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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 138. Catholic Intolerance.


Comp. vol. VI. §§ 11 and 12 (pp. 50–86), and Schaff: The Progress of Religious Liberty as shown in the History of Toleration Acts. New York, 1889.


This is the place to present the chief facts on the subject of religious toleration and intolerance, which gives to the case of Servetus its chief interest and importance in history. His theological opinions are of far less consequence than his connection with the theory of persecution which caused his death.

Persecution and war constitute the devil’s chapter in history; but it is overruled by Providence for the development of heroism, and for the progress of civil and religious freedom. Without persecutors, there could be no martyrs. Every church, yea, every truth and every good cause, has its martyrs, who stood the fiery trial and sacrificed comfort and life itself to their sacred convictions. The blood of martyrs is the seed of toleration; toleration is the seed of liberty; and liberty is the most precious gift of God to every man who has been made in his image and redeemed by Christ.

Of all forms of persecution, religious persecution is the worst because it is enacted in the name of God. It violates the sacred rights of conscience, and it rouses the strongest and deepest passions. Persecution by word and pen, which springs from the hatred, envy, and malice of the human heart, or from narrowness and mistaken zeal for truth, will continue to the end of time; but persecution by fire and sword contradicts the spirit of humanity and Christianity, and is inconsistent with modern civilization. Civil offences against the State deserve civil punishment, by fine, imprisonment, confiscation, exile, and death, according to the degree of guilt. Spiritual offences against the Church should be spiritually judged, and punished by admonition, deposition, and excommunication, with a view to the reformation and restoration of the offender. This is the law of Christ. The temporal punishment of heresy is the legitimate result of a union of Church and State, and diminishes in rigor as this union is relaxed. A religion established by law must be protected by law. Hence the Constitution of the United States in securing full liberty of religion, forbids Congress to establish by law any religion or church.997997    In the First Amendment of the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The two were regarded as inseparable. An established church must in self-defence persecute dissenters, or abridge their liberties; a free church cannot persecute. And yet there may be as much individual Christian kindness and charity in an established church, and as much intolerance and bigotry in a free church. The ante-Nicene Fathers had the same zeal for orthodoxy and the same abhorrence of heresy as the Nicene and post-Nicene Fathers, the mediaeval popes and schoolmen, and the Reformers; but they were confined to the spiritual punishment of heresy. In the United States of America persecution is made impossible, not because the zeal for truth or the passions of hatred and intolerance have ceased, but because the union between Church and State has ceased.

The theory of religious persecution was borrowed from the Mosaic law, which punished idolatry and blasphemy by death. "He that sacrificeth unto any god, save unto Jehovah only, shall be utterly destroyed."998998    Ex. 22:20; comp. Deut. 13:5-15; 17:2-5, etc. He that blasphemeth the name of Jehovah, he shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as the home-born, when he blasphemeth the name of Jehovah, shall be put to death."999999    Lev. 24:16; comp. 1 Kings 21:10, 13.

The Mosaic theocracy was superseded in its national and temporal provisions by the kingdom of Christ, which is "not of this world." The confounding of the Old and New Testaments, of the law of Moses and the gospel of Christ, was the source of a great many evils in the Church.

The New Testament furnishes not a shadow of support for the doctrine of persecution. The whole teaching and example of Christ and the Apostles are directly opposed to it. They suffered persecution, but they persecuted no one. Their weapons were spiritual, not carnal. They rendered to God the things that are God’s, and to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. The only passage which St. Augustin could quote in favor of coercion, was the parabolic "Constrain them to come in" (Luke 14:23), which in its literal acceptation would teach just the reverse, namely, a forced salvation. St. Thomas Aquinas does not quote any passage from the New Testament in favor of intolerance, but tries to explain away those passages which commend toleration (Matt. 13:29, 30; 1 Cor. 11:19; 2 Tim. 2:24). The Church has never entirely forgotten this teaching of Christ and always, even in the darkest ages of persecution, avowed the principle, "Ecclesia non sitit sanguinem"; but she made the State her executor.

In the first three centuries the Church had neither the power nor the wish to persecute. Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Lactantius were the earliest advocates of the liberty of conscience. The Toleration Edict of Constantine (313) anticipated the modern theory of the right of every man to choose his religion and to worship according to his conviction. But this was only a step towards the union of the empire with the Church, when the Church assumed the position and power of the heathen state religion.

The era of persecution within the Church began with the first Oecumenical Council, which was called and enforced by Constantine. This Council presents the first instance of a subscription to a creed, and the first instance of banishment for refusing to subscribe. Arius and two Egyptian bishops, who agreed with him, were banished to Illyria. During the violent Arian controversies, which shook the empire between the first and second Oecumenical Councils (325–381), both parties when in power freely exercised persecution by imprisonment, deposition, and exile. The Arians were as intolerant as the orthodox. The practice furnished the basis for a theory and public law.

The penal legislation against heresy was inaugurated by Theodosius the Great after the final triumph of the Nicene Creed in the second Oecumenical Council. He promulgated during his reign (379–395) no less than fifteen severe edicts against heretics, especially those who dissented from the doctrine of the Trinity. They were deprived of the right of public worship, excluded from public offices, and exposed, in some cases, to capital punishment.10001000    See the Theodosian and Justinian Codes under the titles: De summa Trinitate, De Catholica Fide, De Haereticis, De Apostatis. For a summary compare Gibbon, ch. XXVII. (vol. III. 197 sqq.), and Milman, Latin Christianity, bk. III. ch. V. (I. 512 sqq.). Gibbon says. "Theodosius considered every heretic as a rebel against the supreme powers of heaven and of earth; and each of these powers might exercise their peculiar jurisdiction over the soul and body of the guilty." His rival and colleague, Maximus, put the theory into full practice, and shed the first blood of heretics by causing Priscillian, a Spanish bishop of Manichaean tendency, with six adherents, to be tortured, condemned, and executed by the sword.

The better feeling of the Church raised in Ambrose of Milan and Martin of Tours a protest against this act of inhumanity. But public sentiment soon approved of it. Jerome seems to favor the death penalty for heresy on the ground of Deut. 13:6–10. The great Augustin, who had himself been a Manichaean heretic for nine years, justified forcible measures against the Donatists, in contradiction to his noble sentiment: "Nothing conquers but truth, the victory of truth is love."10011001    Comp. vol. III. 144 sq. The same Christian Father who ruled the thinking of the Church for many centuries, and moulded the theology of the Reformers, excluded all unbaptized infants from salvation, though Christ emphatically included them in the kingdom of heaven. Leo I., the greatest of the early popes, advocated the death penalty for heresy and approved of the execution of the Priscillianists. Thomas Aquinas, the master theologian of the Middle Ages, lent the weight of his authority to the doctrine of persecution, and demonstrated from the Old Testament and from reason that heretics are worse criminals than debasers of money, and ought to be put to death by the civil magistrate.10021002    Summa Theol. Secunda Secundae, Quest. XI. (de haresi), Art. 3. In Migne’s ed. Tom. III. 107. Heresy was regarded as the greatest sin, and worse than murder, because it destroyed the soul. It took the place of idolatry in the Mosaic law.

The Theodosian Code was completed in the Justinian Code (527–534); the Justinian Code passed into the Holy Roman Empire, and became the basis of the legislation of Christian Europe. Rome ruled the world longer by law and by the cross than she had ruled it by the sword. The canon law likewise condemns to the flames persons convicted of heresy.10031003    See Boehmer, Inst. Juris Canonici, 1747, lib. V. tit. 7, § 10. This law was generally accepted on the Continent in the thirteenth century.10041004    Friedberg, Lehrbuch des katholischen und evangelischen Kirchenrechts, 2d ed. 1884, p. 221: "Im XIII. Jahrhundert erfolgt ueberall die rechtliche staatliche Feststellung der Todesstrafe und Vermoegensconfiscation für Ketzerei, und die Kirche hat diese staatlichen Strafen nicht nur gebilligt, sondern auch verlangt, und die weltliche Obrigkeit, die sie nicht verhaenge, selbst mit der Strafe der Ketzereibedroht." England in her isolation was more independent, and built society on the foundation of the common law; but Henry IV. and his Parliament devised the sanguinary statute de haeretico comburendo, by, which William Sawtre, a parish priest, was publicly burnt at Smithfield (Feb. 26, 1401) for denying the doctrine of transubstantiation, and the bones of Wiclif were burnt by Bishop Fleming of Lincoln (in 1428). The statute continued in force till 1677, when it was formally abolished.

On this legal and theological foundation the mediaeval Church has soiled her annals with the blood of an army of heretics which is much larger than the army of Christian martyrs under heathen Rome. We need only refer to the crusades against the Albigenses and Waldenses, which were sanctioned by Innocent III., one of the best and greatest of popes; the tortures and autos-da-fé of the Spanish Inquisition, which were celebrated with religious festivities; the fifty thousand or more Protestants who were executed during the reign of the Duke of Alva in the Netherlands (1567–1573); the several hundred martyrs who were burned in Smithfield under the reign of the bloody Mary; and the repeated wholesale persecutions of the innocent Waldenses in France and Piedmont, which cried to heaven for vengeance.

It is vain to shift the responsibility upon the civil government. Pope Gregory XIII. commemorated the massacre of St. Bartholomew not only by a Te Deum in the churches of Rome, but more deliberately and permanently by a medal which represents "The Slaughter of the Huguenots" by an angel of wrath. The French bishops, under the lead of the great Bossuet, lauded Louis XIV. as a new Constantine, a new Theodosius, a new Charlemagne, a new exterminator of heretics, for his revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the infamous dragoonades against the Huguenots.

Among the more prominent individual cases of persecution, we may mention the burning of Hus (1415) and Jerome of Prague (1416) by order of the Council of Constance, the burning of Savonarola in Florence (1498), the burning of the three English Reformers at Oxford (1556), of Aonio Paleario at Rome (1570), and of Giordano Bruno (1600) in the same city and on the same spot where (1889) the liberals of Italy have erected a statue to his memory. Servetus was condemned to death at the stake, and burnt in effigy, by a Roman Catholic tribunal before he fell into the hands of Calvin.

The Roman Church has lost the power, and to a large extent also the disposition, to persecute by fire and sword. Some of her highest dignitaries frankly disown the principle of persecution, especially in America, where they enjoy the full benefit of religious freedom.10051005    Among these is Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore, who says (The Faith of our Fathers, Balto., 1890, 36th ed., p. 284 sq.): "I am not the apologist of the Spanish Inquisition, and I have no desire to palliate or excuse the excesses into which that tribunal may at times have fallen. From my heart I abhor and denounce every species of violence, and injustice, and persecution, of which the Spanish Inquisition may have been guilty. And in raising my voice against coercion for conscience’s sake, I am expressing not only my own sentiments, but those of every Catholic priest and layman in the land.
   "Our Catholic ancestors, for the last three hundred years, have suffered so much for freedom of conscience, that they would rise up in judgment against us, were we to become the advocates and defenders of religious persecution. We would be a disgrace to our sires were we to trample on the principle of liberty which they held dearer than life."
But the Roman curia has never officially disowned the theory on which the practice of persecution is based. On the contrary, several popes since the Reformation have indorsed it. Pope Clement VIII. denounced the Toleration Edict of Nantes as "the most accursed that can be imagined, whereby liberty of conscience is granted to everybody; which is the worst thing in the world." Pope Innocent X. "condemned, rejected, and annulled" the toleration articles of the Westphalian Treaty of 1648, and his successors have ever protested against it, though in vain. Pope Pius IX., in the Syllabus of 1864, expressly condemned, among the errors of this age, the doctrine of religious toleration and liberty.10061006    Syllabus Errorum, § III. 15; VI. 55; X. 78. And this pope has been declared to be officially infallible by the Vatican decree of 1870, which embraces all his predecessors (notwithstanding the stubborn case of Honorius I.) and all his successors in the chair of St. Peter. Leo XIII. has moderately and cautiously indorsed the doctrine of the Syllabus.10071007    See his Encyclicals of Nov. 1, 1885 (Immortale Dei), and of June 20, 1888 (Libertas praestantissimum naturae donum). They are printed in the latest ed. of Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom, II. 555-602.



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