Heretics and “erroneous conscience”

I’m not sure if this fits in this section of Catholic Answers. Also want to add that I hope this question does not offend. I am seriously seeking some answers.

In the Book “My Catholic Faith”, page 171, it talks about God’s Law and Conscience. The sublet of this chapter speaks about “erroneous conscience”, in which I cite what it says here:

** “” When is conscience erroneous? Conscience is erroneous when we think that something right is wrong, or that something wrong is right.

  1. An erroneous conscience arises from ignorance or a faulty knowledge of the law. As long as a person who has an erroneous conscience knows no better, he is not responsible for the evil he may do by following it. An erroneous conscience is a false one.

For example, a child tells a lie in order to save his younger brother form punishment. He thinks his duty to protect his little brother is superior to the telling of the truth. He has an erroneous conscience, and in this case commits no sin. However, everyone is required to strive for a correct knowledge of the law by studying his religion. In that way he will form a correct or right conscience.

  1. If a person with an erroneous conscience believers something right is wrong, and nevertheless doe it, he is guilty of sin, because he has violated his conscience, and thereof willed to do wrong.

A man may believe that God prohibits gambling in a lottery. If he never the less participates, he sins, because he has violated his conscience.

  1. On e has a doubtful conscience when one does not know whether something is right or wrong. We should not act if we have a doubtful conscience about something, but wait ill we can clear the matter up.

    If one has a doubtful conscience, but yet must do something and cannot wait, he should say to himself that if he knows it was wrong, then he would not do it. Then even if he makes up his mind, and does it, and it is really wrong, he is not guilty of sin. “”**

So my question is, so what about heretics and conscience? What makes a heretic be a heretic and not just have an erroneous conscience? Is it because they ‘teach’ differently than what has been revealed to the church? Or can one merely have difficulty of conscience when it comes to something taught in the church- does that make them a heretic? How was Martin Luther a heretic and not just someone suffering from an erroneous conscience? How does anyone know for sure that what they think is ‘right’ or the correct way of thinking? A person certainly can think they are right when they are wrong. Happens all the time… so how does this come into play when people judge or deem people as heretics or absenters?

How does this come to play with those who scold and put down those who have left the catholic church because of the introduction of the New Mass (Novus Ordo) and teachings of Vatican II? If they are following their conscience, then how are they ‘evil’ or ‘wrong’ or dissenters if they are following their conscience?

(Please don’t say simply “because they left the pope”… this is not going in depth and is very shallow, especially when taking in account the cited bona-fide Catholic teaching here. You can’t just say that because a person stopped listening and recognizing the pope as the pope because their conscience told them otherwise not to follow him or what he is advocating.)

How can Catholics call Protestant heretics if those that broke away were following their conscience? Is this why the previous Holy Father said that they were ‘separated brethren”? What about those Catholics that despise those of the sedevacantist movement and call them heretics and schismatic? Does not their conscience count? Or does a person’s conscience only count when they agree with what the current Church decrees and legislation? If so, does that not override the rule of conscience as decreed by the church???!!! OR if not, how so?

One thing seems for certain about this teaching: No wonder no one has the right to judge where someone is at or how they believe because no one can know if the ‘wrong’ thinking is intentional or not.

Isn’t everyone bound to think how he or she thinks is correct??? If so, how does this thing called ‘the true faith’ work? Is it more that the true faith -as governed by a set religion- are just guidelines and that the Holy Spirit cannot be contained within a set of rules? (I’d think so, if I know the Gospel correctly) How does one collective “truth” (as in a religious sect, its beliefs and rules) come into play then if it does not? How does religion become that in which is something outside themselves and not their own making, (or their own desires)… without blindly binding themselves to something erroneous either such as a cult… That meaning, cults offer ‘something outside a person’s self” to follow and which therefore eventually govern and control a person?

:Hmmm: A heretic is when someone teaches and obviously believes something which is contrary to the deposit of faith.
It could well be that he might have a faulty formation (theological) in which case his/her culpability might be dimished.

Current protestants are not called heretics. Because they where born into their present state.
They are poorly informed or cathechized Christians (a sad truth that affects Catholics too mind you).
They THINK they know what the Church teaches but they actually have been given false and misleading information.

The Novus Ordo has NOT changed one iota of the Dogmas of the faith of the Church.
They are disciplines that evolve with time.
In Jesus time most people spoke Greek it was the lingua franca in the place and time of Jesus, when the Apostles Peter and Paul moved to Rome and began building Jesus Church eventually the lingua franca was changed to Latin.
Now the Church is all over the planet and not many people know Latin.
So the Church has changed some disciplines BUT the mass, the sacrifice, The Eucharist is the same.
Why people would live the Church over this? :shrug: I am a Christian and need to be charitable.

Peace :thumbsup:


Your question is an interesting one.

I would say that we have to distinguish between the objective wrong done and the subjective state of the soul of the person who committed it.

Heresy, for example is defined as “the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt after the reception of baptism of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith” (Code of Canon Law 751). Here, “obstinate” means essentially “in the face of efforts by the Church to effect a recantation.”

Therefore, when Martin Luther, for example, denied the authority of Tradition (and obstinately held on to his beliefs), he committed an act of heresy. He may have had an erroneous conscience (as a matter of fact, Luther is known to have had serious problems with scrupulosity), and so it is impossible for us to judge his subjective guilt or innocence.

A similar thing might be said for those who reject the teachings of Vatican II: what such persons commit is mostly an act of schism, rather than an act of heresy. (See the same canon for a definition.) Schism is objectively an gravely sinful act; it is not, however, possible to judge the state of these persons’ souls.

We don’t call Protestants heretics, because few of them have made a conscious decision to deny or doubt a truth of the Faith: there is no obstinacy involved. Also, the Church would like to invite Protestants to return to full union with the Catholic Church (that is the true meaning of ecumenism); labeling them as “heretics” is not especially conducive to that end. Many Protestants believe incorrect things about the Faith; we need to help them come to the fullness of the Faith, that is all.

So, the basic answer is, objectively what Martin Luther and those who reject Vatican II have done is gravely wrong. It is entirely possible, however, that subjectively many such persons are following their (erroneous) consciences and thus are not guilty of a sin.

Or, to put it another way, when the Church makes a judgment that so-and-so has committed an act of heresy or schism, the judgment is on the objective act committed, never on the subjective state of the person’s soul.

Let me know if this answer helps. God bless.

Father Louis Melahn, L.C.

Thank you for your thoughts.

I should have asked in my original post that I did not want to turn this thread into a discussion about sedevacantism and how they are wrong, so on and so forth.

I am merely talking about the term called “erroneous conscience” and what is known as heresy. I’ve merely heard people calling sedes “heretics”, which is why I brought it into example here.

As long as a person who has an erroneous conscience knows no better, he is not responsible for the evil he may do by following it. An erroneous conscience is a false one.

The conscience must be honed to better serve, therefore through neglect can be made ineffective by degrees. A life of virtue, the use of all Sacraments of the Church, and being receptive to graces would hone the conscience. Some only have it to rely on, however it has been made manifest there are other God sanctioned provisions he must avail himself with for salvation.

Thank you Father. This helps immensely. I highlighted in your post what helps the most.

But that leaves a question for me… If the church cannot state a definitive on a person’s soul, then why is there such an authority in the first place? Is the function of the authority of the church to merely guide, or are they to be acting in persona Christi, telling us the truth so that we may be safe from the fires of hell and our own vices? I ask because of the following example:

The church once thought of St. Joan of Arc as a heretic, or insane or a witch (I can’t remember exactly what they tried her on in court)… At a later date- hundreds of years later- they changed that 180 degrees and sainted her. If they one thought one way once than change it around later… AND were teaching the people to follow what they had judged at that time… how can we trust the church with our souls? How can we be obedient… or is it a matter of how we are obedient to authority of the church?

Or is the church merely here as a gathering place? And nothing more? A place where the flock is safer than if they were on their own, but in reality we are all susceptible to erroneous beliefs including those at the top? What did Jesus come here for if we are so susceptible?? And what of Scripture that says “The Holy Spirit will teach you all things…”. Is that only for those at the top of the hierarchy? Because it seems to me that if everyone is to receive Holy Communion, than the Scripture noted in the sentence above would be for regular laity too. (I’m not trying to put down priests or religious or bishops and such. I know that they have their calling and role in life.)

I’m so sorry to be so frank. Its not my intention to punch holes into things. I’m just really bothered by all this. I’m not un-thankful for the church. I just can’t fathom how this all fits together. Something to me seems off… and I’m worried I am in 'erroneous conscience". How could one ever know for certain anything? I guess that is where the notion of “faith” comes in.

^Thank you for this. This is most helpful!

I just wanted to say I am bothered by the same things on a daily basis. My faith in Jesus is unwavering, but our failures, my failures, torment me. I wish we could do better.

The catholic church calls itself a deposit of faith. I think that is a good term. Throughout the years the cream of the saints got scrapped off the top and deposited into the vault. The cream is just a small percent of their lives, the majority of the glass not nearly as rich.

I think maybe look to the deposit of cream, rather than each individual glass. It still bothers me how weak and flawed we are, but it’s easier going to just view the little bits of cream we have scrapped off so far.

Since the beginning the Body of Christ (Church) has been there to maintain and safeguard the vault. It’s one big creamery.

“The Church” never thought of St. Joan of Arc as a heretic. Her sentence and execution were political in nature and were the result of the actions of a single man, Bishop Cauchon, who was sympathetic to the English during the Hundred Years War between England and France. He didn’t have jurisdiction to bring a case against her, bullied witnesses, the defense, and the prosecution to do things his way, and refused her right to petition to the pope, a right held by all when accused of heresy by an inquisition at that time.

Just because a member of the Church says or does something doesn’t mean they speak or act on behalf of the Church. They must have authority to do so. Even a bishop does not speak for the Church if what he says or does contradicts Church teaching or is outside of his jurisdiction, as was the case with Bishop Cauchon. Remember that the magisterium, the teaching office of the Church, is exercised by the pope and the bishops in union with him. Bishop Cauchon was one man acting alone, not a bishop acting in union with the pope and other bishops.

While it’s true that Joan of Arc wasn’t canonized until about a century ago, she WAS declared innocent by the Church 25 years after her unlawful execution. The retrial didn’t begin until 22 years after her execution because the Hundred Years War was still ongoing, which is why it took so long to start. Once the war ended, the investigation and retrial were completed in about three years.

If we can trust in the promises of Christ, then we can trust the Church will teach us the truth in matters of faith and morals. If the Vatican rather than a rogue bishop had declared Joan of Arc a heretic, then there would be something to worry about. But that’s not what happened, and it’s never been what happened in any other situation. Look to the official teachings of the Church in matters of faith and morals as being authoritative, not the actions of lone bishops or priests that contradict those official teachings. Exercise discernment in forming your conscience. Those who do not act with the mind of the Church do not represent the Church. As was the case of Bishop Cauchon in Joan of Arc’s trial, they only represent themselves.

I do not pass judgment on his soul, only on his actions (which the Church clearly stated were wrong). I pray that he repented of what he did and had a change of heart before it was too late for him. I do not presume one way or the other.

Thanks for this too. I don’t know what I’m expecting. I guess I think that a bishop should be trustworthy, after all, they’ve been placed into a position of power. If someone in the position of power turns out not to be trustworthy, I guess I just have trouble with trusting it at all. Why does the church not remove those that do wrong?

Remember that the Church is made of US poor sinners that need lots and lots of prayer.
Also need lots and lots of Mercy.

Someone said “The Catholic Church is a hospital for sinners”

That is why the Church NEVER judges any one is in Hell.

St. Joan of Ark IS in Heaven. The Church sayeth soo. And it is true.

Is that Bishop in Hell? Only God knows.

Joanna forgave him. Let’s pray we can also forgive those that do us harm.

Peace :thumbsup:

This question perplexed me for many years – it constantly left me in knots over questions of conscience, my own as well as others’.

Heresy is generally accompanied by more than theological theories; they’re manifest in many ways in personal behaviors. Martin Luther’s writings reveal a lewd, profane drunk whose initial ideas were extended till they fit his incapacity to be continent in body or in thought. Other heretics are identified by the severity of limitations which the Church does not impose.

In his final speech before Elizabeth’s butchers executed him, St. Edmund Campion expressed his prayer that he and they would one day meet happy in heaven – but if ever there was a lot of ill-willed people pretending that they were following their consciences when they were only following the money, it was the first generations of Anglicans.

You are right, a bishop should be trustworthy. But bishops are not supermen who are perfect and cannot sin. They are still men. The Church does remove those who do wrong, when they are caught and when justice is done. They are not always caught. They are not always caught in a timely manner. Justice is not always done even when they are caught. And the truth of someone’s misdeeds do not always come to light until after their death, if at all.

Justice is imperfect in this world.

The people who comprise the Church are imperfect humans like me. Imperfect people sometimes sin and fall short of the mark set by God. Our response to that reality is to pray, to have faith in God, to hope for the future, and to treat with charity all of our brothers and sisters. Even those who don’t “deserve” it. They need our love and our prayers all the more because of their sin.