orthodoxy, heresy, and definitions

Maybe this will help to clarify some matters concerning the definition of “orthodoxy.” Jamie Smith aroused a lot of outrage when he asked, “Do you really want to claim that Christians who affirm all of the historic markers of orthodoxy but disagree with you on matters of sexual morality or nonviolence or women in office are heretics?” And I aroused the same outrage when I said he had made a good point. Both of us were accused of having demoted sexual ethics to the realm of adiaphora by saying that people who are wrong about controversial matters of sexual ethics are not ipso facto heretics (though they could of course be heretics for other reasons) — even though we both insisted that we were not saying that sexuality is a matter of theological and moral indifference.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that heresy is a particular kind of sin: it is one of the sins against faith:

There are various ways of sinning against faith:

Voluntary doubt about the faith disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief. Involuntary doubt refers to hesitation in believing, difficulty in overcoming objections connected with the faith, or also anxiety aroused by its obscurity. If deliberately cultivated doubt can lead to spiritual blindness.

Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”

One of the things that should be immediately clear from reading this is that people often use the term heresy in contexts where incredulity would be far more appropriate. But I want to make a more general point here. Various people commented, in reply to Jamie and me, that since the credal orthodoxy we emphasize doesn’t say anything about genocide or necrophilia then I guess those are totally compatible with orthodoxy, huh?

To which I reply: I think you’re making a category error. Genocide and necrophilia are indeed sins but they aren’t sins against faith — they belong in different categories, as the Catechism suggests. Orthodoxy is “right belief,” right doxa, and people can be disciplined by or excluded from the community of Christians for holding wrong beliefs; but they can also be disciplined and excluded for committing sins that aren’t about wrong belief at all. They may simply be, as the old prayer book has it, “notorious evil livers.”

You can redefine orthodoxy to mean “Everything that a Christian is supposed to believe and do, and nothing that a Christian is not supposed to believe and do,” and if you redefine it that way then all sin is indeed heresy; but I think that disables you from making some very useful distinctions, the sorts of distinctions that the Catechism frequently makes. And in light of those distinctions a person could indeed commit genocide without being a heretic. He would just be a great and terrible sinner.

Now, to be sure, you could also create an elaborate theory justifying genocide or necrophilia, and hold to it in defiance of the biblical witness or church teaching, and in that case you really would be a heretic. But most people who sin (whether against faith or against charity or against anything else) don’t have such elaborate theories: they’re simply wrong.

But, and this is something I’ve complained about before, nobody is just wrong any more. Everyone you disagree with is a heretic, an infidel, a false teacher, not a Christian at all!! I really think we could make a lot of progress in our debates if we we recovered the category of plain old wrongness. But, failing that, let’s at least recognize the differences betweens sins against faith and other kinds of sin.