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Dialogue or Disassociation: What to Do with Heretics and Public Sinners in the Church

The watchword of the day is “dialogue.” Invoked by Church leaders like an Eastern mystical mantra, dialogue is the solution to every problem. Pro-abortion politicians claiming to be good Catholics? We need dialogue. Priests promoting same-sex relationships? We need dialogue. Millions of Catholics leaving the Church in droves? We need dialogue. No matter the issue, dialogue will make the world sing in perfect harmony.

But dialogue is not always the answer. Sometimes, in fact, the Church has embraced the opposite of dialogue – disassociation – as the proper means to address certain issues. Consider the problem of heretics and public sinners within the Church. What should we do when someone claims to be Catholic (or even is a priest or bishop) and yet acts in a manner fundamentally at odds with the Faith? Should we dialogue with him or disassociate from him?

Cut Off the Part to Save the Body

This is by no means a problem unique to the modern age. The first Christians faced it, too. Their answer was clear: the heretic or public sinner was to be ejected from the Church. They knew that the Church was the Body of Christ, and if one part of the Body was diseased, it was better to cut off that part than to let it infect the entire Body. This is just common sense. If you spend most of your time with people who abuse drugs, it’s likely that you will start to use drugs as well. If your close circle of friends are all communists, there’s a good chance you’ll end up quoting Marx and making red your favorite color. Allowing those who advocate for heresy or publicly promote and commit immorality to continue in good standing in the Church will lead to those evils infecting the whole Body of Christ.

St. John the Apostle specifically warned of the dangers of allowing heretics in the Church. He wrote, “If any one comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into the house or give him any greeting; for he who greets him shares his wicked work” (2 John 10-11). When St. John speaks of someone who “does not bring this doctrine,” he is referring to someone who embraces and teaches heresy. His command is to disassociate with the heretic, and in fact, if one does accept him, he “shares his wicked work.” In other words, he is as guilty of heresy as the heretic.

St. Paul had even harsher words about the dangers of accepting immorality within the Church. To the Christians in Corinth he wrote:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber – not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.” (1 Cor. 5:9-13)

A couple important points to note from this powerful – and politically incorrect – passage. First, St. Paul is speaking specifically of Christians who commit immorality. They are to be ousted from the Church. Also, and more shocking to modern ears, St. Paul says we are supposed to judge those in the Church who sin. So much for today’s supra-doctrine of tolerance.

Evangelization and Disassociation

But what of the command of Jesus to evangelize the world? Isn’t it the job of the Christian to reach out to the sinner and those in error and bring them to Christ? How can you do that if you never associate with them? Here is the key difference: we are called to evangelize those outside the Church, no matter how far from Christ they made be, but we are called to resist – even expel – those inside the Church who persistently embrace heresy or engage in immorality. St. Paul, the great Christian evangelizer, would go to the ends of the earth to bring the lost sheep into the fold, but he had no patience for allowing a notorious heretic or sinner to infect the Church from within.

We see this attitude in practice in the early Church. In the middle of the 2nd century, a popular preacher named Marcion was teaching heresy. One day, St. Polycarp – a disciple of St. John the Apostle – met Marcion. “Do you know who I am?” Marcion asked. Polycarp replied, “Yes, I know you very well, you firstborn of Satan!” There was no tolerance for heresy from Polycarp, a trait he learned at the feet of St. John himself.

Contrast that attitude with today. Fr. James Martin, the Jesuit priest who has a popular following based on his advocacy of the LGBT lifestyle, has been preaching heresy and encouraging immorality for years now, yet many inside the Church support him. Even many of those who embrace the Church’s teaching on homosexuality are hesitant to be too critical of him. Just look at noted Princeton professor and orthodox Catholic Robert George, who takes pains to promote his friendship with Fr. Martin. He defends his friendship as important “dialogue.” While George’s personal orthodoxy is beyond question and his exaltation of “dialogue” is in keeping with the current higher education ethos, his public acceptance of Fr. Martin appears to go against both St. Paul’s and St. John’s directives.

Dangers of Disassociation

In today’s Church, the charge of “Pharisee” will immediately be applied to those who take the approach I advocate here. To the modern mind, no crime is greater than intolerance of “alternative lifestyles” or unorthodox beliefs. And it’s true that there are dangers to avoid when it comes to disassociating with the heretic or notorious sinner. One can easily become self-righteous and see almost everyone as “unclean” and unworthy of association. But what I’m advocating (and what I think both St. John and St. Paul advocated) applies specifically to notorious and public heretics and sinners. It’s applicable to Fr. Martin, but not necessarily to your Catholic friend Jim who knows less about Catholicism than the average CNN anchor. It includes Nancy Pelosi, but not Aunt Nancy who was never taught about transubstantiation.

Another danger is a fortress mentality. That term has been overused in recent years to criticize the post-Trent Church, but it is nevertheless a legitimate concern. Every Catholic should always look outward, looking to evangelize. Yes, there are times when one has to protect one’s fortress, but the only long-term way to win a war is to go out into the battlefield. Retreating to our fortress is particularly a danger for traditionalists, who in reaction to fifty years of attacks from within the Church can sometimes see every non-traditional Catholic as the enemy, putting up walls to anyone outside the accepted community.

These potential dangers should not make us hesitant to resist evil when it infects our Church. St. John and St. Paul would have been scandalized by the tolerance for evil that we find within the Church today. We need to follow their example and reject evil in our midst, and even reject the evildoers.

Image: “Luther at the Diet of Worms” by Anton von Werner.

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