A Trip Down Heresy Lane


Rummaging through my shelves, I came across a booklet published in 1926 by the Catholic Information Society of New York. The title is The Triumph of the Church. The author thought the Church’s triumph to be demonstrated sufficiently by listing, century by century, heresies that flowered, withered, and then disappeared, while the Church, no matter how badly shaken, perdured and eventually revived. I give such a listing only marginal apologetic value, since, by itself, it does not prove the divine establishment of the Church, but it certainly disproves the divine establishment of heretical sects that now can be located only in history books.

Some of the sects mentioned in the booklet I found unfamiliar or curious. Let me give the author’s description of some that flourished in the fourth century.

The Massalians "were a kind of vagrant quietists. . . . They disregarded regulations in the matter of fasting, wandered from place to place, and in summer were accustomed to sleep in the streets. They engaged in no occupations." This reads like a description of people I occasionally see on the streets in San Diego—and not only in the summer.

The Elvidians (not to be confused with the Elvisians, a late-twentieth century sect) were followers of Elvidius, who was a follower of an Arian named Auxentius, who was made bishop of Milan when the Emperor Constans booted out the legitimate Catholic bishop, Dionysius. "The Elvidians denied the virginity of Mary": That is all the booklet says about the beliefs of the group. Such a denial is enough to classify a group as heretical, but surely there was more to the sect than that. Or was there? It is possible to imagine a sect that believes absolutely every Catholic doctrine save one, but I do not know of any such sect ever actually existing. Once you deny one doctrine, you almost are compelled by logic to deny others.

Another denier of Mary’s virginity was Jovinian. He distinguished himself by arguing "that all sins are equal" and that "there is but one grade of punishment . . . in the future life"—which makes sense, if murder and white lies are equal. I suspect he attracted most of his followers with the belief that anyone "baptized with the Spirit as well as with water cannot sin."

Then there were the Vigilantians (not to be confused with Vigilantes, civil heretics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries). This sect was begun by Vigilantius, who was born in Gaul, worked as an inn-keeper, and then became a writer. In retrospect, his change of career seems to have been unwise.

He visited Jerome and "immediately quarreled with him on religious matters, accusing him of being a heretic." (It was the other way around, actually, since Vigilantius held views that prefigured those of the Protestant Reformers.) That the two men quarreled is not surprising, since many people quarreled with Jerome, who was known for his quarrelsomeness and who, I often have thought, ought to be the patron saint of crabby people. Although he was wrong doctrinally, I have to grant Vigilantius a little slack here. He may not have been the one who raised his voice first, but I am quite sure that Jerome raised his voice last.


Karl Keating is founder and president of Catholic Answers, the country’s largest apologetics and evangelization organization. He is the author of five books, including Catholicism and Fundamentalism and What Catholics Really Believe.

This article appeared in Volume 19 Number 2.