The spread of heresy

Wilhelm, J. (1910). Heresy. In The Catholic Encyclopedia:
"The growth of heresy, like the growth of plants, depends on surrounding influences, even more than on its vital force...
  • The first requisite for success is a forceful man, not necessarily of great intellect and learning, but of strong will and daring action. Such were the men who in all ages have given their names to new sects.

  • The second requisite is accommodation of the new doctrine to the contemporary mentality, to social and political conditions.

  • The last, but by no means the least, is the support of secular rulers.
A strong man in touch with his time, and supported by material force, may deform the existing religion and build up a new heretical sect.

... Arianism is the first heresy that gained a strong footing in the Church and seriously endangered its very nature and existence. Arius appeared on the scene when theologians were endeavouring to harmonize the apparently contradictory doctrines of the unity of God and the Divinity of Christ. Instead of unravelling the knot, he simply cut it by bluntly asserting that Christ was not God like the Father, but a creature made in time. The simplicity of the solution, the ostentatious zeal of Arius for the defence of the "one God", his mode of life, his learning and dialectic ability won many to his side. In particular he was supported by the famous Eusebius of Nicomedia who had great influence on the Emperor Constantine. He had friends among the other bishops of Asia and even among the bishops, priests, and nuns of the Alexandrian province. He gained the favour of Constantia, the emperor's sister, and he disseminated his doctrine among the people by means of his notorious book which he called thaleia or 'Entertainment' and by songs adapted for sailors, millers, and travellers. (Addis and Arnold, "A Catholic Dictionary", 7th ed., 1905, 54.)

The Council of Nicaea anathematized the heresiarch, but its anathemas, like all the efforts of the Catholic bishops, were nullified by interference of the civil power. Constantine and his sister protected Arius and the Arians, and the next emperor, Constantius, assured the triumph of the heresy: the Catholics were reduced to silence by dire persecution. At once an internecine conflict began within the Arian pale, for heresy, lacking the internal cohesive element of authority, can only be held together by coercion either from friend or foe. Sects sprang up rapidly: they are known as Eunomians, Anomoeans, Exucontians, Semi-Arians, Acacians. The Emperor Valens (364-378) lent his powerful support to the Arians, and the peace of the Church was only secured when the orthodox Emperor Theodosius reversed the policy of his predecessors and sided with Rome. Within the boundaries of the Roman empire the faith of Nicaea, enforced again by the General Council of Constantinople (381), prevailed, but Arianism held its own for over two hundred years longer wherever the Arian Goths held sway: in Thrace, Italy, Africa, Spain, Gaul. The conversion of King Recared of Spain, who began to reign in 586, marked the end of Arianism in his dominions, and the triumph of the Catholic Franks sealed the doom of Arianism everywhere...

... The three elements of success possessed by Arianism reappear in Lutheranism and cause these two great religious upheavals to move on almost parallel lines. Luther was eminently a man of his people: the rough-hewn, but, withal sterling, qualities of the Saxon peasant lived forth under his religious habit and doctor's gown; his winning voice, his piety, his learning raised him above his fellows yet did not estrange him from the people: his conviviality, the crudities in his conversation and preaching, his many human weaknesses only increased his popularity. When the Dominican John Tetzel began to preach in Germany the indulgences proclaimed by Pope Leo X for those who contributed to the completion of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, opposition arose on the part of the people and of both civil and ecclesiastical authorities. Luther set the match to the fuel of widespread discontent. He at once gained a number of adherents powerful both in Church and State; the Bishop of Würzburg recommended him to the protection of the Elector Frederick of Saxony. In all probability Luther started on his crusade with the laudable intention of reforming undoubted abuses. But his unexpected success, his impetuous temper, perhaps some ambition, soon carried him beyond all bounds set by the Church. By 1521, that is within four years from his attack on abuse of indulgences, he had propagated a new doctrine; the Bible was the only source of faith; human nature was wholly corrupted by original sin, man was not free, God was responsible for all human actions good and bad; faith alone saved; the Christian priesthood was not confined to the hierarchy but included all the faithful. The masses of the people were not slow in drawing from these doctrines the practical conclusion that sin was sin no longer, was, in fact, equal to a good work.

With his appeal to the lower instincts of human nature went an equally strong appeal to the spirit of nationality and greed. He endeavored to set the German emperor against the Roman pope and generally the Teuton against the Latin; he invited the secular princes to confiscate the property of the Church. His voice was heard only too well. For the next 130 years the history of the German people is a record of religious strife, moral degradation, artistic retrogression, industrial breakdown; of civil wars, pillage, devastation, and general ruin. The Peace of 1648 established the principle: Cujus regio illius et religio; the lord of the land shall be also lord of religion. And accordingly territorial limits became religious limits within which the inhabitant had to profess and practise the faith imposed on him by the ruler. It is worthy of remark that the geographical frontier fixed by the politicians of 1648 is still the dividing line between Catholicism and Protestantism in Germany. The English Reformation, more than any other, was the work of crafty politicians. The soil had been prepared for it by the Lollards or Wycliffites, who at the beginning of the sixteenth century were still numerous in the towns. No English Luther arose, but the unholy work was thoroughly done by kings and parliaments, by means of a series of penal laws unequalled in severity...

... worldly interests often bar the way from heresy to truth. When a government, for instance, reserves its favours and functions for adherents of the state religion, the army of civil servants becomes a more powerful body of missionaries than the ordained ministers. Prussia, France, and Russia are cases in point."

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