Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Arian Heresy Revisited

by Bishop Rene Henry Gracida, DD


Among the various heresies extant today, there is one which has grown to such huge proportions as to assume an importance which demands the attention of the bishops of the Church. It is the heresy which underlies the phenomenon which Pope John Paul II has repeatedly described as the prevailing "Culture of Death." What is the heresy? It is the persistent pervasive denial of the sacredness of human life.

Larger Work

The Wanderer


1 & 8

Publisher & Date

National Catholic Weekly, September 30, 2004

When I was a freshman in high school, I enrolled in a class to learn typing. An effective way of acquiring the manual dexterity to become a speed typist was to type a sentence over and over again. One such sentence was: Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country. That sentence not only improved my typing skill, it also imprinted in my mind the patriotic idea it expresses. Subconsciously over the years, that idea contributed to my commitment to fight for my country in the Second World War.

Now, that idea surfaces in my consciousness and contributes to my commitment to fight for my Church in a new way, even in retirement. Words are signs of unseen realities. Sometimes what those word-signs conceal exerts a powerful influence on our thoughts and actions.

There are some words that most people are reluctant to pronounce in polite society because those word-signs are filled with meaning that is disturbing. Even with the breakdown of restraints on radio and television, it is still not acceptable to speak some words, and not just four letter words, in polite conversation. That is not surprising. What is surprising is that there are some perfectly good words which are never spoken in some social settings.

Say the word heresy or heretic while speaking with bishops or priests and you will notice a stiffening in body language which indicates that the hearers are now uncomfortable with the conversation. Why is that? It is because these word-signs carry a lot of historical baggage, and not all of it is good.

These word-signs acquired that baggage during times when the Church was under attack. The Church is under attack today both from persons within the Church and outside the Church. It is not just the institutional Church that is under attack, it is the faith of the Church, what the Church believes and teaches, that is under attack. But it can be said that what the Church believes and teaches has always been under attack, in every century, by someone or by some group, and that is true.

Sometimes the attacks were mostly arguments advancing some idea in conflict with Church teaching. Often the attacks were more the pushing of some point of view with excessive passion rather than formal dissent from Church teaching. But sometimes individuals and groups have crossed the line and separated themselves from the Body of Christ by adhering to positions which became subject to magisterial condemnation. Then the name which one does not like to pronounce became implicitly connected with that which had been condemned. The name is: heresy.

We Catholics tend to become very defensive about the word "heresy." Often when the subject of heresy and heretics comes up accusations are leveled in which the name of the Inquisition is invoked. Even today, one frequently reads a news item about the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the secular press in which the Congregation is identified as "the former Holy Office in charge of the Inquisition."

Critics of the Spanish Inquisition, over the centuries, have made categorical and stereotypical errors by falsely holding the Catholic Church responsible for certain atrocities. That which men in the Church were guilty of during the Spanish Inquisition, and that which the Church of that time is falsely accused of, are irrelevant to the reality of heresy per se.

There is no need to shy from the reality of heresy because of abuses committed in its name, or abuses which the state, and not the Church, was guilty of. We have become reluctant to admit to ourselves that heresy can be a reality in these modem times.

What does the secular world understand heresy to be? Here is the definition found in the Third Edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1992: "An opinion or a doctrine at variance with established religious beliefs, especially dissension from or denial of Roman Catholic dogma by a professed believer or baptized church member."

What does the Church understand heresy to be? Heresy, according to Canon 751 of the Code of Canon Law, is the pertinacious denial or doubt of an infallible dogma of Divine and Catholic Faith committed by a baptized Catholic. A Dogma of Divine and Catholic Faith, according to Canon 750-1, is: 1) a doctrine contained directly within either Sacred Scripture or Sacred Tradition, and 2) proposed as revealed by either a) the Solemn Magisterium, i.e., Ecumenical Council, or b) the Ordinary Universal Magisterium, i.e., unanimously by the Pope in union with the bishops in their day-to-day teaching.

Analogous To Arianism

Among the various heresies extant today, there is one which has grown to such huge proportions as to assume an importance which demands the attention of the bishops of the Church. It is the heresy which underlies the phenomenon which Pope John Paul II has repeatedly described as the prevailing "Culture of Death." What is the heresy? It is the persistent pervasive denial of the sacredness of human life.

The denial of the sacredness of human life has been manifested in the promotion of abortion on demand, in the tolerance of infanticide, in the legalization of euthanasia, in the legalization of assisted suicide, in the promotion of human cloning, in the promotion of fetal experimentation.

The spread of this heresy has been helped by the numbing of our sensibilities because of the spiral of violence in recent times: by the gulags, genocide, and ethnic cleansing. Now the growing rejection of belief in the sanctity of human life can be seen in the horror and suffering of children over the death of their parents in the Twin Towers in New York and the horror and suffering of parents over the death of their children in the school at Beslan, Russia.

In the Catholic Church, the heresy of the rejection of belief in the sacredness of human life really began to manifest itself in the dissent which followed the publication by Pope Paul VI of his encyclical Humanae Vitae. That dissent has grown in the acceptance of one after another of the violations of the sacredness of human life which I have listed above. This heresy has grown exponentially during the past three decades and has now assumed a status analogous to the great heresy of the fourth century: Arianism.

The heresy of Arianism propounded by the priest Arius in Alexandria, Egypt, denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. According to Arianism, there are not three distinct persons in God, co-eternal and coequal. This heresy held that there is only one person in God, the Father. Arians believed that the Son is only a creature, made from nothing, ex nihilo, like all other created beings. The great danger of Arianism was that it reduced the Incarnation of Jesus to a mere figure of speech. It robbed the redemptive act of Jesus' dying on the cross of its efficacy, since only God could redeem fallen man. Man could not be redeemed by a mere man.

The great danger of the present denial of the sacredness of human life is that it not only demeans the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, it renders meaningless the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus. If human life was not made sacred by His Incarnation, why should He have died for it? And having died for it, what was the point if it is now not sacred?

Cardinal Ratzinger has recently reiterated clearly the teaching of Pope John Paul II and his Predecessors that Catholics must give the highest moral priority to respecting the sanctity of human life. All other social issues, such as poverty, hunger, sickness, economic injustices, etc., pale in significance when compared with protecting innocent human life. That there are Catholics tainted with the heresy that "choice" is of greater importance than protecting innocent human life is obvious to any observer of the contemporary scene.

The vast majority of Catholics, however, indicate in poll after poll that they are pro-life and have resisted the propaganda of those who promote the heresy which denies the sanctity of human life. Here is reason for hope. Here is reason to be optimistic. The sensus fidelium of the majority of Catholics is strong and is growing stronger with each passing year. Each year in which we witness the holocaust of innocent victims, the lessons of the fourth century give us additional reasons to be hopeful.

In his Historical Sketch on Arianism of the Fourth Century, John Henry Cardinal Newman observed that there was a moment in that century when practically all of the bishops in the world were tainted either with the Arian heresy or the Semi-Arian heresy. Newman observed that the notable exceptions were the Pope and St. Athanasius. Because the vast majority of the faithful refused to accept and believe the heresies, the Pope and St. Athanasius had a power base which enabled them to summon the bishops to the Council of Nicea in the year 325 where they prevailed over the bishops who were tainted with the Arian heresies. The Council produced the Nicene Creed which we Catholics recite to this day. In that Creed we profess our faith in the divinity of Jesus Christ.

The divinity of Jesus Christ elevates our human nature to the level of the sacred through His Incarnation. Our sacred human nature becomes eligible to share in His Divine life with the Father because of His act of Redemption on Calvary. Catholics and other Christians understand this. The tremendous success of Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ and more recently the success of the DVD of the movie—which sold 6,000,000 copies in the first week it went on sale—testify to the existence of a sensus fidelium in our time, which understands the relationship between our human nature and the Incarnate Lord.

The analogy of the heresies of the fourth century and the heresies of the 21st century is further validated by the situation in the Church at this time. Just as in the fourth century the Pope and St. Athanasius had to depend on the support of the faithful in combating the Arian heresies, so in our time Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger appeal to the faithful to join in the struggle to defend the sanctity of human life. The faithful have an obligation to make' their voices heard whether in the matter of voting for pro-abortion candidates for public office or giving such candidates, when they profess to be Catholic, the right to receive Holy Communion.

On September 11, 2004, Pope John Paul II addressed the bishops of Pennsylvania and New Jersey who were in Rome for their quinquennial ad limina visit to the Holy See. What the Holy Father said to those bishops was meant to apply not just to them but to all the bishops of the United States, and indeed, to all Catholics in the United States. The Holy Father said:

".. .In our meetings, many of you have expressed your concern about the crisis of confidence in the Church's leadership provoked by the recent sexual abuse scandals, the general call for accountability in the Church's governance on every level and the relations between bishops, clergy, and the lay faithful. I am convinced that today, as at every critical moment in her history, the Church will find the resources for an authentic self-renewal in the wisdom, vision, and zeal of bishops outstanding for their holiness. Saintly reformers like Gregory the Great, Charles Borromeo, and Pius X understood that the Church is only authentically 're-formed' when she returns to her origins in a conscious reappropriation of the apostolic Tradition and a purifying re-evaluation of her institutions in the light of the Gospel.

"In the present circumstances of the Church in America, this will entail a spiritual discernment and critique of certain styles of governance which, even in the name of a legitimate concern for good 'administration' and responsible oversight, can run the risk of distancing the pastor from the members of his flock, and obscuring his image as their father and brother in Christ.

"In this regard, the Synod of Bishops acknowledged the need today for each bishop to develop 'a pastoral style which is ever more open to collaboration with all' (Pastores Gregis, n. 44), grounded in a clear understanding of the relationship between the ministerial priesthood and the common priesthood of the baptized (cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 10). While the bishop himself remains responsible for the authoritative decisions which he is called to make in the exercise of his pastoral governance, ecclesial communion also 'presupposes the participation of every category of the faithful, inasmuch as they share responsibility for the good of the particular Church which they themselves form' (Pastores Gregis, loc. cit.).

"Within a sound ecclesiology of communion, a commitment to creating better structures of participation, consultation and shared responsibility should not be misunderstood as a concession to a secular 'democratic' model of governance, but as an intrinsic requirement of the exercise of Episcopal authority and a necessary means of strengthening that authority" (, September 12, 2004).

Toward the end of his address the Holy Father added this significant thought:

"Experience shows that when priority is mainly given to outward stability, the impetus to personal conversion, ecclesial renewal, and missionary zeal can be lost and a false sense of security can ensue. The painful period of self-examination provoked by the events of the past two years will bear spiritual fruit only if it leads the whole Catholic community in America to a deeper understanding of the Church's authentic nature and mission, and a more intense commitment to making the Church in your country reflect, in every aspect of her life, the light of Christ's grace and truth."

Truly: Now is the time for all good Catholic men and women to come to the aid of the Church.

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