When I was an agnostic/atheist college student and very much on the outside looking in, I took a course on early Christian thought. Although I was not converted (that came later), I came away convinced that the Church had in the early centuries been challenged by a series of potentially destructive heresies and had each time some how been able to get it right. After I converted, I found that G.K. Chesterton had long before me discovered the same miracle. He pointed out how, when attacked from the right and from the left, the Church had not come to some compromise, some gray middle ground, but had rather wondrously, divinely, reconciled the extremes by embracing them both.
God was not an unapproachable singularity or a series of emanation, but a Trinity of three equal persons in one perfect Godhead. Jesus was not just a man, or a demi-god or a shell in which God dwelt, but true God and true man. The Church delighted in the magnificence of St. Peter's and honored the stark poverty of St. Francis of Assisi. The Church defended both fruitful marriage and celibacy for the sake of the kingdom. And the Church has protected and promoted true personal freedom by providing a hierarchical structure through which the individual can be assured of finding answers to the most difficult theological questions, the intimacy of the sacramental presence of her Lord, and assurance of the forgiveness of sins.
Since the first days of the Church controversies have arisen. Believers have taken both sides, but Christians were not left in confusion, rather Christ endowed his Church with a system for deciding which side was right, for the Church is built on a rock -- on the successor to Peter alone and with his bishops in Council. Debates may go on for a while, each side making its case, but there comes a time when a decision must be made, and time and time again for 20 centuries history shows that the Church has by grace made the right decision. Because of this divinely instituted decision-making system, the faithful have the freedom to live in the truth.
We can see what happens when believers are denied this protection in the situation of our separated brethren. It is not just that they are separated from the Chair of Peter, when disputes arise, they lack the means to definitively resolve differences and their fellowships break into pieces.
St. Paul foresaw when he wrote. "I hear that there are divisions among you and I partly believe it. For there must also be heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest..." (I Cor. 11:17)
Theology is faith seeking understanding. Theological conflicts occur when the Church confronts the spirit of the age, for each age presents the faithful with new misunderstanding of and new insights into received teachings. The Church inspired by the spirit rejects what is false and embraces what is true. For example, in the late 20th century certain groups felt that the only way to achieve equality for women was to deny the differences between men and women. Because the Church continues to hold that only men can be ordained, that marriage is the union between one man and one woman, and that sexual intimacy should be restricted to marriage, she was condemned for refusing to surrender to the spirit of the age. She could not change the truth she had been given to guard but she could, through the wisdom of Blessed John Paul II, help the faithful to a deeper understanding of that truth.
Heresy always claims to be the wave of the future, when it is merely a reflection of the spirit of the age. Scratch the surface of the late 20th century heresies, and you will find ideologies which are alien to Christianity: Marxist based liberation theology, radical feminism, gay liberation, and sexual liberation -- ideologies which are already passe.
Unfortunately, today there are those who refuse to accept that certain questions are settled. They not only go astray themselves, but lead others to do so. In such circumstances, in the spirit of a true father, those given the task of guarding the faith must take action. They must defend the totality of the faith.
It is hard to admit that one is wrong and has been led astray by alien ideologies. Let us pray that once theological conflicts are definitively decided those who favored the losing opinion choose obedience over rebellion. May they pray, "Lord, give me wisdom that I may understand." For if they do, God has promised to give them wisdom "generously and without reproach." (James 1:5)
Dale O'Leary is an internationally recognized lecturer and author of "The Gender Agenda: Redefining Equality."