How should we behave towards those whom we think are in error? Fr A. Vermeersch, 1913

“Do not seek the malicious satisfaction of having discovered an additional enemy to the Church.”

Editors’ Notes

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In his Apology, the early Christian writer Tertullian imagined pagans looking at Christians and marvelling at our mutual love:

“‘See,’ they say, ‘how they love one another’ – for the pagans themselves are animated by mutual hatred. ‘See how they are ready even to die for one another’ – for they themselves will sooner put each other to death.”

Today there is much talk of being “charitable” or “uncharitable” in dispute – and much castigation of each other for not being sufficiently so. In fact, the problems we face in our disputes – particularly those online – are more specific than this.

Charity refers to the supernatural love of God, and of our neighbour for his sake. Certainly, the virtue of charity should resolve or prevent problems between men and women of goodwill, but sometimes it is worth being specific about what the problems are, and what solutions are needed.

Frequently, parties to religious disputes become unfriendly, unjust, rash, unkind, discourteous and slapdash when it comes to representing others and establishing their own conclusions. What is needed, in response, is affability, justice, equity, kindness, courteousness and diligent truthfulness.

If we were to summarise what is needed in our interactions with other Catholics in one word, it would not be “charity”. Rather, it would be the very title of the book from which this extract is taken: “Tolerance.”

“Tolerance” can seem like a four-letter word to some of us today, because of how it has been co-opted in recent decades by the enemies of truth. But the author of this book – Fr A. Vermeersch SJ – would certainly not fit into the modern day group purporting to be the Society of Jesus. In fact – among his other works of theology – he was the author of the article on Modernism in the Catholic Encyclopaedia.

The Problem

Sometimes we have to engage with those who claim to be Catholics, and yet appear to be professing heresy or disappearing into schism.

In many cases, it is not our business whether a given man has or has not lost membership of the Church: we are not required to go around checking the Catholic credentials of our fellow Mass-attendees. The situation could be different when it pertains to a supposed member of the hierarchy claiming jurisdiction over us; and it could be different when it comes to choosing a spouse, teachers for our children, and so on.

But while we cannot be obliged to believe everyone who claims to be a Catholic, often it is not right for us to conclude that someone is a heretic or schismatic unless we are really compelled to do so, by the facts and the circumstances. This is rarely the case. In most cases, the reality of another’s state – that of his soul, or of his membership of the Church – is not our business: we should do what we can to help him (and perhaps others, even by warning them about him) but in a spirit of kindness and justice. As the Prophet Isaias said, foretelling the manner of Our Lord:

“The bruised reed he shall not break, and smoking flax he shall not quench, he shall bring forth judgment unto truth.” Isaias 42.3

The extract below does not suggest that we should fawn over the open enemies of the Church, or be paralysed by blatantly false claims to be Catholic. Nor does it suggest that we should pretend that every purported Catholic is good and nice until he has been declared to be a heretic, schismatic or excommunicated by authority. Nor does it suggest that we should minimise the importance of our disputes – far from it.

But it does suggest that our duties towards our fellow Catholics are not generally being fulfilled. This matters, even if our interlocutors are wrong – if only because it affects our ability to spread the very ideas and conclusions which we are advocating.

We are all human, but we hope that everything we publish at The WM Review lives up to the ideals here expressed.

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The extract is republished from The Bellarmine Forums with permission. The image (public domain) is of St Bede, whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People features a long section on the controversies over the dates of Easter. Bede himself was very strict and “hardline” on the Easter question and considered it a matter of great importance – but nonetheless, spoke highly of those who disagreed, such as St Aidan.

Rev. A. Vermeersch SJ
R. & T. Washbourne, London, 1913. pp. 26-29

Doctor of Laws and Political and Administrative Science
Professor of Moral Theology and Canon Law.
Translated by W. Humphrey Page, K.S.G., Privy Chamberlain to H.H. Pius X.

It is a delicate question, how we ought to behave in the philosophic or religious controversies in which we take part, and the problem becomes extremely perplexing when our adversary declares that he shares the faith for which we write or speak. This embarrassing subject requires some remarks which will fitly conclude the first part of this work.

A man may err in good faith, or he may make profession of belief without sincerity. Ambiguous or obscure language may be used to conceal a clever trap, or may be the result of ignorance or carelessness. The profession of religious faith reveals the inmost soul, but a false profession of faith may be made to cover the most insidious designs. Freemasonry formerly numbered priests among its members, and not half a century ago it filled the confraternities of Brazil. About 1850 at Brussels it was able to command religious services. If it is wicked to calumniate, or disseminate unjust suspicions, it is necessary at times to have the sense and courage to cry “Wolf” before it is too late.

A private individual has no right to accuse another of being in error – by which is meant religious error – except after mature deliberation. He has no right to speak in the name of the Church. He is not infallible, and cannot without presumption claim for himself any special orthodoxy. He must avoid the self-conceit which sometimes disguises itself as religious zeal, the attachment to his own opinions which may be the motive of his ardour in preaching submission. Does it not seem sometimes – in the case of the condemnation of a published work, for example – as if the writer cared less about being on the side of authority than having authority on his side?

On the other hand, it cannot be denied that the decisions of the Church or the Holy See lay down directions which must not be exaggerated or overstrained, but which a loyal Catholic will refuse to evade by quibbles or minimizing interpretations.

Rules of thumb

In the perplexities which arise in such circumstances, how useful it is to listen to the counsels of toleration!

Be just, they say to each of us, and see if the man or the work in which you detect errors does not show too much Catholicism to fall under suspicion.

Be equitable, and in case of doubt give your brethren the benefit of that presumption of correctness which is laid down in the oldest laws, and of which St. Ignatius writes in these express terms in the beginning of his spiritual exercises:

“Every good Christian is more eager to justify than to condemn a statement of his neighbour; and if he cannot justify it, he asks the author for an explanation. If the author explains it ill, he corrects him with charity; and when that is not enough, he endeavours to the best of his power to find an acceptable meaning which will save the proposition.”

History itself attests the opportuneness of this caution: rigorous judgments, though long accepted, are reviewed by the light of fresh study. A more careful examination sometimes shows that time-honoured imputations of heresy rest on expressions badly used, badly understood, or badly translated.[1]

Be kind; do not seek the malicious satisfaction of having discovered an additional enemy to the Church. The bitterness of some men’s writing is very exasperating, and irritation will sometimes bring down a tottering structure which a little kindness might have saved. What would have become of Abelard without the gentleness of Peter the Venerable?[2] Charity has good, not evil, for its object; it would rather win hearts by gentleness than humiliate them by an assumption of superiority.

Be courteous; in the fight against error treat your adversary with deference.

And, above all, be scrupulously truthful.[3] To all, friends and foes alike, give that serious attention which does not misrepresent any opinion, does not distort any statement, does not mutilate any quotation.

Final thoughts

We need not fear to serve the cause of Christ less efficiently by putting on His spirit. In our own day especially, when men love to make a show of sincerity, and when so many honest but mistaken souls are yearning for the truth, let us count Christian loyalty as one of the most powerful influences to induce men to accept the gift of faith.

Defective arguments weaken sound propositions; false statements embitter disputes, perpetuate controversies, multiply misunderstandings, and give an opening for crushing rejoinders. An arrogant and uncompromising tone in an author makes men reluctant to listen to his arguments, and anxious to see him proved to be wrong.

We do not establish a truth by showing that there is little evidence to support it; we cannot eradicate error by making it look like truth; and we cannot hope to persuade a reader if we begin by exciting his antipathy.

There is much sound sense as well as humour in the words of St. Augustine:

“Wolves sometimes disguise themselves in sheep’s clothing, but that is no reason why sheep should change their skins.”[4] 

Those victories alone give glory to Christ which are won by the weapons of Christ, for these are the weapons of justice.[5] To wish for no other victory, we need great self-control, perfect confidence in the ultimate triumph of truth, zeal untainted by unworthy motives; and this self-control, this confidence, this zeal, enhance the private virtue of tolerance, and invite the admiration of all men.

Imprimi Potest: Aemilius Thibaut, S.J., Praepositus Provinciae Belgicae.
Imprimatur: Edm. Can. Surmont, Vicarius Generalis, Westmonasterii, Die 8 Augusti, 1912.

Nihil Obstat: Remigius Lafort, S.T.D., Censor.
Imprimatur: John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop Of New York. New York, October 21, 1912.

Further Reading

Fr A. Vermeersch – Tolerance

The WM Review – Affability: It’s not a sin to have a sense of humour and be cheerful: Here’s what Aquinas and Neri have to say

The WM Review – Is there a schism between traditionalists?

Cardinal Newman – St Philip Neri and Patience


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[1] See, for example, the doctoral dissertation of Professor Lebon on certain Monophysites (Le Monophysisme Sévérien, Louvain, 1909). The Panegyric dedicated by St. Gregory Nazianzen to St. Athanasius is worth reading. The holy doctor relates how, in the fourth century, the whole world was nearly rent in twain by a quarrel over syllables: the Easterns drew a distinction between substance and hypostasis, while the Westerns used the same word for the two ideas. The dispute was carried on with great bitterness, but St. Athanasius calmly weighed what each side had to say, and showed at the Synod of 362 that both sides were perfectly agreed on the main point. And “at this time of disputes and controversies,” said St. Gregory, “it would be a great pity not to draw attention to an example, which our contemporaries would do well to follow” (M.P.G., t.35, cols. 1125, 1126).

[2] See, in the dictionary of Vacant-Mangenot, the article “Abélard,” by Father Portalié, S.J.

[3] “Be truthful in all things; be scrupulously sincere. You will deserve to be faithful on important occasions, if you have been faithful in things that seem unimportant, sinceri filii Dei. The love of truth is a great grace, only obtained by fervent prayer” (Ruinart, Abridgment of the Life of Dom. J. Mabillon, 1709, p. 392).

[4] De Sermone Dei in Monte, 1, I, chap. ii, n. 41 (M.P.L., t.34, col. 1287).

[5] Per arma justitiae – By the armour of justice, on the right hand and on the left (2 Cor. vi. 7).

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