In the article Refusing Communion, I explained the meaning of communion (κοινωνία). Clear from the witness of the Scriptures and the Fathers is that communion is the bond of faith which unites the catholic churches throughout the world.. Communion is a joint partnership in the same faith. Therefore, as the Fathers taught and practised, no Christian can retain communion with an heretical bishop without assenting to (and being culpable for) his heresy.
However, in our times chock full of heretical prelates, there is an approach (masquerading as virtue) which attempts to take on an “hermeneutic of charity.” That is, if the prelate’s words (against their plain meaning) can be interpreted in an orthodox manner, then they should be. Of course, we should love every man and be slow & prudent in judging. However, this phenomenon being addressed is neither slow nor prudent but desires to hastily overthrow truth for convenient niceties. This hermeneutic (far from saving the prelate) damns both the bishop and his defender, because it either bases itself on Modernism (the fundamental incoherence of truth and words) or imputes a fundamental inability of communion upon the very bishop with whom communion is sought and defended.
The Meaning of Words
Modernism (as discussed in Modernism: A Protestant Concern & Ultramontanism is Modernism) requires us to ask two key questions: what is truth and what are words? To conform truth to the Times and one’s sentiments, the Modernists retained the traditional text of the ancient creeds while gutting them of their meaning. This then answered the second question for them; words are not signs which point to the intended meaning of the speaker but containers which can be gutted and re-filled with the most convenient meaning for the user. Therefore, for the Modernist, the key identifying trick is innovation by the attempted change in the meaning of traditional words.
Notably, this is the same trick of those who engage in the “hermeneutic of charity.” When they encounter heretical statements from their preferred prelate, they empty his words of their heretical meaning (no matter how much their heretical intent can be proven) and replace those words (as if they were empty containers) with their preferred, seemingly-orthodox, meaning. Then, as if concluding a magic trick, they declare him orthodox and retain communion with him. Sadly, all this does is (1) spare the bishop from Christian correction which actually leads to repentance, (2) further afflict the bishop by ascribing incompetence in teaching to him, and (3) strikes at the very intelligibility of words (which then insults the Word Himself who is intelligibility). In the end, it is simply dishonest escapism.
If the defender does not employ the Modernist switcheroo, he may instead assert that the bishop’s doctrine and faith is ambiguous and that no one really knows what he believes. However, while trying to shield him, as if by a technicality, he in fact is denying that such a bishop could really be in communion with anyone. If communion is joint partnership in the same faith, how could anyone be in communion with him? To be in communion with a man is to declare identity of faith with him. If the prelate’s words are ambiguous, if no one can actually know what his faith is, then how could anyone declare it to be the same?
This issue was crucial for the Fathers. For example, in the Arian Crisis, St. Hilary of Poitiers and the Gallic bishops did not simply assume that the eastern bishops were orthodox. Instead, only when St. Hilary received positive affirmation of the catholic faith from a bishop did he (and the Gallic bishops) extend communion to him. Similarly, when Pope Vigilius was wavering in the orthodox faith—depending on who was excommunicating and pressuring him—the fifth ecumenical council finally had to excommunicate him for heresy, not simply for positive statements against the faith but also a lack of adherence to the orthodox faith; either was sufficient to accuse him of heresy. The Fathers are clear in their consistent application of Scripture: it is wrong and spiritually dangerous to maintain communion with a man whose theology in unknown, whose doctrinal is ambiguous, or whose orthodoxy is dubious (God illumine and convert these faux-defenders who lead not only themselves but also their families into these dangerous and dark places!).
The virtuous response to such sad shepherds is not escapist defence but authentic correction, following Matthew 18. Whether he be a priest, bishop, or patriarch, bring him to the Church, and the Church will hear his case and judge him. If he is misunderstood, then Christians can joyfully restore communion. If he is truly heretical, then like the priests who broke from Nestorius, the orthodox will be vindicated.