Man was not given speech to conceal his thoughts, but to express the truth.1 However, to spread their errors, heretics conceal the depths of their thinking, cloaking them in obscurity to be understood only by the initiated.
Ambiguity and Heresy
In general, a heretic uses the shadows of ambiguity to deceive the faithful, just as owls and other nocturnal birds of prey take advantage of the night’s darkness to surprise their prey. This is what the Jansenist heretics did, as they tried to escape condemnation through successive metamorphoses. Their tricks did not escape the vigilance of Pope Pius VI. In his Bull Auctorem Fidei, of August 28, 1794, he denounces the promoters of the Synod of Pistoia as follows:2
“They knew well the malicious art of the innovators, who, fearing to offend Catholic ears, endeavor to cover up their tricky snares with fraudulent words so that the error, hidden between sense and meaning (St. Leo the Great, Letter 129, of the Baller edition), more easily insinuates itself into people’s minds and—having altered the truth of the sentence by means of a very brief addition or variant—makes sure that the testimony which had to bring salvation, may instead, after a certain subtle change, lead to death.”3
In Dubio pro Reo?
Does ambiguity protect a heretic from condemnation? Does it spare him from being denounced?
Some Catholics believe that if a proposition is capable of a good interpretation, then despite its manifest bad meaning, no canonical measure can be taken against it or its author. “In dubio pro reo,” they say.
Indeed, if it is a single ambiguous statement, or just a few, they can be attributed to the poor choice of words, an awkward improvisation, fatigue, or some other reasonable explanation of this kind.
However, when the ambiguities are continuous, repeated, and, moreover, accompanied by acts, gestures, attitudes, and omissions that confirm the statements’ erroneous interpretation, then one can legitimately conclude that this is their true meaning. In this case, there is no longer a doubt as to their meaning. Therefore, the axiom in dubio pro reo does not apply.4
Unmasking Heresy Camouflaged “Under the Veil of Ambiguity”
Therefore, as Pope Pius VI states, it is necessary to unmask the heresy that is camouflaged “under the veil of ambiguity.” This is done by exposing its true meaning:
“Against these pitfalls, which unfortunately are renewed in every age, no better means was established than to expose sentences which, under the veil of ambiguity, envelop a dangerous discrepancy of senses, pointing out the perverse meaning under which is found the error that the Catholic Doctrine condemns.”5
This is precisely what Saint Pius X did with Modernism. In his encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, the Pope showed how the ambiguous, confused, and suspect statements of the Modernists formed a coherent and heretical system when analyzed as a whole and from the perspective of their underlying immanentist philosophy:
“It is one of the cleverest devices of the Modernists (as they are commonly and rightly called) to present their doctrines without order and systematic arrangement, in a scattered and disjointed manner, so as to make it appear as if their minds were in doubt or hesitation, whereas in reality, they are quite fixed and steadfast. For this reason, it will be of advantage, Venerable Brethren, to bring their teachings together here into one group, and to point out their interconnections, and thus to pass to an examination of the sources of the errors, and to prescribe remedies for averting the evil results.”6
In addition to unmasking the underlying heretical meaning of ambiguous statements, the acts, gestures, attitudes, and omissions of one who is suspect of heresy must be analyzed to see if they confirm or not the doctrinal deviation and an intention to favor error.
Heresy and Hatred of God
To better understand the gravity of ambiguous teaching, we must consider the gravity of the sin of heresy.
In our days dominated by relativism, and with ecumenical and interreligious dialogue being presented as the new norm of faith, the notions of truth and error, good and evil, are becoming increasingly blurred. With this, the notion of the seriousness of heresy and its consequences has been all but lost.
The sin of heresy participates in the gravest of sins, the hatred of God. Because heresy, being a rejection of revealed truth, constitutes an act of revolt against God, by Whose authority we believe in what He has revealed. By rejecting revealed truth, a heretic substitutes himself for God.
Saint Thomas Aquinas explains that “heresy is a species of unbelief, belonging to those who profess the Christian faith, but corrupt its dogmas.”7 Heresy “becomes voluntary by the fact that a man hates the truth that is proposed to him.” Thus, “it is evident that unbelief derives its sinfulness from hatred of God,8 Whose truth is the object of faith.”9 In its turn, the hatred of God “is the gravest of sins” and “is chiefly a sin against the Holy Ghost.”10
“Without Faith, it Is Impossible to Please God”
Heresy destroys the supernatural life, for it separates the heretic from the source of grace, which is God. The heretic “intends to assent to Christ, yet he fails in his choice of those things wherein he assents to Christ, because he chooses not what Christ really taught, but the suggestions of his own mind.”11 Accordingly, even if a heretic accepts some revealed truths, his belief is not an act of obedience to God, but an act of adherence to what he has chosen. Thus, he overrides the Divine Will with his own. His faith is a purely human one, with no supernatural value.
Now then, Saint Paul teaches—and this teaching is repeated by Church Magisterium12—that “without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6). Therefore, upon adhering to heresy and abandoning supernatural faith, the heretic breaks with God, loses supernatural life, and takes the path of eternal damnation.
A Heretic Must Be Avoided
Given the sin of heresy’s extreme gravity and the danger of being influenced by a heretic, the Apostle made a serious warning to the Galatians: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach a gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema” (Gal. 1:8).
He completes his thought in the Epistle to Titus: “A man that is a heretic, after the first and second admonition, avoid: Knowing that he, that is such a one, is subverted, and sinned, being condemned by his own judgment” (Tit. 3:10–11).
Likewise, Saint John, the Apostle of Divine Love, commanded: “If anybody does not remain in the teaching of Christ … you must not receive him into your house or even give him a greeting” (2 John 9–10).
Ambiguity and Hatred of God
The doctrinal and moral ambiguity—especially in acts and documents of the Magisterium13—is something very serious, which must be treated with the same severity as a heresy that is professed openly. Rather, even more rigorously, since it makes its way surreptitiously. Ambiguity hides heresy and leads to heresy. In other words, it leads the faithful to the hatred of God.
- “Man was given speech to disguise his thoughts.” This cynical statement is attributed to Charles-Maurice Talleyrand (1754–1838), the notorious apostate bishop, who turned himself into a politician and diplomat and placed himself at the service of the French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte.
- The Synod of Pistoia was a 1786 diocesan synod convened by Bishop Scipione de’ Ricci. He wanted to reform the Catholic Church using the doctrines of Jansenism.
- Pius VI, Bull Auctorem Fidei, Aug. 28, 1794, http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-vi/it/documents/bolla-auctorem-fidei-28-agosto-1794.html. (Our translation.)
- See Arnaldo Vidigal Xavier da Silveira, “Not Only Heresy Can Be Condemned by Ecclesiastical Authority,” in Can Documents of the Magisterium of the Church Contain Errors? Can the Catholic Faithful Resist Them? (Spring Grove, Penn.: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property, 2015).
- Pius VI, Auctorem Fidei.
- Pius X, Encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, Jul. 3, 1907, http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-x/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-x_enc_19070908_pascendi-dominici-gregis.html.
- Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II–II, q. 11, a. 1, c.
- One could object that man cannot hate God as his own supreme good and ultimate end, which is true. But the Angelic Doctor explains that “God may be an object of hatred to some, in so far as they look upon Him as forbidding sin, and inflicting punishment” (II–II, q. 34, a. 1, c).
- Ibid., II-II, q. 34, a. 2, ad 2. (Our emphasis.)
- Ibid., II–II, q. 34, a. 2, corpus and answer ad 1.
- Ibid., II–II, q. 11, a. 1, c. (Our emphasis.)
- Council of Trent, “Decree on Justification,” ch. 7; Vatican Council I, Dei Filius, ch. 3, “On Faith,” no. 5.
- As Pius VI points out: “If this convoluted and erroneous manner of dissertation is vicious in any oratory manifestation, it is in no way to be practiced in a Synod, the first merit of which must consist in adopting, in its teaching, an expression so clear and limpid as to leave no room for dangerous objections.” Pius VI, Auctorem Fidei.