History of Heresy

New Catholic Encyclopedia Supplement 2010. Editor: Robert L Fastiggi. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2010.

Early Church

The word αἵρεσις in classical Greek signified a school or party. It was used by the Hellenists to designate a philosophical school and by Josephus to describe the Jewish theological sects.

The primitive Christians were considered at first another school or sect within Judaism (Acts 24:5; 14:28, 22). But among themselves the early Christians quickly distinguished between those who accepted the doctrine as preached by the Apostles and received by the Church, or assembly of the faithful, and those who tried to adapt the Christian message to their own personal, doctrinal, or disciplinary notions (1 Cor 11:19; Gal 5:20). What the Church rejected in thought or deed was heretical. Thus both the doctrines propagated by the Gnostic sects and the Quartodeciman adherence to the Jewish paschal calendar were condemned as heretical (Hippolytus, Philos. 7:18, 19).

Second and Third Centuries

During the second century little distinction was made between heresy and schism, and the criterion of true faith and practice appealed to was that of the Roman Church. The earliest collection of heretical doctrines was made by Justin Martyr in his Syntagma against all heresies. This work is mentioned by Justin himself (1 Apol. 26:8). RENAEUS in his Exposé and Refutation of the False Gnosis, usually quoted as Adversus haereses, used the Syntagma of Justin and mentions a Contra Marcionem that appears to be part of Justin’s work (Adversus haereses 4.19.9). The exposé concentrates on the Valentinian Gnostics but also gives a résumé of the beginnings of Gnosticism with the teachings of Simon, Menander, and other early sectaries.

During the reign of Pope Zephyrinus (199-217), Hippolytus of Rome wrote a Syntagma directed against all heresies; it is cited by Eusebius of Caesarea (Ecclesiastical History 6.22) and by Photius (Bibliotheca codex 121). A fragment of this work, the Contra No-etum, has been discovered and published by Pierre Nautin. Hippolytus wrote also an Elenchus or collection of thirty-three heresies from that of the Naassenians to that of Noetus, together with their refutations. It is known under the incorrect title of the Philosophumena. The author traces each doctrinal aberration to a school of false philosophy but in general follows Irenaeus for his information. The work seems likewise to have been synthesized by Tertullian as an appendix to his De praescriptione. Jerome (De Viris illustribus 74) attributes an Adversus omnes haereses to Victorinus of Pettau (d. 304).

Treatises of Epiphanius and Augustine

Epiphanius of Constantia between 374 and 377 composed a Panarion or box of antidotes against all heresies. He names and refutes eighty heresies, relying on Irenaeus and Hippolytus for the older doctrinal errors, and citing the writings of heretics themselves for the more recent heresies. The Panarion was used by Filastrius of Brescia (d. 397) for his Liber de haeresibus (385-391). Toward 428 Augustine wrote a De haeresibus for the deacon Quodvultdeus; it is in the main a catalog of eighty-eight heresies. The last eight cited, however, including Pelagianism, give evidence of his personal study and knowledge. Theodoret of Cyr (d. c. 460) wrote a compendium of heretical fables (c. 451) in five books, claiming that he culled these false doctrines from his reading of the early Church Fathers. For Arius, Eudoxius, Nestorius, and Eutyches, he cites primary evidence. At the close of the patristic period,  John Damascene (d. 749) lists a catalog of heresies as the second part of his Source of Knowledge. Only the three final heresies mentioned, namely, Islam, Iconoclasm, and the Paulician heresy, are examined from contemporary evidence.

Church Condemnations of Early Heresies

Popes, bishops, councils, and creeds condemned various heresies in the early Church, either directly or indirectly. In the second century, Marcion’s repudiation of the entire Old Testament and all the Gospels, except that of Luke, was censured by St. Irenaeus (c. 130-200), the Bishop of Lyons, who affirmed the four Gospel canon and the scriptural status of the Old Testament. The Council of Rome in 382 condemned the Trinitarian heresy of Sa-bellius (the reduction of the three divine Persons to three modes or names) as well as Tritheism, the understanding of the Trinity as several gods (cf. Denzinger-Hünermann 2005, 154, 176). Pope Leo I, in his letter to Bishop Turibius of Astorga of July 21, 447, condemned Patripassianism, the heretical belief that the Father suffered as the Son on the Cross (Denzinger-Hünermann 2005, 284).

The Symbol of Nicea-Constantinople of 381 proclaimed Jesus as “true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial to the Father” (Denzinger-Hünermann 2005, 150) in direct opposition to the heresy of Arius (c. 260-336), who taught that the Word of God was a divine-like being created in time. The Council of Ephesus of 431 condemned the heresy of Nestorianism, which rejected Mary as Theotokos (birth-giver or Mother of God) and reduced the Incarnation to the moral union of two persons, the Word of God and the man Jesus. The Council of Chalcedon of 451 reaffirmed the condemnation of Nestorianism and also repudiated Monophysitism, the heresy that only one nature exists in Christ after the Incarnation (Denzinger-Hünermann 2005, 302). The Third Council of Constantinople of 681 condemned Monothelitism, the heresy that teaches that only one will exists in Christ (Denzinger-Hünermann 2005, 558-559). The Second Council of Nicea, in 787, repudiated Iconoclasm, the heresy that rejects the use of sacred images or icons (Denzinger-Hünermann 2005, 600-603). The heresy of Pelagianism was not only rejected by St. Augustine; the Council of Ephesus also censured it in 431, via the condemnation of Celestius, the follower of Pelagius (Denzinger-Hünermann 2005, 268).

Medieval Period

During the Middle Ages both eastern and western Europe were essentially Christian societies. Thus, heresy, a body of doctrine substantially differing in some aspect from the doctrine taught by the Church, had reverberations in the secular world as well as in the Church. The early Christian community, essentially a minority Church (especially in the West) before Constantine’s Edict of Religious Toleration (313), had been shaken in the fourth and fifth centuries by such major heresies as Arianism, Donatism, Nestorianism, Monophysitism, and, in the West, by Pelagianism. In the sixth and seventh centuries, while Europe was absorbed in regrouping after the mass migrations of the barbarian nations, the Byzantine Empire remained split over the question of Monophysitism, complicated also by the controversy over the Three Chapters, and the East turned to monothelitism in its attempt to reestablish religious unity throughout the empire.

Earlier Middle Ages

When the West revived its interest in learning in the eighth and ninth centuries—a phenomenon often labeled the Carolingian Renaissance, but with its religious facets called the Carolingian Reformation—new study of the inherited theology of late antiquity resulted in the exposure of the first truly “medieval” heresies. The filioque controversy had overtones of heresy, as did the contemporary predestination and Eucharistic controversies, the latter spearheaded by the opponents paschasius radbertus and ratramnus. Adoptionism flourished and died. The pantheistic concept of the world, inherent in the Stoic and Neoplatonic philosophy behind Arianism, seems to have received some impetus from the writings of John Scotus Eriugena—although it is probable that this was the result of misunderstanding Eriugena’s thought. At the same time the Byzantine church and State were convulsed by the great struggle over heretical iconoclasm.

High Middle Ages

With the revitalization of all facets of life in Europe during the High Middle Ages, heresy once again became an issue in the religious and secular worlds. Despite the Cluniac and Gregorian reforms, the eleventh century saw the return of the Eucharistic heresy in Berengarius OF Tours, who adopted the older teachings of Ratramnus. During the twelfth century—the century of the Crusades, of the Cistercians, and of the nascent medieval universities—the Cathari, the most serious heretical threat with which the Middle Ages had to contend, arose. The religious equilibrium of the early twelfth century became unbalanced by the sporadical heresies of Peter of Bruys and his Petrobrusians, of Henry of Lausanne, and of Arnold of Brescia, all of whom advanced certain antisacramental and antisacerdotal ideas, and by Amalric of bène and his Amalricians, who were essentially pantheists. But only the Cathari, with their roots in the dualism of the Bogomils and Paulicians, had a viable doctrinal framework. The heresy, originally Eastern, was brought to Europe after the Second Crusade and by 1175 counted members in northern France, the Rhineland, and Italy, but especially in southern France, the Midi. There, the orthodox Christian Church waged spiritual and material war on the strongholds of the Cathari (or Albigenses). The Cistercians, the Albigensian Crusade, the inquisition, the University of Toulouse, and, most importantly, the Mendicant Orders finally proved effective, and by 1300 Catharism had been defeated in Europe.

The same twelfth century also saw the rise of serious non-Manichaean heresies. Although heretical fringe groups, such as the Judaizing Passagini and the followers of radicals (e.g., Éon of Stella or Tanchelm at antwerp), were of only passing interest, a number of heresies arose from the contemporary demand for extreme Church reform in the spirit of apostolic poverty and preaching. These heresies shook the religious foundations of all Europe. Although the same spirit had motivated orthodox reform interests among the Patarines, Humiliati, and Franciscans, the original ideal of evangelical poverty deviated in the Waldenses into an antisacerdotal heresy. In 1173 Valdés of Lyons, a layman, renounced all his worldly possessions, took a vow of poverty, and began preaching to the people. As the Poor Men of Lyons grew more numerous, Pope LUCIUS III and Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa agreed at Verona in 1184 that Waldenses who preached without permission or who attacked the Church’s hierarchy or Sacraments would be branded as heretics, but that others would be accepted as orthodox. Thus small sects of Waldenses stayed within the Church, although the greater number eventually fell into antihierarchical heresy. The Waldenses were never as strong numerically as the contemporary Cathari; they were banned from the empire in 1253, and from that time on their membership decreased except in the valleys of the Piedmont and the Briançonnais, where they survive into the twenty-first century.

The Church’s Magisterium reacted to the Waldenses and the Cathars on several occasions. In 1208 Pope Innocent III prescribed a Profession of Faith for the Waldenses (Denzinger-Hünermann 2005, 790-797), and in 1215 the Fourth Lateran Council proclaimed a Profession of Faith (Denzinger-Hünermann 2005, 800-802) that specifically repudiated the errors of the Albig-ensians and the Cathars concerning the creation of the material world and the origin of evil.

In the twelfth, but especially in the thirteenth, century, groups of heretical spiritualists became discernible in European society. Molded by essentially Catharist ideas wedded to the ideology of Joachim of Fiore, the various groups all adopted an extreme stand on poverty as a protest against the possessions of the Church. Thus the Franciscan spirituals, as corrupted into the Fraticelli under Angelus Clarenus, were declared heretical by Pope john XXII. Amalrician ideas, now combined with rejection of the sacramental Church, lived on among the brothers and sisters of the free spirit who were found in Swabia and along the Rhine from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries. A similarly oriented group were the Apostolici, founded by Segarelli of Parma (burned 1300) and his successor Fra Dolcino (burned 1307).

Later Middle Ages

The major heresy of the fourteenth century was that initiated by John Wyclif, who adopted Berengarius’s Eucharistic position concerning the permanence of bread and wine after consecration and propounded questionable doctrine concerning the Church and the ownership of property. He was silenced in May 1377 by Pope Gregory XI and was finally condemned after his denial of transubstantiation (c. 1380). The Lollards, who adopted Wyclif’s radical views on lordship, grace, the Sacraments, and the temporal power of the papacy, ceased to exist effectively after 1431.

In the meantime, however, Wyclif ‘s teachings became of primary importance in Bohemia, where they influenced John Hus, leader of the reform movement in Prague. The Council of Constance in 1415 censured forty-five errors attributed to Wyclif and thirty attributed to Hus (Denzinger-Hünermann 2005, 1151-1195, 1201-1230). Although Hus was condemned and burned as a heretic at Constance, some scholars believe his only formal heresy was his rejection of the primacy of the pope’s jurisdiction. His followers, the Hussites, adopted the full teaching of Wyclif and abandoned orthodoxy as they denied transubstantiation and other traditional Catholic teachings. Emperor Sigismund led crusades against the Hussites for fifteen years until their defeat in 1436; the Catholic Utraquists (moderate Hussites), however, survived alongside the orthodox Catholics in Bohemia until Lutheranism arose. The radical Hussite ideas were revived in the Bohemian Brethren, a group that provided a direct link between the Hussites and the Protestants of the sixteenth century.


The medieval concept of a kingdom as a morally unified society explains the cooperation of Church and secular power in repressing heresy during the Middle Ages. Medieval man believed that civil society, to survive, had to adhere to a well-defined moral system. When Hugh of Saintvictor declared that “the spiritual power must institute the temporal that it might exist,” and when Pope Boniface VIII asserted in unam sanctam that the Church had both swords, spiritual and temporal, they meant that the contemporary civil powers, deriving their justification from Christian moral doctrine, depended necessarily on the fountainhead of that doctrine. Thus, temporal power was expected to react against doctrines that undermined its own position. To cite an extreme example, when the Cathari branded pregnancy and normal sexual intercourse as Satan’s work or when they counseled their members to commit suicide (endura), contemporary society felt that such action could not go unpunished. The Church’s attitude toward the challenges of heresy resulted in much conflict between men, such as the eleventh-century Bishop Wazo of Liège or Bernard of Clairvaux, who insisted that faith was a matter of persuasion, and others, such as Pope Innocent III or St. Dominic, who approved of the Church repressing heresy. Similar tension is found in the two attitudes of St. Augustine, one stressing the voluntary character of faith and the other underlining the right of society to compel its members to good actions. Prominent medieval Christians realized that the repression of heresy remained essentially a pastoral problem and that a delicate balance was required between justice and charity: leniency in the chastisement of heresy could endanger the faith of others, but excess zeal in administering justice might be a major impediment to the apostolate. In practice, the Church’s medieval antiheresy campaign adopted the process of legatine inquest and the cooperation of ecclesiastical and civil power to stamp out heresy that had gained a popular following.

Modern Period

Heresies upon condemnation do not die but reappear, often with vigorous new growth. Thus the primitivism (the search for a more authentic Christianity in the infancy of the Church) that is found in evangelical Protestantism, as well as Modernism, was already a cry of the Montanists of the second century. The Neoplatonist mysticism of the medieval Beghards and Beguines, condemned at the Council of Vienne (1311), appeared once again in the behavior of the Spanish Alumbrados of the sixteenth century and again later in the Quietist movement. Conciliarism, formulated at the University of Paris by Conrad of Gelnhausen and Henry of Langenstein and expressed in an extreme form by Peter of Ailly and Jean Gerson at the Council of Constance (1414-1417), persisted in the many types of Gallicanism. Moreover, the theories of Church and State that appeared during this modern period were influenced by caesaropapist ideas of the Roman emperors, the exaggerated charges of the French legists of Philip the Fair and the equally pretentious claims of the papal curialists, the doctrine of dominion by grace of John Wyclif, the proimperial theses in the Defensor pacis (1324) of Marsilius of Padua, the power politics of niccolò Machiavelli’s Il principe (1513), and the Venetian theorist, Paolo Paruta’s Discorsi politici (1599). Therefore many heresies of this period are more noted for their eclecticism than for their originality.

The reunion Council of Florence (1439-1445) repudiated Conciliarism and affirmed papal primacy (Denzinger-Hünermann 2005, 1307-1309). The Fifth Lateran Council of 1513 defended the immortality of the individual human soul against the Neo-Aristotelian philosophers of Padua who either doubted or denied the survival of the individual rational soul after death (Denzinger-Hünermann 2005, 1440-1441).


It is principally on the dogmas of justification, predestination, and sacramental theology that the reformers departed from orthodox belief. Though expressing divergent views on these theological doctrines, they agreed that the Bible must be the sole source of faith that rejected or neglected tradition.

Lutheranism. The theology of Martin Luther as synthesized in the Book of Concord (1580) was still creedal, accepting the Apostolic, Nicene, and Athanasian formulas, but avowing Scripture as the sole and constant guide of the Christian. Luther taught the total depravity of man after the Fall, which left him powerless before indomitable concupiscence to perform deeds of merit, so that he is justified by his faith in Christ alone and the imputation of His merits. This rejection of all forms of synergism, whereby the human will can or should cooperate with grace, leaves God the sole agent in converting the soul to justification. Of the Sacraments, only two were sanctioned by Scripture: baptism, incorporating the recipient into membership of a nonhierarchical church, and the Lord’s Supper, commemorating the redemptive act. In place of transubstantiation Luther defended consubstantiation in which Christ becomes present in the substance of the elements, not hypostatically, but in a transcendent, though real, manner.

Reformed Theology. The doctrines of the Reformed Churches, based upon the tenets and church organization of Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Bucer (Butzer), Heinrich Bullinger, and, principally, John Calvin, also rely upon the Bible as sole source of authority and accept the fundamental Lutheran doctrine of total human depravity. Calvin established the principles of his system in the Institutes (1536), where he taught that God by divine ordinance disregards the acts of the creature and predetermines him to salvation or doom. It is God’s unconditioned will, independent of any foreknowledge of merit or demerit, that determines justification.

This image of an inexorable God was resisted by Jakob Arminius, the Dutch divine, who asserted against Calvin that divine sovereignty is compatible with human will and that grace is not irresistible. The propositions of this modified conception of Calvinism were drawn up in the Remonstrance (1610) by Simon Episcopius (1583-1643) and defended unsuccessfully at the Synod of Dort (1618). Though rejected by Calvinists, Arminianism spread to England and eventually divided Methodism into the moderate party of John Wesley and the strict Calvinists, led by George Whitefield.

Zwingli, who formulated his doctrine in the sixty-seven theses (Zurich 1523) and in Bullinger’s First Helvetic Confession (1536), was more insistent on reliance upon Scripture and upon primitivism. To restore the Church to its original simplicity he removed the liturgy, turned the conduct of his church over to congregational direction, and gave ultimate control of its revenues to civic tribunals. Zwingli met with Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, and Johannes Oecolampadius at the Colloquy of Marburg (October 1-4, 1529) to attempt a doctrinal compromise, but their theories upon the presence of Christ in the Eucharist were irreconcilable. After Zwingli’s death (1531), Calvin, Guillaume Farel, and Bullinger met in Zurich in 1549, where they formulated the Zurich Consensus on the Eucharistic presence; by 1580 Zwinglianism and calvinism became the Reformed Church.

Radicalism. The Anabaptists (Zwichau Prophets, Swiss Brethren, Jorists, Hutterian Brethren, Melchiorites, Familists, and Mennonites) constituted a more radical Protestant motion that appealed to an infallible Scripture and an apocalyptic expectation. Their theories of Christian communism, put into practice in the polygamic kingdom of Münster, made them particularly unloved by conservative Protestants as well as Catholics. The Radicals were characterized by the phenomenon of prophetic charism that had been a by-product of Christian heresies since the primitive Church. It appeared in the hysteria of the Montanist prophetesses, Priscilla and Maximilia, and the Circumcellions of the fifth century who brought Donatism into ridicule; the rantings of the eleventh-century Cathars and later medieval mystics; the exhibitionism of the Jansenist con-vulsionaires at the cemetery of St. Médard (1731); the prophecies of the Calvinist Camisards who terrorized eighteenth-century France; the feats of revivalism of the American frontier; and the glossolalia (speaking in tongues) that appeared in some twentieth-century Protestant sects.

The Council of Trent (1545-1563) condemned most of the heresies associated with Protestantism without mentioning any of the Protestant reformers by name. The formula of condemnation typically used in the Tridentine canons was: “If anyone says … anathema sit.” Among the most notable heresies repudiated at Trent were Luther’s denial of free will (Denzinger-Hünermann 2005, 1554), the Anabaptist rejection of infant baptism (Denzinger-Hünermann 2005, 1625-1627), the denial of the Mass as a sacrifice (Denzinger-Hünermann 2005, 1751-1759), and the rejection of the invocation of the saints and the veneration of their relics and images (Denzinger-Hünermann 2005, 1821-1825).

Baianism and Jansenism

The Council of Trent established a body of dogma, but could not prevent further heresy in the question of grace and human justification. Michael Baius and John Hessels, Flemish theologians of the University of Louvain, believed that Catholic reaction to Protestantism had turned too far and that the great villain dividing the Church was Scholasticism, especially in its Thomistic expression. For the dialectic of the schoolmen, Baius substituted greater use of scriptural and patristic sources, especially Cyprian, Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine, since Protestants most often appealed to these. Baius’s fundamental tenet was God’s creation of man in a state of natural integrity, so that after the Fall all his actions were motivated by a nature vitiated toward concupiscence and thus evil to God. Accordingly, after the Redemption, only those actions that proceed from a perfect love of God are of merit. Justification is a continuing process of works that merit heaven only if motivated by perfect charity in a triumphant battle over concupiscence. These elements of Baianism as found in the Opuscula and the seventy-nine propositions condemned by Pius V in the bull Ex omnibus afflictionibus of October 1, 1567, have been criticized as Pelagian, Calvinistic, and Socinian.

Far more reaching in its effect was the theology of Cornelius Jansen, Louvain professor and bishop of Ypres, who with his friend Jean Duvergier de Hauranne, Abbé of St. Cyran and guide of the consciences of the nuns of portroyal from 1636, planned to save the Church from Protestantism, from Jesuits, for whom Jan-sen had an eminent dislike, and from itself. This was to be achieved again by clearing Scholasticism from the path that led back to Augustine and to the simplicity of the primitive Church. Jansen exposed his doctrine in the Augustinus, published posthumously (1640) and for whose preparation he read the works of Augustine ten times, and for his anti-Pelagian tractates, thirty times. Like Baius he asserts man’s creation in a state of natural integrity, so that fallen man is radically depraved and at the mercy of concupiscence. In his redeemed state man is still drawn to earthly delectation (delectatio terrestris), unless impelled by an irresistible heavenly impulse (de-lectatio coelestis). Thus man is irresistibly attracted to good or evil, depending upon which delectation prevails (delectation victrix). As a corollary he discouraged the use of the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Penance. The first was to be received rarely and as a reward for virtue; the second held worthless unless repentance was motivated by perfect love of God. The course of this heresy was a series of ineffectual condemnations, reprisals, insincere submissions, subterfuges, and casuistry that continued even after Clement XI’s sweeping condemnation in 1713 in the bull unigenitus. In Holland Jansenists were involved in the irregular consecration of Cornelius Steenhoven as archbishop of Utrecht (1723), which led to schism with Rome. These Utrecht Jansenists remained separated and later allied themselves with the Old Catholic party, which declared against papal infallibility in 1870.


Contemporary with the Jansenist crisis were the disputes among theologians over the degrees of probability needed for a licit moral action. The Jesuits accepted and taught the theory of probabilism (it is licit to act on a probable opinion even though the opposite is more probable), but the Jansenist Blaise Pascal in his Lettres provinciales (1657) attacked it as dangerous casuistry. This opened an active controversy with George Pirot, S.J. (1599-1659), whose L’Apologie pour les casuistes (1657) widened the scope of licit probability to the extreme of laxity. The book was proscribed by the Parlement of Paris, the Sorbonne, and censored by the Holy Office in 1659. Laxism was further condemned by Alexander VII by decrees of September 24, 1665; March 18, 1666; and May 5, 1667. Innocent XI condemned sixty-five laxist propositions on March 2, 1679. Tutiorism (it is not allowed to follow even the most probable among probable opinions) as expressed by the Irish Jansenist John SINNICH in Saul Exrex (1662), was also condemned by Alexander VIII on December 7, 1690.

Quietism and Semiquietism

Mysticism is a borderland infrequently traversed, so the expression of the phenomena that occur there cannot be easily touched with precise phrase. Thus the great Rhineland mystic, Meister Eckhart (d. 1327) was accused of being pantheistic and Beghardic; SS. Ignatius Loyola, Teresa of A´ vila, Francis Borgia, and Joseph Calasanctius were suspected of the Neoplatonic tendencies of the Alumbrados. In the seventeenth century, however, a great revival of quietistic mysticism occurred. Miguel de Molinos in his book, Guía espiritual, taught a complete contemplative passivity before God. The soul in seeking interior annihilation can allow all license to carnal desire, acts of which are not blameworthy but produce a salutary disinterestedness to sensible devotion as well as personal salvation. Though denounced by the Holy Office (1685), Quietism in a modified form became prominent through the Barnabite François Lacombe (c. 1640-1715) and his more famous disciple Madame Guyon (Jeanne Marie Bouvier de la Motte). They accepted the doctrine of pure love from Molinos’s theology, according to which the soul becomes powerless to act in its own interest. This thesis was expanded in Madame Guyon’s Moyen court et très facile de faire oraison (1685) and the Explication des maximes des saints (1697) of her follower, François Fénelon, eminent churchman and, at the time of the appearance of his book, the governor of Louis XIV’s grandson, the duke of Burgundy. Madame Guyon was arrested and imprisoned (1695) at Vin-cennes, Vaugirard, and the Bastille, where she signed a retractation. Fénelon’s book, after two years of bitter controversy with Jacques Bossuet, was condemned by Innocent XII in the letter Cum alias, on March 12, 1699.


From the time of Protestantism, State interference in the affairs of the Church was much more significant than the ancient Byzantine Caesaropapism or the pope-king quarrels of the Middle Ages. Now that Europe contained Christian communities no longer a part of Catholicism, opposition of monarchs to Rome was not only political but touched faith or was founded upon principles that could destroy beliefs.

Anglicanism. The divorce proceedings that effected the English schism and set Henry VIII at the head of a national church did not yet place England in heresy. The six Henrician articles (June 1539) attest to the king’s demand for orthodoxy. During the short reign of his son Edward VI (1547-1553), Continental Protestantism took hold. Peter Martyr Vermigli and Martin Bucer were instrumental in the formation of the Edwardine Ordinal (1550). Thomas Cranmer, long an admirer of the Lutheran movement, produced the revision of the Book of Common Prayer in 1552, and in the next year prevailed on the king to sign the forty-two Articles of Religion into the law of the land. Edward’s action effectively established England as a Protestant nation, and the king as its religious arbiter, a position that was strengthened by the Stuart claim to authority by divine right within their hereditary line of succession. In the later development of Anglicanism, the Erastian idea of State ascendancy over the Church in ecclesiastical matters took hold in the Westminster Assembly (1643) and in the ideal secularizationof the church as conceived by Thomas Hobbes.

Gallican Liberties. In sixteenth-century France a distrust of Rome and its ultramontane foreign policies sometimes resulted in papal alliances with French enemies, especially the Hapsburg emperor. When the French crown felt oppressed, it appealed to the libertés de l’Église gallicane, which it could proudly trace back to King Clovis and his Merovingian successors. The concordat between Leo X and Francis I in 1516 annulled the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges (1438) that had accepted many of the conciliarist decrees of the Council of Basel (1431-1437); Gallicanism, however, persisted and came to a crisis when Louis XIV attempted to extend the regalia (royal right to the revenues of vacant sees) to all the sees of France. Innocent XI (1676-1689) repudiated this usurpation of right and threatened ecclesiastical sanction. In reply Louis gathered the clergy of France who adopted the Four Gallican Articles of 1682, which were conciliarist and limited the exercise of papal primacy to the customs of the French Church. Though Louis and Innocent came to terms in 1693, these articles became a formula of anti-Romanism adopted when convenient elsewhere in Europe.

Febronianism and Josephinism

In Germany the suffragan bishop of Trier, Johann Nikolaus von Hontheim, under the pen name of Justinus Febronius, attacked Roman power as compared to papal primacy and as founded upon the False Decretals and advocated an ecclesiastical order regulated as much as possible by episcopal and civic control. These ideas, absorbed by Hontheim from the Gallican canonist of Louvain, Zeger Bernhard van Espen, led the archbishops of Mainz, Trier, Cologne, and Salzburg to assert their grievances against Rome at a congress at Bad Ems in Hesse-Nassau, even though Clement XIII had condemned Febronianism in 1764. The Punctation of Ems, issued August 25, 1786, restrained appeals to Rome and declared papal bulls to be conditioned upon the acceptance of the German episcopate. The force of Febronianism was felt in the empire and expressed in the policies of Empress Maria Theresa and her son, Joseph II, whose Toleration Edict of 1781 suppressed certain religious orders, placed exempt monasteries under diocesan control, and required civic authorization for publishing papal documents. Leopold II, Grand Duke of Tuscany and brother of the emperor, introduced Josephinist ideas to northern Italy. In 1786, under the presidency of Scipi-one de’ Ricci, Bishop of Pistoia-Prato, a synod passed reform measures based upon the Gallican articles, eighty-five of which were condemned by Pius VI in the bull Auctorem fidei, August 28, 1794.

Kulturkampf and Old Catholics. In the nineteenth century Caesarism appeared in the anti-Romanism of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. His Kulturkampf oppressed the Church, interfered in its educational processes, limited its disciplinary powers by the May Laws (1873), and exiled religious orders. Unexpectedly, this oppression effected a Catholic revival in Germany and strengthened the Catholic political party. The publication of the Syllabus errorum by Pius IX on December 8, 1864, and the definition of infallibility by Vatican Council I (1870) aroused the resistance of Johannes J. I. von Döllinger, who met with some professors at Nuremberg and Bonn, where it was agreed that the pope’s measures would paralyze the Church. Despite Döllinger’s disapproval, they formed the schis-matical church of Old Catholics, receiving episcopal succession from the bishops of the Church of Utrecht, in schism since 1723. The Old Catholics, with affiliated churches in the Netherlands, Poland, and the United States, retain most of the Roman rite (but in the vernacular), allow a married clergy, and make the Sacrament of Penance optional.


Much Catholic thought in the nineteenth century grew as a reaction to the philosophies of the Enlightenment or as an attempt at adaptation. Against the primum mobile, the depersonalized god of the rationalists, the skepticism as expressed in David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1738), and the sophistication resulting from new technology and travel abroad, especially during England’s Augustan age, some Catholic theologians proposed theories of traditionalism, placing the norm of human certitude in the sens commun rather than in distrusted individual intellectual ability. The traditionalists, Casimir Ubaghs, Louis E. Bautain, Augustin Bonnetty, and Hugues Félicité de Lamennais, tried to revive faith, just as the ontologists, Vincenzo Gioberti and Jakob Frohschammer, by their central tenet that God is the first object of our intelligence, established an optimistic rationalism. Georg Hermes attempted to adjust theology to Kantian philosophy, and Anton Günther, after studying the pantheistic idealism of Georg Hegel and Friedrich von Schelling, proposed that it was within human power to deduce the mysteries of the Trinity and Incarnation.

All these figures were condemned. Bautain was removed from his chair of philosophy at Strasbourg by Bishop Lepappe de Trévern in 1834; Ubaghs was censored by the Holy Office, September 21, 1864; Bon-netty was denounced by the Congregation of the Index on June 11, 1855; Gioberti’s writings were placed on the Index on January 14, 1853; Hermes was condemned by the brief Dum acerbissimas on September 26, 1835; Günther’s works were doomed by the Index on January 8, 1857; and propositions from the books of Rosmini-Serbati were condemned by a decree of the Holy Office on December 14, 1887. (In 2001, however, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith qualified these condemnations to prepare the way for Rosmini’s eventual beatification in 2007.) Frohschammer, professor at the University of Munich, refused to submit to the condemnatory letter of Pius IX, Gravissimas inter, which found unorthodox propositions in his Einleitung in die Philosophie und Grundriss der Metaphysik (1858), and was suspended. Lammenais believed the future of the Church in post-Napoleonic France would be brighter if its dependent affiliations with the restored monarchy were replaced by a Catholic liberalism. Together with several French intellectuals, such as Charles de Montalembert and Jean B. Lacordaire, he published the brilliant L’Avenir (1830-1831), advocating freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and labor unions; the magazine, however, was suppressed for indifferentism by Gregory XVI in an encyclical Mirari vos on August 15, 1832. The adherence to Royalism among many of the French clergy persisted into the twentieth century, when a number rallied to the monarchist crusade of Charles Maurras and his collaborator, Léon Daudet. Pius XI denounced their publication, L’Action Française on December 20, 1926.


A more pervading heresy was the complex of movements condemned under the name of modernism by Pius X in the decree, Lamentabili sane exitu of July 3, 1903, and the encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis of September 8, 1907. Attempting to reconcile the Church with the present, Modernism viewed Scholastic Aristotelianism no longer suitable to illustrate and defend Christian belief. The prominent Modernists, Maurice Blondel, Lucien Laberthonnière, Alfred Loisy, E´douard Le Roy, Eudoxe I. Mignot, Antonio Fogazzaro, Romolo Murri, Friedrich von Hügel, and George Tyrrell, composed no theological school or consistent doctrine, but they agreed upon the necessity of reconciling the Church with modern times. From their writings the following beliefs appeared: dogmatic statements have a spirit that is absolute and fixed and a form that is relative and mutable; Christ’s messianic mission and His divinity are not to be sought from Scriptural sources, whose authors were subjected to the limitations of all human historians, but deduced from the conscientia christiana; the Christ of history is thus less than the Christ of faith, and it is not important to know whether He instituted a church, since the Holy Spirit guides its progress; and in Christianity there is a religious immanence that effects a continual evolution and pragmatic adaptation to historical situations.


By the end of the nineteenth century the term “adaptation” meant a dangerous tampering with faith, as is witnessed in the so-called heresy of Americanism. From a French translation of a biography of Isaac T. Hecker, founder of the Paulists, Roman theologians extracted statements that advocated adapting the external form of the Church to modern American life and extolled the active virtues (humanitarianism, democratic fellowship) to the depreciation of passive virtues (subjection to authority, humility). By an Apostolic Letter to Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, Testem Benevolentiae on January 22, 1899, Leo XIII cautioned against these notions, and, by referring to them as Americanism and implying that they were widespread, created what F. Klein called a phantom heresy (Klein 1949).

The Fathers of Vatican Council II chose not to condemn any errors by means of anathemas. At the same time, the pastoral constitution Gaudium et spes cited many errors prevalent in modern society. Debates upon the floor of the council and continual written discussions on its schema emphasized the need to consider theological realities in their place in the stream of history. In terms of understanding heresy, they emphasized the difference between the rejection of an eternal, unchanging truth and the rejection of its changing historical manifestation.

After Vatican II

The popes, since the ending of Vatican II in 1965, have mostly relied upon the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF; formerly the Holy Office) to defend the integrity of the faith and to guard against real or potential heresies. In some cases the CDF has issued documents noting certain dangerous movements or theological trends. For example, in 1984 it issued the Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation” to warn against the politicization of the Gospel, the appropriation of Marxist analysis, and the use of violence in movements of social liberation. In 2000 it published the declaration, Dominus Iesus, On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church to warn against new forms of religious indifferentism and relativism.

Since Vatican II the Church has mostly dealt with individual theologians by means of notifications issued by the CDF. Hans Küng, for example, was censured in 1975 for (among other things) denying the dogma of papal infallibility. In 1979 the CDF decreed that he could no longer teach as a Catholic theologian. Many believe that the CDF’s 1973 declaration, Mysterium Ecclesiae, was intended as a rejection of Küng’s positions.

In 1984 the CDF warned Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., about his thesis that, in extraordinary circumstances, someone other than an ordained priest could offer the Eucharist. The year before, with Schillebeeckx in mind, the CDF issued a letter to the bishops of the world titled, Sacerdotium ministeriale, making it clear that only an ordained priest could offer a valid Eucharist.

In 1985 the CDF published a notification regarding the 1982 book Church: Charism and Power of Leonardo Boff, O.F.M. The CDF criticized the book for challenging the hierarchical nature and unicity of the Church. On November 30, 2000, the CDF issued a notification regarding some publications of Professor Dr. Reinhard Messner because they obscured apostolic succession and the divine institution of the Sacrament of holy orders. In 2004 the Congregation published a notification on the book Jesus: Symbol of God by Roger Haight, S.J., because of this work’s inadequate view of the divinity of Christ. In 2006 a similar notification was issued by the CDF for two works of Jon Sobrino, S.J., because they obscured the divinity and salvific work of Jesus Christ.

Although these theologians received notifications from the CDF, since Vatican II the Magisterium has been more concerned with teaching the Catholic faith than with censuring and punishing heretics. As Pope John XXIII declared in his October 11, 1962, opening of the Second Vatican Council: “Nowadays, however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity” (Abbott 1966, p. 716).