Twenty ways of establishing from external behaviour a presumption that a person is a heretic

Disciple Now that I have had a discussion with you about interior pertinacity, I want to ask some things about exterior pertinacity. When, for example, because of some outward appearance should catholics hold someone erring against the faith to be pertinacious, and how should anyone be convicted in court of pertinacity? First of all, however, I want to know whether it can be established in one way only or in several ways that someone erring against the faith is pertinacious.

Master Several ways are described by which catholics can accept the violent presumption of someone that he is pertinacious in error.

Disciple Let us first deal with one way; later with another.

Master The first way by which someone can be detected being pertinacious is if he shows by deed or by word that he does not firmly believe that the christian faith is true and sound; for instance, if he says that the christian faith is false or doubtful or if he converts to some other sect, namely has himself circumcised or worships Mahommed. Anyone is allowed to pronounce of such a person that he pertinaciously errs or doubts against the faith and that he is knowingly a manifest heretic. And if he has been convicted or has confessed in court that he said or did such a thing he is to be condemned as pertinacious and a heretic without further questioning.

Disciple Can a situation be found in which such a person can be excused of heretical wickedness?

Master Only one situation of denying the faith is excepted and that is if someone in fear of death has denied the faith by saying that the christian faith is false or doubtful. There are, however, two exceptions with respect to an heretical act. The first is if someone has committed an heretical act out of fear of death, if, for example, someone has adored Mohammed in order to avoid death. It is in this way that blessed Marcellin is excused, because he did not become a heretic by sacrificing to idols, even though he committed a mortal sin. The second exception is if someone is forced by unrestricted force to commit an heretical act; in this situation he is excused too of all sin.

Disciple I would like to know the reason why such a person should [not] be regarded at once as a heretic and pertinacious since anyone influenced by ambition or greed can show in this way by word or deed that he does not firmly hold that the christian faith is true yet hold in his mind that it is true, just as anyone can pretend this out of fear of death.

Master The reason given is that when someone says or does something other than from fear of death it is more voluntary than when he says or does something persuaded by fear of death. Greed or ambition, therefore, does not in licit judgement excuse of pertinacity any man showing by deed or word that he does not firmly hold the christian faith. In the same way it is said that neither love nor hate nor anything except fear of death can excuse someone in this situation of being regarded as a heretic, unless it is said that someone can be excused in this situation because of the inflicting of severe tortures or fear of them.

Disciple Should the same thing said about everyone who is knowingly a heretic?

Master These remarks should be understood of everyone who is knowingly a heretic.

William of Ockham, Dialogus,
part 1, book 4, chapters 1-5

Text and translation by John Scott.
Copyright © 1999, The British Academy.