Notes on the nature of heresy, in light of the unity of the Church

“One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism.”

By James Larrabee

This article is published with the permission of Mr James Larrabee. We are very grateful for the opportunity to make it available to our readers. We have added the various links to other articles. Image: St John Lateran, CC Attribution 4.0 International © Vyacheslav Argenberg /, from Wiki Commons. Use does not mean that the licensor endorses us or our use of this image.

Preliminary remarks

The present discussion is in the context of the apologia for Traditionalism in the fullest, and true, sense: the uncompromising adherence to all Catholic Tradition, and the uncompromising rejection of all innovation, particularly Vatican II and the hierarchy which has devoted itself to the institution of Vatican II and all its works in the place of our holy Catholic religion.

The simplest and easiest route to a justification of Traditionalism, the apologia we are developing and maintaining, is the route of authority. We reject the authority of all, whether bishops, priests, or even supposed popes, who are working to deprive us of our religion. That rejection is founded on the Catholic principle that heretics neither hold nor can hold any authority over Catholics, in matters pertaining to religion.

Therefore it is essential to understand the nature of heresy. In turn, heresy cannot be adequately understood without understanding the nature of the Church, particularly its attribute of unity.

The Church is a divine mystery. Its centrality to the Faith is seen in the fact that it is mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed. As such, it possesses an inner, mystical life arising from invisible grace, which cannot be fully seen or accounted for, at least on this side of the grave. It also possesses an external, visible nature, apparent to all men including unbelievers. In this discussion, the visible side is what we are chiefly concerned with, because that is the basis on which our judgments as to the Vatican II hierarchy are made. We are, of course, dealing here only with the Church Militant.

Church as Human Organization

The Catholic Church is the collectivity or aggregation (coetus) of people who profess the one Faith, communicate in the same sacraments, and live under the acknowledged authority of the Pope and the bishops in communion with him.

It should be noted that the requirements or conditions for belonging to the Church are set by the Church herself, in obedience, of course, to her Divine Founder. They are not set by the individual. In this, the Church is no different from any other organization. No one can claim, simply on his own, to be a member of the Church, any more than he can claim to be a Kiwanis or a Member of Parliament or a member of the Lady’s Auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic, simply because he decides to be.

The Church, as it exists, is not only an object of faith, an invisible mystery, but a visible, palpable reality. It is an enormous organization, solidly united under a clear, orderly set of governors, administering a system of law, all under the rule of one man who is inevitably known the world over, and succeeding to a line of such rulers stretching back further in history than any other human government or organization. Over and against this are countless groups claiming to be the Church of Christ, some large and some small, some old and some young. But none of these is identified as the Catholic Church (leaving aside the present status of the “Conciliar” organization, lite pendente, as long as our battle to prevent them from usurping the Catholic name is visibly at issue). What is important for our purpose is that all of these competitors to the Holy Catholic Church are distinct and separate groups. This is just as apparent to non-believers with no interest in the matter, as it is to believers or pseudo-believers. The question as to which is the true Church is a matter of faith; but there can be no question as to the fact that all these are separate organizations. Additionally, there undoubtedly are individuals claiming to be Christians (followers of Christ) without belonging to or recognizing any organization. The point here is that the Catholic Church is an observably unified group of people, to which some part of the human race belongs, and the rest do not.

The most evident feature of the Church’s unity is the fact that all Catholics agree in believing the teachings handed down by the hierarchy. They are united in one Faith.

In any organization, there must a principle of unity defining the nature and membership of the group, to distinguish it from all others and to serve as its basis of existence and action. This, by necessity, must be something agreed to by its members. The basis of membership in the Church is, in the first place, the profession of the Faith. This serves as the foundation of all else that follows. Therefore, it must be understood what it is to profess the Faith.

Meaning of Profession of Faith

The Catholic Church proclaims herself as the divinely-appointed teacher of a body of doctrines, left to her by her divine Founder. She calls all men to belief in these doctrines, based on the authority of God Himself, the Revealer of these doctrines.

Belief in these doctrines, on the word of the Church and the authority of God Himself revealing, is called faith. Faith cannot be selective, but must include all doctrines taught by the Church as divinely revealed, whether known to the individual believer or not. The reason is that to deny or doubt any of the doctrines of the Church, while believing others, is to call in question the authority of the teacher, the Church. Theoretically, it would be possible to believe all the teachings of the Church as a matter of individual opinion – simply because they seem true or plausible to oneself – but this would not be faith in the present sense.

To profess the Faith means to make a public or outward statement of faith in the Church’s teachings, and by extension, to perform outward acts implying belief, such as attending Mass, or receiving the sacraments.

Belief, or faith, evidently can be either an interior matter, or an exterior one, or both. Inward faith can be had without an exterior profession; an exterior profession may be made without inward belief. Of course, in the former case, it would be a question of “dead faith” or “unformed faith” (“fides informis“) in theological terminology: a supernatural virtue, but separated from possession of sanctifying grace. In the latter case, there would be no faith at all, much less a “living faith” (faith joined with charity, as in a Christian in the state of grace); but the exterior profession would have the consequences we will see shortly, in connection with the unity of the Church.

Meaning of Heresy

Heresy is a form of unbelief. As such, it is opposed to belief, in the sense of divine faith as defined above. (The other species of unbelief or infidelity, according to St. Thomas, are paganism (including apostasy), and Judaism after the coming of Christ.)

Heresy may be most conveniently defined as it is in the Code of Canon Law (1917):

“Post receptum baptismum si quis, nomen retinens christianum, pertinaciter aliquam ex veritatibus fide divina et catholica credendis denegat aut de ea dubitat, haereticus; si a fide christiana totaliter recedit, apostata; si denique subesse renuit Summo Pontifici aut cum membris Ecclesiae ei subiectis communicare recusat, schismaticus est.” (C. 1325:2)

(“If anyone, after having received baptism and while retaining the name of Christian, pertinaciously denies or doubts any of the truths which must be believed by divine and Catholic faith, he is a heretic; if he entirely withdraws from the Christian faith, he is an apostate; finally, if he refuses to be subject to the Supreme Pontiff, or refuses to be in communion with the members of the Church who are subject to him, he is a schismatic.” – translated by the author)

Heretics not part of the Church

Therefore, the heretic is one who does not possess, or profess, faith or the Faith. He is, in our definition, an unbeliever. As such, he is not, in the very nature of things, one of the aggregation, or assembly, or body (coetus) of believers. The two things, believing and not believing, are contradictory; clearly and absolutely incompatible.

This unbelief, like its opposite, can be merely inward, merely outward, or both. When a heretic makes his heresy public by open profession of unbelief, or by public actions implying unbelief (the mirror image of faith professed), he is termed a “manifest” heretic. It is this condition which is inherently incompatible with membership in the Church.

This will be clear in considering the Church as a human organization. Just as the Church is, by definition and common knowledge, a group of people who accept and believe the Church’s teaching, so also all those outside the Church (apart from the categories of schismatics and excommunicates) have in common, by contraposition, the fact that they do not believe or accept the teaching of the Church. It is a visible fact, distinguishing and excluding them from the visible class of believers.

Conversely, it should now be clear that an occult heretic or unbeliever, one who hides his unbelief under an external profession of faith, remains a member of the Church until his heresy is manifested. His external profession is visibly indistinguishable from that of other believers, the body of the Church.

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Additional comments

1. “Good faith heretics.” It will be seen that I have made no reference to the question of personal culpability or accountability in my remarks about the unity of the Church and about faith and heresy. The Church, as we know, is a unity which comprises both saints (in the Scriptural sense, those in the state of grace) and sinners. Some of those sinners may well be people who profess the Faith for purely worldly advantages, without any inward belief. They nevertheless belong to the Church as long as their unbelief is not manifested. On the other hand, some outside the Church for lack of professing of the Faith may be, as moralists say, invincibly ignorant, that is, insufficiently aware of the truth of the Faith and of the obligation to embrace it to be culpable for not doing so. Also, an unbaptized infant, obviously, is not a member of the Church through no fault of his own. It is simply a matter of fact that such people are not part of the Church, and are not considered by the world at large as well as by the Church herself, to be Catholics. This is clear from the account of the Church given above.

Therefore the much-controverted question of the necessity of the Church for salvation has no direct relevance to the present discussion. The only question is who belongs to the Church, and who does not.

2. When manifested. It may be argued just when a heretic, hitherto occult, that is, a professing Catholic by appearances, becomes manifest. In light of my argument, it should be clear that the fact involved, namely whether or not a person belongs to the body of believers by his profession, must be judged on the basis of what is visible and apparent to the public at large. The nature of the Church is to be a visible organization, a public thing; hence the signs of membership or “belonging-ness” must be visible in just the same way. In a case where a man reveals his heresy to a few others of like mind and willing to keep the secret, or writes it down in a notebook seen by no one or only a few who are assumed to be unlikely to pass this knowledge on to the authorities or to the public at large, this would not constitute manifest heresy. But if the heresy is shown under such circumstances that it is likely to become public knowledge, from that point the law, and, indeed, logic defines it as manifest. Thus, as I have said, the occult heretic remains a member of the Church.

This question, it seems evident, would arise only in regard to individuals who have some claim or appearance of being Catholics. In the case of all those who belong to heretical sects, there can be no question of being a part of the Church. They are visibly part of another. And, as part of a group publicly professing certain opinions (including a common rejection of the Pope and the Catholic Church), they are visibly professing unbelief, just as a Catholic professes belief.

3. Divisions within the Church. The unity of the Church, while a unity of believers, clearly does not exclude disagreements over doctrine, even between theologians, men with a considerable, tested knowledge of the Church’s teaching. How is this compatible with unity in faith? The reason is that those who disagree are still in agreement as to the necessity of believing the Church’s teaching. They disagree only over what that teaching is, on some particular point. The teaching of the Church is not just a few verbal formulas such as the Apostles’ Creed, outside of which anyone may believe what he chooses (as some Protestants and Modernists have held, and even freely interpret those few formulas). The teaching of the Church is a vast body of doctrine including all areas of dogma as well as the practical principles of sacramental and moral life, all of which comprise the Catholic religion. This is the Deposit of Faith, contained in both Scripture and Tradition. A Catholic, by his profession, adheres to all of this; an unbeliever does not. The presence of this adherence is what makes one a believer, formally speaking; and therefore, its absence is what makes one a formal heretic. The disagreement (or agreement) with one doctrine of the Church does not by itself, exclude one (or include one) in the membership of the Church. As is clear from observation, Protestants (for example) may agree with Catholics in many doctrines; but that does not result in their being members of the Church, nor even in claiming such membership (properly defined, of course).

It must, however, be understood that such disagreement over doctrines of the Church is not possible in regard to the fundamental, well-known doctrines of the Faith, but only in matters of some obscurity or difficulty, not yet defined by the highest authority, or in the case of an uneducated person, simply in regard to some doctrine of which he is ignorant, as long is he holds himself willing to accept it if it is indeed taught by the Church. This is the entire difference (the formal difference) between a heretic denying a teaching of the Church, and a Catholic (a believer) denying or doubting one out of ignorance.

4. Others outside the Church (besides heretics). The above argument, as to the eligibility of heretics to hold offices in the Church, would apply equally to schismatics (and, just for the sake of completeness, to excommunicati vitandi). They are no more part of the Church than are unbelievers. As for Jews, Moslems, and pagans, I don’t suppose anyone has (yet) argued that they, too, in a true spirit of ecumenism, might also hold the Chair of Peter. Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof…

Application to the Sedevacantist position

The application of the idea of heresy in regard to the current “pope” and “bishops” of the Vatican II sect is straightforward. A heretic, or any other unbeliever, cannot hold an office in the Church, because he is not a member of the Church; he forms no part of the body of believers. Another way of stating it, in legal terms, is to say that an unbeliever cannot possess ordinary jurisdiction. Delegated jurisdiction per modum actus (that is, for a given action, if that is the correct terminology) is another matter altogether; that is not a question of an office. This principle is clearly taught by St. Thomas, St. Robert Bellarmine, and I am sure the generality of Catholic theologians, as well as by common sense (could a non-Mason be a member of the Supreme Council of the 33rd Degree?) – though of course we must be careful when applying principles of reason to supernatural realities. At any rate, this question is beyond my present purpose.


I believe that the difficulty of convincing people of the truth of our position, and consequently of the need for an absolutely integral Traditionalism, when dealing with people who appear to be reasonably sincere Catholics and not liberals to any serious extent or people infatuated with their new religion, largely arises from a lack of understanding of the visible nature of the Church and of the nature of heresy. The sinister influence of a liberal-tending hierarchy in this country over many decades, even centuries, prior to Vatican II, like the pernicious tendencies of the Gallican hierarchy in France in their way, has had its inevitable results: a weak feeling for the unity of the Church as against all those outside; a lack of a clear understanding by the faithful of the nature of heresy; the dangers of exposure to heretical sects, and the corrupting influence of Protestantized politics in the thinking of all Americans. A weak sense of social unity, conjoined with an insane allegiance to “freedom of opinion,” makes it difficult to understand the elements of the visible unity of the Church, as of any human organization. Without that, it will be impossible to convince anyone that Joseph Ratzinger, or indeed his or her own brother-in-law, is not a member of the Church.

The final ruin to the faith of individual Catholics was seen often enough even before the Council. Since the Council, it has been a tidal wave carrying off, it seems to me, the great majority of Catholics in this country, without speaking of the rest of the world. We have seen it often enough in such declarations as “We don’t need to agree with everything the Pope says” or “We don’t need to follow the Pope.” These are open declarations of unbelief, and those who make them thereby cease to be members of the Church. 

There is no need to wail, Wanderer-fashion, “Why don’t they just leave?” They have left already.

For more on the topic of the visible unity of the Church, see below:

The Visible Unity of the Church

Part I – The visible unity of the Church in her profession of faith, and problems faced today.
Part II – Further authorities establishing beyond any doubt the meaning of this teaching.
Part III – Hypothesis reconciling the teaching of the Church with apparently contradictory facts of the crisis.

A Note for Confused Catholics – Apologetics and Dogmatic Theology
Archbishop Lefebvre and the Conciliar Church – Visibility, the Four Marks and Membership
Notes on the Nature of Heresy – in light of the unity of the Church

En français
l’Unité visible – I: Pour les catholiques, que signifie croire « en l’Église, Une, Sainte, Catholique et Apostolique » ?

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