“When he returned he found them asleep. He said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”
– Mark 14: 37 – 38

A watchman, according to definition, is a person chosen from a body of people, or a volunteer corps, who stands guard and on sentry, and keeps watch at night, to protect either a building, a group of buildings, or an entire city from being invaded and attacked from enemy assaults and flanks. From the watch tower, the watchman scans the landscape for any signs of impending danger, and sounds the warning siren should he spot anything amiss. In the Bible, we read of persons being appointed as physical sentinels to guard the physical territories and boundaries, such as in the case of 2 Kings 9, and also of prophets being appointed as watchmen for the nations in Ezekiel 3: 17 “Son of man, I have appointed you a sentinel for the house of Israel. When you hear a word from my mouth, you shall warn them for me.”. This is further emphasized in Ezekiel 33: 2-3 “Son of man, speak to your people and tell them: When I bring the sword against a land, if the people of that land select one of their number as a sentinel for them, and the sentinel sees the sword coming against the land, he should blow the trumpet to warn the people.”

A watchman is hence appointed on a three-prong function: To guard the physical space, comprising of cities, homes, Churches; to protect the people; and to guard the spiritual and moral territories of the People of God.

There is much to stand guard against today. The Catholic Church is no stranger to heretic attack. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him” (CCC 2089).

A heresy is committed by someone who refuses to be corrected. A person who is ready to be corrected or who is unaware that what he has been saying is against Church teaching is not a heretic. A person must be baptized to commit heresy. This means that movements that have split off from or been influenced by Christianity, but that do not practice baptism (or valid baptism), are not heresies, but separate religions.  Finally, the doubt or denial involved in heresy must concern a matter that has been revealed by God and solemnly defined by the Church (for example, the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacrifice of the Mass, the pope’s infallibility, or the Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Mary). (catholic.org)

The heresies of the early Church include:

Gnosticism (1st and 2nd century)
Denying the Incarnation and claiming that Jesus was not true God and true man, but only appeared in the form of a man.

Montanism (Late 2nd century)
Which came from a man Montanus, who claimed that his teachings were above the Catholic Church and that he himself was the Paraclete that was promised by the Christ.

Sabellianism (Early 3rd Century)
The Sabellianists taught that Jesus Christ and God the Father were not distinct persons, but two aspects or offices of one person.

Arianism (4th Century)
Arius taught that Christ was a creature made by God. By disguising his heresy using orthodox or near-orthodox terminology, he was able to sow great confusion in the Church. He was able to muster the support of many bishops, while others excommunicated him.

Arianism was solemnly condemned in 325 at the First Council of Nicaea, which defined the divinity of Christ, and in 381 at the First Council of Constantinople, which defined the divinity of the Holy Spirit. These two councils gave us the Nicene creed, which Catholics recite at Mass every Sunday.

Pelagianism (5th Century)
Pelagius denied that we inherit original sin from Adam’s sin in the Garden and claimed that we become sinful only through the bad example of the sinful community into which we are born. Conversely, he denied that we inherit righteousness as a result of Christ’s death on the cross and said that we become personally righteous by instruction and imitation in the Christian community, following the example of Christ. Pelagius stated that man is born morally neutral and can achieve heaven under his own powers. According to him, God’s grace is not truly necessary, but merely makes easier an otherwise difficult task.

Nestorianism (5th Century)
This heresy about the person of Christ was initiated by Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, who denied Mary the title of Theotokos (Greek: “God-bearer” or, less literally, “Mother of God”). Nestorius claimed that she only bore Christ’s human nature in her womb, and proposed the alternative title Christotokos (“Christ-bearer” or “Mother of Christ”).

Orthodox Catholic theologians recognized that Nestorius’s theory would fracture Christ into two separate persons (one human and one divine), only one of whom was in her womb. The Church reacted in 431 with the Council of Ephesus, defining that Mary can be properly referred to as the Mother of God, not in the sense that she is older than God or the source of God, but in the sense that the person she carried in her womb was, in fact, God incarnate (“in the flesh”).

Monophysitism (5th Century)
Monophysitism originated as a reaction to Nestorianism. The Monophysites (led by a man named Eutyches) were horrified by Nestorius’s implication that Christ was two people with two different natures (human and divine). They went to the other extreme, claiming that Christ was one person with only one nature (a fusion of human and divine elements). They are thus known as Monophysites because of their claim that Christ had only one nature (Greek: mono = one; physis = nature).

Orthodox Catholic theologians recognized that Monophysitism was as bad as Nestorianism because it denied Christ’s full humanity and full divinity. If Christ did not have a fully human nature, then he would not be fully human, and if he did not have a fully divine nature then he was not fully divine.

Iconoclasm (7th and 8th Centuries)

This heresy arose when a group of people known as iconoclasts (literally, “icon smashers”) appeared, who claimed that it was sinful to make pictures and statues of Christ and the saints, despite the fact that in the Bible, God had commanded the making of religious statues (Exod. 25:18–20; 1 Chron. 28:18–19), including symbolic representations of Christ (cf. Num. 21:8–9 with John 3:14).

Catharism (11th Century)

Catharism was a complicated mix of non-Christian religions reworked with Christian terminology. The Cathars had many different sects; they had in common a teaching that the world was created by an evil deity (so matter was evil) and we must worship the good deity instead.

The Albigensians formed one of the largest Cathar sects. They taught that the spirit was created by God, and was good, while the body was created by an evil god, and the spirit must be freed from the body. Having children was one of the greatest evils, since it entailed imprisoning another “spirit” in flesh. Logically, marriage was forbidden, though fornication was permitted. Tremendous fasts and severe mortifications of all kinds were practiced.

Modern Era Heresies:

Jansenism (17th Century)

Jansenius, bishop of Ypres, France, initiated this heresy with a paper he wrote on Augustine, which redefined the doctrine of grace. Among other doctrines, his followers denied that Christ died for all men, but only for those who will be finally saved (the elect). This and other Jansenist errors were officially condemned by Pope Innocent X in 1653.

Modern Day Challenges to Catholicism:

Protestantism (16th Century)

Protestant groups display a wide variety of different doctrines. However, virtually all claim to believe in the teachings of sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”—the idea that we must use only the Bible when forming our theology) and sola fide (“by faith alone”— the idea that we are justified by faith only).

The great diversity of Protestant doctrines stems from the doctrine of private judgment, which denies the infallible authority of the Church and claims that each individual is to interpret Scripture for himself. This idea is rejected in 2 Peter 1:20, where we are told the first rule of Bible interpretation: “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.”

A significant feature of this heresy is the attempt to pit the Church “against” the Bible, denying that the magisterium has any infallible authority to interpret Scripture.

Secularism, Relativism, and the New Age

Bearing these in mind, the Church today understands that distorted thinking and false doctrine can sneak into the Church at any time. Watchmen need to be especially vigilant to warn the Church of impending danger.  Today, we contend with the delusions of Secularism: That there is no God; Relativism: There is no right or wrong. Everything is relative. However, the most subversive, would be the New Age and the Occult. The danger is that baptized Catholics are welcoming all sorts of New Age practices that in actuality endanger them morally and spiritually. These run the gamut of consulting mediums, astrology, and the zodiac, either Chinese with the animal signs, or Western, with the constellations, practicing Reiki, several branches of yoga, the opening of the charkras; numerology; and playing occultic games like tarot cards and ouija boards. Some television programmes also glamourize evil, such as the popular Netflix series, Lucifer, which anthromorphs the devil and portrays the devil in a sympathetic light. A careful examination of the popular Harry Porter movie series also reveals the intense use of occultic symbolism in the misc en scene. Such as the use of the pentacle, an occultic symbol of an inverted star found in witchcraft and Satanism.

Fortunately, we have Christ’s promise that heresies will never prevail against the Church, for he told Peter, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). The Church is truly, in Paul’s words, “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).

By Brian Bartholomew Tan

Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church, Catholic Answers, EWTN, Catholic.org