More Evidence of Medieval Catholicism's Opposition to the Death Penalty for Heretics (Ordinarily)

1179 A.D. - Eleventh Ecumenical Council - “As St. Leo says…the discipline of the church should be satisfied with the judgment of the priest and should not cause the shedding of blood.” “[Rather] it is helped by the laws of Catholic princes so that people often seek a salutary remedy when they fear that a corporal punishment will overtake them.” (Canon 27)

1215 A.D. - Twelfth Ecumenical Council - “No cleric may decree or pronounce a sentence involving the shedding of blood, or carry out a punishment involving the same, or be present when such punishment is carried out. If anyone, however, under cover of this statute, dares to inflict injury on churches or ecclesiastical persons, let him be restrained by ecclesiastical censure. A cleric may not write or dictate letters which require punishments involving the shedding of blood, in the courts of princes this responsibility should be entrusted to laymen and not to clerics.” (Canon 18)Unknown Date - The Formula Used by Inquisitors when Handing Over Convicted Heretics to the Authorities - “'We cast thee out from our ecclesiastical court and give thee over, or rather leave thee to the secular arm and the power of the secular court, efficaciously entreating said secular court that it temper its sentence close to and on this side of the shedding of blood and the peril of death.” (Cambridge Mediaeval History, VI, 724.)1482 A.D. - Pope Sixtus IV condemned the violence of the Inquisitors, and intervened on behalf of the accused. He said: “In Aragon, Valencia, Mallorca, and Catalonia the Inquisition has for some time been moved not by zeal for the faith and the salvation of souls but by lust for wealth. Many true and faithful Christians, on the testimony of enemies, rivals, slaves, and other lower and even less proper persons, have without any legitimate proof been thrust into secular prisons, tortured and condemned as relapsed heretics, deprived of their goods and property and handed over to the secular arm to be executed, to the peril of souls, setting a pernicious example, and causing disgust to many. … Provoked by the complaints of many men against this, we desire to and are bound to provide that the office [of the Inquisition] itself is duly carried out by such means that no one is unnecessarily and unjustly harmed. … In the example of [Jesus], whose vicar we are on earth (cujus vices gerimus in terris), not willing the death of sinners but rather desiring to restore their salvation, we choose to show mercy rather than to punish.” (Papal Bull Ad Perpetuam Rei Memoriam, reproduced in page 587 of Volume 1 of Henry Charles Lea’s “A History of the Inquisition of Spain.”)

1528 A.D. - St. Thomas More - “The fear of [the] outrages and mischiefs [which] follow upon [non-Catholic] sects and heresies, with the proof that men have had in some countries thereof, have been the cause that princes and people have been constrained to punish heresies by terrible death, whereas else more easy ways had been taken with them.” (Dialogue Concerning Heresies Part 4 Chapter 13)

And: “[The princes] never indeed [would have] fallen so sore to force and violence against heretics, [unless] the violent cruelty first used by the heretics themself against good catholic folk, [drove] good princes thereto.” (Dialogue Concerning Heresies Part 4 Chapter 13)

And: “[As] I said before, if the heretics had never begun with violence, though they had used all the ways they could to [attract] the people by preaching…yet if they had set violence aside, good Christian people [would have perhaps] yet unto this day used less violence toward them than they do now.” (Dialogue Concerning Heresies Part 4 Chapter 13)

And: “[For] in the beginning, never were [heretics] by any temporal punishment of their bodies anything sharply handled till that they began to be violent themself.” (Dialogue Concerning Heresies Part 4 Chapter 13)

And: “[Therefore] the order of the [ecclesiastical] law therein is both good, reasonable, piteous and charitable, and nothing desiring the death of any man therein.” (Dialogue Concerning Heresies Part 4 Chapter 13)

And: “[A]ll the sore punishment of heretics wherewith such folk as favour them would fain defame the clergy, is, and hath been, for the great outrages and temporal harms that such heretics have been alway wont to do, and seditious commotions that they be wont to make, beside the far passing spiritual hurts that they do to men’s souls.” (Dialogue Concerning Heresies Part 4 Chapter 18)

And: “[The severe punishments were] devised and executed against them of necessity by good Christian princes, and politic[al] rulers of the [kingdom], for as much as their wisdoms well perceived that the people should not fail to fall into many sore and intolerable troubles if such seditious sects of heretics were not by grievous punishment repressed in the beginning, and the sparcle (spark) well quenched ere it were suffered to grow to over great a fire.” (Dialogue Concerning Heresies Part 4 Chapter 18)


Notice that the third quotation is indented. I did that in order to set it off from the rest of these quotes in order to give it a closer look. It is the main subject of this thread.

I recently found that quote in a book called Liberty or Equality by Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn. As anyone may notice, the source he quotes, the Cambridge Mediaeval History, is not a primary source document. (The other quotes on this list Are primary sources.) In this thread I’d like to try to find the primary source from which the Cambridge Mediaeval History is quoting.

So I was wondering: do any of you know where that quote comes from, where the Cambridge book might have gotten it from? Is it in an early papal letter or a record of one or more inquisition trials? What?

Also, what other evidence do you know of that helps show that the medieval Catholic Church ordinarily opposed using the death penalty for heretics?

taylormarshall.com/2013/11/should-heretics-receive-the-death-penalty.html

My understanding has always been that while the Church did and essentially always has opposed the death penalty (for heresy or anything else), it did not (and does not) prevent states from not executing anyone. Purportedly relapsed heretics were certainly rarely accorded mercy (cf. St Joan of Arc’s case for a famous example of that), however. I think under normal circumstances a convicted heretic who returned to the faith and stayed there would almost certainly have his/her life spared.

The CMH (like the other Cambridge History series on other eras/topics), is an extensively documented and researched collaboratively-written multivolume thematic history of the middle ages (I’m sadly no longer at university or I would right now wander over to the library and find out the specific reference for you/us, or rather call up the electronic version, but alas I no longer have remote access!). If anyone reading this thread studies/works at pretty much any university, in the English-speaking world it would take them but a few minutes to find the answer; the series of Cambridge Histories are pretty standard reference works in undergrad and postgrad libraries.

I would imagine it is the author’s translation of a particular source, however, such as either a papal document or the records of a particular inquisitorial hearing. Googling the exact phrase doesn’t help much, unfortunately.

That is basically my understanding as well. By my reading, it appears that the rhetoric against the use of the death penalty is stronger nowadays, and more closely mirrors the level of opposition found in the early Church, but at the same time it appears to me that the Church has never ceased to urge the nations not to use the death penalty except when it is necessary to stop a clear and present physical danger. (See the first quote in my list above.)

Purportedly relapsed heretics were certainly rarely accorded mercy (cf. St Joan of Arc’s case for a famous example of that), however. I think under normal circumstances a convicted heretic who returned to the faith and stayed there would almost certainly have his/her life spared.

That seems mostly accurate by my reading as well, but it does appear to me, from the documentation above, that the Church *desired heretics to be left alive.

The CMH (like the other Cambridge History series on other eras/topics), is an extensively documented and researched collaboratively-written multivolume thematic history of the middle ages

I’m glad to hear that. I honestly didn’t know about it before a couple of days ago.

I’m sadly no longer at university or I would right now wander over to the library and find out the specific reference for you/us, or rather call up the electronic version, but alas I no longer have remote access!

Aww, thanks. I ordered a copy of Volume 6 using interlibrary loan, but it hasn’t arrived yet.

If anyone reading this thread studies/works at pretty much any university, in the English-speaking world it would take them but a few minutes to find the answer; the series of Cambridge Histories are pretty standard reference works in undergrad and postgrad libraries.

That would be awesome! Then I wouldn’t have to wait two weeks. In case it helps anyone who is reading this and wants to help me, the author I referred to earlier, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, was citing from the original Cambridge Mediaeval History from (I think) 1939. I searched a partial digital text of the New Cambridge Mediaeval History from (I think) the 1990s, and I didn’t find the text in there. (It might be in Latin though, I didn’t think to search for that.)

I would imagine it is the author’s translation of a particular source, however, such as either a papal document or the records of a particular inquisitorial hearing. Googling the exact phrase doesn’t help much, unfortunately.

Yes, and the page number he gave is in the 700s, which makes me wonder if it was included in an appendix. I’ve seen reference works about the middle ages include relevant Latin texts in the appendices, without translating them, I wonder if that might be where he got his text.

They’re huuuuuge books! According to the Oxford library catalogue, Vol 6 alone is 1110 pages including index/endnotes; page 724 will probably be main text (or a footnote). If the CMH is anything like the Cambridge Ancient History (same idea, different history) which I am much more familiar with, it’s also very dense text. They cost an absolute fortune (hundreds of pounds/dollars) for a set or I would have them on my shelves right now! They are very useful however and while no one should read a history book, primary source or secondary material, without questioning it, you can probably rely on what it says on the whole.

Hope you find it soon!

The church has always held that the state has the right to use capital punishment. However, in our time, it may be more harm than good, so, perhaps, should be avoided or banned altogether.

catholiceducation.org/en/religion-and-philosophy/social-justice/catholicism-amp-capital-punishment.html

The Church was not opposed to the death penalty for heretics at any time from the 12th through the 17th centuries, as far as I can see. The death penalty for heretics was explicitly advocated by major, orthodox theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas; Luther’s rejection of the practice was condemned by Leo X; and it was the routine state of affairs that Church courts handed heretics over for execution to the civil authorities.

My copy of CMH Vol. 6 arrived, and page 724 is where the formula occurs. It is in Latin, in a footnote. The text attached to the footnote says: “In handing over the impenitent and the relapsed to the secular arm, the Inquisition invariably made use of a formula praying that the death or mutilation of the prisoner might be avoided. [Footnote]”

[Footnote:] The formula ran: “De nostro foro ecclesiastico te proiicimus et tradimus seu relinquimus brachio seculari ac potestati curie secularis, dictam curiam secularem efficaciter deprecantes quod circa et citra sanguinis effusionem et mortis periculum sententiam suam moderetur.”

Neither the footnote nor the sentence it is attached to gives a citation. However, after googling various phrases from the Latin text, I did find another book that quotes the same phrase, translates it, and provides a citation.

The relevant text is: “The formula by which they dismissed an impenitent or a relapsed heretic was thus worded: ‘We dismiss you from our ecclesiastical forum, and abandon you to the secular arm. But we strongly beseech the secular court to mitigate its sentence in such a way as to avoid bloodshed or danger of death.’ [Footnote]”

[Footnote:] “De nostro foro ecclesiastico…[basically as above]…sententiam suam moderetur.” Forma tradendi haereticum pertinacem, alias non relapsum, curiae seculari. Eymeric, Directorium inquisitorum, 3a pars, p. 515, col. 2. Cf. Forma tradendi seu relinquendi brachio saeculari eum, qui convictus est de haeresi per testes legitimos, et stat pertinaciter in negativa, licet fidem catholicam profiteatur, ibid., p. 524, col. 1. Bernard Gui quotes the canons to justify this pretended appeal for clemency: "Relinquimus brachio et judicio curiae secularis, eamdem affectuose rogantes, prout suadent canonicae sanctiones, quatinus citra mortem et membrorum ejus mutilationem circa ipsum suum judicium et suam sententiam moderetur (vel sic, quatinus vitam et membra sibi illibata conservet). Practica inquisitionis, ed. Douais, p. 127; cf. pp. 128, 133-136; cf. imborc, Historia inquisitionis, pp. 289-291. The Canonicae Sanctiones, to which Bernard Gui refers, are undoubtedly the decretal Novimus, which we will quote in the following note, and the bull Ad aboldendam of Innocent IV.

Source

Now, if we can get some of those items translated and maybe find some translated editions of the cited sources, we could get some more good data. :slight_smile:

My attempt to translate:

“We relinquish him to the arm and judgment of the secular court, affectionately urging the [court], advised by the canonical sanctions, that they let their judgment and their sentence concerning him be moderated short of death and the mutilation of his members (or, that his life and members be preserved inviolate).”

Anybody want to clean up my translation?

Also, I just found an interesting tidbit from an Inquisitor’s judgment of a Walednsian (which begins here):

“We therefore the foresaid Inquisitors, having God before our eyes, etc. do declare and pronounce, and deliver you over to the secular Court, as relapsed into the Heresy which you have before juridically abjured, and as an impenitent and obstinate Heretic, affectionately bewailling [the court], as the canonical Sanctions oblige us to do, to preserve your Life and Members untouched. Signed, (L.S.) William Juliani, public and sworn Notary for the Office of the Inquisition; and James Masquetius, Notary of the Inquisition.”

My attempt to translate:

Formula for handing over or relinquishing to the secular arm a man who is convicted of heresy by legitimate witnesses, and stands firmly in the negative, even though the Catholic faith is professed.

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