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

Chapter 22

It remains to resolve the arguments of Luther and other heretics. The first argument is from the experience of the whole Church: “The Church,” says Luther, “from its beginning up to now burned no heretic.” Therefore, it does not seem to be the will of the Spirit that they be burned.

This argument proves not the opinion but the ignorance of Luther; for, since nearly an infinite number were either burned or otherwise put death, Luther is either ignorant of this fact and is therefore uninformed, or he knew of it and shows he is boldly lying; that heretics have often been burned by the Church can be shown, if we give a few examples of the many. The heresiarch Priscillian, along with his associates, were put to death by Maximus, the Christian Emperor, as St. Jerome, in a book on illustrious men testifies, and Optatus recalls the Donatists that were put to death, in Book III, “Contra Parmenianus.”

A certain Basil the Magician (Spiritualist), and therefore a heretic (for there are scarcely any magicians (spiritualists), was put to death by a Christian, and Catholic, people, as St. Gregory testifies, in Book I, of the Dialogues, Chapter 4.

Again, another Basil, the author of the Heresy of the Bogomilori was publicly burned by the Emperor Alexis Comnenus, as Zonaras writes in the Life of Alexis.

At the time of St. Bernard, that heretics were given the ultimate punishment, he himself testifies, in Sermon 66, on the Canticles. In the times of Innocent the Third, there were, on one occasion, 180 Albigensian heretics burned at the same time, after St. Dominic had previously convinced and converted many of their companions. St. Anthony writes about the whole occasion in Part III, Title 19, Chapter I, paragraph 4, of his History.

And, that I may pass over an infinite number of other instances, John Huss, and Jerome of Prague, at the time of the Council of Constance were burned by the Emperor Sigismund.

Luther replies to this last example: “I speak of heretics, but Huss and the Praegueite [Jerome of Prague] were not heretics.” To the contrary! At least Priscillian and Bogomiles, and the Albigenses were heretics. And John Huss, both for us Catholics, and for Luther himself, was a heretic; that he was for us, is well known; that he was for Luther is proved by the fact that Luther, in his book written against the King of England, asserts that it is impious and blasphemous to deny that there is true bread; and that it is devout and Catholic to deny the conversion of the bread into the Body. But John Huss, up to his death, was of the contrary opinion, and protested that he died in that faith, believing most firmly in the conversion of the bread.

A Second Argument: From experience it is shown that there is no benefit from the use of terror. I reply, experience points to the contrary: For the Donatists, the Manichaeans, and Albigensians were by military action disbanded and made extinct. Likewise Augustine testifies that very many in his time were converted out of fear of punishment.

A Third Argument: The Church tolerates Jews. Why not heretics? I reply, first, Jews have never accepted the Christian Faith but heretics have accepted it. The Jews are devoted to a religion which God instituted to exist at least for a period. Heretics have a religion which the Devil invented. Thirdly, the sect of the Jews is useful, because in their books are the prophecies relating to matters that concern us, and their ceremonies are types of our mysteries, and from this we can prove to the nations that these prophecies are not fictitious, since they are preserved by our enemies; finally, the Jews do not, in general, attempt to convert Christians, as the heretics do. Consult the Fourth Council of Toledo, canons 55 and 56, and Augustine, on Psalm LIX. Likewise, Bernard, in Letter 322, “ad Spirenses,” and 323, “to the Bishop of Mainz.”

A Fourth Argument, from Isaiah II, 4: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” I reply that it is not to the point, for, as St. Jerome explains, the Prophet is describing the time of the coming of the Messiah, and says it will be a time of profound peace, so that men will refashion their weapons into agricultural tools, and will no longer be engaged, that is, for a long time, in war; this time, moreover, was fulfilled at Christ’s birth; for never had there been world-wide peace as general and lasting as in the time of Augustus. Hence, if it is true that there will be no future wars in the Church, as Luther concludes from this Scriptural citation, it will be manifest that the Church does not exist among the Lutherans, who, both among themselves and against Catholics, have incited the most severe of wars, such as that fought against Charles the Fifth, in which the Duke of Saxony (and Landgrave) was captured.

A Fifth Argument, from Isaiah XI, 9: “There shall be no harm nor ruin on all my holy mountain…” I reply, the argument tells against Luther himself, for the Prophet does not say that Catholics will not kill heretics but, rather to the contrary, that heretics shall not kill nor injure Catholics, for the Prophet speaks of lions, and bears, and serpents, “regulis” [?], and other poisonous beasts, of which he had said, “The baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.” By these beasts, the Devil, and his ministers, the heretics, are meant, as Jerome and Cyril explain: It says that they shall not injure nor kill in all the Church; for, although heretics seem to injure the Church, in reality they do not injure but alert the Church and cause it to advance in wisdom and patience.

A Sixth Argument, from Matthew XVIII. The Lord declared that heretics should be looked upon as gentiles and tax-gatherers, not that they should be burned. And Paul, in his Letter to Titus, Chapter III, orders that a heretic be avoided, not killed. I reply that Christ, indeed, (and Paul), in this citation, did not order, but neither did He forbid, that heretics by burned; and consequently, nothing can be deduced from this text. And this is the solution that Luther himself was accustomed to apply; for, in Book II, “contra Carolstadium,” objecting to “Carolstad”, that it [or he] should call “Sacraments” what Christ had not commanded to be so called. Moreover, Christ, and Paul, never order that adulterers and forgers be killed, that thieves be hung, that robbers be burned, and nevertheless this is done, and rightly done, nor does Luther dare to deny this.

A Seventh Argument: St. Martin in the sacred history of Sulpicius, Book II, strongly argues against the Bishops Idacius and Ithacius who had obtained from the Emperor the death of the heretic Priscillian: and, in the same place, and for the same reason, Sulpicius accuses the same individuals of a great crime.

I reply, for two reasons those Bishops were deservedly reproached: For Priscillian, accused before the Council, appealed from the Council to the Emperor, and this the Bishops allowed; and for this reason, says St. Martin, there is a new and unheard of violation of divine law, that a secular judge should [be allowed to] adjudicate a Church matter. Secondly, because those Bishops had undertaken the role of accusers in a capital offense; for, although it is the right of Bishops to excommunicate heretics, and turn them over to a secular judge, and even urge the judges to perform their duty, it is not, however, becoming that the Bishop act as the accuser. That, however, Sulpicius thought that Priscillian and his companions were justly executed, is clear from those words of his: “In this manner, men unworthy of the light by their deplorable example were put to death.”

An Eighth Argument, from I Cor. XI, 19: “There may even have to be factions among you for the tried and true to stand out clearly;” therefore, they should not be uprooted. I reply that the meaning of that text is, that given the malice of the Devil, who always sows heresies, and given the corrupt nature of human beings, and, finally, given the Divine permission, it is inevitable that heresies be found in the world; as we say, it is common that some bad growths be found in a garden and, as the Lord says: “It is inevitable that scandals occur.” (Matthew, XVIII, 4) Consequently, the Apostle does not command that we sow heresies, or that we should not, if we are able, uproot them, but he simply predicts that which will always occur in the world: so we try with all our might to remove scandals and uproot weeds from the garden, even though we know that all scandals will never be removed.

A Ninth Argument: In Luke, IX, v. 55: The Lord said to the disciples who wanted to call down fire on the Samaritans: “You do not know of whose Spirit you are.” I reply: First of all, there is the greatest imaginable difference between those Samaritans and heretics; for the former never promised that they would remain faithful to the Religion of Christ, but it was, on that occasion, only offered to them and, therefore, they were not to be pressured. But heretics had professed and promised they would keep the Faith of Christ and are, therefore, to be pressured. Then, too, James and John wished, not out of zeal for souls but from a love of vengeance, that the Samaritans be burned, and therefore they are deservedly reproved. The Church, truly, out of zeal for the souls that heretics pervert, persecutes them, by the same zeal that Christ twice drove from the Temple, with a whip, those selling sheep and cattle: “And” (in John II, v. 15) he “knocked over the money-changers tables, spilling their coins.” (Cf., also, Matthew 21: 12-13) Paul handed over an incestuous man “to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the Day of the Lord.” [Cf. I Cor. 5: 1-5] I will pass over Moses, Phineas, Elijah, Mathathias, and others who killed many [enemies of the God of revelation].

A Tenth Argument, from Matthew XIII: “Let them grow together until the harvest; then, at harvest time, I will order the harvesters, ‘First collect the weeds and bundle them up to burn, then gather the wheat into my barn.'” Here the Lord openly speaks of heretics and forbids that they be killed, as Chrysostom, in explaining this text, says; as; also, Cyprian (in Book III, Letter 3, “to Maximus and Urbanus”) in speaking of this parable, says, only to the Lord was it granted to break earthen vases or uproot weeds.

I reply, by the metaphor of weeds not only heretics are meant but all evil men, as is clear from the explanation of the Lord Himself, for he says: “The good seed are the children of the Kingdom, the weeds are offspring of the Evil One.” And, further on, He says, “As weeds are gathered up and burnt, so it will be at the consummation of the world: the Son of Man will send His angels and they will gather up from His Kingdom all the scandalous, and those who do evil, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire.” When, however, the Lord forbids that the wicked be uprooted, He does not forbid that this or that person be killed, but, rather, He forbids that those who are good should attempt to uproot all evil persons whoever and permit no evil person at all, for this could not be done without a vast destruction of those who are good, and this is what the Lord intends, lest perhaps the wheat be uprooted with the rest. Therefore, the parable is a general one, and He merely teaches that it will never happen before the end of the world that all the evil will be eradicated.

Since, however, the question is either about heretics, or about thieves or other sinners, whether they are to be extirpated, it should always be taken into consideration, in the thinking of the Lord, whether it could be done without harm resulting to good people; and if indeed this can happen, then without doubt they should be uprooted; if, however, they cannot, either because they are not sufficiently understood and there is danger that the innocent be confused with the evil, or the harmful are stronger than us, and the danger is that if we go to war with them more of us will perish than of them, then there must be caution. In this manner, Augustine replies (in Book III, in refutation of the Letter of Parmenides, Chapter 2) in explanation of this Scriptural location which was presented as an objection by the Donatists. Nor does St. John Chrysostom teach differently, as is clear from these words: “The Lord forbids that weeds be uprooted, lest perhaps, along with the weeds, they root up also tendrils of wheat; for if heretics were destroyed, an atrocious and indecisive war would be introduced into the world.” In addition, Cyprian understands the same parable as referring not to heretics but to bad Christians, nor does it so much prohibit that the abominable be killed as to say that it is only within the power of the Lord to discriminate the evil from the good and to eliminate altogether the weeds from the grain.

An Eleventh Argument, from John VI, 66-67, when many of his disciples broke away from his company, the Lord said, “Do you want to leave me, too?” So also the Church should do.

I reply: I deny the conclusion. First, because they had not obliged themselves to remain, as the heretics have obliged themselves to do by Baptism. Secondly, it was fitting that Christ, who had come to be judged, not to judge, should not Himself take revenge for the injuries He suffered but should leave them to His spiritual children to vindicate; we have an example of this kind in David: So long as he lived, he did not wish Shimei to be executed, but, nevertheless, at death, he commanded Solomon that he should not leave that sin unpunished. (I Kings, II: 8-9)

A Twelfth Argument: Faith is a gift of God. No one, therefore, can be compelled to have it. I reply, it is a gift of God is such a way that it is also an act of the free will; otherwise, chastity and the other virtues are gifts of God, but nevertheless, the following are rightly punished: adulterers, murderers, thieves, and they are driven to live chastely and justly. Wisdom, also, is a gift of God, and, nevertheless, it is written in Proverbs XXIX, v. 15, “The rod of correction gives wisdom…” Finally, Faith is a gift of God, but God preserves it in various ways, of which one is by correction.

A Thirteenth Argument: God conferred on the Church the sword of the spirit, which is the Word of God, but not a sword of iron; moreover, He said to Peter who wanted to defend Him with a sword of iron: “Put your sword back in its sheath.” (John 18: 11)

I reply: The Church, just as it has both Eccesiastical and Secular Princes, who are like two arms of the Church, so also it has two swords, both spiritual and material, and therefore, when the right hand could not convert a heretic with a spiritual sword, it invokes the help of the left hand, that it may coerce heretics with an iron sword, and perhaps the Lord indicated this when He prohibited Peter, who was to be the future Prince of all Ecclesiastics, to use a sword of iron.

St. Bernard, in Book IV of De Consideratione; “Why do you again try to take up the sword, which you were once ordered to place in its sheath? Those, nevertheless, who deny what is yours, do not seem to pay sufficient attention to the Word of the Lord, as He says, “Return your sword to its sheath;” yours, therefore, and perhaps at your discretion, even if it should not be unsheathed by your hand. Otherwise, if it in no way belonged to you, why, when the Apostles said “Look, here are two swords,” should the Lord have said, “That is enough,” instead of, “That is too much.” Both, therefore, belong to the Church, not only the spiritual sword but also the material, but the latter to be used on behalf of the Church, and the former to be used by the Church: the material sword wielded by the military, but at the discretion of the Church and the order of the Emperor.” So far, Bernard. Nevertheless, he could say with greater brevity, that the Lord merely prohibited the use of the sword by private authority; for at that time, Peter was not yet the Supreme Pontiff but only one of the disciples.

A Fourteenth Argument. The Church does not spare the heretic except once. The Apostle, however, in his Letter to Titus, Chapter III, v. 10, orders that twice at least, a warning be given to heretics.

I reply, that although, now, both the Latin and the Greek codices consistently have “After one and a second correction,” formerly both, in whatever Greek and Latin, there was only: “after one correction, avoid etc.;” this is clear from Irenaeus, Book III, Chapter 3, from Tertullian, “de Prescripto,” from Cyprian, Book III, “ad Quirinum,” Chapter 78, from Ambrose and Jerome, on this text of the Apostle. Therefore, it is uncertain which is the true reading. I say further, on this place in the Apostle, which St. Jerome more favors in accord with our reading, and he adds that it was more pleasing to St. Athanasius; therefore, I judge that the Apostle is not speaking of a pardon that should be given to a converted heretic, but of an admonition which is given before a heretic should be excommunicated by the sentence of a judge: This procedure, however, the Church observes not only in the case of heretics but also in all others whom it excommunicates, for always, it first gives at least two admonitions.

A Fifteenth Argument: Heretics are outside the Church: “What business is it of mine to judge outsiders?” (I Cor. V: 12) I reply: They are outside the Church, but with a debt and an obligation of remaining in it, and, therefore, they can be forced to return, just as we force sheep, when they have fled the flock.

A Sixteenth Argument: It seems to be incompatible with the clemency of the Church to seem to will the death of heretics.

I reply: It is not contrary to the clemency of the Church, because it is obliged to have compassion for its children, and, therefore it would be very unkind and cruel, if it preferred to spare the wolves rather than the sheep. Secondly, because the Church has first tried all other means, before it could be brought to inflict the ultimate punishment; for, at the start, as we said above, it merely excommunicated, then, seeing that this was insufficient, it added the penalty of a fine, then the confiscation of all possessions; afterwards, exile; then, it comes down to this, as is manifest from the various laws of the more ancient Emperors, in the Codex, under the title, “heretics.”

A Seventeenth Argument: Faith is a free act. I reply, that “free” can be taken in two senses. In one sense, “free” from obligation, as we say that one is “free” to make a vow of chastity, or to enter religious life; but one is not free to break one’s vow or to become a fugitive from religious life; and in this sense, the Faith, for those who have never accepted it, is free from any obligation in human law but not in divine law; and, therefore, men use no force; still, God will punish. But, in the case of those who have professed faith at Baptism, there is no freedom from obligation, neither by human law nor by divine law, and, therefore, men use sanctions to promote conformity. In a second sense, “free” is taken in distinction to “compulsion,” and in this sense, one is free not to believe, just as he is free to commit other sins, but this freedom does not prohibit that men who are evil-doers be punished. Even more, it is imperative that they be punished, for if one is free to believe or not to believe, therefore, one could have believed and remained in the Church, as he should have; because he did not, he is deservedly punished: so replies St. Augustine, in a Fiftieth Letter to Boniface, and in Book II, in refutation of a letter of Gaudentius, in Chapter 11: “Free will has been given to man,” he writes, “so that, if he does evil, he should suffer evil.”

An Eighteenth Argument: Never did the Apostles call upon the secular arm. St. Augustine replies (in Letter 50, and elsewhere) that the Apostles never did that, because then there was no Christian Ruler they could call upon. For, at that time, the words of the Psalm (II, 2 & 10) were verified: “The kings of the earth, and the princes conspire together against the Lord and against His anointed.” (v. 2) And after the time of Constantine, that began to be verified which is written later in the same Psalm: “And now, O kings, give heed; take warning, you rulers of the earth: Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice before Him; with trembling pay homage to him…” (vs. 10-12) Soon the Church implored the help of the secular arm.