Sometimes, over time, some important concepts get clarified. If they are not followed, mayhem ensues; not just intellectually, but socially and politically. It is similar to mathematical formulae. When NASA devises flight patterns for their space flights, making sure the math is correct becomes a matter of life and death. One decimal point in the wrong place means that our astronauts may be lost in space!
The same is true with religion and the Church. The theology of the Church must be correct, otherwise disunity, harm and even war follows in the wake of these wrong ideas. We live in a liberal society that tries to accommodate a lot of different viewpoints and ideas. It seems counterintuitive to consider an idea as wrong. In our admittedly-to-be lamented relativization of values, we think that we can contain opposites in a harmonic whole. But take an idea like ‘women are inferior to men’. If we were to believe this erroneous idea, we would back many laws against the equality of men and women in our society. We held this view in the past and it was wrong then and is wrong now. It was only in the 20th century that women were allowed to vote! We have climbed out of many wrong ideas that had very hurtful and damaging consequences in our society.
There are religious ideas that are right (we call these orthodox) and there are religious ideas that are wrong (we call these heresies). Applying the same standards of right and wrong that we have in our societal issues, we can clearly see that wrong, heretical views of theology can be damaging to the Church and the world.
For instance, let us look at the Albigensian heresy. This heresy grew intensely in the south of France during the Middle Ages. It stated that the body and the material world are bad and the spiritual world is good. Therefore, souls (good) are trapped in bodies (bad) and long for liberation.
You might say, so what? This does not seem so bad. But some of these heretics started to refuse to eat so they could starve the body and release the soul from its prison. You have to agree that this concept of mass self-starvation is terrible. But it flows from this erroneous idea. Other heretics in the south of France came to a different consequence to this heretical idea. Since the body is evil and does not matter to God, you can do anything you want with the body and it’s OK. These heretics began to sexually abuse each other and rape and engage in every kind of forbidden sexual activity, since it did not matter to God since it did not touch the soul which did matter. Is it any wonder, when they began to take up weapons to defend their right to this heretical idea, that it had to be put down by force of arms?
In our own day, there are heresies as well. One of the most prevalent is that there is no objective right or wrong. Rather, every person has the right to their own understanding of right and wrong, good or bad. This lack of objectivity effects the moral sphere. Something can be good simply because I say it is good for me. Then hands off! Even God has to abide by this subjective view. This calls into question sin and the right of God to judge our actions. This can have disastrous consequences as can be seen in the area of sexuality where the law of God is buried under the will of man.
In the past, heresies were considered so dangerous that the secular government, in an unenlightened way, tried to stamp them out violently. The Church in her Inquisitions tried to moderate this violence by asking competent theological persons to judge if the person is truly guilty of heresy. The majority of cases before Church Inquisitions were judged to be not guilty of heresy and such persons were saved from the executioners.
Today we have no Inquisitions, but the Church does warn of heresies in Papal documents that seek to teach the faithful right thinking and true doctrine.
In all of this it is important that each person in the Church hold themselves accountable to the teaching authority of the Church (called the Magisterium) to protect themselves from erroneous ideas that often, in the guise of ‘conscience’, can cause great harm to individual Christians and the Church on the whole.
Living within the protection of Church Teaching is the only way to avoid wandering into ideas that appear good, but in reality, are very wrong and harmful.