THE GREAT HERESIES
by Hilaire Belloc
Scheme of This Book
I propose in what follows to deal with the main attacks upon the
Catholic Church which have marked her long history. In the case of all but
the Moslem and the modern confused but ubiquitous attack, which is
still in progress, I deal with their failure and the causes of their
failure. I shall conclude by discussing the chances of the present
struggle for the survival; of the Church in that very civilization which
she created and which is now generally abandoning her.
There is, as everybody knows, an institution proclaiming itself
today the sole authoritative and divinely appointed teacher of essential
morals and essential doctrine. This institution calls itself the Catholic
It is further an admitted historical truth, which no one denies,
that such an institution putting forth such a claim has been present among
mankind for many centuries. Many through antagonism or lack of
knowledge deny the identity of the Catholic Church today with the original
Christian society. No one, however hostile or uninstructed, will
deny its presence during at least thirteen or fourteen hundred years.
It is further historically true (though not universally admitted)
that the claim of this body to be a divinely appointed voice for the
statement of true doctrine on the matters essential to man (his nature,
his ordeal in this world, his doom or salvation, his immortality, etc.) is
to be found affirmed through preceding centuries, up to a little before
the middle of the first century.
From the day of Pentecost some time between A.D. 29 and A.D. 33)
onwards there has been a body of doctrine affirmed_for instance, at the
very outset, the Resurrection. And the organism by which that body of
doctrine has been affirmed has been from the outset a body of men bound by
a certain tradition through which they claimed to have the authority in
Hence we must distinguish between two conceptions totally
different, which are nevertheless often confused. One is the historical
fact that the claim to Divine authority and Infallible doctrine was and is
still made; the other the credibility of that claim.
Whether the claim be true or false has nothing whatever to do with
its historical origin and continuity; it may have arisen as an illusion or
an imposture; it may have been continued in ignorance; but that does not
affect its historical existence. The claim has been made and continues to
be made, and those who make it are in unbroken continuity with those who
made it in the beginning. They form, collectively, the organism which
called itself and still calls itself "The Church."
Now against this authoritative organism, its claim, character and
doctrines, there have been throughout the whole period of its existence
continued assaults. There have been denials of its claim. There have been
denials of this or that section of its doctrines. There has been the
attempted replacing of these by other doctrines. Even attempted
destruction of the organism, the Church, has repeatedly taken place.
I propose to select five main attacks of this kind from the whole
of the very great_the almost unlimited_number of efforts, major and minor,
to bring down the edifice of unity and authority.
My reason for choosing so small a number as five, and
concentrating upon each as a separate phenomenon, is not only the
necessity for a framework and for limits, but also the fact that in these
five the main forms of attack are exemplified. These five are, their in
historical order, 1. The Arian; 2. The Mohammedan; 3. The Albigensian; 4.
The Protestant; 5. One to which no specific name has as yet been attached,
but we shall call for the sake of convenience "the Modern.''
I say that each of these five main campaigns, the full success of
any one of which would have involved the destruction of the Catholic
Church, its authority and doctrine among men, presents a type.
The Arian attack proposed a change of fundamental doctrine, such
that, had the change prevailed, the whole nature of the religion would
have been transformed. It would not only have been transformed, it would
have failed; and with its failure would have followed the break-down of
that civilization which the Catholic Church was to build up.
The Arian heresy (filling the fourth, and active throughout the
fifth, century), proposed to go to the very root of the Church's authority
by attacking the full Divinity of her Founder. But it did much more,
because its underlying motive was a rationalizing of the mystery upon
which the church bases herself: the Mystery of the Incarnation. Arianism
was essentially a revolt against the difficulties attaching to mysteries
as a whole though expressing itself as an attack on the chief mystery
only. Arianism was a typical example on the largest scale of that reaction
against the supernatural which, when it is fully developed, withdraws from
religion all that by which religion lives.
The Mohammedan attack was of a different kind. It came
geographically from just outside the area of Christendom; it appeared,
almost from the outset, as a foreign enemy; yet it was not, strictly
speaking, a new religion attacking the old, it was essentially a heresy;
but from the circumstances of its birth it was a heresy alien rather than
intimate. It threatened to kill the Christian Church by invasion rather
than to undermine it from within.
The Albigensian attack was but the chief of a great number, all of
which drew their source from the Manichean conception of a duality in the
Universe; the conception that that good and evil are ever struggling as
equals, and that Omnipotent Power is neither single nor beneficient.
Closely intertwined with this idea and inseparable from it was the
conception that matter is evil and that all pleasure, especially of the
body, is evil. This form of attack, of which I say the Albigensian was
the most notorious and came nearest to success, was rather an attack upon
morals than upon doctrine; it had the character of a cancer fastening upon
the body of the Church from within, producing a new life of its own,
antagonistic to the life of the Church and destructive of it_just as a
malignant growth in the human body lives a life of its own, other than,
and destructive of, the organism in which it has parasitically arisen.
The Protestant attack differed from the rest especially in this
characteristic, that its attack did not consist in the promulgation of a
new doctrine or of a new authority, that it made no concerted attempt at
creating a counter-Church, but had for its principle the denial of unity.
It was an effort to promote that state of mind in which a in the
old sense of the word_that is, an infallible, united, teaching body, a
Person speaking with Divine authority_should be denied; not the doctrines
it might happen to advance, but its very claim to advance them with unique
authority. Thus, one Protestant may affirm, as do the English
Puseyites, the truth of all the doctrines underlying the Mass_the Real
Presence, the Sacrifice, the sacerdotal power of consecration,
etc._another Protestant may affirm that all such conceptions are false,
yet both these Protestants are Protestant because they communicate in the
fundamental conception that the Church is not a visible, definable and
united personality, that there is no central infallible authority, and
that therefore each is free to choose his own set of doctrines.
Such affirmations of disunion, such denial of the claim to unity
as being part of the Divine order, produced indeed a common Protestant
temperament through certain historical associations; but there is no one
doctrine nor set of doctrines which can be affirmed as being the kernel of
Protestantism. Its essential remains the rejection of unity through
Lastly there is that contemporary attack on the Catholic Church
which is still in progress and to which no name has been finally attached,
save the vague term "modern.'' I should have preferred, perhaps, the old
Greek word "alogos''; but that would have seemed pedantic. And yet it is a
pity to have to reject it, for it admirably describes by implication the
quarrel between the present attackers of Catholic authority and doctrine,
and the tone of mind of a believer. Antiquity began by giving the name
"alogos'' to those who belittled or denied, though calling themselves
Christians, the Divinity of Christ. They were said to do so from lack of
"wit,'' in the sense of "fullness of comprehension,'' "largeness of
apprehension.'' Men felt about this kind of rationalism as normal people
feel about a colour-blind man.
One might also have chosen the term "Positivism,'' seeing that the
modern movement relies upon the distinction between things positively
proved by experiment and things accepted upon other grounds; but the term
"Positivism'' has already a special connotation and to use it would have
At any rate, though we have as yet perhaps no specific name, we
all know the spirit to which I refer: "That only is true which can be
appreciated by the senses and subjected to experiment. That can most
thoroughly be believed which can most thoroughly be measured and tested by
repeated trial. What are generally called `religious affirmations' are,
always , sometimes , illusions. The idea of God
itself and all that follows on it is man-made and a figment of the
imagination.'' This is the attack which has superseded all the older ones,
which is now gaining ground so rapidly and whose votaries feel (as did in
their hey-day all the votaries of the earlier attacks) an increasing
confidence of success.
Such are the five great movements antagonistic to the Faith. To
concentrate our attention upon each in turn teaches us in separate
examples the character of our religion and the strange truth that men
cannot escape sympathy with it or hatred of it.
To concentrate on these five main attacks has this further value,
that between them they seem to sum up all the directions from which the
assault can be delivered against the Catholic Faith.
Doubtless in the future there will be further conflict, indeed we
can be sure that it is inevitable, for it is of the nature of the Church
to provoke the anger and attack of the world. Perhaps we shall have later
to meet the heathen from the East, or perhaps, earlier or later, the
challenge of a new system altogether_not a heresy but a new religion. But
the main kinds of attack would seen to be exhausted by the list which
history has hitherto presented. We have had examples of heresy, working
from without and forming a new world in that fashion, of which Islam is
the great example. We have had examples of heresy at work attacking the
root of the Faith, the Incarnation, and specializing upon that_of which
Arianism was the great example. We have had the growth of the foreign body
from within, the Albigenses, and all their Manichean kindred before and
after them. We have had the attack on the personality, that is the unity,
of the Church_which is Protestantism. And we now behold, even as
Protestantism is dying, the rise and growth of yet another form of
conflict_the proposal to treat all transcendental affirmation as illusion.
It would seem as though the future could hold no more than the repetition
of these forms.
The Church might thus be regarded as a citadel presenting a
certain number of faces between the angles of its defences, each face
attacked in turn, and after the failure of one attack its neighbor
suffering the brunt of the battle. The last assault, the modern one, is
more like an attempt to dissolve the garrison, the annihilation of its
powers of resistance by suggestion, than an armed conflict. With this last
form the list would seem exhausted. If or when that last danger is
dissipated, the next can only appear after some fashion of which we have
already had experience.
I may be asked by way of postscript to this prelude why I have not
included any mention of the schisms. The schisms are as much attacks upon
the life of the Catholic Church as are the heresies; the greatest schism
of all, the Greek or Orthodox, which has produced the Greek or Orthodox
communion, is manifestly a disruption of our strength. Yet I think that
the various forms of attack on the Church by way of heretical doctrine are
in a different category from the schisms. No doubt a schism commonly
includes a heresy, and no doubt certain heresies have attempted to plead
that we should be reconciled with them, as we might be with a schism. But
though the two evils commonly appear in company, yet each is of a separate
sort from the other; and as we are studying the one it is best to
eliminate the other during the process of that study.
I shall then in these pages examine in turn the five great
movements I have mentioned, and I will take them in historical order,
beginning with the Arian business_which, as it was the first, was also,
perhaps, the most formidable.