinitum. There’s nothing wrong with this statement; it’s positively Gospel truth, period. But there’s far more to say about God than just this; namely, that He is also just, and has repeatedly said so Himself. And any preacher who will not passionately and repeatedly warn his congregation of this fact – for love of that congregation – is a negligent and dangerous shepherd indeed. With such shepherds, what need is there for wolves? The end result of hearing, week after week and year after year, that God is only loving and merciful – even to unrepentant sinners – is the presumption that God is not just and will never punish anyone for anything. Could a more replete encouragement to sin exist than this subtle denial of the Day of Judgment?
Heresy by omission is widespread in the modern Church. As an example, in the past twenty-four years, I’ve heard the Catechism of the Catholic Church quoted from in homilies a total of three times! Probably many Catholics are unaware that such an authoritative resource even exists. The Catechism contains the complete faith, including those many doctrines and morals which have been methodically and consistently omitted for decades from our Sunday sermons. I guess avoiding the Catechism only makes sense, if you’re promoting another gospel.
Folks, read the Catechism and the Compendium and the Bible! Don’t expect to be handed the truth that saves. Care enough about the temporal and eternal welfare of your own souls to seek the truth for yourselves, and then bring it to others. There is absolutely no excuse in this age of media to be without it for even one more moment. Only the Truth can set you free to salvation. There is hope in No One else.