, , , , , ,


I can see one of the joys of working at a Catholic university is going to be dealing with allegations that some sorts of colleagues are heretics because they dissent from a non-infallible teaching (and let us not get started in what is and is not infallible); part of the joy comes in the (very typically Catholic) nuanced nature of what heresy means – as this article shows.

Both matter and form of heresy admit of degrees which find expression in the following technical formula of theology and canon law. Pertinacious adhesion to a doctrine contradictory to a point of faith clearly defined by the Church is heresy pure and simple, heresy in the first degree. But if the doctrine in question has not been expressly “defined” or is not clearly proposed as an article of faith in the ordinary, authorized teaching of the Church, an opinion opposed to it is styled sententia haeresi proxima, that is, an opinion approaching heresy. Next, a doctrinal proposition, without directly contradicting a received dogma, may yet involvelogical consequences at variance with revealed truth. Such a proposition is not heretical, it is apropositio theologice erronea, that is, erroneous in theology. Further, the opposition to anarticle of faith may not be strictly demonstrable, but only reach a certain degree of probability. In that case the doctrine is termed sententia de haeresi suspecta, haeresim sapiens; that is, an opinion suspected, or savouring, of heresy (see THEOLOGICAL CENSURES).

It is so much easier to tweet ‘heretic’ and to question whether someone is really a Catholic, than to wrestle with such complex terminology. This, of course, is why if the Church wishes to indict someone of heresy there is a process; mysteriously, and no doubt regrettably, this does not appear to involve individual Catholics on Twitter. Yes, and of course, it is annoying, irritating and, for those of that nature, exasperating, when a well-known Catholic pronounces in a way inconsistent with the teaching of the Church. It might even make that person a heretic. But the Twitter Congregation for the Defence of the Faith is not a recognised instrument of the Magisterium (though  no doubt some think it would be a jolly good thing if it were).

In a Twitter exchange the other evening, the view was expressed by some that academic freedom should not apply to academics at Catholic universities. This seems to me a strange doctrine, since some of those who hold it also think that Catholics in secular work-places have a right to have their faith respected and, if necessary, be exempted from work (such as abortion) which conflicts with their faith. It is quite hard to reconcile the two opinions, unless what is really being said is that when Catholics are in charge, opinions which run counter to the Church should not be allowed, but when they are not, they need special protection. It seems to me that would allow our enemies to say what is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander, and that if our institutions ban dissent, so should their own; given the balance of power in our society, that would not be a deal we Catholics would be well-advised to conclude.

Most Catholic universities, and all of those in the UK, employ staff who are not Catholic, and take students who are not Catholic, so, on the argument that Catholics should not be forced to conform to secular practices against their religion, non-Catholics should not be forced to conform to Catholic teaching. But what about Catholic scholars?

In the West we live in societies where the freedom to say what we think has become increasingly trammelled. Very often Catholics (and others of a conservative disposition) are apt to shake their heads at political correctness and the narrowing of our public discourse; we should, I think, beware of going down a Catholic version of this path. To do so would, apart from anything else, raise the suspicion, not far below the surface in cultures with a an anti-Catholic history, that left to ourselves we’d be lighting the bonfires at Smithfield given half a chance. In a world where ‘safe space’ has become associated with millennials not wanting to be exposed to ideas which make them uncomfortable, I would not want to associate myself with with a Catholic version of that, where Catholic students are supposed to be such fragile creatures that they cannot be exposed to views from Catholics which dissent from Catholic teaching. There are enough, and more than enough, people wanting to close down discussion and free expression of thought, without Catholics joining them.

The Truth has nothing to fear from robust questioning. It is regrettable that we have lost the tradition of Natural Theology, it is even more regrettable that Catholic academics are constantly met with objections which reveal that the objectors are fundamentalist materialists. These things are regrettable not least because our society has produced and is producing young people who, the figures show, are increasingly suffering from depression and stress, and it is offering them no remedy for this save medication. It would be better if it allowed those young people access to the rich spiritual and cultural heritage of our Christian past, which would enable them to realise that the spiritual richness is still there. But too often they lack the language and the concepts with which to access it. I’m all for opening up free speech, not closing it down. If some Catholic academics wish to question Catholic teaching, let them. Young people are really quite bright, especially those at university, and they have ready access to the knowledge of what the Church really teaches.