De Laicis — Saint Robert Bellarmine’s Treatise on Civil Government

Chapter 20

A final question remains concerning the penalties for heresy, which, after a judgment and declaration of the Church, political rulers can and ought to inflict. We will begin, however, with their books and we will show that the books of heretics are justly condemned and burned. This, therefore, is first proven from an ancient and perpetual custom, not only of Christians but of the nations.

First, Valerius Maximus relates (in Book 1, Chapter 1) that when certain books were found in Rome which considerably undermined religion, the Praetor Urbanus, by the authority of the Senate, burnt them before the gaze of the people. Marcus Tullius [Cicero] relates, in Book I of the work, “Concerning the Nature of the Gods,” that Protagoras Abderites, because he had written books harmful to religion, by order of the Athenians, was banished from the city and the country and his books burnt in the assembly.

Then, in the time of the Apostles, Luke relates (in the Acts, Chapter XIX), that many of those converted by the Apostles brought out fanciful and trivial books and burnt them before all, and Clement, in Book I of the Constitutions of the Apostles, Chapter 7, says that the Apostles forbade to the faithful from the start, the books of the Gentiles and of false prophets. Eusebius also writes, in Book VII of his history, Chapter 6, that Dionysius, the Bishop of Alexandria, who flourished around the year 250, was reprehended by the Faithful because he read the books of heretics.

During a later period, the zeal of the faithful in opposition to the books of heretics increased; for the Council of Nicea sentenced the books of heretics to burning, as Nicephorus witnesses in Book VIII, Chapter 18, and Constantius ordered that it be carried out, threatening the death penalty if anyone concealed the books of Arius, as is manifest from his letter to Socrates, Book I, Chapter 24. Marcellus of Ancyra was condemned because he was unwilling to burn the books containing his errors; for heretics were not admitted for repentance, if they had not first burnt their books.

About the same time, in a Synod assembled on Cyprus, Epiphanius forbade that the books of Origen be read, as Socrates relates in Book IV, Chapter 9, of his history, and the Fourth Council of Carthage, in canon 16, permits only Bishops to read the books of heretics in a time of need. Not much later, when the heresy of Nestorius was condemned in the Council of Ephesus, the books, also, of Nestorius were forbidden and were ordered burnt by the Emperor Theodosius, as Liberatus reports in Chapter 10 of the Breviary, and the law Theodosius, Damnato C., concerning heretics, is still extant. About the same time, the law of Honorius and Theodosius was promulgated, by which Mathematicians were ordered to burn, in the sight of Bishops, all books in which there is anything opposed to the Catholic Faith. For a similar reason the books of Eutyches are condemned, and it is forbidden by the Emperors Valentinian and Martinus that anyone read them or dare to possess them but that all of them, found by a very diligent search, be burned, as is made clear by the Council of Chalcedon, Actor. III, and the law itself which is still extant, “L. Quicumque, parag. Nulli,” and the paragraph “Omnes, C. de Hereticis.”

At that same time, Saint Leo, in letter 91, to Turbius, Chapters 15 and 16, forbade the reading of heretical books of whatever kind, and added that those Bishops who allowed them to be kept in the homes of the faithful, ought to be judged as heretical; a little later, Gelasius, in a Council of seventy Bishops, as is noted in “dist. 15, can. S. Romana,” proposed an index of heretics, whose books, he says, should be avoided.

Later, in the Fifth Synod, after Anthymus was condemned, his books were also condemned, and the Emperor Justinian instituted a grave penalty, namely, the amputation of the hands of those who write that kind of books and ordered that such books be burned. This regulation is present in Book I of the Acts of the Fifth Synod St. Gregory, and in Novellis, regulation 42. St. Gregory, in Book XIV of his Morals, Chapter 32, relates that by the order of the Emperor Tiberius the book of Eutychius (whom the same Gregory had convicted of heresy) was burned. In the Seventh Synod, also, Act 5, the books of heretics are condemned and ordered burned, and in canon 9, those who read the books of heretics are excommunicated. The Council of Constance, session 8, confirms the decree of the Council of Rome, by which the reading of the books of John Wycliff was forbidden. Finally, the Council of Trent ordered that an index of the books of heretics be made, so that all might know which books should be avoided and burned. From this it is manifest that the same custom was always present in the Church.

Added to the discussion of this matter is the fact that there are scarcely any books of the ancient heretics extant; for how have so many books vanished, of Valentinian, Marcion, Arius, Eunomius, Nestorius, Pelagius, and others, to which the Fathers have responded?

There is proof, secondly, from reason; for the discussions of heretics are dangerous and therefore should be avoided, therefore, even much more noxious and pestilential and to be avoided are their books. In the Letter to the Romans, Chapter XVI, v. 17-18: “Brothers, I beg you to be on watch against those who cause dissension and scandal, contrary to the teaching you have received. Avoid their company… …they deceive the simpleminded with smooth and flattering speech.” In II Timothy, c. 3, v. 5 “Avoid these!” In Titus, c. III, v. 10: “Avoid a heretic.” The Second Letter of John, v. 10: “If anyone comes to you who does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house; do not even greet him nor say ‘hello’ to him.”

St. Irenaeus, in Book III, Chapter 3: “The Apostles and their disciples had so great a dread, that they would not communicate even by word with any one of those who had adulterated the truth.”

St. Cyprian (in Book I, third letter to Cornelius): “May our most dear brethren,” he says, “firmly decline and avoid the words and conversations of those whose speech spreads like a cancer.” And further on: “No transactions, no conversations, no entertainments should be engaged in, and let us be as separated from them as they have distanced themselves from the Church.”

St. Athanasius [writes] of St. Anthony (in his Life): “Never,” he says, “did he bestow the least friendly words on the Manichaeans or other heretics, while he denounced friendship and conversations with them as threatening the loss of one’s soul… He so detested the Arians, that, as he said to all, there should be no approach to them.” And St. Anthony himself, on the point of death, said: “Avoid the poisons of heretics and schismatics and imitate my hatred of them; you yourselves know that there was never for me any peaceful conversation with them.”

St. Augustine, in Epistle 62, “We warn that a heretic is to be avoided, lest he deceive those who are infirm or inexperienced, to such an extent that we have not denied that he should be corrected by any means possible and so on.” St. Leo, in his eighteenth sermon, on the Passion of the Lord: “Avoid the viperous conversations of heretics, let there be nothing in common between you and them who are Christians only in name.” Thus, his warnings.

Now, therefore, if the talk of Heretics is by all means to be avoided, by how much more diligence are their books. For the discussion written in books is more carefully composed and replete with artifices than is employed in discussions. Then, too, the message is ever at hand: For lectures and discussions are infrequent and words delivered by mouth are transient, but words in books remain and are always available to us and even travel with us or stay at home with us. Moreover, books are widely spread; for one can speak to almost the entire world at the same time, and books penetrate the homes and studies of a multitude of those whom the author never sees and to those perhaps by whom he would never be welcomed. Finally, experience teaches the same lesson: For John Wycliff led astray very few by his living voice; for he taught only in England and left there scarcely and heirs of his errors; but through his books he led astray the whole of Bohemia. Behold the Cochlaeum (Snail-shell) in the history of the Hussites!

But they object in opposition. First, because there are many good things in the books of heretics, it seems stupid to deprive oneself of the good things because of the evil; and this is confirmed by the fact that the writings of many of the Fathers would have to be burned. Likewise, because the Church tolerates the books of Pagans, Jews, Turks, and also of ancient heretics like Origen, Tertullian, Eusebius, and Pelagius.

I reply that truth should not be denied but neither should it be read in the books of heretics; for, as it exists there, it injures rather than benefits. St. Gregory writes, in Book V, Chapter 11, of his Morals: “This is characteristic of heretics, that they mix the true with the false and the good with the bad; for if they spoke only the false and the evil, they would be rejected by all, if they taught only the true and the good, they would not be heretics. Therefore, they mix everything and infect the good with evil and conceal the evil with good; which is the reason why Christ and the Apostles forbade the demons to talk the truth, lest, that is, through that truth, they might win faith in themselves.” In Luke IV, v. 41: “The Lord did not allow the demons to say: ‘You are Christ, the Son of God.'” And in Acts, XVI, v. 17: Paul forbade the Devil to say: “These men are servants of the Most High God, who announce to you the way of salvation.”

Moreover, it is not appropriate that truth be learned from heretics who are enemies of the truth. As Gellius writes, in Book XVIII, Chapter XVI, “Among the Laecedaemonians, when there was question of a principal feature of a republic, a certain eloquent and learned but dishonest and infamous man uttered an excellent statement which, although it pleased everyone and it appeared that a decree should be made in conformity with it, nevertheless, since it could not happen that the best advice would be in league with the depravity of its author, a most admirable man was chosen who, by the agreement of all, might declare the same statement, and the statement of this man was, without any previous announcement, made into a decree.”

With reference to the validity of supporting views from the writings of the Fathers, I reply, first, that the Fathers are not enemies of the Church, nor are their mistakes heresies but simply human errors. Moreover, the errors of the Fathers are extinct, in no sense alive, so that they cannot injure us; for an error injures so long as it is vigorously defended: The errors of the Fathers were not detected so long as the Fathers were alive, for, otherwise, even they themselves would have corrected them, or they would have been expelled from the Church: but their errors were detected and labeled after their death and were condemned by all, just as they would have [been] condemned by themselves, if they were alive.

Concerning the writings of Pagans, I say they are tolerated because they do no harm as outmoded errors. There are none, now, who would not laugh at the “dogmas of the Pagans;” nor do we ever hear of Christians led astray by Pagans and embracing paganism in the way that they daily defect to the company of heretics. Because indeed, there were many in the times of the Apostles who fought against the dogmas of Pagans, Clement writes (in Book I of Const, Chapter 7) that books of the Pagans were condemned and for the same reason the books of Pagans are forbidden in the Council of Carthage IV, Chapter 16.

Concerning the books of the Jews and Turks, I remark that the books of Jews and Turks enjoy an advantage over the books of heretics, for they are open enemies of Christians and do not err under the name of “Christian,” as heretics do. As a consequence, even the most simple know how to distinguish the dogmas of the Jews and Turks from Christian dogmas but are unable to discern heresies unless they are well educated. In addition, the books of Jews and Turks are also prohibited when they contain blasphemies against Christ, or are judged pernicious to Christians, as is the case of the Talmud of the Jews.

Concerning the errors of Origen, Tertullian, Eusebius, and Pelagius, I can say that their writings are permitted because their errors are a matter of the past and are helpful because of their antiquity. Add the consideration that we have nothing of Pelagius under his name but only under the name of St. Jerome, such as the brief commentaries on all the letters of St. Paul, the Creed falsely ascribed to Damasus, and a certain letter to Demetriades which is found in Volume IV, where there are also some things savoring of the heresy of Pelagius [? “ubi sunt etiam alia Pelagii haeresim sapientia”?]

A second argument, from Paul, who in I Thessalonians, Chapter V, verses 20 and 21, says: “Do not spurn prophecies. Test everything; retain what is good.” For the meaning is: If someone predicts the future or interprets Scripture, either in speech or writing, do not reject it but listen or read, and accept whatever is compatible with the Catholic Faith, but forget the rest.

I observe that the Apostle is speaking about prophecy and writings concerning which it is not yet clear whether they are good or bad and as such he does not wish that they be rejected unless they have been first examined; but when any writing has already been examined and it is clear that it is bad, he certainly wants it to be rejected, and of this kind are all the writings which have been forbidden to us; for they have been tested, that is, all have been examined and then rejected because they have been found bad.

Then, although the Apostle is writing to the entire Church, nevertheless, he does not wish that everything be done by everyone but by those who are competent and by whose office it is obligatory on them; as when articles are sent to any University to be examined, it is not pertinent that all who belong to the University examine them, but only the Masters or those whom they designate; so then, when the Apostle orders that prophecies and interpretations of Scripture be examined, he certainly does not want this to be done by a tailor or mason, but by Bishops and others whom the Bishops employ.

The employ another argument from the testimonies of four ancient Fathers: Dionysius of Alexandria, Theophilus, also of Alexandria, St. Jerome and Gelasius; for Dionysius, as Eusebius relates (in Book VII, Chapter 6 of his History) that when he was being reprehended for reading the books of heretics, he had a vision in which it was said: “Read everything that comes into your hands, for you will be able to weigh everything and test it.” Theophilus, also, when he was questioned over his reading of Origen, replied (as Socrates relates, in Book VI, Chapter 15 of his History) that he read in order that he might keep what was good and repudiate what was bad. St. Jerome, who was considered most learned, in a letter to Alexander and Minerius, says that he reads the books of heretics, in order that he might excerpt what was good, even though he knew that some were complaining because he did.

Gelasius, in a book on the binding force of an anathema, wanting to prove that the Council of Chalcedon can selectively accept and reject, adduces the example of the books of heretics which are partly accepted and partly rejected, and refers to the [Apostle’s] counsel: “Examine everything and retain what is good.”

On this last point, I observe that the example of Gelasius consists in this, that in the Council of Chalcedon certain things were [found] good and some things, evil; and that some things should be accepted while other things should be rejected; so, too, in the books of heretics: but he does not intend to say that the books themselves of heretics may be accepted, because of the mixture of good and bad in them; for there is one rationale for the acceptance by the Council of holy Church Fathers [in which good points and bad are weighed and the good retained], and another rationale relating to the books of heretics, as we have discussed, even though the truth itself inserted into those books is good and should be accepted, provided it is found elsewhere; the words of Gelasius are these: “Are not many things read in the books of heretics which are true? Should, then, the truth be rejected because the books of those in whom perversity is present are rejected? Or should their perverse books be accepted because there is undeniable truth contained in them?”

In general, I comment: from these citations one can conclude that there was always a custom in the Church of avoiding the reading of the books of heretics, otherwise no one would have criticized those Fathers. Secondly, that the reading of the books of heretics was always allowed, and is now permitted, to bishops and many others, and, therefore, it is not a matter of surprise if Dionysius and Theophilus, who were Patriarchs, and St. Jerome who was always considered very learned, were able on their own to read all books. Thirdly, I observe that there was perhaps no law of the universal Church but only a custom concerning the avoidance of reading the books of heretics, except the books of Arius; but now it is a law of the universal Church which must be obeyed.