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A glance back at a forgotten canonical category

November 2, 2015

“Suspicion of heresy” was an odd institute of penal canon law under the Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law. Heresy itself, of course, was a crime under the old Code and still is one under the new (1917 CIC 2314, 1983 CIC 1364), and anyone suspected of being a heretic might, in that sense, be ‘suspected’ of heresy. But, under the 1917 Code, “suspicion of heresy” was something else: under certain circumstances, being suspected of heresy could itself, under certain circumstances, be a crime.

Now before anyone has a conniption fit and accuses the Pio-Benedictine Code of criminalizing thought, let me make two observations: first, the Pio-Benedictine law on “suspicion of heresy” represented a roll-back on the Decretal crime of “suspicion of heresy” (Woywod, Practical Comm., 2160), so give Cdl Gasparri credit for curbing an odd institute, not establishing one; and second, for practical purposes, only acts, not thoughts per se, could be adjudicated as “suspicion of heresy”. In any case the fact patterns that could give rise to “suspicion of heresy” were complicated (See, e.g., Cloran, P & P Cases 56) and, it seems, lent themselves more to canon law essay exams than to trials, and so the penal institute “suspicion of heresy” did not survive into the Johanno-Pauline Code. Given that even straight-up heresy prosecutions are almost unheard of under the 1983 Code the removal of “suspicion of heresy” as distinct offense from penal canon law has gone utterly unnoticed. That’s probably for the best, with one caveat.

What, I think, the concept of “suspicion of heresy” was trying to get at—albeit in a clunky way—was that certain actions (many wrong in themselves, but some others not quite wrong), if repeated over long-enough a period of time, could indicate that, behind such actions, there was heresy (a doubt or denial of some truth to be believed, per 1917 CIC 1325, 1983 CIC 751) at work. In an ironic way, “suspicion of heresy” credited Catholics with acting in accord with their beliefs, even if such beliefs were objectively wrong and, at least in part, held unconsciously. The idea that one can really believe X,Y, and Z, and yet consistently act quite contrary to X, Y, and Z, did not sit well with ecclesiastical leadership a generation or so ago. Perhaps they were naïve.

It is not fashionable these days to speak of “heresy”, let alone to “suspect” someone of heresy, but a glance at Church history suffices to show how dangerous heresy can be to a faith community, and how some conduct can, under certain circumstances, evidence not just wrong-doing per se but wrong-doing motivated by wrong-believing. At the same time, however, we know that wrong-doing unadmonished long enough, and wrong-believing uncorrected long enough, can trigger over-reactions in those who, at last, will finally exercise their responsibilities toward to common good.

My suggestion? Deal with doctrinal discord, and its concomitant disciplinary manifestations, forthrightly, instead of waiting to see if it will all just go away on its own—which it never does—and before either side takes stands it will regret.

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