Sr. Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP is a former atheist who has returned to the Church and is now a religious sister with the Daughters of St. Paul. At the end of her life, she hopes to be able to say, “It is no longer I, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Sr. Theresa Aletheia is the author of The Prodigal You Love: Inviting Loved Ones Back to the Church and she blogs for Patheos at Pursued by Truth. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @pursuedbytruth as well as on Facebook.
My dad was a theologian so I learned the word “heretic” very quickly. I remember spouting off the definition to a family friend when I was around 6 years old. The friend was very impressed.
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” he said.
Little did he know how right he was.
Like my father, I strayed from the faith I was raised in, although he had the excuse of being raised nominally Episcopalian and then finding the Catholic Church after several interesting twists and turns.
I, on the other hand, was definitely raised Catholic. My parents were black-belt Catholics and passed on the faith with enthusiasm and vigor. I had no excuses.
Nevertheless, I became an atheist. And when I came back to the Church, I came laden with just about every heresy known to man in my back pocket. My return to the Church was a journey through heresy. But it is precisely because I know what it is like to genuinely believe in error that I know how much it means when people approach me with respect and kindness even when they disagree with my opinions.
Granted, there are different kinds of people who hold heretical views.
Some are obstinately in opposition to the truth and do not care one iota what the Church has to say about it. These are “heretics” in the traditional sense.
Others hold heretical views or are courting them, but they are open-minded and genuinely confused.
In some cases, these people are offended by what the Church teaches because the way they think about it is so far from the truth.
And others are not quite sure what they believe. They are humble enough to realize that their minds just can’t comprehend everything that’s packed into 2,000 years of intellectual tradition.
Some people feel stuck at the periphery of the Church because they just can’t intellectually assent to the teachings of the Church. Others are able to assent in faith.
And there are still others who know and believe in the teachings of the Church and in the Magisterium, but see room for development. Although some of their ideas may be heretical, unorthodox and downright crazy, they genuinely believe these ideas may actually be expressed in the teachings of the Church and passed down from the apostles. This hope may be unfounded in some cases, but it is not unreasonable. The Spirit is creative.
As someone who genuinely believed in heresy, I am grateful for all of these groups of people. The first group of hardliner heretics gives the Church something to fight against. The truth is expressed in opposition to untruth. We learn truth and teach truth by fighting falsehood.
The rest of the groups of people are trying to be open-minded and to understand. These people are ripe for evangelization, if we can manage to do it in a way that is respectful.
This is, after all our call as Christians. It is no mistake that at the end of the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “Feed my lambs” (21:19). And at the end of Matthew he says, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (28:19). In Mark: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” (16:15), and in Luke he tells us that he will clothe us “with power from on high” (24:49). For us, this is definitely a call to evangelize those physically outside of the Church, but also to evangelize those inside whose views push them to the peripheries.
But, you might ask, what is one to do about bishops who express ideas that may seem to be against Church teaching?
Since we know by faith that heresy is something that can never be expressed in Church doctrine, there is no reason to be unsettled by this. We also know by faith that God does not allow anything unless he can bring good from it.
Perhaps it is necessary to hear the articulation of unorthodox ideas in order to reach the truth. I know this was true for me in my journey. In fact, the very act of thinking and deliberating involves a back-and-forth between proposal, disagreement, and re-proposal. This, in itself, can look like heresy from the outside, (which is a good argument for keeping synodal discussions behind closed doors).
So, what is one to do? In a world where the latest synod happenings are tweeted milliseconds after the fact, it is possible to follow the back and forth closely and to become concerned when something unsettles us. But the fact is, the Church has survived for millennia, without our input.
So beware of open letters and hiccupping hysteria. It belies a lack of faith more than anything else.
Much as it seems contrary to modern democratic sensibilities, Church doctrine is not defined by the laity. It can be born with the laity, raised with the laity, sensed instinctively by the laity, but at some point we have to turn it over to the hierarchical processes of the Church.
As Artur Rosman put it in a recent post:
“We’re the laity, you do your own thing Synod Fathers. Call us when you’re done.”
Does that require faith? Oh boy does it.
But with faith, we can truly trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in the Church even in the midst of the messes and political intrigue that our human nature brings to the process.
As St. Augustine once wrote, “God, who, as even the heathen acknowledge, has supreme power over all things, being Himself supremely good, would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works, if He were not so omnipotent and good that He can bring good even out of evil.”