Memorial of Saint Irenaeus, Bishop and Martyr

In Herectics, G.K. Chesterton wrote, “We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy. We think the question is not whether the theory of the cosmos affects matters, but whether, in the long run, anything else affects them.” In this passage, Chesterton suggests that if the landlady wants to rent her room to a man who thinks that violence is a way of life, she will think twice to open her room to this man. Similarly, in the context of the “culture of war,” the issue is not whether some people are “abortionists,” or how much money they make in the abortion industry, but the philosophy of the abortionist that makes them that way.

Today is the memorial of St. Irenaeus, one of the first systematic theologians of the Church. In the midst of persecution against Christianity, Irenaeus came to realize that the Church faced a threat even greater than physical persecution; the rise of Gnosticism, one of the earliest heresies in the Church.  The Gnostic philosophy says that Jesus had two doctrines: a doctrine fit for the common man which he preached to everyone, and then an advanced teaching, kept secret for the chosen spiritually elite. The Gnostics consider themselves the spiritually elite who have access to the real truth. In opposition to this idea, Irenaeus maintained that the Gospel message is for everyone. He was perhaps the first to speak of the Church as “Catholic” (universal).

A lesson from St. Ireneus is that the main task of the Church is not to “suppress” heresies.  Rather, it is the Church’s function to know and proclaim the difference between the truth and the heresies. The crisis in the world and the Church would be much greater if the Church itself refused to talk about heresies and abdicated its functions of pursuing and judging the truth. Otherwise, as Chesterton says in Heretics, we are just creating all the bad novels in the circulating libraries.

June 28th, 2017