I know that this is one of those topics that goes round and round periodically, but alas, that’s because there is a lot of confusion on the subject (on both sides–anti-Catholic misrepresentation and Catholic denial). I see that there was a thread in February, when I was not involved on the forum. However, the subject has come up again between me and steve b, and I decided I should move it to its own thread.
As in other times I’ve argued this issue, I have rested my case on three texts, which exemplify the standard Catholic position in the late Middle Ages: IV Lateran, which orders civil rulers to get rid of heretics from their lands and sets up an inquisitorial system designed to try heretics and, if necessary, hand them over to the civil authorities for punishment; Aquinas’ discussion of heresy in the Summa, which explicitly says that heretics should be “exterminated from the world by death”; and Leo X’s bull Exsurge Domine, which condemns Luther for denying that heretics should be burned.
On Aquinas, steve has suggested that Aquinas is raising an objection rather than giving his own opinion. A quick look at the relevant article of the Summa will show that that isn’t the case.
On Lateran IV, Steve’s argument is that canon 18 forbids the killing of heretics. But it doesn’t. It merely forbids the clergy from being directly involved in death sentences or executions. The common practice was to have the Church court find the heretic guilty and then hand him/her over to the civil authorities, who would actually pronounce and carry out the death sentence. Hence, Steve is wrong to say that canon 18 forbids the execution of heretics. The condemnation of Hus is an excellent example of the system in operation.
On the other hand, my criticism of the translation Steve was using, which renders Latin “exterminare” by “expel,” was probably mistaken. I still think that the translation is a bit misleading, since I think it unlikely that a non-violent, non-lethal “expulsion” is meant here. But “extermino/are” does primarily mean “to drive out,” and I ought to have known that. I still think it’s a euphemism for what was going on, but “expel” is in itself a perfectly fine translation of “extermino,” and I goofed in not recognizing that. I also should not have said that Lateran IV is telling rulers to be like the crusading armies, since part of the purpose of the Council was arguably to provide a more efficient and less indiscriminately bloody way of repressing heresy. It’s also possible that canon 18 is meant to forbid the kind of direct involvement with violence that the papel legate Arnaud-Amaury had engaged in. However, if so, it was ineffective, since papal legates were involved in later crusades. And Arnaud-Amaury was never censured that I know of–indeed, he later became an archbishop.
With those caveats, I continue to maintain that IV Lateran is obviously not forbidding the killing of heretics, and that historically we know that heretics were being burned at the stake and massacred. IV Lateran’s provisions clearly assume this, and language about “expelling” or “punishing” heretics has to be read in that context.
Now back to Pope Leo and Luther and the question of whether “burning heretics” is “against the will of the Spirit.”