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Simoniaca Heresis

Gregory the greatSimoniaca Heresis

By Jean Leclercq

Translated by W. L. North from the French original in Studi Gregoriani I (Rome, 1947)

Introduction: Saint Gregory VII and his contemporaries often used the expression simoniaca heresis [simoniacal heresy or the heresy of simony]. In our own time, “heresy” is defined as a doctrine which is opposed to the revealed truth: it is therefore an erroneous judgment of the intellect. But simony is an action, a practice: it concerns the category of acting, not the category of knowing. Some are also tempted to conclude that simony is not a heresy. They are likewise constrained to submit to an interpretation that permits one to dismiss Gregory VII’s manner of speaking and that of many others. According to this hypothesis, rather than admit that the popes, theologians, and canonists knew neither what heresy was nor what simony was, we would be reduced to thinking that, under their pen, the word heresis, when applied to simony, is only a vague metaphor, equivalent to pestis, morbus, or pravitas, which medieval writers themselves pair with the epithet simoniacus, though much less frequently. If one wishes to appreciate the value of the expression simoniaca heresis, and if one wishes to assess its conformity to tradition, it is important to retrace the main steps of its history.

At the top of the most ancient catalogues of heretics appears Simon the Magician, whom the account of the Acts of the Apostles describes. Such is the case, for example, in Pseudo-Tertullian’s Libellus adversus omnes hereses (Pamphlet against all hereses), which goes back probably to the first half of the third century; in this text, in which Simon’s errors are enumerated, there is no allusion to the fact that he wished to obtain the Holy Spirit for a payment of silver. To contrary, mention is made of a lineage of apostles “who were saying the same things as he.” Simon is therefore considered as the founder of a true sect. Some time later, Saint Jerome also said that “[Simon] created a heresy,” since [heresy] at that time was generally used as a synonym for “sect”. Already between 383 and 391, Philastrius of Brescia, inspired by the most ancient catalogues [of heresies], placed Simon and his disciples at the beginning of their list of heretics after the Passion of Christ. He, too, does not speak of Simon’s desire to buy the Holy Spirit. But this latter complaint will be the complaint with which, around 428, Saint Augustine reproaches Simon in the first place.

With Gregory the Great (pope, 590–604) the expression simoniaca heresis becomes a frequently used phrase. Saint Gregory employs it in one of his homilies on a text in which he expresses the full essence of his thought on the subject. Those who impose the Holy Spirit only on condition of receiving money are just as guilty as the sellers whom Jesus chased from the Temple. They are the ruin of the priesthood, and it was for this reason that the Redeemer destroyed their counting tables: “from there it comes about that the holy canons condemn the simoniacal heresy.” Saint Gregory speaks here of simony without alluding to Simon. In another homily, he evokes the account of the Acts of the Apostles and places it in dialogue with the same scene from the Gospels, and then he rises up against simony, but does not name it or characterize it as heretical. In these two texts, he accuses Simon of none of the doctrinal errors that the ancient catalogues attribute to him: he accuses him only of having wished to put the gift of God up for sale.

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