Is burning heretics Catholic dogma?


Mark Shea, in his defense of the Catholic teaching that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church, used the Papal Bull Unam Sactum in his defense. He listed five general categories that people follow:

  1. Those nice people who say hopefully, “That statement was not dogma, but just Boniface’s opinion.”
  2. Those progressive dissenting Catholics who say, “That statement used to be narrow-minded Catholic dogma, but Vatican II thankfully contradicts all that. How the Church has grown!”
  3. Those anti-Catholics who say derisively, “That statement used to be unbiblical Catholic dogma but Vatican II reversed all that. Now the supposedly infallible Church has flatly contradicted the Bible and itself!”
  4. Those reactionary dissenting Catholics who say, “That statement used to be glorious Catholic dogma, but Vatican II betrayed all that. How the Second Vatican Council has corrupted the One True Faith!”
  5. Those orthodox Catholics who say, “Unam Sanctam’s definition is still dogma, and the teaching of the Second Vatican Council does not contradict it or the Bible. Rather, the council develops the Faith of the Church infallibly taught since the apostles, a faith that has never demanded we believe that the Church is found solely in the visible Catholic communion, nor that only members of the visible Catholic Church can go to heaven.”

But that got me thinking: What about the Papal Bull regarding the burning of heretics in Exsurge Domine? In that Papal Bull, it says:

In virtue of our pastoral office committed to us by the divine favor we can under no circumstances tolerate or overlook any longer the pernicious poison of the above errors without disgrace to the Christian religion and injury to orthodox faith. Some of these errors we have decided to include in the present document; their substance is as follows:…33. That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit.

I know that at one time we may not have fully comprehended what it meant by no salvation outside the Catholic Church, but now we do have a better understanding of it where there are some members outside the physical institution of the Catholic Church who may indeed be a part of the Catholic Church (thus can be saved).

But how can it be justified to burn heretics? Maybe I’m reading too much into Pope Leo X’s Papal Bull. Or maybe it is what it is. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

For reference:

Exsurge Domine:

Unam Sanctum:


Maybe I read it wrong, but in reading the others in the list I think I am correct in stating that the Bull says that burning heretics is against the spirit…in other words burning heretics is wrong. Please correct me if I am mistaken.


That’s a tough question, but one I would answer in several ways.

First, I think you are right. Pope Leo X’s Bull is what it is. We have to accept it as a document of the Magisterium. But in reading it, we have to read it in the context of the complete tradition of the Church. And in particular, if we want to know for ourselves, what the Church teaches today about heretics, we need to give extra weight to current teaching. Let’s not use Leo as an excuse to go around burning people :wink:

You wouldn’t find a contemporary Pope making the same statement that Pope Leo X made, but we can fairly ask what in fact Pope Leo meant by it. Or more specifically, since the Bull you reference is a blast against the Lutherans, what exactly was the intent of those that asserted that burning heretics is against the Spirit. And what value is Leo X trying to protect?

Leo lived in a society in which the state and the Church were involved with each other in a way that is not the case today – so much so that no one could free themselves from the presuppositions entailed. Please don’t think I am a moral relativist. I am not. But not every political position can be credibly held in all periods of history. No one in the Reformation period had in mind the modern secular state, so whatever Leo was up against, it was not that. More likely, he was up against anarchy.

Your question raises the much larger one of whether Christendom was ever a valid option – that is, the alliance of Church and state initiated by Constantine and ended by the French Revolution. Certainly Christendom is not a necessity. But does that mean it was wrong at the time? And if Christendom was approved by God, surely it was defensible at the time to use force to protect it.

Chesterton pointed out that we throw a man in jail for robbing one corner store, but do nothing about the Communist university professor whose ideas, if followed, would confiscate every corner store.

Like Leo, I would mistrust anyone who asserted point blank that they knew what the Spirit thought on this issue, one way or the other. And perhaps that was the point of his Bull. Not, “we must burn heretics,” but rather, “If you say burning heretics is against the Spirit, then you are mistaken.”


Is burning heretics Catholic dogma?

I believe it is called Hotdogma


Now that’s just plain bad.



If any person believes that the Church is evil or even misguided by burning heretics they are in essence insulting God. Because that is exactly what God does. God gives us a chance to renounce our heresy, if we fail to do so we will burn, quite literally, in Hell.

Why is it so hard for people to accept that the Church, which is God’s presence and authority in this world, could not do the same?


Burning heretics is not dogma.


Question asked and answered. Thread closed.

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