In 1973, the American League in Major League Baseball adopted rule 6.10, called the “designated hitter rule.” This rule allows a hitter to take the place of the pitcher in the batting line up. Thus, in the American League, the pitchers never have to step up to plate. This rule change put a fundamental change on the game of baseball. A principal of the game prior to this change was that every player had to go to bat and face the other team, including the pitcher. That was the game: Everyone on both sides got to play offense at the plate and swing that bat and hit the ball. So, when this rule went into effect the cry of baseball purists went out: “Heresy! This is wrong!” The cry was heard by the National League, which did not adopt this rule, as it was deemed (as I, too, deem it) a heresy.
The church at times has to cry out “heresy” when a false teaching that denies truth or some tenet of the faith is annunciated. But when we speak of heresy, many people think of early times in church history, when heresy was a problem; they usually don’t think of today. But that’s not quite right. You see, heresies are, unfortunately, still alive and well in our world today. Many of these heresies are rehashes of old ones, but remain false teachings that lead us away from Christ and his church, and salvation.
I want to present four heresies that the church has dealt with in the recent or distant past and show the 21st century face of these heresies as they rear their heads in our world today. The four heresies covered will be: Indifferentism, Arianism, Relativism and Gnosticism.
• Indifferentism: It does matter
This is a heresy that is prevalent in today’s world. It’s often reinforced by the media. Indifferentism puts forth the idea that one religion is just the same as another. First dubbed “indifferentism” by Pope Gregory XVI in 1832, it is a false teaching.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “For it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help toward salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained” (CCC 816).
In this same regard, a document titled “Dominus Iesus,” written in 2000 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and approved by Pope John Paul II, states, it “would be contrary to the faith to consider the church as one way of salvation alongside those constituted by the other religions.”
This, of course doesn’t mean that non-Catholics or non-Christian don’t have access to the means of salvation, but it does mean that those means of salvation find their fullness in the church, and, ultimately, through Christ.
Why do folks say, “One religion is the same as another”? Simple: Because many people think that a religion is some sort of community organization, that is, a group that does nice things for other people. They don’t see religion as being the practice of belief, but just something people join like the 4H Club or Rotary.
Pope Francis rails against this, saying that all too often people view the church as some “compassionate NGO” (non-governmental organization). In fact, religion is the practice of one’s belief. Our belief is that the fullness of the truth subsists in the Catholic Church and that the church possesses the fullness of the means of salvation. As Catholics we believe this; we are not indifferent. Thus, another religion can’t make these claims. The Catholic faith that we believe and hold true is certain and distinct from any other faith: Thus, one religion (Catholic) is not just like another religion.
• Arianism: Creature features
Arius was a 2nd and 3rd century priest who held that Jesus Christ was merely a creature created by God, just as we are, that he was not divine, but human. He asserted that the Son (Jesus Christ) was the first and greatest creature, but a creature nonetheless. He said that the Son of God was created, not begotten, by the Father and was created in time (our time) and not eternal. He saw Jesus basically as a man who was good moral teacher with a special role imputed to him by God at his baptism.
This false teaching, given the name Arianism after its founder, was condemned at the Council of Nicea, which asserted that God the Son, the second person of the blessed Trinity, was incarnate (came in the flesh) and was fully divine and fully human in his nature, divine in his person, and consubstantial (of the same substance) of the Father.
But you may ask, where do we see Arianism today? This was killed off in the 4-5th centuries, right? In a religious realm, the Jehovah’s Witness today still carry this view forward, holding that Christ is a created being; specifically that he is St. Michael the Archangel. But more damaging to the faithful however, is the cultural gazing upon Jesus as a “good guy” or a “great role model.” People that say, “Oh, Jesus didn’t mean to create a church or religion, he just wanted to help people.”
Egads! The people of this world were not an Eagle Scout project for Christ. He was not some role model, or some good guy. When folks speak of Christ merely in terms like that, they diminish him by faint praise. Christ was and is God in the flesh, the Son of God, the Lord, the redeemer, the savior of the world. To say less than that of him, to reduce him to a mere role model is to fall into Arianism.
• Relativism: Visit from the relatives
The first time I got a dose of relativism was in seminary, when a classmate of mine, during a lecture on “truth,” said to the instructor: “Yeah, but what is truth for you, isn’t necessarily truth for me; don’t we each have our own truth?” He was of course rightly reproved for the comment for its illogic.
This nice sounding, free-to-be-you-and-me claptrap — “we each have our own truth” — is in the air these days. The idea that truth is malleable, or that each man has his own truth sounds great to our hyper-individualistic society. But this, too, is heresy. It is relativism. As Pope Benedict XVI once said, “A dictatorship of relativism is being formed; one that recognizes nothing as definitive and that has as its measure only the self and its desires.”
In relativism, good and bad, right or wrong, truth or lie, have no objective meaning. Everything becomes subjective, based on the view of each person, and thus in our world today we could have 7,000,000,000 truths or, better put, no truth at all.
By extension, (and contradicting Christ’s words in John 14:6, “I am the… Truth”) there is no God of truth in a world of relativism because in that world all points of view are equally valid, and that all truth is relative to the individual (and not to God). Secular humanism, which makes man the ultimate arbiter of truth, would be a commonly seen example of relativism in our world today.
• Gnosticism: I’ve got a secret
Gnosticism, a wide-ranging heresy that took many forms, was once quite de rigueur. It spoke to a secret knowledge (or “gnosis”) that was necessary for salvation, and was only available to an elite few. It saw man as “sparks of the divine” that were dropped into physical bodies causing him to fall into sin. Salvation, the gnostics would say, would be by coming to self-knowledge, that they don’t belong to physical realm and must escape it.
In the 11-12th century, the Albigensian heresy brought Gnosticism back into vogue; lamenting physicality so much that they decried marriage and promoted suicide.
So where does Gnosticism exist today? It crops up constantly, and one of the latest forms of it is something called “conscious evolution.” This is the belief that mankind now has developed the ability to choose how our species will exist in the future. It asserts that man is the edge of an ongoing evolution of the universe and that he controls the change (not God). This sounds either groovy or goofy depending on one’s views, but basically it takes Christ out of the equation of man’s redemption.
Recently the head of the church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Müeller, took direct aim at this teaching saying: “The futuristic ideas advanced by the proponents of conscious evolution are not actually new. The gnostic tradition is filled with similar affirmations and we have seen again and again in the history of the church the tragic results of partaking of this bitter fruit.” This false teaching is based on secret knowledge, that is, a teaching known only by some, and not part of God’s public revelation to us.
Pope Francis asserted, “Heresies are this: trying to understand with our minds and with only our personal light who Jesus is.”
Heresies are always bound up and put forth by a person or group trying to supplant church teaching with their own. Because of this heresies have been around since the earliest days of the church. As members of the faith, we need to steer clear of these false teachings. We do that through prayer, reflection and listening to the voice of Christ and his church.
Father Lentini is pastor of Holy Cross Church in Dover and Immaculate Conception Church in Marydel, Md.