I am curious whether there was any one heresy that commanded a large enough following that the orthodox Catholics were outnumbered?

  • The scope of this question is worldwide
  • The point of view is the Catholic church plus the sui iuris Eastern Churches in communion with the Pope in Rome as of today
  • The boundary for "heretics" do not include obviously non-Christian religions, such as Islam and Judaism
  • The boundary for "heretics" also do not include "ecclesial communities" which includes Trinitarian Protestants BUT includes non-Trinitarian "Christians" are considered heretics for this question.

If a verifiable number is not historically available, an answer containing an ordered list of probabilities would be accepted PROVIDED there is an argument why the heretics outnumbered the Catholics.

The scope of this question is before the 1054 East-West Schism.

Note: if there is a heresy large enough between 1054 and 1500, please comment and I'll modify this question. (We count Eastern churches to be among the orthodox).

  • Are we talking worldwide or regional. Those spheres of definition are not the same.
    – Ken Graham
    Commented May 3, 2022 at 12:56
  • From whose point of view were they heretics? There were two beliefs for example about Mary's status during and after Christ's birth. Which was the heresy and when?
    – SLM
    Commented May 3, 2022 at 15:21
  • @SLM updated the question with Roman Catholic point of view Commented May 3, 2022 at 16:32
  • @KenGraham Updated the question for global sphere, since the Roman Catholic view is always global. Commented May 3, 2022 at 16:33
  • Sorry I wasn't more clear. There was disagreement over various issues, such as the status of Mary during and after Christ's birth. Valentinus, Marcion, etc believed her ever-virgin, but others of the church believed in a normal birth and she had subsequent children. The former was heresy and the latter orthodox. Today, it is vice-versa. So, if you look for a Catholic Church POV, then it is orthodox, but to others, it is heretical on this issue. So, you are wanting the Roman Catholic POV at that early time or now? Heresy is ever-virgin at that time, but not per RC.
    – SLM
    Commented May 3, 2022 at 17:50

1 Answer 1


I was probably wrong to say that Catholics were entirely outnumbered.

The Army was, of course, in mere numbers, only a fraction of society. We are not certain what those numbers were; at the most they may have come to half a million_they were probably a good deal less. But to judge by numbers in the matter would be ridiculous. The Army was normally half, or more than half, the State. The Army was the true cement, to use one metaphor, the framework to use another metaphor, the binding force and the support and the very material of the Roman Empire in that fourth century; it had been so for centuries before and was to remain so for further generations.

Hilaire Belloc - The Great Heresies - The Arian Heresy

There were also great swaths of the Roman Empire that were lead by Arian Bishops

Arius went over from Egypt to Caesarea in Palestine, spreading his already well-known set of rationalizing, Unitarian ideas with zeal. Some of the eastern Bishops began to agree with him. It is true that the two main Syrian Bishoprics, Antioch and Jerusalem, stood out; but apparently most of the Syrian hierarchy inclined to listen to Arius.

And it stands to reason that St. Athanasius wouldn't have been made to endure such hardships for standing by his excommunication of Arius and rejection of the Arian Heresy had there not been official support behind reconciliation (which in the case of Arianism is really an impossible heresy to reconcile)

It was also the religion of the "spiritual, but not religious" types

When the power of Arianism was manifested in those first years of the official Christian Empire and its universal government throughout the Graeco-Roman world, Arianism became the nucleus or centre of many forces which would be, of themselves, indifferent to its doctrine. It became the rallying point for many strongly surviving traditions from the older world: traditions not religious, but intellectual, social, moral, literary and all the rest of it.

It was a palatable version of Christianity because once you deny the divinity of Christ, you re-make Him in your image; painting with your own palate.

And, Arianism didn't just go away because it was condemned and Arius died. It grew. So if it was strong in force, wealth and worldly power before, it had to have increased, a bit at least, before it fizzled out after the fall of Rome.

But, I'm not going to claim that there were more Arians than Catholics at any point in the history of Christendom, just more clout and prominance:

Since there is no stronger force in politics than this force of social superiority, it took a very long time for the little local courts to drop their Arianism. I call them little because, although they collected taxes from very wide areas, it was merely as administrators. The actual numbers were small compared with the mass of the Catholic population.

One might pray that the official rationalistic religion of our current governing classes be dropped a little faster.

So no, I think it might be hyperbola to have claimed that Catholics were outnumbered. We certainly are outnumbered in the USA.

  • So looks like the answer is that Arian heretics numerically was the greatest threat? BTW, I clarified the definition for "heretics" for the purpose of this question. Commented May 3, 2022 at 16:39
  • That's my answer, I could be wrong - there could be heretical doctrines within the church that wouldn't have been separate sects - but just things that needed to be clarified by a council that were in wider practice.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented May 3, 2022 at 16:48
  • I heard one RCIA catechist said that Gnosticism was the biggest threat, even bigger than Arianism. The reason for my question is whether the orthodox "party" has always enjoyed numerical superiority in addition to being backed by Holy Spirit guided apostolic succession. Commented May 3, 2022 at 16:58

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