How to Talk to a Heretic (If You Must)*

"It is to be noted that the heretics, being unable to vindicate themselves against the truth of the faith by force, by arguments, or by authorities, in consequence immediately fall back upon verbal sophisms, ambiguities, and evasions in order to avoid being entrapped in their errors.  The use of ambiguous replies is one plain sign by which heretics can be recognized.  One kind of deception which they use is equivocation.  For instance, when asked if they believe in the sacraments of baptism, the Eucharist, penance, matrimony, ordination, and extreme unction, they reply that they do indeed believe, but what they mean by all this is either good will in the heart or an inner penance.  Likewise, they may take 'the true body of Christ' to mean His mystical body, the Church, or the body of any good man, which they say belongs to Christ, as do other bodies also.  So, when asked whether they believe in the body of Christ, they reply ambiguously or with a double meaning.

"Also, they have another sort of equivocation.  When asked, 'Do you believe that Christ was born, suffered, rose from the dead, and so forth?' they reply, 'Truly and firmly.'  By this, they understand and mean, 'That is to say, I have a true and firm belief in such of these doctrines that are held by my sect.'

"Also, there is another way of employing sophistry by including a condition.  For example, when asked, 'Do you believe this or that?' they reply, 'If it please God, I truly believe this or that,' feeling assured that it does not please God for them so to believe.

"Also, another method is to meet question with question, in order to blunt one spike on another.

"Also, another method is to get the answer from the questioner in one way or another, as when asked, 'Do you believe that any oath may be taken, or that a sentence involving bloodshed may be imposed without sin?' the heretic responds, 'And how do you and others believe?'  At the reply, 'We so believe,' he answers, 'And I truly believe it,' meaning that he is sure that we so believe and declare, not that he believes that which was demanded of him.

"Also, another method of dodging is to display surprise.  Upon being asked if he believes so and so, the suspect replies in surprise, as if indignant, 'What else should I believe?  Is not this what I ought to believe?'

"Also, another variety of their sophistries is a retort which confuses the issue.  For instance, when one is asked if he believes that everyone who takes oath commits a sin by so doing, he replies, 'He who speaks the truth does not sin,' or he gives the answer, 'He who swears does not sin in telling the truth.'  Yet he does believe that one sins by taking an oath, although not by speaking the truth.

"Also, another method is transferral, or shifting the reply from what has been asked to something else.

"Also, a question which is put to the accused by the questioner, he shifts to others, bringing them into the discussion.

"Also, another device is self-vindication; as when an individual is asked about his faith, he excuses himself by saying, 'I am a simple and unlearned man.  I am ignorant in these matters, these subtleties.  You could easily trip me up and lead me into error.'

"They have a great number of other methods of deception, which one learns better from practice than from theory.

"It should also be noted that heretics sometimes pretend to be simpletons or madmen, as did David in the presence of Achish (1 Sam 21:12-15).  When they disclose their errors, they introduce irrelevant, ridiculous, and seemingly idiotic statements, doing so to cover up their lies and to make whatever they say appear to be laughable.  I have often seen examples of this.

"By resorting in their replies to the enumerated tricks and many others, which it would be too tedious and distasteful to write out--and they invent new ones daily--it is their design either so to shield themselves that they may escape as innocent and blameless, or to weary their inquisitors until they cease to pursue them, or to bring the inquisitor into ill repute among laymen for seeming to molest simple folk without cause and for appearing to seek an excuse for ruining them by overzealous examination."

--Bernard Gui (d. 1331), Practica inquisitionis heretice pravitatis [The Conduct of the Inquisition of Heretical Depravity], part 5, chapter 2, section 8, trans. Walter L. Wakefield and Austin P. Evans, Heresies of the High Middle Ages (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), pp. 400-402, on the Waldensians or Poor Men of Lyons.

Now who in our present political conversation does this remind me of?  It's on the tip of my tongue...

*With apologies to Ann Coulter for not being able to think of a better catch phrase.


  1. Were there technical difficulties here? The quotation lists a lot of evasive techniques employed but heretics and there's a full citation of the source(such a refreshing sight on the internet!) but the part that recommends responses (the "how to" part alluded to in the title) is missing.

  2. Nah, I just needed a better title. Or a longer post. Bernard Gui does go on to give specific instructions, but what struck me was the way he describes the heretics' ability to deflect questions, so reminiscent of what goes on in our modern political discourse.


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