The Judgment of Simple Human Reason, Duly Enlightened – Fr. Felix Sarda Y Salvany

“You have no authority to judge that this man is a heretic.  You are only a layman.  You have to wait for the Church to make a judgment.”

How many times we heard this in Catholic circles.  Some have even erroneously pointed to Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre as saying something similar.  The idea that one cannot form a private judgment on the status of the Catholicity of another before the Church’s judgment is simply false!  Of course, one needs to be careful that he is not being trigger-happy with the term “heretic”, but abuses of the term do not justify eliminating or restricting one’s right to use it when certain conditions exist, which include:1

  1. The accused must deny or doubt a doctrine that must be believed with Catholic and Divine Faith.
  2. One must have moral certitude that the accused is aware that he is denying or doubting a doctrine that must be believed with Catholic and Divine Faith.2
  3. The one forming the judgment must understand that he is making a judgment of conscience and not a juridical judgment.  Therefore, the judgment does not oblige on the conscience of another.

Now there is a book titled “Liberalism Is a Sin” (original title is “What is Liberalism?”) written by Fr. Felix Sarda Y Salvany in which he heavily condemned Liberalism and Liberals, so much so that the Sacred Congregation of the Index was asked to ban it!  However, in a letter by the Sacred Congregation dated January 10, 1887, part of its response was the following:

“Wherefore the Sacred Congregation has carefully examined both works (the second work was a criticism of Fr. Sarda’s book), and decided as follows: In the first not only is nothing found contrary to sound doctrine, but its author, D. Felix Sarda merits great praise for his exposition and defense of the sound doctrine therein set forth with solidity, order and lucidity, and without personal offense to anyone.”

In his book, Fr. Sarda condemned Liberalism as a heresy (see Chapter 3).  Furthermore, he wrote that it is rare to find a Liberal in good faith (see Chapter 15).3  Then in Chapter 32 titled “Liberalism and Authority in Particular Cases”, he states the following regarding private judgment (emphasis mine):

How is one to tell on his own authority who or what is Liberal, without having recourse to a definitive decision of the teaching Church? When a good Catholic accuses anyone of Liberalism or attacks and unmasks Liberal sophisms, the accused immediately seeks refuge in a challenge of the accuser’s authority: ‘And pray who are you, to charge me and my journal with Liberalism? Who made you a Master in Israel to declare who is or who is not a good Catholic? And is it from you that I must take out a patent of Catholicity?’ Such is the last resort of the tainted Catholic on finding himself pushed to the wall. How then are we to answer this opposition? Is the theology of Liberal Catholics sound upon this point? That we may accuse any person or writing of Liberalism, is it necessary to have recourse to a special judgement of the church upon this particular person or this particular writing? By no means.  If this Liberal paradox were true, it would furnish Liberals with a very efficacious weapon with which to practically annul all the Church’s condemnations of Liberalism. The Church alone possesses supreme doctrinal magistery in fact and in right, juris et facti; her sovereign authority is personified in the Pope. To him alone belongs the right of pronouncing the final, decisive and solemn sentence. But this does not exclude other judgments, less authoritative but very weighty, which cannot be despised and even ought to bind the Christian conscience. Of this kind are:

1. Judgments of the Bishops in their respective dioceses.
2. Judgments of pastors in their parishes.
3. Judgments of directors of consciences.
4. Judgments of theologians consulted by the lay faithful.

“These judgments are of course not infallible, but they are entitled to great consideration and ought to be binding in proportion to the authority of those who give them, in the gradation we have mentioned. But it is not against judgments of this character that Liberals hurl the peremptory challenge we wish particularly to consider. There is another factor in this matter entitled to respect and that is:

5. The judgment of simple human reason duly enlightened.

Yes, human reason, to speak after the manner of theologians, has a theological place in matters of religion. Faith dominates reason, which ought to be subordinated to faith in everything. But it is altogether false to pretend that reason can do nothing, that it has no function at all in matters of faith; it is false to pretend that the inferior light, illuminated by God in the human understanding, cannot shine at all, because it does not shine as powerfully or as clearly as the superior light. Yes the faithful are permitted and even commanded to give a reason for their faith, to draw out its consequences, to make applications of it, to deduce parallels and analogies from it. It is thus by use of their reason that the faithful are enabled to suspect and measure the orthodoxy of any new doctrine, presented to them, by comparing it with a doctrine already defined. If it be not in accord, they can combat it as bad and justly stigmatize as bad the book or journal which sustains it. They cannot of course define it ex cathedra, but they can lawfully hold it as perverse and declare it such, warn others against it, raise the cry of alarm and strike the first blow against it. The faithful layman can do all this, and has done it at all times with the applause of the Church. Nor in so doing does he make himself the pastor of the flock, nor even its humblest attendant; he simply serves it as a watchdog who gives the alarm. Oportet allatrare canes. ‘It behooves watchdogs to bark’ very opportunely said a great Spanish Bishop in reference to such occasions.

“Is not perchance the part played by human reason so understood by those zealous prelates, who on a thousand occasions exhort the faithful to refrain from the reading of bad journals and works without specially pointing them out? Thus do they show their conviction that this natural criterion, illuminated by faith, is sufficient to enable the faithful to apply well known doctrines to such matters.

“Does the Index itself give the title of every forbidden book? Do we not find under the rubric of General Rules of the Index certain principles according to which good Catholics should guide themselves in forming their judgement upon books not mentioned in the Index, but which each reader is expected to apply at his own discretion? Of what use would be the rule of faith and morals, if in every particular case the faithful cannot of themselves make the immediate application; if they were constantly obliged to consult the Pope or the diocesan pastor? Just as the general rule of morality is the law, in accordance with which each one squares his own conscience, dictamen practicum, in making particular applications of this general rule, subject to correction if erroneous; so the general rule of faith, which is the infallible authority of the Church, is and ought to be in consonance with every particular judgment formed in making concrete applications, subject of course to correction and retraction in the event of mistake in so applying it. It would be rendering the superior rule of faith useless, absurd and impossible to require the supreme authority of the Church to make its special and immediate application in every case upon every occasion, which calls it forth. This would be a species of brutal and satanic Jansenism like that of the followers of the unhappy Bishop of Ypres, when they exacted, for the reception of the sacraments, such dispositions as would make it impossible for men to profit by that which was plainly intended and instituted for them by Jesus Christ Himself.

“The legal rigorism invoked by the Liberalists, in matters pertaining to faith, is as absurd as the ascetic rigorism once preached at Port Royal; it would result even more disastrously. If you doubt this look around you. The greatest rigorists on this point are the most hardened sectaries of the Liberal school. But how explain this apparent contradiction? It is easily explained, if we only reflect that nothing could be more convenient for Liberalism than to put this legal muzzle upon the lips and the pens of their most determined adversaries. It would be in truth a great triumph for them, under the pretext that no one except the Pope and the Bishops could speak with the least authority, to this impose silence upon the lay champions of the faith, such as were DeMaistre, Cortes, Veuillot, Ward, Lucas, McMaster, who once bore, and others, who now bear, the banner of the faith so boldly and unflinchingly against its most insidious foes. Liberalism would like to see such crusaders disarmed, and would prefer, above all, if they could succeed in getting the Church herself to do the disarming.”

I rest my case.


  1. These ideas for these conditions were taken from article written by John S. Daly title “The Right to Judge Heresy”.
  2. This would ascertain “pertinacity” on the part of the accused.  “Obstinacy may be assumed when a revealed truth has been proposed with sufficient clearness and force to convince a reasonable man,” (Dom Charles Augustine: A Commentary on Canon Law, Vol. 6, pg. 335.)
  3. We must take into account that the book was written in the late 19th century, so today, 60 years after Vatican II, there is a higher probability of finding a Liberal in good faith.  Furthermore, one may not be a Liberal per se, but pronounce heresy on one doctrine. Hence, we must be more diligent in applying the conditions stated above.

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