“Ask a Priest: Why Condemn Origen Along With His Writings?”

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Q: As part of a college course I have recently started reading about Origen, one of the early Christian theologians. I read that he was condemned by the Catholic Church for holding heretical beliefs but that some of his writings were considered canon. How is this? Furthermore, what does it mean to be condemned or “anathematized” by the Church? Is it the same as being excommunicated? Why couldn’t Origen’s writings just be condemned? I understand that we must fight against heresy, but what about being merciful and forgiving toward the person? Do I have to condemn/curse him too? – J.N.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Two words need to be clarified here, namely, “condemned” and “canon.”

The word condemn in this context can easily be misinterpreted. The Church can condemn a work for its faulty ideas, as a way to warn people about its doctrinal mistakes.

The Church might also “anathematize,” or excommunicate, a person for holding on to seriously wrong ideas, since embracing such heresy puts his soul at risk. Excommunication, however, doesn’t mean the Church is sentencing a soul to perdition. The Church cannot do that. God alone is the judge of a soul.

In the case of Origen some of his later ideas weren’t acceptable to the Church and thus were condemned. This doesn’t mean that all of his writings were condemned. In fact, he is still studied as an important early Christian writer.

Pope Benedict XVI is something of a supporter of many of Origen’s (good) ideas. You can see from his general audience talks HERE and also HERE.

The other word is canon. “Canon” is usually applied to the list of books recognized as divinely inspired and include in Scripture. “Canon” in regard to early Christian writings has a looser meaning. These writings aren’t considered inspired in the same sense as biblical texts are, though they might have great value for understanding the mind and practices of the early Church. Some of Origin’s works fulfill those criteria.

By the way, the notions of the condemnation of writings and the excommunication of people are acts of charity, for two reasons.

First, it alerts others that certain writings have serious errors and should not be treated as real doctrine. This is part of the Church’s mission to teach the Gospel — a great act of charity.

Second, it sends a strong signal to a writer, if he is still living, that he needs to dissociate himself from certain faulty ideas, in part for the good of his own soul. This, too, is charity in the deep sense.

To allow someone to stay stuck in grave mistake is not an act of mercy but one of neglect or indifference.

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