The heresy of action, also sometimes called the “heresy of busy-ness”, is something about which Pope Pius XII wrote in his 1950 letter to clergy throughout the world on the topic of holiness in the priestly life. The document’s title is Menti Nostrae. Here is the relevant quotation, followed by some thoughts of my own. Keep in mind that, as is traditionally the case for the Supreme Pontiff, he writes with the “regal We”:
We cannot abstain from expressing our preoccupation and our anxiety for those who, on account of the special circumstances of the moment, have become so engulfed in the vortex of external activity that they neglect the chief duty of the priest, his own sanctification. We have already stated publicly in writing that those who presume that the world can be saved by what has been rightly called “the heresy of action” must be made to exercise better judgment. The heresy of action is that activity which is not based upon the help of grace and does not make constant use of the means necessary to the pursuit of sanctity given us by Christ. In the same way, nevertheless, We have deemed it timely to stimulate to the activities of the ministry those who, shut up in themselves and almost diffident of the efficacy of divine aid, do not labor to the best of their ability to make the spirit of Christianity penetrate daily life in all those ways demanded by our times.
These words, which bear repeating to priests in every age, I think also have a special significance for Catholic laity in our time. How easily we can all get caught up in a vortex of “good works” and neglect our own sanctification in the process!
I have especially been thinking about this “heresy” as regards the works that take place in our parishes (“our”, not just “those of which I have charge”). There are often many good works happening….. but not all of which are actually leading people closer to Christ and his Church.
A good litmus test we can apply to our various parish activities is: How is this activity or program distinctively Catholic? How is it leading those involved closer to Christ and his Church? Or, borrowing from the words of Pope Pius XII, How is this activity or program making the spirit of Christianity penetrate more fully into its participants and our local reality? Lots of people (other than Catholics) can do some of the things that we do. How, then, is our rich Catholic faith and tradition enriching what it is that I am doing?
In the words of the psalmist, “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it” (Psalm 127). Our activity must flow from a profoundly Catholic identity, and serve to confirm us in it and lead others to it. Anything else is often just so much “busy-ness” – empty action, which keeps us (and others) occupied and distracted but might not be building up the Kingdom of God.