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The believer accepts the whole deposit as proposed by the Church ; the heretic accepts only such parts of it as commend themselves to his own approval.
The subject-matter of both faith and heresy is, therefore, the deposit of the faith, that is, the sum total of truths revealed in Scripture and Tradition as proposed to our belief by the Church.
Heresy thus willed is imputable to the subject and carries with it a varying degree of guilt; it is called formal , because to the material error it adds the informative element of "freely willed".
Heresy is opposed to faith; schism to charity; so that, although all heretics are schismatics because loss of faith involves separation from the Church, not all schismatics are necessarily heretics, since a man may, from anger, pride, ambition, or the like, sever himself from the communion of the Church and yet believe all the Church proposes for our belief (II-II, Q. Both matter and form of heresy admit of degrees which find expression in the following technical formula of theology and canon law. A study of the personal narratives in "Roads to Rome" and "Roads from Rome" leaves one with the impression that the heart of man is a sanctuary impenetrable to all but to God and, in a certain measure, to its owner.
On the other hand a born Catholic may allow himself to drift into whirls of anti-Catholic thought from which no doctrinal authority can rescue him, and where his mind becomes incrusted with convictions, or considerations sufficiently powerful to overlay his Catholic conscience. Thomas, in the strict sense, are they who of their own will and intention separate themselves from the unity of the Church.
It is not for man, but for Him who searcheth the mind and heart, to sit in judgment on the guilt which attaches to an heretical conscience. The apostate a fide abandons wholly the faith of Christ either by embracing Judaism, Islamism, Paganism, or simply by falling into naturalism and complete neglect of religion; the heretic always retains faith in Christ. The unity of the Church consists in the connection of its members with each other and of all the members with the head.
Now faith is the most precious possession of man, the root of his supernatural life, the pledge of his eternal salvation. A sin, therefore, is the greater the more it separates man from God. In answer it suffices to remark that two of the most evident truths of the depositum fidei are the unity of the Church and the institution of a teaching authority to maintain that unity. Arianism is the first heresy that gained a strong footing in the Church and seriously endangered its very nature and existence.
Privation of faith is therefore the greatest evil, and deliberate rejection of faith is the greatest sin. But infidelity does this more than any other sin, for the infidel (unbeliever) is without the true knowledge of God : his false knowledge does not bring him help, for what he opines is not God : manifestly, then, the sin of unbelief ( infidelitas ) is the greatest sin in the whole range of perversity." And he adds: "Although the Gentiles err in more things than the Jews, and although the Jews are farther removed from true faith than heretics, yet the unbelief of the Jews is a more grievous sin than that of the Gentiles, because they corrupt the Gospel itself after having adopted and professed the same. That unity exists in the Catholic Church, and is preserved by the function of her teaching body: these are two facts which anyone can verify for himself. 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. On the other hand the will may freely incline the intellect to adhere to tenets declared false by the Divine teaching authority of the Church.