Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | November 15, 2014

Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy

jesus_knocking_on_door_business_card_templates-rd3a5573453f844f99ed68f54d48c71ab_i579t_8byvr_512In my Theology 101 class for college freshmen, I deal with lots of basics. After all, it’s an introductory course. Two words I introduce to the students are “orthodoxy” and “heterodoxy.” The late Greek word orthodoxia means “right opinion,” while heterodoxos signifies “another opinion,” or “different opinion.” Gratefully, we theologians don’t spend much time accusing people of heresy anymore. It’s much more humane–and honest!–to speak of differences of belief rather than accusing people of being heretics. That doesn’t mean that no one uses the term, of course. There are diehard enthusiasts who insist on it.

The problem with the accusation of heresy is that this word is rooted in the Greek term for choosing or seizing. It seems to imply, at least to my mind, that the so-called heretic has chosen intentionally by taking a religious pathway that is obviously wrong. But the fact is that people never choose to be wrong. They choose a different path because they believe that path is the right path. And this insight brings us right back to the discussion of orthodoxy and heterodoxy. You see, one person’s orthodoxy is another person’s heterodoxy.

Before you read on, let me clarify something. I am not suggesting that all beliefs are the same or that all doctrines are equally valid. That is a simpleton’s creed. I am addressing something much more subjective, something more directly related to the personal experience of meaning-making. For all the experiences that humans have in common (eating, drinking, resting, and even as Martin Luther would remind us, evacuating our bowels), the fact is that we do not all interpret the meaning of these experiences in the same way. So how do we find what is true … and what is right? It appears that we do this in common, by joining religious communities that pursue the project together.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) addressed this fact in its Declaration on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae) when it stated that “religious communities are a requirement of the social nature both of humans and of religion itself” (DH 4a). The document goes on to insist that all people are bound to seek the truth, and once they find the truth, or find what they think is true, they are bound by conscience to adhere to it (DH 3b). This is an amazing admission for the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church to make.

Regarding the search for true doctrine, there is an ancient adage to help along the way. To the question of how one can know the proper catholic (universal) doctrine of the church, a Latin precept proposes that we should believe quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est (“that which has everywhere, always, and by everyone been believed”). This dictum is known as the Vincentian Canon because it comes from the monk Vincent of Lerins who died around 445. It sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, the problem with this motto is that at no time in the history of Christianity have all Christians everywhere believed the same thing. And if Christians haven’t believed the same thing, then how do we expect all people of differing religions to believe the same thing? The only point I can imagine that Christians of all epochs and in every locale might have in common is the fact that Jesus is at the center of their faith. Past that, it’s hard to find something that every Christian actually has in common. Even when it comes to the role and significance of Christ we have not all agreed! (Think of the Donatists, Docetists, Ebionites, Marcionites, Arians, Nestorians, etc.)

Of course, facts have never prevented some people from believing in fanciful doctrinal formulations that have little foundation in history. This is probably why I receive such enjoyment studying the leadership style of Pope Francis and seeing the reaction of so many Roman Catholic clerics to his roving commentaries. It’s refreshing to hear the bishop of Rome speak honestly, and from his heart, cutting past the need to bolster old ways of thinking.

Vatican II opened Catholic doors and windows that had been closed for some time. A fortress mentality had developed since the time of the Protestant Reformation. At Vatican II new breezes began to flow into the church and people became excited about the connections they could make with others, even those outside the church. But nearly as soon as those breezes began to flow and the faithful began to enjoy the fresh air, certain influences began suggesting that the doors and windows had been flung open too far. During the leadership of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, there was a decided effort to close a number of those portals. Many of them were even bolted tight. The motto Semper Idem (“Always the Same”) returned as a description for the church and its beliefs. For those who were scandalized or at least frightened by the openness of Vatican II, these were the glory days of revanchism, the recovery of lost territory.

Don’t get me wrong: John Paul II was a nice guy and a committed Christian. I met him on more than one occasion and served mass with him. But he was decidedly in the camp of those who wanted to reign in some forms of openness that lingered from the Second Vatican Council. His successor, Benedict XVI, continued this process of “reforming the reform.” And now, entered from stage left, is Pope Francis the Jesuit. He has a papal hammer in his hand and he’s prying open some of those doors and windows that his recent two predecessors had nailed shut.

If you know anything of the personalities behind Vatican II, you may be experiencing a bit of déjà vu. I don’t mean to oversimplify, but let me explain. If we can speak of two tendencies at the council, we might point to Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani (an Italian) as a representative of the conservative voice of the bishops. He was head of what we now call the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then known as the Holy Office. His official motto, by the way, was the aforementioned Semper Idem. On the other side of the spectrum was Cardinal Augustin Bea (a German Jesuit and biblical scholar), who pushed for more openness to the world and to other religious believers. It is widely believed that Bea’s approach was supported, even encouraged, by the pope of the time, the warm-hearted John XXIII who condemned the “prophets of gloom” who were against the council from its inception.

Clearly, everything did not change at Vatican II. But some things did change. In other words, there were times when the bishops tended toward one direction and at other times they tended to move in the opposite direction. This is as it should be. The church needs both conservatives and liberals. In many ways, Francis appears to be a new expression of the openness of John XXIII. He prefers encouragement and example to condemnation and authority. He seems to agree with his predecessor John that the only acceptable form of force for a Christian is “the force of love.” And as before, two cardinals seem to have emerged as symbols of the two opposite tendencies seeking expression under the leadership of Francis.  On the conservative side we see Cardinal Raymond Burke (an American who has described the church under Pope Francis as a “rudderless ship”) and on the more liberal side we see Cardinal Walter Kasper (a German whose openness to others remarkably mirrors that of the earlier German, Cardinal Bea). One cardinal’s heterodoxy is another cardinal’s orthodoxy.

To those who languished under the tight leadership of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Pope Francis is a great breath of fresh air. It will take time, but like his predecessors, Francis will change the culture of the church. It’s good to feel the renewed breeze from open portals as it blows once again. The Spirit moves where she wills.


  1. John’s back! Yaaaahhhhooooooooo!

Leave a Reply to Patrick Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: