As the Christian Centuries rode along, believers in the first years after the Roman Persecutions began to reflect on the person of Christ and what this new religion is all about. The Church kept growing in size and complexity: what began as a small movement of Jews was developing into a world religion.
With this expansion, it became evident that all Christians did not believe the same things. There were some divergencies from beliefs held from the beginning of the Church that seemed to be contradictory. Thus, the Church began convening Councils to decide which was the correct doctrine and which the incorrect. They called correct doctrine ‘orthodoxy’ (from the Greek words ‘right thinking’) and the false doctrine they termed ‘heresy’ (from the Greek word for ‘other thinking’).
In our free-thinking times, we might say, ‘Why get hot and bothered about this? Live and let live! Let people think what they want!’
This seems self-evident today. But this way of thinking is flawed since it does not take in how badly damaging a false idea truly is. We see, perhaps, a hint of this in the damage caused by conspiracy theories on the internet. Someone decides to spread an idea that is false, but that they personally believe to be true. Suddenly the thought of this one person goes viral and affects the ideas and even the politics of the country.
In theology, a false idea can be deeply damaging to one’s whole spirituality. A heresy not only corrupts the beliefs of one person: it is like a virus which can spread like a contagion affecting great numbers of innocent people who may be susceptible to this sort of distortion. The consequences of heresy can be deep and long-lasting since it affects one’s view of God, of salvation and of right moral behavior.
A case in point is the Albigensian heresy in the Middle Ages which began as an earnest attempt to purge the corruption that had gotten into the Church. These heretics believed that the soul was good, but it was held prisoner in the body. The body is what caused all this evil in the Church. Thus, some of these heretics began to kill the clergy since it was their bodies that corrupted them. Some believers starved themselves to death so that they could release their souls from their bodies. Others went in a different direction: since the body did not matter, they engaged in all sorts of immoral sexual behavior since the body was so corrupt. Why fight it?
This heresy spread all through southern France and threatened the rest of Europe. The Dominican Order of Preachers was founded to combat it by preaching against this persistently dangerous heresy. Some princes resorted to violence against these heretics. One of the great preachers against the Albigensians was the Franciscan Anthony of Padua who was declared a saint right after his death. During his short life he was dubbed ‘The Hammer of Heretics’.
I mention this destructiveness of heresy because there are heresies today which threaten the unity of the Church and the orthodoxy of Her teaching.
One of the heresies (wrong ideas) is that it does not matter what faith you belong to, that they are all equally valid paths to God. This flies in the face of the very concept of Revelation. Why would God inspire Scripture if it did not matter what you believed? This heresy is called relativism and it can be found all over the world. The proclamation of the Good News is rendered unnecessary or at best a ‘nice’ thing.
Another heretical idea is that the only reality is the material. In this view, all that we call spiritual is a desire of the body and therefore an illusion. Belief in God is just this material gene that causes what has been termed ‘spiritual desires’, but in the end is just another action of the material body.
Since God is just an illusion created by a gene of the body, the corollary to this heresy is that morality is what we make of it. There are no rules given by God. Morality is determined by the historical necessities of the individual person and the culture that they find themselves in. Thus, morality can change and fit into the needs of a particular epoch. Hence the human person can change the ethics of living at will depending on the needs of the age.
These are just two heresies that come to mind. I am sure that there are many others lurking in computers all over the world!
It is one of the Church’s roles, in order to sustain the unity of the Church, to ferret these heresies and to provide persuasive argumentation to warn the Faithful to steer clear of this thinking. The Catechism of the Catholic Church was issued to clarify all sorts of things and to provide a handy reference manual that any Catholic can consult with for a particular religious or moral question. It gives the orthodox position of the Catholic Church.
Heresies are dangerous and destructive. One needs to find shelter in the Magisterium of the Church. This is what it is for!