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The Falsehood of a Middle Way Between Extremes

Walking in the Middle of the Road

The Devastated Vineyard, Dietrich von Hildebrand, Chapter 3


One can sometimes hear propounded the unfortunate thesis that opposite errors are equally dangerous. It is assumed that because something is false or exaggerated, because one renounces it as “extremists,” that its opposite must be just as false and dangerous. It is forgotten that there is a hierarchy of evils, a hierarchy of dangers; and the fact that these evils and errors are opposite, in no way proves that they are equally evil, and equally dangerous.

A heresy cannot be placed on the same level as an undesirable attitude of mind. If I juxtapose laxity and rigorism, I can call the former “too little” and the latter “too much” - but never can a heresy be compared in this way to a narrow-minded attitude which represents no heresy.

In relation to heresies there is no minus malum, no “lesser evil” - apart from the fact that certain heresies can be weightier and worse than others.

In politics the insight that there is a minus malum is indespensible and basic. But if it is a matter of opposed tendencies in the Church, then the decisive difference is whether they are heretical, or only unfortunate, exaggerated, narrow-minded. A short while ago, a well known and important French theologian, who deplores the present devastation of the vineyard of the Lord, said to me that the “integrists” were just as bad as the modernists. According to him, the integrists, who see everything which is not strictly Thomistic as heretical, were, through their spiritual and intellectual narrowness, as great a danger as the “progressivists,” who want to introduce pluralism into the holy Church - or a Hans Kung, who denies the infallibility of the Church.

This is obviously a great error. The narrowness of the integrists may be regrettable but it is not heretical. It is not incompatible with the teaching of the holy Church. It views certain philosophical theses as inseparable from orthodoxy, though they in no way are. But these philosophical theses are also in no way incompatible with Christian Revelation. Therefore, it is completely senseless to place those who hold a philosophical thesis to be inseparable from Christian Revelation, i.e., from the teachings of the holy Church, on a level with those who promulgate philosophic theses which are in radical contradiction to the teaching of the holy Church, of which we spoke of in the last chapter.

But there are many philosophical questions which do not have this relation to Christian Revelation. To be sure, the alternative of the truth or falsity of the thesis remain, but its compatibility with orthodoxy is not at stake. Whether someone accepts the thesis that nil erit in intellectu quod non fuerit in sensibus1, or whether he concurs with the Augustinian view on this point, has nothing to do with orthodoxy.

But it is not difficult to see that whoever believes and proclaims fundamental errors which are absolutely incompatible with Christian Revelation is clearly a heretic, whereas someone who holds philosophical theses to be indispensable which in themselves have no necessary relation to Christian Revelation, becomes thereby in no way a heretic.

But apart from the grave mistake of placing both on the same level with regard to content, it is still a great mistake to believe that the integrists, who have always been present, and who are pious, orthodox men, are just as dangerous to the Church as as the declared heretics, including many who want to demolish the Church (the “Fifth column”) or to remake her according to their own theories. This attack from within is being conducted with all available means and propagated by the mass media; it is an epidemic which is growing more widespread everyday. This is a real danger, a disintegration of the Church. With the integrists, on the other hand, there can be no question of such a danger.

But there can be very different reasons for this shortsightedness of equating two so incomparable evils. I am speaking here only of cases in which, for example, a completely orthodox priest, who deeply deplores all the present day heresies, falls victim to the theory that both extremes are equally dangerous and that the truth lies in the middle.

One reason is that often the mesotes theory2, which indeed is applicable to many spheres, is carelessly extended to spheres where it does not apply at all. We have discussed this detail in The Trojan Horse, where we said that truth does not lie in the middle between two extremes, but is rather above and beyond them. While I can meaningfully say that something should not be too cold and not too warm, not too bright and not too dark, not too salty and not too bland, it makes no sense to say that one should not be too pious or not pious enough, too virtuous or not virtuous enough. All the more is it meaningless to say that this person is too orthodox and that one is not orthodox enough and claim that truth lies in the middle. Orthodoxy is the truth and all heresies are not forms of extremism, they are not exaggerations; they are simply false, incompatible with the Revelation of Christ. It may be that psychologically one heresy springs from an over-emphasis of one truth at the expense of another. But the heresy itself cannot ever be viewed as one extreme to which is opposed the contrary extreme of “too orthodox.” Rather, it is just false, not true.

There is another reason why so many have been seduced into placing incomparable errors on the same level, and it is purely psychological in nature. Men who have had to suffer much under the narrowness of spirit of the extremists, and who have been unjustly suspected of being heretics, have developed such an antipathy towards this fanaticism, and they shun and fear it so much, that they are inclined to put this evil on the same level as grave errors of faith, or indeed, as explicit heresies. It is actually quite seldom the case that men are completely objective in their judgements. Personal experiences, especially the most painful ones, usually play a role, and make evil seem to be greater than it objectively is, or vice versa. If one is treated in a friendly and respectful manner by a person, one will pass more favorable judgement on this person or the school of thought which he represents, although one had once seen the danger of it clearly, and although it has not in reality changed in any respect.

Take another example the judgement of superiors or bishops is often clouded because they believe that obedience and submission are more important than orthodoxy. Of course, I am thinking here only of those who are orthodox themselves and who deplore all heresies. But the insult to God which is embodied in heresy is often not as tangible and irritating for them as a public act of rebellion against their authority. Certainly they should also make use of their authority if their subordinates are disobedient. But first priority in authoritative intervention must be given to the question of whether the subordinate champions the truth in matters of faith and morals.

A person who, because he has suffered from the narrowness of the “integrists,” regards them as just as dangerous as the progressives, is guilty of a lack of objectivity similar to that of such bishops.

By the way, there is much talk of the legalism which must be overcome. Indeed, many even describe the Decalogue as legalistic. But in truth a greater, more real legalism has come into being since the Second Vatican Council. We have just pointed to one symptom of real legalism in the negative sense: that more use of authority is being made in purely disciplinary matters than in matters of faith. The belief that a lack of discipline is more serious than the spread of heresies is a typical form of legalism. All disciplinary authority, all obedience to the bishop presupposes the pure teaching of the holy Church. Obedience to the bishop is grounded in complete faith in the teachings of the holy Church. A soon as the ecclesiastical authority yields to a pluralism in questions of faith, it has lost all right to claim obedience to its disciplinary ordinances.

  • 1. “Nothing can be in the intellect which was not first in the senses.”
  • 2. The Aristotelian idea that virtue lies in the mean between two extremes