What is heresy?
Heresy is the obstinate clinging to error of a baptized person, in opposition to a truth taught by the Catholic Church. The word "heresy" is derived from the Greek, and means to choose or adhere to a certain thing. Hence a baptized person, professing Christianity and choosing at the same time for himself what to believe and what not to believe, as he pleases, in obstinate opposition to any particular truth which he knows is taught by the Catholic Church as a truth revealed by God, is a heretic. Three things, therefore, are required to make a person guilty of the sin of heresy.
1. He must be baptized and profess Christianity. This distinguishes him from a Jew and idolater.
2. He must refuse to believe a truth revealed by God, and taught by the Church as so revealed.
3. He must obstinately adhere to error, preferring his own private judgment in matters of faith and morals to the infallible teaching of the Catholic Church.
Heresy, therefore, is a corruption of the true faith. This corruption takes place either by altering the truths which constitute the principal articles of faith, or by denying obstinately those which result therefrom. But, as the error of a geometrician does not affect the principles of geometry, so is the error of a person, which does not affect the fundamental truths of faith, no real heresy. Should a person have embraced an opinion which is contrary to faith, without knowing that it is opposed to faith, he is, in this case, no heretic, if he is disposed to renounce his error as soon as he comes to know the truth. A baptized person, then, professing Christianity, commits the sin of heresy, when he obstinately rejects a truth revealed by God and taught by the Church as so revealed, or when he embraces an opinion contrary to faith, maintains it obstinately, and refuses to submit to the authority of the head of the Church, or when he willfully doubts the truth of an article of faith, for by such a wilful doubt he actually questions God's knowledge and truth, and to do this is to be guilty of heresy.
"The real character of rank heresy," says St. Thomas Aquinas, "consists in want of submission to the head of the Church." It is false to say that only those truths are of faith which have been defined by the Church, and that he only is a heretic who denies a defined truth. A man steals a large amount of money from his neighbor. Now is that man no thief so long as the court has not pronounced him guilty of theft ? Jesus Christ has revealed to his Church a certain number of truths. She knows what those truths are. She always believed and taught them as revealed truths, but she defined many of these truths in precise terms only when it was fit or necessary to do so. These definitions of the faith are so many judgments of the Church against those who denied her doctrine or called it into doubt, out of vincible or invincible ignorance. Those who, out of invincible ignorance, denied certain revealed truths, were excused from heresy until the Church delivered them from the ignorance of these truths by declaring and defining them in precise terms. A Christian, then, who knows that a certain truth is revealed by God and taught by the Church as so revealed, though not defined by her, becomes guilty of heresy if he denies or willfully doubts that truth.
No doubt, Luther, Calvin, etc., were considered by the Church as heretics even before she had defined those truths which were denied by those impious men, and those denied truths were articles of faith, and as such believed just as firmly before as after their definition by the Council of Trent. Any one, then, who sufficiently knows the truths of the true religion, and denies even but one of them, commits one of the greatest sins. To reject what we know has been revealed by God is not only to cut ourselves off from all the blessings of religion, but it is to call in question the Truth of God, and he who calls in question the Truth of God offers to him the greatest insult. We believe the truths of faith, because God revealed them and proposes them to our faith by his infallible Church. Now, to believe some of these truths, and reject one or more of them, is as much as to say: I believe that God told the truth in this point, but not in that other. This is a horrible blasphemy. Wilful heresy, therefore, in regard even to but one sacred truth of religion destroys all faith, attacking as it does the authority of God, who revealed the truth. If a man who poisons the food of his fellow-men is most damnable in the sight of God, how much more damnable are not those men who poison the souls of men by the seed of heresy !
To take away the life of the body is a mortal sin. Now is it not a greater crime to rob the soul of its life the grace of God, and lead it to everlasting perdition by false doctrines. Hence it is that Holy Scripture condemns the sin of heresy in the strongest terms. "A man," says St. Paul, "that is a heretic, after the first and second admonition avoid, knowing that he who is such an one is subverted, and sineth, being condemned by his own judgement." (Tit, iii., 10. ) And again he says: "Though we, or an angel from heaven, preach a Gospel to you besides that which we have preached to you, let him be anathema, that is, accursed." (Gal, i., 8, 9.) St. Paul also classes sects or heresies among the works of the flesh, and says that those who do such things, shall not obtain the kingdom of God. (Gal., i., 29. )
Source: The First and Greatest Commandment by Father Michael Muller, Imprimatur 1881