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Continuity & Ecumenism: Heretics or Seperated Brethren?

martin-lutherWhile writing my self-published manuscript, New Things and Old: Re-Implementing Vatican II, I came to the realization that Vatican II could only be understood in light of past magisterial teaching and the sources of the Tradition.  Taken by themselves the documents could lead even orthodox Catholics to formulate or embrace conclusions that were erroneous and run contrary to Catholic teaching.

This tendency was addressed by Pope Benedict XVI, who spoke of “two hermeneutics” or methods for how Vatican II should be interpreted and understood – the “hermeneutic of continuity and reform” and the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”.  This hermeneutic is employed by various Catholics in regards to Vatican II.  Some traditionalists read the documents of Vatican II as breaking from Church teaching and condemn it for doing so, while progressives and modernists come to the same conclusion but consider it a boon.  The “hermeneutic of continuity and reform”, on the other hand, sees Vatican II as merely developing certain doctrines but teaching nothing contrary to what was officially taught before.  This is the position of the Magesterium, as well as the one all faithful and orthodox Catholics are required to adopt.

Unfortunately this is not always the case. What has happened is that in certain areas, orthodox Catholics unwittingly and thus innocently apply the wrong hermeneutic. They believe that certain previous magisterial statements contradict Vatican II and therefore must not have been infallible as they are in error. Even when they attempt to defend Vatican II, they make the same mistake that those who apply the hermeneutic of rupture make.

One of the most common areas that this has occurred in is ecumenism. Let us take for example an excerpt from The Catholic Challenge, written by Dr. Alan Schreck. Dr. Schreck states in pages 203-204 that before Vatican II:

“it was common for Catholics and Protestants to think of each other as ‘heretics … [but] what a radical departure from such a posture is the teaching of the Second Vatican Council[:] ‘All those justified by faith through baptism are incorporated into Christ [and] therefore have the right to be honored by the title of Christian’ (Unitatis Redintegratio, 2). … Not only [this], but at Vatican II the Catholic church officially recognized for the first time the bodies to which these Christians belong as ‘churches and (ecclesial) communities.’”

If we examine Dr. Schreck’s commentary, we will discover that he employed the wrong hermeneutic.

Regarding the term “heretic”, we must begin by first finding out what it means and how it has been used by the Church. The word “heresy”, from which the term “heretic” is derived, comes from the Greek airesos, meaning “sect”, and was used by St. Peter in Scripture to refer to splinter groups such as the Gnostics. (2Peter 2:1) The term “heresy” has been used since the beginning to refer to “the formal denial or doubt by a baptized person of any revealed truth of the Catholic faith”, and the person who has done so as a “heretic”. (Attwater, Donald, ed. A Catholic Dictionary. New York: MacMillan Company, 1951)

A distinction, however, has long been made between “formal” and “material” heresy. St. Thomas in his Summa Theologica (II-II q.11, a.1) states that when “the heretical tenets [arise from] ignorance of the true creed, erroneous judgment, imperfect apprehension and comprehension of dogmas”, then “such heresy is merely objective, or material”, for “one of the necessary conditions of sinfulness — free choice — is wanting”. However, when “the will … freely incline[s] the intellect to adhere to tenets declared false by the [Magisterium]”, as in the case of “intellectual pride [or] the allurements of political or ecclesiastical power”, then the heresy is “freely willed” and thus it is “formal” and “carries with it varying degree[s] of guilt”.

The Reformers have always been accused of formal heresy, but not necessarily Protestants who were born into those communions, who have often been considered only material heretics, as the Catholic Dictionary witnesses to:

“It can hardly be doubted that the vast majority of non-Catholic Christians are in good faith and labouring under invincible ignorance [and thus material heresy]. It is amusing to note, in this age when many people [anti-Catholic Protestants] boast that they are heretics and resent any stigma of orthodoxy, that the Church refuses them both the name and the odium attaching to it” [emphasis mine].

At times the Magisterial documents before Vatican II did refer to Protestants as “heretics”. However, these documents refrained from using the term “heretic” when addressing Protestants in a fraternal spirit of invitation and dialogue, using them only when addressing the Catholic faithful alone and when the negative connotations attached to the term were fitting, such as when referring to non-Catholic Christians in certain anti-Catholic activities. In fact, some Popes before Vatican II used the term later adopted by Vatican II — “separated brethren” or “separated children”, as Pope Pius XI did in Mortalium Animos (paragraph 12) and as Pope Pius XII did in Orientalis Ecclesiae. (paragraph 38) While one can debate the wisdom of this change in the current environment, it is not unprecedented.

Even in this different environment, it is incorrect to say that the Popes have completely abandoned the previous approach.  Pope St. John Paul II, when speaking about the proselytizing of Catholics in Latin America by Protestant groups, refers to them as “sects” ,which is the essence of heresy. (Ad Limina Address to the Bishops’ Conference of Brazil, September 5, 1995). Cardinal Ratzinger also used the same term in The Ratzinger Report to refer to certain proselytizing Protestant groups. (pages 117-118) The fact remains that Protestants are still material heretics and the communions they belong to heretical, even if the Magisterium generally opts not to use the terms.

As we can see, this apparent “radical departure” spoken of by Dr. Schreck did not really take place at Vatican II and still does not exist. If the quotation he gave seems like a radical departure to him, it is for two reasons.  The first reason is an ignorance of what Tradition actually teaches.  The second is because he did not read the footnotes that make sure anything that sounds new is actually grounded in tradition, which the Council Fathers were very careful to do, but which is beyond our scope.  Neither helps us understand Vatican II in the spirit the Holy Father has called for.

Go to Part II.


Wade St. Onge received a Masters degree in Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is the self-published author of New Things and Old: Re-Implementing Vatican II, and An Acceptable Sacrifice: Reforming the Liturgical Reform, and is currently working on a manuscript entitled, Inquire of the Fathers: The Theology of the Body Debate and the Ignorance of Tradition. He blogs at The Ivory Tower, and lives in Saskatchewan, Canada.
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  • Very good. Thanks.

  • injured_mopedman

    I’ve written some things about Theology of the Body and the Patristic Tradition(s). I’ll be interested to see your approach.

  • AugustineThomas

    I still call it heresy, even though it constantly gets me banned from commenting on websites that condone heresy.

  • “Cardinal” Joseph Ratzinger, The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood, pp. 87-88: “The difficulty in the way of giving an answer is a profound one. Ultimately it is due to the fact that there is no appropriate category in Catholic thought for the phenomenon of Protestantism today (one could say the same of the relationship to the separated churches of the East). It is obvious that the old category of ‘heresy’ is no longer of any value. Heresy, for Scripture and the early Church, includes the idea of a personal decision against the unity of the Church, and heresy’s characteristic is pertinacia, the obstinacy of him who persists in his own private way. This, however, cannot be regarded as an appropriate description of the spiritual situation of the Protestant Christian. In the course of a now centuries-old history, Protestantism has made an important contribution to the realization of Christian faith, fulfilling a positive function in the development of the Christian message and, above all, often giving rise to a sincere and profound faith in the individual non-Catholic Christian, whose separation from the Catholic affirmation has nothing to do with the pertinacia characteristic of heresy. Perhaps we may here invert a saying of St. Augustine’s: that an old schism becomes a heresy. The very passage of time alters the character of a division, so that an old division is something essentially different from a new one. Something that was once rightly condemned as heresy cannot later simply become true, but it can gradually develop its own positive ecclesial nature, with which the individual is presented as his church and in which he lives as a believer, not as a heretic. This organization of one group, however, ultimately has an effect on the whole. The conclusion is inescapable, then: Protestantism today is something different from heresy in the traditional sense, a phenomenon whose true theological place has not yet been determined.”

    • Wade St. Onge

      Actually, this was not written by “Cardinal” Joseph Ratzinger, but by “Father” Joseph Ratzinger, in 1966, a year after he finished serving as the personal theologian of Cardinal Frings, the unofficial head of the “Progressive camp” at Vatican II, which I wrote about in my book.

      • I guess the book titles him Cardinal due to possibly the fact that he added a postscript when he was one? Anyways I am sure you have an explanation for any documentation that contradicts your ideology.

        • Wade St. Onge

          If it was merely “my” ideology, it would be of little avail.

          In this article, I argue not on the basis of “my” ideology, but on the basis of Magisterial teaching, which trumps not only my views, but the theological speculations and proposals of scholars.

          It is interesting to note that all of those arguing against my two articles are unable to rebut the substance of my arguments, but are able merely to deflect from them with emotional appeals and attempts to juxtapose my quotations with seemingly-contradictory quotes from more recent statements that are meant to leave the impression that former Magisterial statements, the ones I quote, are erroneously “outdated” and thus to be jettisoned.

          • Only in your world. I wasn’t aware that the comments section was a place to rebut your personal Catholicism. Comments are often emotional in nature. Even if it was that purpose, as you have postulated, no one can match your up to date and overly accurate personation of Catholic teaching, not even if the pope of Rome himself!!!

          • Wade St. Onge

            I know many comments are of an emotional nature, which is why they often lack logical substance.

            Besides appeals to emotion and deflections, there is another – ad hominems. Your latest reply contains the 2nd and 3rd, and in fact proves my point. You cannot prove the substance of my arguments wrong, so you attempt to dismiss it by referring to it as my own “personal Catholicism” – which, ironically, is what your own views are. I took a look at your blog – your latest entry contradicts Sacerdotalis Caelibatus. That was actually written by a pope as pope, not when he was a young theologian in his liberal days.

          • Wade St. Onge

            Sorry, I meant under the last post under your “priesthood” section.

          • Guest

            interesting my last post had to do with the Dormition of the Theotokos

          • Wade St. Onge

            Please see comment immediately above – click on your “priesthood” tab

          • Wade St. Onge
          • Wade St. Onge

            “A man who is both married and called to serve the altar would seem to receive a more beneficial path to experience God as opposed to someone not married and called to serve.”

          • goral

            What a nice statement to make for the consumption of American catholics who want to remake the “American church” to view the Sacred Faith through all of our combined experiences. Such togetherness. Such heretical nonsense!
            The statement is silly, stupid and begs ridicule. The priest is at the Altar to reenact the Sacrifice and not to experience God with his son, Abraham did that! There is a plethora of combinations that would give all of us the fulness of experiences. This is modern, couch-side reasoning that has made its way into the Church after V2. The secular has replaced the Sacred as a way of making the heretics feel welcome. This guy on the easterncatholic site is a formal heretic because he is professing this absurdity. Another absurdity is the following statement by guest, professing that a “heresy can gradually develop its own positive ecclesial (ecclesiastical) nature” and over time – poof! becomes heavenly. Even Protestants don’t think that. Heresy is just an ever mutating virus that elicits sympathy and rationale for the poor devil carrying it.

          • Wade St. Onge

            Which is why this Eastern Catholic priest, as much as he professes the orthodox faith, is actually a cafeteria Catholic himself — picking and choosing from Magisterium teaching whatever suits his own liking, and leaving the rest. And then he has the audacity to say that I am promoting my own personal theology. Unreal.

          • Cafeteria Catholic is one who picks and chooses which DOGMA to believe and reject.
            For an Eastern priest to say that the married priesthood offers certain insights a celibate priesthood don’t isn’t a cafeteria catholic. Theoretically, it’s discipline. But in the East, married priests have always been permitted, even if a good amount were/are celibate.

            I won’t comment any deeper on it, but I think we should be respectful of the traditions of faithful Catholics, even when they are different from ours.

          • Wade St. Onge

            Cafeteria Catholic has traditionally been used to pick and choose dogmas, but need not be restricted to that — it is not a theological term but a popular term.

            I am not objecting to his arguments in favour of married priesthood. What I was pointing out is the contradiction in someone accusing me of not following the Pope (ie. Father Ratzinger’s comments on the term “heretic” in reference to Protestants) but then himself not following the Pope (ie. Pope Paul VI’s Sacerdotalis Caelibatus).

            Therefore, he is doing similar to what the Cafeteria Catholics do — pick and choose one Papal document and claim its truth on the basis of papal authority (Fr. Ratzinger’s comments on Protestants and heresy) but reject another Papal document and reject it despite the fact it has the same authority (Pope Paul on clerical celibacy). If you can suggest a better term for this phenomenon, which is real, then I would be happy to use that instead. But I think it is fair to draw the parallel that I have.

          • Ric2012

            “And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away (Matthew 5:30) ” this clearly violates Catholic teaching, why isn’t anyone speaking up about this!!!

          • Ric2012

            Good job by the way of leaving out the next sentence that dismiss the “Would seem” and any other notions of having of 1upminship. “All the members of the Church of course have access through baptism to an unlimited experience of God” As given your post above. you do have your own context that you like to create to prove your understanding of reality.

          • goral

            How do these two comments add anything to the exchange? Opine on the topic, not personal issues.

          • Ric2012

            they point out the bigotry of the author. Who creates his own context instead of engaging real facts. in the case with my blog Mr. St orange likes to create controversy when there is none. He takes sentences out of peoples books and changes the context in order to sell his ideology. Not to mention the fact that he throws his own former Professor at Franciscan university under the bus through his make believe context of his thought. 90% of the people who read this nonsense know nothing of the man who he attacks or have actually read his teachings and they assume Mr. Orange is helping the church but in reality he is seeking to help his failing books sales. Dr. Schreck is waiting for his call if he needs clarification on reality. however, I think it will be much easier to make stuff up than to actually confront the real person.

          • goral

            The accusation of bigotry is almost as serious as the accusation of heresy. The article is partly about the later. On the surface, I don’t get a sense of bigotry from Mr. “orange”, (the twist is not mine). I do get a sense of personal anomosity and feel that it doesn’t enhance the discussion. I will however, look further into the writings of Dr. Schreck to see if he’s been “thrown under the bus”, as you claim. Thanks for your response which now broadens the scope.

          • Wade St. Onge

            Just to reply to one more ad hominem that deflects from the fact that I am right – I confronted Dr. Schreck in person face to face about docking me for things he disagreed with, as well as Drs, Miravalle, Hahn, Paruch, and others.

          • Wade St. Onge

            Exactly. I have enough material here for another article – namely, how if you disagree with my articles but are only able to come up with red herrings, deflections, and ad hominems, then you are probably wrong and you must seriously consider that you are in dissent from the Magisterium and choose whether you will continue with your heresy, or swallow your pride, bow to the Lord, and assent to His teaching.

            Nothing more needs to be said to this man – he stands self-condemned: “A man that is a heretic, after the first and second admonition, avoid: Knowing that he, that is such an one, is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned by his own judgment.” (Titus 3:10)

  • Pax

    hmm… would it be reasonable to say ‘both and’ are they not separated brethren , separated from us by heresy, which they mistake , quite unfortunately for truth? Is the situation that much different then those poor people who believe in the false teaching of Mohamed?

    Each group has some portion of the truth, each one believe some things that are half-true and half-false.