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

Chapter 21

John Huss, in the recorded article 14 of the Council of Constance, session 15, asserted that it is not permitted to hand over an incorrigible heretic to the secular power and to allow the penalty of burning. Luther held the same in article 33 and its assertion. Nor is the error new, for the Donatists also taught the same, like Parmenianus, Petilianus, and Gaudentius (as Augustine testifies, in Book I against the letter of Parmenianus, in Chapter 7, Book II against the Letters of Petilianus, in Chapter 10 of Book II, against the letter of Gaudentius, and in Chapters 17 and 26 of his Letter 50 to Boniface.)

All Catholics teach the contrary, and even some of the heretics. For Calvin, after he had publicly punished as a heretic Michael Servetus with the ultimate penalty, and after it was debated by other sectarians, published a book in which he demonstrates that it is permissible to take notice of heretics with a sword. Also Benedict Aretus, in a history of the punishment of Valentius Gentilis, argues that the same Gentilis was rightly punished by the Magistrate Bernensis. Theodore Beza, indeed, teaches the same, at greater length, in a book on the punishment of heretics by a magistrate.

We, then, will briefly show that incorrigible heretics, and especially recidivists, can and should be expelled by the Church and be punished by the secular powers with temporal punishments and even by death itself.

The first proof is from Scripture: The Scripture of the Old Testament (in Deuteronomy XIII, 12) commands most severely that false prophets who encourage the worship of false gods be put to death, and in Chapter XVII, after saying that in doubtful cases the High Priest should be consulted, soon adds: “If the person is haughty, however, and is unwilling to obey the command of the High Priest, let him die by the sentence of the judge. (Deuteronomy XVII, 12). And, again, in Chapter XVIII, the false prophet is sentenced to be killed. And, in reality, Elias (or Elijah), Josias (Josiah), Jehu, and others observed this law by killing a great many false prophets, as is clear from III Kings, XVIII, and IV Kings, X and XXIII, there is almost no difference between our heretics and the false prophets of those days. Nor did only the holy Kings and Prophets punish blasphemers with death, but even Nabuchodonosor [now more often spelled Nebuchadnezzar], as is said in Daniel III, promulgated an edict, that whoever should blaspheme the God of Daniel, that is, the true God, should be put to death and his home be destroyed; in the same edict, he performed a most worthy service to the True God, as St. Augustine remarks in his Epistle 50 and elsewhere. In the New Testament, in Matthew XVIII, we find that the Church can excommunicate and treat as aliens and tax-gatherers those who refuse to obey and to allow them to be treated by the secular powers as no longer children of the Church. We have, then, in Romans XIII, 4, that the secular power can punish criminals with sword: “It is not without purpose that the ruler carries a sword; he is God’s servant, to inflict His avenging wrath upon the wrongdoer.” From these two scriptural passages, it can be clearly inferred that it is permissible that heretics, who by the judgment of all are rebels against the Church and disturbers of public peace, be cut off from the Church and be punished with death by a secular judge.

Moreover, Christ and His Apostles have placed heretics in the same category as those matters that can be disposed of, without question, by fire and sword; for in Matthew VII the Lord says: “Be on your guard against false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but underneath are wolves on the prowl.” In Acts 20: 29: “I know that when I am gone, savage wolves will come among you who will not spare the flock.” It is certain that heretics ought to be known by the title of “wolves,” as St. Ambrose explains in his commentary on the beginning of Chapter X of St. Luke. But ravenous wolves are killed for an excellent reason, if they cannot otherwise be driven away; for much more should be made of the lives of the sheep than of the deaths of wolves. Likewise, in John X, 1: “Truly, I assure you: Whoever does not enter the sheepfold through the gate but climbs in some other way is a thief and a marauder.” Under the name of thief and marauder heretics are meant, and all subversives and founders of sects, as Chrysostom and Augustine explain; how thieves and marauders should be punished has been explained. Likewise, in II Timothy, II, heresy is compared to a cancer which is not cured by medications but should be excised with a knife, otherwise it will spread progressively and the whole body will be destroyed. Finally, Christ, in John, Chapter II, using a whip forces the merchants to leave the temple. Peter, in Acts V, killed Ananias and Sapphira because they had presumed to lie to the Holy Spirit; and Paul, in Acts XIII, vs. 6-12, struck with blindness the false prophet who was trying to keep Sergius Paulus, the Roman proconsular governor, from the Faith.

The matter is proved, secondly, from the sentences and laws of the Emperors which the Church regularly approved. The Emperor Constantine the First sent into exile Arius and some companions at the request of the Nicene Synod, as the author Sozomenus notes in Book I, Chapter 20 of his History; likewise, he imposed the penalty of death on the Donatists, as Augustine reports in Book I, in a letter opposed to Parmenianus, Chapter 7, and in Epistle 166, to the Donatists, wherein he enumerates many excellent Emperors who passed many very severe laws against the heretics, and only one, Julian the Apostate, favored heretics.

Then Theodosius, Valentinianus, Martianus, and other very religious Emperors passed laws against heretics by which, on occasion, they sought to punish by fines of pounds of gold, sometimes by confiscation of all their goods, sometimes by exile and scourging, sometimes by imposing the ultimate penalty, as is clear from “C. de hereticis, L. Nanichaeos, L. Ariani, L. Quicumque.” by the last of these laws, which is one of Valentinian and Martian, all are to be put to death who attempt to teach perverse doctrine; those, also, who listen to these teachers are punished by fines of some pounds of gold. Justinian, as recorded by Paul the Deacon in Book XVI, by a promulgated law, banished all heretics beyond the boundaries of the entire Empire, while allowing three months for their conversion; later, the Emperor Michael, as is related in Book XXIV of the same Paul the Deacon, established the capital punishment for heretics.

A third proof is had in the laws of the Church: under the headings, “Ad abolendum,” “Excommunicamus, extra de hereticis,” and in “Sexto de hereticis” in the chapter ahead of it, the Church defines that incorrigible heretics are to be handed over to the secular power, so that they may be punished in a just manner. Likewise, the Council of Constance, in session XV, condemned the opinion of John Huss; and it handed over the same John and Jerome of Prague to the secular power, by whom the two were burned; finally, Leo the Tenth condemned the articles of Luther.

A fourth proof is had in the testimonies of the Fathers. Cyprian, in a book of exhortation on martyrdom, in Chapter 5, after he had recalled from Deuteronomy XIII, that pseudoprophets should be killed, he added, “If this was done under the Old Testament, much more should it be done under the New.”

Jerome, in reference to the text in Galatians, Chapter 5, “A little yeast can effect the entire dough,” (v. 9) says: “as soon as a spark appears, it should be extinguished, and yeast close to a batch should be removed; spoiled meat should be cut away, and a scabby animal should be driven from a sheepfold, lest the whole house, or mass, or body, or herd burn, be corrupted, spoil, or perish. Arius was one spark, but since he was not immediately extinguished, the whole earth was affected by his flame.”

Augustine, in Book II of his Retractions, Chapter 5, and in Epistles 48 and 50, retracts what he had once thought, that heretics should not be forced to believe, and proves at length that it is very useful; he always rules out the punishment of death, not because he thought they did not deserve this, but both because he judged that this was unbecoming the gentleness of the Church and also because no imperial law was in existence, by which heretics were sentenced to death; for the Law, “Quicumque, C. de hereticis,” was promulgated a little after the death of Augustine.

That, however, Augustine judged it to be just, if heretics were put to death, is beyond question; for, in Book I, in opposition to the letter of Parmenianus, in Chapter 7, he demonstrates that if the Donatists were punished by death, they would be justly so punished. And in tract 11, on John: “They kill souls, he says, and are afflicted in the body, those who bring about eternal deaths complain that they suffer temporal deaths,” by which he says they falsely complain that they are killed by Emperors; nevertheless, even if this were true, they would be complaining unjustly. Finally, in his Letter 50, to Boniface, he writes that the Church does not want any heretic to be put to death: nevertheless, as the House of David could not enjoy peace unless Absalom were done away with and David was consoled by the peace of his realm in his grief over the death of his son: so when, from the laws of Emperors against heretics, the deaths of some follow, the sorrow of the maternal heart of the Church is assuaged by the deliverance of a multitude of people.

St. Leo, in Letter 91, to Turbius, Chapter 1: “Deservedly,” he wrote, “our Fathers, in whose time this nefarious heresy broke out throughout the world, acted immediately to drive out the unholy madness from the universal Church; when, also, the Rulers of the world so detested this sacrilegious madness, that they destroyed its author and many of his disciples by the sword of public law; and this interference with Ecclesiastical lenience, which, although content with a judgment that fled from bloody punishments, was nevertheless helped by the severe laws of Christian Rulers, while they who fear corporal punishment sometimes revert to a spiritual remedy.” Optatus Milevitanus, in Book III, in replying to the calumnies of heretics who were sorrowful over the death of two of theirs killed by the Prefect Macarius: “You see,” he wrote, “that similar things were done by Moses, and Phineas, and Elias, and Macharia, because the punishment of the One God emanates from all of them.”

St. Gregory, in Book I, Letter 72, to Gennadius, the Exarch of Africa, praises him because he persecuted heretics with weapons, and he urges him to continue.

St. Bernard in Sermon 66, on the Canticle: “They without doubt would be better coerced by the sword of him who, not without cause, carries the sword, than that they be allowed to draw many into their error; for he is a servant of the Lord and vindicator of wrath against him who does evil. Some marvel that they were not only patiently but joyfully led to death, but they scarcely recognize how great is the power of the Devil, not only over the bodies of men but even over their hearts, once he has been allowed to possess them. Is it not better for a man to take himself in hand, than for him willingly to accept force from another.”

There is, finally, a proof from reason. First, heretics can be justly excommunicated, as all admit. Therefore, that they [may be] put to death. The consequence is proved from the fact that excommunication is a greater penalty than temporal death. Augustine, in Book I, contra advers. Legis et Prophetarum [against the adversaries of the Law and the Prophets], Chapter 17, says it is more terrible to be given over to Satan through excommunication, than to be struck down by the sword, be consumed by flames, or exposed to being devoured by animals.

Secondly, experience teaches that there is no other remedy; for the Church proceeded gradually, and tried all remedies; first, it fines, then exile, finally, it was driven to the penalty of death; for the heretics show contempt for excommunication and call them “cold thunderbolts;” if you threaten the penalty of fines, they neither fear God nor revere men, since they know that ignorant people will be found who will believe them and feed them. If you confine them to prison or send them into exile, they will corrupt their neighbors with their speech and those who are far away with their books. Therefore, there is only one remedy, send them timely to their place.

Thirdly, forgers, in the judgment of all, deserve death; but heretics are forgers of the Word of God.

Fourthly, by the reasoning of Augustine, in Letter 50, it is more serious for man to fail to keep faith with God, than for a women not to keep faith with a man, but this is punished by death, why not the former?

Fifthly, there are three reasons why, as reason teaches, men are to be put to death, as Galen eloquently teaches in a book whose title is: “That the habits of the soul imitate the temperaments of the body,” toward the end of the book.

The first reason is, Lest the evil injure the good, or the innocent be abused by the injurious, in the judgment of all, all are to be executed who are guilty of homicide, adultery, or robbery. The second reason is: That, by the punishment of the few, the many may be corrected: and that those who are unwilling to help society by living may benefit it by dying. And hence, we also see that, in the opinion of all, certain most horrendous crimes are most justly punished by death, even though they do no injury to the neighbor, except by example: crimes like Necromancy, crimes that are abominable and contrary to nature are, therefore, most severely punished, in order that others may know they are monstrous crimes and should not dare to perpetrate the like. Thirdly, because to the very men who are killed it is beneficial to be killed, when, namely, they are becoming ever worse and it is not probable that they will ever revert to sanity of mind.

All these reasons are persuasive that heretics should be put to death; for, in the first place, they injure the neighbor more seriously than any pirate or robber, since they kill souls; even worse, they take away the foundation for all good and fill the state with the upheavals that inevitably result from the diversity of religions.