Every well-formed Christian knows that in the Church founded by our Savior Jesus Christ, “the essential properties of Marriage are unity (monogamy) and indissolubility.”[iii] In practice, in the case of spouses united in a valid and consummated marriage, divorce is not possible. According to the divine teaching, no one on the face of this earth can “dissolve” their bond: “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Mark 10:9). If, unfortunately, the two spouses separate, their remarriage – as long as both are alive – is absolutely forbidden. The revealed and error-free texts of Holy Scripture are absolutely categorical on this matter:
“But to them that are married, not I but the Lord commandeth, that the wife depart not from her husband. And if she departs, that she remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband. And let not the husband put away his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:10-11).
We can easily understand what we are dealing with when a hierarch asserts, for example, that the Gospel teaching on the indissolubility of marriage is unchanging, but (Ah! There always follows this “But” when a practical heretic speaks...) due to human weaknesses and a new historical context, in practice, we must accept that divorced and remarried individuals, “accompanied,” can receive the holy sacraments.
In the Church of the first centuries, any violation of this teaching was punished even with excommunication and, in any case, with the prohibition of the Holy Sacraments (Confession and Communion). One of the oldest texts from that period, the Apostolic Constitutions, clearly shows this:
“If a layman divorces his own wife, and takes another, or one divorced by another, let him be suspended” (Book VIII, 48).
As His Eminence, Cardinal Raymond Burke, among others, has stated in his critique of the pontifical exhortation Amoris Laetitia (2016), the traditional practice of the Church has always been the same:
“In the whole history of the Church, it’s never been possible that someone who was living publicly in a state of sin, for example a person who is bound in matrimony to one person, is living in a marital way with another person, it has never been permitted that such a person could approach to receive Holy Communion.”[iv]
If a priest or a hierarch violates this prohibition regarding the receiving of the Holy Eucharist by remarried divorcees, even if he professes in words the indissolubility of marriage, then he commits what Cardinal Müller calls “practical heresy.” Long before the current debates, this notion was used, at least implicitly, by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) in his sermons. Saint Alphonsus (1696–1787) borrowed it from him to develop it further in some of his writings.
Known under the title of Selva (1760),[v] St. Alphonsus’ treatise on the Dignity and Duties of the Priest is very likely the most important text ever written on the Holy Priesthood. Starting with the qualities that those preparing to become priests should possess, continuing with the criteria for discerning an authentic vocation, and then addressing how one should assume and fulfill their sacred ministry, everything is presented by the Holy Doctor with adamantine clarity. Additionally, very painful issues are discussed, such as sacrilegious liturgies.
In the context of Chapter VIII, entirely dedicated to the sin of scandal committed by priests, St. Alphonsus first shows, by quoting Pope Gregory I (c. 540–604), that the ministers of the altar are called Patres Christianorum – the Fathers of Christians. In practice, they are the fathers of all the baptized, being the representatives of God on earth. Consequently, if they set a bad example for their own children – the faithful – they commit the same sin as parents who are bad examples for their children. Therefore, adds Saint Alphonsus, the sins of scandal committed by priests lead to the moral killing of their own believers, just as the sins of parents lead to the moral killing of their own children.
It is true that, unlike the “practical” heretics that Saints Bernard and Alphons had in mind, many of today’s priests and hierarchs might not even believe in the Gospel teachings. As certain authors have already suggested, in such cases, we are not dealing with heretics but with apostates.
One of the saints most quoted in the meditations of Saint Alphonsus is the legendary Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. This medieval Doctor asserts that the priests who commit the sin of scandal are, simultaneously, suicides – for they kill their own souls – and murderers of the sheep of the flock entrusted to them. At this point, based on a quote from St. Bernard, St. Alphonsus makes a statement that is directly related to the notion of “practical heresy”:
“Saint Bernard says that the scandalous priest kills others at the same time that he murders his own soul. And in another place the saint writes that there is no plague more noxious to the people than ignorance in a priest united with irregularity of life. In another place the same saint says that in their sermons they are orthodox, but in their conduct they are heretics; because by their bad example they inflict a deeper wound on religion than heretics do by teaching false doctrines, because acts have more force than words (my emphasis).”[vi]
The sentence of Saint Bernard that inspired the above quotation is memorable: “Multi sunt Catholici praedicando, qui hareretici sunt operanda” – “Many are Catholics in preaching, but they are heretics in their actions.” In other words, there are many who profess the Gospel in words but are heretics in their actions and deeds. Shortly, they are heretics in practice.
If we take into account this teaching of the two Doctors of the Church, we can easily understand what we are dealing with when a hierarch asserts, for example, that the Gospel teaching on the indissolubility of marriage is unchanging, but (Ah! There always follows this “But” when a practical heretic speaks...) due to human weaknesses and a new historical context, in practice, we must accept that divorced and remarried individuals, “accompanied,” can receive the holy sacraments. When we hear such teachings we are dealing with promoters of practical heresies.
It is true that, unlike the “practical” heretics that Saints Bernard and Alphons had in mind, many of today’s priests and hierarchs might not even believe in the Gospel teachings. Influenced by historicist heresy, they are convinced that revealed teachings are “adaptable” – or even completely changeable – depending on the historical context. As certain authors have already suggested, in such cases, we are not dealing with heretics but with apostates. Anyway, what is certain is that through practical heresies, they endanger the salvation of all – but especially of those Christians who are not well-formed. If this is the case, I cannot help but recall a word spoken by our Lord, Jesus Christ, concerning the Pharisees and Sadducees:
“Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men, for you yourselves do not enter in; and those that are going in, you suffer not to enter” (Matthew 23:13).
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[i] “Cardinal Müller: Some statements by Pope Francis could be understood as material heresy”: https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/cardinal-muller-some-statements-by-pope-francis-could-be-understood-as-material-heresy/?utm_source=featured_news&utm_campaign=catholic [Accessed: 12 November 2023]
[ii] Cele două articole în care T. Flanders vorbește de „ereziile practice” ale Papei Francisc sunt “Pope Has ‘Uttered Plenty of Material Heresies’: Former Vatican Doctrinal Head”: https://onepeterfive.com/pope-has-uttered-plenty-of-material-heresies-former-vatican-doctrinal-head/ [Accessed: 12 November 2023] și “Pope Francis Welcomes ‘Transgender’ People as Godparents”: https://onepeterfive.com/pope-francis-transgender/ [Accessed: 12 November 2023].
[iii] Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, TAN Books, 1974, p. 462.
[iv] https://cruxnow.com/vatican/2017/04/cardinal-burke-says-sympathetic-marriage-difficulties [Accessed: 12 November 2023].
[v] Saint Alphonsus of Liguori, Dignity and Duties of the Priest or Selva, Edited by Rev. Eugene Grimm, New York, Benzinger Brothers, 1889. The full text is available online here: https://archive.org/details/alphonsusworks12liguuoft [Accessed: 12 November 2023].
[vi] Saint Alphonsus of Liguori, Dignity and Duties of the Priest or Selva, p. 145.