Most heresies don’t spring full-grown from the head of Zeus

A priest friend forwarded this from Pat Archbold at the National Catholic Register:

The Seven Stages Of Heresy

Stage 1.

Immoral practice is clearly condemned and anathematized. The eternal salvation of souls is at stake. Some people still do it, but they are understood to be sinners and sometimes socially ostracized.

Stage 2.

Immoral practice is still clearly condemned but nobody really talks about it. More people do it, but not considered ideal.

Stage 3.

Immoral practice is formally condemned, but such condemnation is rarely taught. Many more people do it, it is just the way life is sometimes.

Stage 4.

Immoral practice is still formally condemned, but most clergy look the other way and some even encourage it. Most people do it, what is the big deal?

Stage 5.

Immoral practice is still formally condemned, but we must find a way to act pastorally toward all those who engage in practice. Church is seen to be unnecessarily hurting those with its outdated intolerance. To be more pastoral, we encourage more of the immoral practice because our growth has taught us that people’s feelings are more important than their souls.

Stage 6.

Immoral practice is still immoral, but those charged with the care of souls and safeguarding the truth say things like “that ship has sailed” or “not that important” or “not relevant” or “we are not obsessed with such matters” or “we need to encounter people where they are” or ultimately “the sensus fidelium has spoken.” Those who don’t do it are considered obsessed wild-eyed intolerant freaks who are ultimately harming the Church’s outreach.

Stage 7.

Immoral practice is still immoral and Church still formally condemns it, but the ubiquitous immoral practice has spawned worse ones, so we now have bigger fish to fry. Congratulations! You have a full-blown heresy!!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, Liberals, The Drill, The Olympian Middle and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Magpie says:

    Sounds right there like the plan for the ‘New Evangelisation’. I’ll say nothing more than that because I am not in the best mood and I’m not best pleased with those in charge of the Church.

  2. Supertradmum says:

    Fantastic….may I borrow this? Am teaching Oedipus Rex at this time and have a soft spot for Athena, the Bright One….but clever headline.

  3. BLB Oregon says:

    I agree that this sounds much more like the way the faithful become accustomed to tolerating vice than the way they become accustomed to heresy. We also have to remember that it is possible to wrongly ostracize a sinner when the spiritual works of mercy require us to admonish, counsel, forbear, and forgive the sinner, and that this can also be a cause of scandal. There is usually a ditch on both sides of the road, which is why the narrow way is difficult to find, and not just a matter of holding the wheel as hard to the left or as hard to the right as humanly possible.

    The way they become accustomed to heresy is for the heresy to be introduced not as something that stands against dogma, but as a “new insight” that more clearly explains what the true dogma is or that claims to dispel ignorance concerning what is and is not dogma, something that claims to be a way of explaining the truth that better explains “what Jesus REALLY taught” and so on. Heresies are usually subtle, for the evil one’s task is to confuse those who are honestly seeking the truth, not to simply assault the Church with impotent lies that convert no one.

  4. BLB Oregon says:

    Nothing I wrote above should be taken to mean I have the least objection to an immoral PRACTICE being made an anathema. Sometimes it is necessary to exclude obstinate persons, as is plainly clear in the way St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians about how they had responded to the fellow in their “faith community” who was unrepentantly living with his father’s wife. He obviously did not take their tolerance as having “pastoral” value: “…The one who did this deed should be expelled from your midst.” 1 Cor. 5:2

  5. benedetta says:

    He’s right that it is all about “those charged with care of souls”. Who when they teach certain things would try in a slithering manner to make it seem as though the objection to the teaching is really some “phobia” with the Catholics who struggle with the teaching, whatever it may be. Or accusation. Or judgement, divisiveness. Yeah, no. That is not it. People can be perfectly charitable, tolerant, non judging, non divisive, supportive, loving towards fellow Catholics who struggle just as they do. And they can still object to unsound teaching not consistent with the Gospel or dissenting from what the Church has always believed, for themselves, and for their neighbors, with perfect charity.

  6. Imrahil says:

    Along the lines of what the dear BLB Oregon wrote,

    well that does sound logical for sins. It is not, though, specifically typical for heresies.

    When heresies were about moral issues at all (the christological ones were, in any meaningful sense, not), they in the great majority of cases stemmed from rigorism, not laxism as suggested here.

  7. Imrahil says:

    As to ostracism,

    there certainly went some things wrong there.

    I can only see two sorts of possibly legitimate ostracism: a) on a sinner as sort of a formal punishment, with a fixed ending and afterwards complete reintroduction to society (if this does not infringe on the State’s prerogative to punish), b) on an obstinate sinner as long as he is.

    When Mrs Bird quits her post as Mrs Crowley’s cook because she needs to keep up her honor which would be stained by as much as working in the same household with a former prostitute – that is a nasty scene. (I have some confidence that we wouldn’t at least in this degree have had that sort of things in Catholic countries.)

  8. Lin says:

    Satan is very clever. Woe to them who aid and abet!

  9. Charles E Flynn says:

    The “sensus fidelium” seems to have a strong geographic component:

    From In His Second Year, Pope Faces Expectations That Change Is Coming by Jim Yardley, for the New York Times:

    In February, Univision, the Spanish-language broadcaster, released a poll of 12,038 Catholics in 12 countries that revealed sharp geographic differences. Asked whether a Catholic who has divorced and remarried outside the church is living in sin, a strong 75 percent majority of Catholics surveyed in Africa answered “yes.” By contrast, 75 percent of Catholics surveyed in Europe answered “no.”

  10. katerosemar says:

    The comment from “BLB Oregon” reminded me:
    “Vice is a monster of so frightful mien
    As to be hated needs but to be seen;
    Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
    We first endure, then pity, then embrace.”
    –Alexander Pope

  11. Priam1184 says:

    Reading that I cannot help but think of a certain man who wears a red hat, lives in New York, and keeps giving ridiculous television interviews. Someday the Church will remember once again that she is the sole route to salvation for the human race and act accordingly. Until then I am not sure what to do except pray, pray, pray and offer it up.

  12. lmgilbert says:

    The scary thing is that reached #7 long, long ago. Everyone knows that the Catholic Church is opposed to abortion and to homosexuality, the bigger fish that we have to attend to now, but I cannot remember ever hearing in the past forty years anything about love making before marriage, about necking, petting, care about keeping company with the opposite sex, about pornography. As late as 1949 Pope Pius XII could could afford to take time to quote the pagan poet Juvenal, “Nothing impure in the home!” Now we are up against it and have to fight the culture of death tooth and nail, together with “same sex marriage.”

    The odd thing is that while we are firmly and ferociously opposed to abortion, we are only noetically and officially opposed to all the things that lead to abortions in the first place. See the above. A lot of vile tributaries ( pornography, premarital sex and everything that leads to it) contribute to the rushing flood which is the abortion phenomenon, but we try to stop it at the clinic door just as it is about to go over the precipice carrying many lives along with it.

    If Catholics had carried through with force on “nothing impure in the home,” not only would there be no abortion problem, but we would have been the shining city on the hill for the rest of society.

    On all of this, I don’t really fault the clergy very much. In my youth and childhood sixty years ago we Catholics had the teaching of the Church given to us with great force, but we laity were not compliant. We were living in modern times and could throw off the shackles of yesterday. We were getting our BA’s and master’s degrees and knew better than father. So many priests, and nuns and moral theologians knew better than the pope and led us astray. Now the whirlwind.

  13. Giuseppe says:

    I’m not sure I get this post.
    Which stage of heresy are we in with Cardinal Dolan? With the USCCB? With Pope Francis?
    Or haven’t his statements been given the WDTPRS “What Did The Pope Really Say” treatment, yet?

  14. Phil_NL says:

    Color me unimpressed.

    The mechanism described is very relevant for loosing the sense of sin on a group / cultural level, but that does not a heresy make.

    It only becomes a heresy as soon as doctrine or the faith is being denied. None of these steps do so, it’s just a progressively worse relegation to the lower regions of our priority list.
    While that is often bad enough (there are degrees of sin as well, so it will be worse in some cases than in others), it only becomes a hersey at stage 8 and 9:

    Stage 8: Some people are still grated by the fact that, even though society doesn’t care much about the sin, and some subgroups will even see it as a positive, the Church formally condemns the practice. They start a lobby / movement with the aim to have the Church change its formal teachings.

    Stage 9: Some priests and ‘faithful’, seeing the failure of stage 8, proclaim their own version of faith, denying the sinfulness of the sin, and being unresponsive to correction from competent authorities.

    The crucial distinction is that only stages 8 and 9 try to modify the faith. The first 7 just ignore part of it. It’s a lot easier to come back from that, in fact we could probably categorize every possible sin in one of those stages, and see that very few are in 1-2, and most are a bit further down the list. I also daresay that has been the case for the entire history of the Church (though without the term ‘pastoral’), humans being human. It’s only at stages 8 and 9 that the sorry state is likely to become permanent, leading to part of the faithful leaving the Church. Only that I’d consider heresey – and would require a different approach.

  15. Mariana2 says:

    I used to wonder at

    “And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.”

    because I thought it should be the other way around, first the love of many would wax cold, and then iniquity abound, but it makes in fact perfect sense, it really is lawlessness (iniquity) first and waxing cold as a result.

  16. Priam1184 says:

    @Imgilbert So true. It is our responsibility to live as Christ has taught us to live in the Scriptures and in the Church’s Teaching. I don’t have enough years in me to judge the situation as it looked back in the ’50s and ’60s on the eve of the sexual revolution, but so much of the laity (myself included for a long time) for so many years wanted to follow the mores of the times and refused to open our eyes to the darkness that was coming in all around us. This is the moment for conversion and the moment to stop looking for loopholes in rules and ways around Teachings and just follow them. There is nothing down the road of self indulgence except the cold hand of death and that should be obvious to everyone at this point since we are no longer in the ‘naive’ (how naive they actually were I cannot say) days of the early 1960s. And this is where we need the hierarchy to explain clearly what the Christian alternative is; I think many would run to it in our day and time if it were explained properly, but alas that so much of the hierarchy is trapped in their ideological fantasies of fifty years ago that they seem physically incapable of mouthing the words.

  17. anilwang says:

    Heresies sometimes can spring fully grown if they follow the path of modernism, namely keep the doctrine, just reinterpret it to mean whatever you want.

    So “God hates divorce” is reinterpreted to mean “God hates what divorce does to people…so it is a moral imperative to make divorce as painless as possible”.

    And “Faith” gets reinterpreted as being “Faith alone”, but “Not by faith alone” gets reinterpreted as meaning “dead faith, faith without heart-felt emotions”.

    And the Nicene Creed gets reinterpreted. “One” *really* means “we’re one in the spirit”, “Holy” means we’re declared righteous even though we are “snow covered dung”, “Apostolic” means we’re faithful to “our interpretation” of the Apostle’s Bible, and “Church” means “anyone who believes in Christ and is saved”.

  18. Pingback: Fasting for Healing -

  19. av8er says:

    If one claims to be of a defined faith and believes something contrary to that faith then one is a heretic, right? If more than one person believe in this this one idea, then they are heretics of xxxxx idea, e.g. Arianism, Pelagianism, etc. Then xxxx idea is a heresy. The faith itself does not have to change its belief in order for heresy to occur because then that faith system, group, church what have you is now presenting a new faith. The ones who hold on to the old faith are now the heretics of the new faith. So, if Mr. Archibald is meaning how I think he’s meaning it, then I would agree. Any group of people that call themselves Roman Catholics and accept, promote or believe in contraception, abortion, same sex “marriage”, premarital sex, women priests, etc they are heretics.

  20. Magpie wrote,”Sounds right there like the plan for the ‘New Evangelisation’. ” Can you spell out how you drew this conclusion?

  21. Phil_NL says:


    I’d disagree, to a large extent. Let me clarify. People who do not hold the full faith aren’t necessarily heretics, they’re poor Catholics (a category vastly increased due to poor cathesisation). And frankly, I wouldn’t want to call those who – while knowing that the Church proscribes differently – feel compelled to privately hold something that’s contrary to the faith either, as long as they keep that to themselves. Not every conscience is well formed, and not every mind capable of sound resaoning.

    I would rather reserve the term heresy not for an individual who goes astray (which could be culpable or not), often in the confines of his or her own mind, but for the active promotion of something contrary to the faith. This is different, since rather than ignoring a teaching, one is trying to subvert it in toto, not just as applied to oneself. The consequences are therefore broader as well; the faith is attacked, publically. Rather than a sheep which goes astray (but doesn’t think it does so, as all such sheep do at first), a new shepard is created – to the detriment of the true Shepard and his vicar on earth, obviously. The latter course is an active one, rather than a passive error. That is not excusable under any set of conditions.

    So I would attach the term ‘heresy’ – which should carry more opprobium than any other in the discussion of faith and morals – to those who indeed actively attack the faith. In your last line, of the 3 terms “accept, promote or believe in” I would only agree on the middle term. It is a more active and manifest way of error, which cannot be fallen into blamelessly. The 7 stages described above could – and often are, I daresay.

  22. Kathleen10 says:

    We have no idea what goes on behind the scenes in our church. Fr. Z knows some of it, the other clergy who frequent this site know some of it, but the most the rest of us can do is read tea leaves. It doesn’t “feel” good, but then it hasn’t for a long time. The people who promote Holy Communion for divorced people and who are perhaps promoting/advocating/cheerleading for increased “tolerance” (that doesn’t cover it anymore) on homosexuality, or who have, in the past or present, made it difficult or impossible for good men to become priests, are heretics. I think it is fairly impossible for people like ourselves, immersed in our sick culture, to appreciate how far we’ve fallen. We are part of it, no matter how much we may want to distance ourselves. The way words are parsed out carefully lest we offend, or sound too harsh, negative, intense, kooky. Our speech is so contained, so cautious. I’m no different. I’m not saying we ought to go about screaming or shouting names at people, but we are in fact very, very complacent, even though I think we demonstrate much quiet desperation. Please God, help us. I feel sure He will. Well, I’m hopeful. We don’t deserve it, but He often helps those who don’t deserve it when they call on him.
    What on earth would St. Paul say if he were dropped here with us for a single day. (Oh, let it happen!) IMHO, we are approaching the point where the only fix is direct intervention by God, or schism. And I think we are actually way past #9.

  23. av8er says:

    Thanks for your clarification and I think we are similar in opinion, and I admit I painted with a broad brush. You said,
    “I wouldn’t want to call those who – while knowing that the Church proscribes differently – feel compelled to privately hold something that’s contrary to the faith either, as long as they keep that to themselves. Not every conscience is well formed, and not every mind capable of sound resaoning.”
    For years I was one of those who held private opinions that disagreed with Church teachings on faith and morals. Mostly because my catechism ended after my first Holy Communion at age7. I did my confirmation at 4 in Mexico. That might excuse me. Does it excuse the “nuns on the bus”? Or priests who support or believe in, whether or not they promote, any one of the evils I listed? When I was a “lost sheep” I knew that the Church taught different about contraception although I never promoted it, I did in my heart by using it. I called myself a Roman Catholic and I willingly used contraception. Now, does that make me a heretic because I didn’t “attack the faith”? I don’t know..yeah I really don’t know. What about clergy who by their office support gay “marraige”, divorce and re-mairraige or whatever? I would say that is a clear attack.
    I may have just been trying to conclude the points by drawing a defined line from the 7th point to the conclusion/point of his original article. People need to be called out on their opinions when it contradicts the faith. If I would have died during the time I was a lost sheep, I do not I would have liked my destination. Yes, poor catechism but mostly it was bad homilies and confusing stories of priests/nuns that, as I know now, caused scandal by confusing the faithful like me. And we look at the state of the faith in the world today, I am not the only one.

Comments are closed.