The topic is religious coercion, specifically religious coercion for which the Catholic Church is responsible. I will do my best to define terms appropriately and ask questions without attacking Catholicism as a whole. It is fallacious reasoning to use embarrassing incidents to “prove” that a religion is false- and this is not what I am doing. I will define terms and ask specific questions which are not to that effect.
First, you may be wondering, what do I mean by religious coercion and how could the Catholic Church be responsible for this? What I mean by that is the forcible silencing, banishment, imprisonment, or death of a person or persons on account of their religious beliefs, including and especially beliefs which fall within the scope of Christianity but are dissident beliefs, doctrines, or points of view. This has very little to do with how Catholics throughout their history have interacted with Muslims or Jews or pagans or the irreligious. This has very much to do with how the Catholic Church has handled dissent and how it’s handled heretics. Now, how could the Catholic Church be held responsible for religious coercion? Well, let me put it this way. The Catholic Church takes full credit (and rightly so) for fighting, condemning, and silencing all sorts of heresies. It takes full credit (and rightly so) for ending heresies and maintaining doctrinal unity within itself. All credit goes to the Catholic Church. Now, if one of those heretics happens to be banished and forcibly removed from his country of origin- if the heretic is forced into silence and his work is destroyed to the point where there is virtually no historical record of his own voice, but only the voices of his opponents- these would be examples of religious coercion, and that’s also on the Catholic Church. Generally speaking, a person or entity cannot take all the credit for fighting someone in the interest of silencing them and then selectively avoid all the blame for how it’s done if the methods happen to be coercive.
My question, in general, is this. From a Catholic perspective, how do you (really, truly) interact with some of these examples of coercion and fit it into the overall narrative of Catholics fighting heretics? If you were to take a step back from individual events and fit it into a larger narrative, what would it look like?
I have a few specific examples as well. I’ll start with the Arianism and Trinitarianism. Athanasius and Arius were both banished, Athanasius (basically) because Emperor Constantine and his son were both Arians, and Arius was banished (basically) because the Catholic Church was Trinitarian. More specifically, Athanasius was exiled once by Constantine to Trier, twice by Constantinius to Rome and the Egyptian desert, once by Julian (who acted coercively against Christianity as a whole), and once by Valens, who also favored Arius. I do not hold the Catholic Church responsible for any of these, but I use these examples of a baseline for what religious coercion can look like.
Arius did not live as long as Athanasius, and the circumstances of his death are exceptional and highly questionable. He may have been killed on account of his religious beliefs; he was certainly exiled to Illyricum and only permitted to return once he altered his teaching a bit.
Next, Pelagianism. In 418, Emperor Honorius banished all Pelagians from Rome. The Catholic Church technically did not pull the trigger, but it aimed the gun. I wonder if the Catholic Church ever condemned that banishing specifically, or even in general? This is something that you might tell me. Pelagius himself was apparently not in Rome at this time (according to New Advent), however he was later expelled from Jerusalem and disappeared in Egypt. The actual teachings of Pelagius were destroyed, altered, and suppressed to the point where the study of his teachings consists almost entirely of studying what his opponents had to say about them.
Next, Catharism. In fairness, Popes Eugene III and Innocent III tried a variety of peaceful methods in attempts to halt the progress of Catharism (or Albigensianism). This also gave rise to the Dominican order- quite a fantastic order, but mostly unsuccessful in converting Cathars peacefully. Then in 1208, a papal legate was murdered. (Murder is wrong). This was the tipping point that led to the Albigensian Crusade, which Pope Innocent III is entirely responsible for initiating. For 20 years, Catholics killed Cathars on account of refusing to convert for all those years, and Pope Innocent III effectively claimed control of whatever land the Cathars owned, offering it to any French nobleman willing to fight. There were eight local church councils that condemned Catharism, the last of which included the statement that all Albigensians “should be imprisoned and their property confiscated.” (newadvent.org/cathen/01267e.htm). The murder of the legate was wrong, but so is religious coercion.
Finally, Protestantism. It is very dense and complicated, and there was much in the way of religious coercion on both sides. But in the end, everyone learned to get along without religious coercion- for the most part, anyway- and to finally start seeing it as a bad thing. Meaning it’s something that should never be done, even if you are right and some other person is stubborn. Religious coercion is still wrong.
Coercive things have happened, let’s evaluate them in the interest of a more well-informed historical perspective. And let’s do so without making it a debate about if the Catholic Church is evil. Let me put that to bed right quick- the Catholic Church is a good church that has done a few bad things. Please take note of that, I just said the Catholic Church is a good church. But now, let’s talk about how some of these issues of religious coercion ought to be handled as a part of the historical record.