Acts, Gestures, Attitudes and Omissions Can Characterize a Heretic

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Acts, Gestures, Attitudes and Omissions Can Characterize a Heretic
Acts, Gestures, Attitudes and Omissions Can Characterize a Heretic

The American TFP has just launched a book containing a collection of studies by a great expert on the Church’s Magisterium, Mr. Arnaldo Vidigal Xavier da Silveira. The book is titled Can Documents of the Magisterium of the Church Contain Errors? (Click here to purchase the book)

One section of the book examines the important question: can gestures, attitudes and omissions characterize a heretic? It is a study of great importance since Saint Pius X, in his Encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, denounced the modernists’ tactic of hiding inside the very bosom of the Church and never confessing their heresy openly.1

Here are some of the arguments contained in the above mentioned study.

Heresy Can Be Manifested by Acts

It is a pacifically accepted thesis among theologians that a heresy can be exteriorized not only by words but also by gestures, attitudes, signs and omissions, thus incurring canonical penalties.

This affirmation by theologians is based on an obvious and very simple argument: for canonical purposes, a person becomes a heretic when he exteriorly manifests his interior heresy. Now then, thoughts can be manifested not only with words but also with gestures, attitudes and signs.

Indeed, a mere nod of the head, a hand gesture or a facial expression can unequivocally indicate a thought, or even a command. On a broader spectrum, taking a political stand, or maintaining silence, especially when in a position of authority, or taking a public attitude, can indicate, depending on the circumstances, that the person thus acting has one or another idea.Since, however, the prejudice is widespread that a heretic is only one who enunciates a heresy with written or spoken words, let us extend a little on some quotes from highly renowned theologians:

• De Lugo: “According to the general rule, for something to constitute external heresy and incur censure, it is necessary and sufficient for the internal heresy to be manifested through some external sign. These signs are usually classified in two kinds: words and acts. Words include signs with the head, hands or any others, such as sign language. Acts also include omissions of some external action, for at times the omission of an act is no less a manifestation of internal heresy than a positive act, which is why heretics are often discovered by the very fact that they do not do what Catholics do.”2

• Merkelbach: “External heresy is the one manifested by external signs (words, signs, acts or the omission thereof).”3

• Prümmer: “External heresy is an error against the faith manifested by word or another external sign.”4

• Tanquerey: “To incur such excommunication [latæ sententiæ, especially reserved to the Supreme Pontiff] it is necessary that heresy, after being conceived internally, be manifested externally by a word, writing or act.”5

• Wernz-Vidal: “[External heresy] adds to internal heresy a sufficient external manifestation, expressed by words, signs or actions that are conclusive.”6

• De Bruyne: “The external manifestation of heresy can take place in any way through signs, writings, words and actions, as long as it becomes sufficiently clear that it is a true and proper adhesion, and, moreover, a fully intended, that is, formal one.”7

• Noldin-Schmitt-Heinzel: “In order to incur excommunication, it is necessary for the interiorly conceived heresy to be manifested externally by some sign—word, action or writing—even though no one is present or hears it.”8

• Genicot-Salsmans: “It matters little [for someone to incur excommunication] that he manifest the heresy alone or before others; that he does it by word, writing, or an action, as long as he is aware of the heresy implicit in the act.”9

• Peinador: “Internal heresy is the one conceived only mentally and not manifested by any external sign. External heresy is the one displayed through outward signs: words, writings, actions, denials, etc.10

• Zalba: “External heresy is manifested by omissions, words, or other perceptible signs.”11

• Iorio: “Heretics, that is, Christians who pertinaciously deny or call into question, not only internally or externally, but at the same time internally and externally, through some sign–words, acts or writings–truths of the faith proposed by the Church [incur excommunication].”12

• Miguélez Domínguez-Alonso Morán-Cabreros de Antas: “For there to be an offense it is necessary for the apostasy, heresy, or schism to be manifested exteriorly by means of acts or words.”13

Can an Action Have an Unequivocal Meaning?

An act, an attitude, a gesture or an omission can always have more than one meaning. Moreover, they may also result from coercion, the weakening of the mental faculties, and so forth. Does one, then, not run the risk of committing grave injustice by affirming that someone incurs the delict of heresy, and is thus excommunicated and excluded from the Church, for having acted in a certain way?

There is no question that there are ambiguous acts susceptible of more than one interpretation. One who practices such acts does not become a heretic; depending on the circumstances, he may become suspected of heresy. But it is equally evident that there are actions or sets of actions that are unequivocal, that is, they are unsusceptible of more than one interpretation.

Our Lord Jesus Christ gives the keys to Saint Peter
This statue of Our Lord Jesus Christ giving the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, and Saint Peter kneeling to receive them, is full of symbolic acts and gestures, reverential attitudes and profound meaning.

In the case we are examining, heresy by acts, Canon Law sees a crime only when it becomes certain that the one committing it is fully aware of what he is doing and therefore is pertinacious in his condemnable attitude and in his heretical animus, and such.14

Therefore, one must not rush to judgment about actions whose nature indicates a heretical mind. But one cannot deny that in many cases, ideas are unequivocally manifested through actions.

Can Pertinacity Be Manifested by Actions?

How does one prove pertinacity in someone who says nothing contrary to the faith? Does pertinacity not require an obstinacy that can only be manifested through words?

To this objection we must also answer that both words and actions are apt to unequivocally characterize a pertinacious mind. Just as benevolence, prudence, enthusiasm, hatred, and pride can be manifested in a physiognomy and can be expressed in a gesture, or in a succession of gestures, so too can pertinacity.

As Tanquerey teaches, a pertinacious person is one who denies or calls into question a truth of the faith fully aware that that truth is a dogma, and with the full adhesion of his will. “For pertinacity to exist,” he adds, “it is not necessary for the person to be warned several times and persevere in his obstinacy for a long time, but it suffices for him to deny, consciously and voluntarily assent to a truth proposed in a sufficient way, whether he does it out of pride, out of the pleasure of contradicting, or any other cause.”15

It suffices also for him to deny it in an instant, a very brief time,16 for in this case, pertinacity “does not mean duration in time but perversity of the reason.”17 And pertinacity can exist in a sin of heresy committed out of mere weakness.18

Is an Admonition Necessary in the Case of Heresy Manifested by Acts?

Saint Paul commands that the heretic be admonished once or twice before being avoided.19 How can one claim, then, that someone becomes a heretic by the mere fact of practicing certain actions?

When canonists affirm that one can incur the sin of heresy by practicing acts, they are not saying or insinuating that the conditions required in the case of heresy by words are not required in the case of heresy by actions. Therefore, in principle, admonition is necessary in both hypotheses.

We say “in principle” because the rule enunciated by Saint Paul admits an important exception. Authors teach that the admonition required by the Apostle of Gentiles is aimed at making it clear to the sinner that he is denying a truth of the faith, that is, a truth that cannot be denied under any pretext whatsoever. The Church is always keenly concerned about avoiding mistakes in ascertaining the heretical animus, or disposition.Cardinal Juan de Lugo y de Quiroga (1583–1660), a Spanish Jesuit and eminent theologian

Now then, there are cases when such mistakes cannot take place. There are cases in which the heretic obviously knows that the truth he is denying or casting into doubt is a truth of the faith. For example, one cannot admit that a scholar of theology does not know that the Virginity of Our Lady is a dogma.

On the other hand, in a conversation or lecture, even a theologian can inadvertently utter an improper expression that would be heretical as such. Strictly speaking, it is possible to admit that an error might even creep into a book he wrote after long reflection, without his perceiving it. But if the central thesis of the book is manifestly heretical, it is no longer possible to admit any mistake, oversight, or neglect. Admonition would be superfluous.

De Lugo, quoting great authors of his time, thus expounds this important matter:

Also in the external forum, a previous admonition and reprimand is not always required to punish someone as heretical and pertinacious; nor is such requirement always admitted in the practice of the Holy Office. For if it can be ascertained in some other way, given the defendant’s qualities, obvious doctrinal knowledge and other circumstances, that he could not be unaware that his doctrine was opposed to the Church’s, by this very fact he will be considered a heretic… The reason for this is clear, for external admonition can only serve to make the person in error become aware of the opposition existing between his error and the doctrine of the Church. If he knows the subject much more through books and conciliar definitions than he could through the words of his admonisher, there is no reason to require another admonition for him to become pertinacious against the Church.20

Fosterers of Heresy

Fosterers of heresy “are those who, by some act or omission, do heretics a favor that helps promote the heretical doctrine.”21

Note that, for the delict of favoring heresy to occur, it is necessary that a favor be rendered to the heretic as a heretic. Evidently, a physician who provides care to an indigent Protestant is not thereby a fosterer of heresy. The same observation is valid, mutatis mutandis, for defenders and receptors of heretics.

As regards the favoring of heresy by omission, de Lugo writes:

They favor the heretic who, by virtue of their office, are obliged to arrest, punish, or expel him, and yet neglect these duties. For example, the judges to whom a bishop or Inquisitors resort, or to whom they deliver a heretic to be punished; and also the Inquisitors and ecclesiastical prelates themselves, if they neglect what they are obliged to do by virtue of their office and thus favor heresy. The same should be said of the other ministers and officials of the Holy Office and even of the private person on whom this office is imposed by those who have the power to impose it; and also of the witnesses who, obliged to say the truth when legitimately interrogated, hide it to favor a heretic.22

Defenders of Heretics

Defenders “are those who do not internally adhere to the heretical doctrine but in spite of that defend it in word or in writing against those who attack it. They are also those who protect, by force or by other unjust means, the persons of heretics against a legitimate persecution carried out on account of the heresy.”23

Diffuse Heresy

In our era of so many declared heresies, it is the disguised and diffused ones that constitute the gravest threats to the faith of each Catholic and to Christian civilization. We have sought here to help combat them by showing that it is possible for someone to fall into external heresy not only with words but also with gestures, signs, attitudes, and omissions.



  1. Cf. St. Pius X, Enc. Pascendi, no. 3.
  2. Joannes de Lugo, S.J., “De Virtute Fidei Divinae” in Disputationes Scholasticae et Morales (Paris:Vivès, 1868), Vol. II, disp. XXIII, sect. II, no. 11 (our emphasis).
  3. Benedictus Henricus Merkelbach, O.P., (Paris: Desclée, 1931), 1:570 (our emphasis).
  4. Dominicus M. Prümmer, O.P., Manuale Theologiae Moralis (Friburgi-Brisgoviae: Herder, 1940), 1:365 (our emphasis).
  5. Adolphe-Alfred Tanquerey, Synopsis Theologiae Moralis et Pastoralis, (Paris-Tournai-Rome: Desclée, 1948), 2:475 (our emphasis).
  6. Franciscus Xavier Wernz, S.J., and Petrus Vidal, S.J., Ius Canonicum (Rome: Universitas Gregoriana, 1943) 2:444 (our emphasis).
  7. Luciano de Bruyne, s.v. “Eresia” in Enciclopedia Cattolica (Vatican: n.p., 1950), 5:col. 490.
  8. H. Noldin, S.J., A. Schmitt, S.J., and G. Heinzel, S.J., Complementum de Poenis Ecclesiasticis, vol. I of Summa Theologiae Moralis (Innsbruck: Rauch, 1962), 48 (our emphasis).
  9. Eduardus Genicot, S.J. and Ioseph Salsmans, S.J., Institutiones Theologiae Moralis (Bruges: Desclée, 1951) 2:647.
  10. Antonius Peinador, CMF. Cursus Brevior Theologiae Moralis (Madris: Coculsa, 1950), Tom. II, 1:103 (our emphasis).
  11. Marcelino Zalba, S.J., Theologiae Moralis Compendium (Madrid: B.A.C., 1958), 2:28 (our emphasis).
  12. Thomas A. Iorio, S.J., Theologia Moralis (Naples: D’Auria, 1960), 2:258 (our emphasis).
  13. Lorenzo Miguélez Domínguez, Sabino Alonso Morán, OP, and V. Marcelino Cabreros de Antas, CMF, Código de Derecho Canónico—Comentario (Madrid: B.A.C., 1957), 845 (our emphasis).
  14. The study by Xavier da Silveira was written at the time of the Code of Canon Law of 1917, but the underlying theological principles of theology apply to all time.
  15. Adolphe-Alfred Tanquerey, Synopsis Theologiae Moralis et Pastoralis (Paris-Turim-Rome: Desclée, 1948) 2:473.
  16. Tanquerey, Brevior Synopsis Theologiae Moralis (Paris-Tournai-Rome: Desclée, 1946), 95.
  17. Zalba, 2:28.
  18. Cf. Tommaso de Vio (Cajetan), OP, Commentaria in Summam Sancti Thomae in II II, q. 11, a. 2, apud Peinador, tom. II, 1:99.
    About the canonical meaning of “pertinacity,” see also: St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, (Turin-Rome: Marietti, 1948-1950), II, II, 11, 2, 3; “Super Epistolam ad Titum Lectura,” in Super Epistolas S. Pauli Lectura (Turin-Rome: Marietti, 1953), no. 102; Wernz-Vidal, 7:449-450; Merkelbach, 1:569; Prümmer, 1:364; Noldin, 2:25; Henry J. Davis, S.J., Moral and Pastoral Theology (London: Sheed and Ward, 1945), 2:292; Peinador, tom. II, 1:99; Eduardus F. Regatillo, S.J., Institutiones Iuris Canonici (Santander: Sal Terrae, 1961), 2:142; Journet, Sa Structure, vol. II of L’Église, 709.
  19. Cf. Titus 3:10.
  20. de Lugo, Disputationes, 2:disp. XX, sect. IV, no. 157-158). See also Antonius Diana, Resolutiones Morales (Venice: Franc. Baba, 1635), pars IV, tract. VII, resol. 36; Vermeersch, 3:245; Noldin, Compl. de Poenis Eccl., 21; Regatillo, 2:508 (our emphasis).
  21. Wernz-Vidal, 7:450.
  22. de Lugo, 2:disp. XXV, sect. 1, no. 6. In the same sense one can read Suarez, De Fide, 12:disp. XXIV, sect. 1, no. 6; Schmalzgrueber, tom. V, 9:no. 94.
  23. Wernz-Vidal, 7:451.

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