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Is Heresy Heretical? | By James V. Schall, S.J. | May 19. 2005

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This year, 2005, is the 100th anniversary of the publication of G. K. Chesterton’s famous book, Heretics. The "heretics" were people, if you recall, who finally convinced Chesterton that the Church was right, because the logic of the heretical position, when spelled out, was intellectually untenable. But it had to be carefully spelled out, which Chesterton did. Chesterton understood that faith was also a thing of the mind and that, no matter how politically correct or popular, certain positions, when elaborated, simply could not make sense. They were dangerous for the very being of man. Ideas are a form of intellectual dynamite, both when they are true and when they are false.

"But there are some people — and I am one of them — who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe," Chesterton wrote.
We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy. We think the question is not whether the theory of the cosmos affects matters, but whether, in the long run, anything else affects them. (G.K. Chesterton: Collected Works, volume 1 [Ignatius Press, 1986], p. 41).
If the man to whom the landlady sublets her room thinks that suicide is a way of life, she will want to open doors very carefully. The main issue about the Iraq war is already in this passage – not whether they are "terrorists," but what is the philosophy of the terrorists that makes them that way. The truth of things really matters.

Today, the only popularly acknowledged public "heretics" are those who think that there is such a thing as truth and that we can come close to explaining what it is. The only "heretics," in other words, are the orthodox who think that truth is the truth in all ages and is the basis of our freedom. The prevailing opinion, one might say, the culture, maintains that there can be no truth, so that any claim that there is or might be is itself upsetting to the polity. It is to be looked upon as dangerous. To hold the truth, even that there be a truth, has become a "fanatical" position. Sanity is pictured as insane.

Needless to say, the view that it is true that nothing is true – that all, in other words, is relative – is itself a contradictory dogma whose truth we wonder about. People seem deathly afraid of Pope Benedict XVI because, so they imagine, he might suggest that something is true. What they are afraid of, no doubt, is not Benedict but of the fact that there is a truth with which we are confronted whether we like it or not. And this truth is a truth that he is obliged to proclaim whether he likes it or not.

What else is the papal office for besides the duty of preserving a truth handed down to the Church? Benedict XVI is not in the least dangerous to the culture is he stands for what the culture stands for. He is only dangerous if there is a truth without the knowledge of which none of us are complete. The "fear" that Benedict instills, if we might speak that rather silly way, is the fear in our own hearts that there is a truth. But we have taken every means to blind ourselves to it. We cannot bear to acknowledge that we have been wrong about how we think and consequently how we live.

The Holy See in recent decades has often employed the word "dialogue." It is the great Greek word, from at least Plato. It is used to indicate a serious effort to find the truth by a rigorous examination of ideas and realities behind them to see whether they are valid or not. The end of "dialogue" is not, however, more dialogue ad infinitum. As someone remarked to me of late, "When I hear the word ‘dialogue,’ I reach for my dogma." This is right.

The word "dialogue" has come to mean, not an honorable pursuit of truth to be reached in judgments, but rather an endless altercation based on the proposition that there is no truth. It is politically incorrect to claim that there is. The powers of the democratic state come more and more to enforce the proposition that there can be no truth, especially about how we ought to live.

The intellectual history of the Church is, in part, a history of the examination of ideas that seek to explain reality and revelation in a manner that obscures or denies what in fact is handed down or reasoned to. Dogmas are simply efforts to state as clearly as possible what is held. To be "dogmatic" is a virtue, not a vice, if we mean by that word what it means in its essential intelligibility; namely, that this or that is the statement of the truth of important things about reason or revelation.

The very function of the mind, Chesterton also remarked, is to make "dogmas," to make every effort to state the truth of what is, of what is handed down. No one claims that no dogmatic statement can be improved. But this does not mean that what is stated is untrue or even doubtful. Rather it is as true as a finite mind can make it. The fact that we are not gods, but finite human beings, means that we strive to state the truth, that we know that it makes a difference.

How many times do we see today that any effort of the Church to state definitively and clearly what it is or what it holds about God, Christ, the cosmos, man, and our destiny is looked upon, even by clerics, as somehow a restriction of our freedom. This effort is rather the guarantee of our freedom. Holding everything open to debilitating "dialogue" is often little more than a form of skepticism. It is a refusal to use the mind for what it is, a power to make and estimate the truth of things.

Is the effort to state what heresy is itself "heretical?" Clearly not. It is the other side of the burden and delight of truth. To have a "church" which does not claim to know what the truth is, or in which all truth is up for grabs, or which does not make any effort to reject what is not true, is to have not a Church but the modern world. These are the lines of battle. It is, I suspect, heresy to doubt it.

"When Thomas Aquinas asserted the spiritual liberty of man," Chesterton remarked, again in Heretics, "he created all the bad novels in the circulating libraries" (p. 144). By the same token, he created all the heresies found in the popular and academic press. It is not the function of the Church to "suppress" heresies, any more than it is to clear the bad novels out of the public libraries. But it is its function to know and proclaim the difference between what is heretical and what is true, just as it is not the function of the critics, while letting both exist, to call lousy novels great.

The crisis of our time would be much greater if the Church, as so many of its critics and not a few of its sophisticated members seem to desire, abdicated its function of pursuing and judging the truth of things, including the divine and human things handed down to it to keep present before our eyes and minds wherever we be, whenever we be.

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.

Read more of his essays on his website.

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