How Heresy Spreads and the Error of Relativism – Part I

Saint of the Day, October 4, 1975

In the history of the Church, we generally see that when a person is in contact with an idea violently opposed to what he professes, he has a certain facility to defend himself. On the contrary, when he is confronted with an idea only somewhat different from that which he professes, he has a certain difficulty in defending himself.

For example, if you take an ordinary Catholic who has Faith, is a non-communist without special doctrinal concerns and accustomed to common sense ideas about family, private property and especially about the Church, he is easily able to defend himself. For since communists present errors flagrantly contrary to the truths that he upholds he easily perceives the difference between what they say and what he thinks and the error that they sustain. Hence he can easily say, “No, that is wrong,” and refuses to adhere to communism.

Now if the same Catholic, under similar conditions, is in the presence of a moderate socialist who tells him, “We are in a time that requires greatly increasing the functions of the State. If those attributions are not significantly expanded at this time of crisis, society may completely fall apart. At this moment, more than in any other, the State must have a great power that can develop so much that no one knows the limits.”

Facing this statement, a Catholic and even many of the young people here who have not had the time to study this matter properly, will agree with this individual much more easily than if he were to give a communist formulation of the same idea.

The communist formulation is: “The state is everything and the individual is nothing; the state can do everything and the individual can do nothing. We favor the omnipotence of the state over the individual.”

Anyone with a little common sense will refuse this wording, “The state is everything and the individual is nothing.” In our time of chaos and disorder, this assertion that the state often has often to expand its functions even has some truth to it. From a certain point of view it is false and even seriously false, but from another point of view it is true and even seriously true.

As a consequence, it is not so easy for one to realize what is true and what is false about this thesis and to effectively counter it. If I were to test some of you here and ask you what is true and what is false about this thesis, I don’t know if everyone would answer me with the required precision.

You can see that the statement, “In our time the State must have a great power that can develop so much that no one knows it’s limit” is much closer to open and declared error, as it implies the State can become almighty, which would mean domination by communism.

The truth is, that in order to solve certain catastrophic problems of our time it may be necessary for the State to intervene in social life more than in the past. But this intervention must be done in order for it to quickly end so the State can remove itself from the matter. In other words, the excessive intervention of the State is auto limiting.

For example, properly repressing drug trafficking requires that the State exercise very strong police surveillance and is freely able to search any individual at any time.

What should the State do? Should it not search individuals? Should it not crack down on drug trafficking to avoid encroaching upon individual freedom? That would be absurd.

So what does the state do? It intervenes energetically by monitoring and doing everything necessary to eliminate drug trafficking. But, as soon as drug trafficking is eliminated it withdraws and restores individual freedom as it was previously. In other words, when the State goes beyond its normal function and exercises a non-normal function, it must do so provisionally and withdraw as soon as it has accomplished its intended objective.

Therefore, the hypertrophy or exaggeration of the function of the state demanded by a critical situation must be exercised in passing; it’s temporary. Once the critical situation is eliminated, the state withdraws. This is the common sense position.

I understand that an unprepared person, unaccustomed to reasoning about these subjects can become somewhat impressed and say, “Yes, that man is right,” when he comes to the conclusion that it is reasonable for the State to take on such powers in our time that one does not know it’s limits, and without realizing it, though not taking a directly communist position, the person takes a position close to communism.

In other words, the very same communist thesis formulated more delicately and incompletely is much more likely to circulate and take root than a straightforward communist thesis.

Now, what are the various phases of a heresy from birth to extinction? Let us say that the history of every heresy has five phases.

First phase: The heresy breaks out in a semi-veiled way, trying to hide the evil it contains.

Second phase: In the good old days, the Church perceived the error and condemned it.

Third phase: Heresy then exposes its error entirely and attacks the Church to overthrow it.

Fourth phase: The Church remains standing, and the heresy disappears.

Fifth phase: A new heresy appears that is the same old heresy veiled in a new package that sustains only half or a third of the errors it held before.

Take, for example, the heresy of Arius at the time of the Eastern Roman Empire. He had erroneous doctrines concerning the relation between the human and divine nature of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In the first phase he sought to give his error a Catholic veneer. In the second phase a great Doctor of the Church, St. Athanasius, discovered and denounced the error of Arianism and he preached so much against Arianism everywhere that this heresy, which had stealthily taken over almost the whole Church, had to step back. Third phase, the Pope condemns Arianism. Fourth phase, Aryanism dies and another heresy called semi-Arianism appears.

What is semi-Arianism? It is that first Arianism but pruned of its most blatant errors with additional veiled formulas employed. This semi-Arianism again goes through the same process. It is hidden, and then the Church denounces it. It then asserts itself, and the Church condemns it. Then a semi-semi-Arianism arises, and only after a long, drawn-out battle does Arianism disappear in history.

As an example, we can see this with almost all great heresies: Nestorianism, Pelagianism and Protestantism. Protestantism has gone through all these phases. Luther absolutely did not want to leave the Catholic Church. It took a whole denunciation of his preaching for him to be excommunicated, and indeed he had to leave the Catholic Church.

At that point he attacks the Church head-on. There are fights and even a religious war. After everything, the camps are divided between Protestants and Catholics. Then, in the Catholic camp a heresy arises called Jansenism, after the Flemish Bishop Jansenius. This heresy professes the same errors as Calvinism, which is a form of Protestantism, but in a veiled way attempting to instill it more effectively among Catholics. Countless historical examples could be given in this regard.

Therefore, a person who wants to be entirely orthodox must beware of errors in disguise. It so happens that if a person wants to be entirely orthodox and faithful to the principles of the Church, he absolutely must have his attention turned toward these disguised errors and know-how to discern and fight them in his time, for otherwise he will embrace errors disguised as a good.

This is somewhat like a person who goes to have dinner at a restaurant that is suspected of serving rotten food. Either he can distinguish rotten food from non-rotten food or he eats something that looks good but is spoiled and that can kill him with food poisoning.

So we come to this conclusion: First there is larva; occult errors launched by the spirit of darkness and the adversaries of the Church to deceive Catholics who intend to remain Catholic.

Secondly, a Catholic must exercise enormous vigilance so as not to be swallowed up by this error; he must be even more vigilant against hidden errors than against declared errors. If he does not exercise this vigilance, he ends up losing the integrity of the Faith.

Relativism Poisons the Whole World and Is the Opposite of our Vocation.

Having presented this introduction with as much clarity as I could, I turn to an error that literally intoxicates all the environments of the contemporary world but especially those that seem to be conservative and wholesome. Then I will show how you must defend yourselves against this error. Without this fidelity to the Faith, fidelity to our vocation becomes impossible because this error is diametrically opposed to our vocation.

I insist that you must note that this error infects the way of thinking and acting of many people whom we deem commendable for their virtue. This error is not spread by the wicked that appear wicked but by bad people who pretend to be good and perhaps even imagine they are good.

I am going to expose the error of relativism very briefly and without philosophical pretensions that would be unfitting for the youthful profile of this audience. To do so, I will give a concrete example of what relativism is and then what the opposite of relativism is.

Let us say that I make the following statement: ‘On September 7, 1822, Brazil became independent from Portugal. Political independence is a good thing; it is good for a nation to be independent. Therefore, Brazilians should celebrate that date.” This is a common reasoning upon which all celebrations of national independence are based.

This statement is presented to you with a tone of certainty. These are some simple, elementary truths, which once presented obtain the adhesion of one’s mind and with that adhesion, man is sure and certainty forms in his mind.

What would be the position of a relativistic mind in regard to this statement?

When a relativistic spirit complicates the problem, it says: – ”Is it true that independence is always a good for a nation? Would Brazil not have been better off if it remained dependent? For example, by becoming independent Brazil had to pay the expenses of the court here, of keeping an emperor, an imperial family and of all the ceremonial of courts, palaces, carriages and so on. If Brazil were still subjected to Portugal, all of those expenses would have be borne by Portugal, we would have no king and related expenses, all that would be done in Portugal and we would spend a lot less. Our coffers would have more money. Wouldn’t that have been an advantage?”

“Second point: By becoming independent, Brazil became an economic satellite of England. Would it not have been better for Brazil to remain under the economic influence of Portugal?”

“Third: By becoming independent Brazil was subject to a number of regional wars such as the war in Paraguay. If Brazil had remained dependent on Portugal the latter would have run Brazilian affairs slower and perhaps would have prevented Brazil from entering the war. We would have avoided great bloodshed.”

Now, a relativist would not conclude the following: “Therefore, as a whole I don’t think Brazil should have become independent,” but rather that:  “It’s not possible to know whether Brazil should be independent or not, for in the end everything in this world is relative. Everything has so many pros and cons that we don’t end up knowing what is truth or error or good or evil.”

“Therefore, overall we must see everything as relative. If you want to hold Independence celebrations and sing the National Anthem on Independence Day, go ahead and do so. But for me, I don’t even know if that was something good or evil because I don’t even know what is good or evil, what is right or wrong. I find everything doubtful. I don’t believe in anything and so I just stay home.”

In another example, a person states, “Since the family is the basis of society we have to fight against divorce, because the dissolution of the marital bond ruins the family and therefore the country.”

Someone might reply, “No, I am pro-divorce,” and we will argue with him. But a relativist will say, “Well, this matter of divorce is complicated. There are so many advantages both to indissolubility and to solubility. I’m a little more favorable to indissolubility and even vote with you against divorce, but without great certainty because deep down, we cannot be sure of anything. All problems are so complicated and difficult and present so many aspects that you cannot be certain of anything. So I remain secure in my doubt.”

I don’t know if you realize that a Catholic is much more likely to enter into an argument with a divorcee than with someone against divorce who votes for pro-marriage candidates and might even campaign against divorce but who keeps saying all the time, “I’m not very sure for this or that reason. Do you want a brochure? Look, Brazil must defend itself against divorce” and then he whispers, “…most likely, but I’m not sure about that.”

Doesn’t this kind of relativism do more harm than good to many people? Doesn’t it more easily mislead a person to be pro-divorce?

Now the axis of psychological relativism seen from this point of view is this: “Ultimately, all reality is complex and inexhaustible and you cannot have any certainty. The human intellect is insufficient to form certainties. So I won’t delve into this issue.”

There is another, more radical form of relativism that states, “Not only is the human mind incapable of perceiving the truth about many things or even all things, but in fact each of us doesn’t know the truth about anything.” (Is that true?)

I remember when still young boy I had a very strong temptation against the Faith in this sense that Our Lady helped me reject. Years later, I learned there were philosophers, especially Germans, who upheld this error against which I had to defend myself. I remember perfectly that I was riding a streetcar on Consolação Street on my way to Colégio São Luís when this violent temptation arose.

“Here I am, sitting on this tram. After all, what is the proof that this tram exists, that the house I see over there exists, that these people walking on the street exist? If I was lying on the bed and began to dream I would think that all that I was dreaming about was true. Who knows if I am dreaming now as well? Who knows if everything that is happening is nothing but a product of my imagination?”

This question arose in my head like an explosion.

In other words, perhaps the whole outside world doesn’t exist; it’s purely my imagination. Everything is a dream. The only thing I am sure of is me because I look into myself and feel myself. Are others out there, whom I can touch and who might even beat me up, possibly be a nightmare? Couldn’t we write a little book titled, Our Neighbor, this Nightmare? How many times our neighbor is a nightmare for us! He is almost always a disappointment.

Could all this be true? Am I engaged in a dream completely devoid of reality?

This is a temptation of relativism. How was I able to overcome this error?

First by praying, for I realized the following: “If this is true the Catholic religion is false because it’s in my imagination like anything else. I imagine that it is true and that there are priests, bishops and a pope, but they don’t exist; it’s a dream of mine, a delusion. Nor did Our Lord Jesus Christ come to earth or exist. It’s all a dream of mine without any support in reality.” You see how this leads to atheism.

Then I asked for Our Lady’s help, and I received what I found to be a decisive answer in this regard. When awake, I can imagine what I want. For example, I can imagine this streetcar like an Ancien Regime carriage, but if everything were imagination I would be able to change it with my imagination. Now if everything doesn’t change in accordance with what I think, everything is not my imagination. Then I felt relieved and that temptation passed.