When did executing heretics become immoral?


I did some searching, and it turns out this question was raised on this very message board many moons ago! @Fr_of_Jazz (unsure if he still posts here or not) wrote an outstanding summary of this topic, which I will copy/paste here and in a second post because 3200 character limits are silly sometimes.

(1) A summary of what Catholics need to believe in faith and morals, i.e., the content of the Catholic Faith, can be gained from The Catechism of the Catholic Church, other summary documents such as theCompendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, and other teaching documents like JPII Evangelium vitae. The issue of capital punishment is addressed in all of these.

(2) If one wants to dig deeper than even the Ecumenical Councils and explore ad hoc acts of the Church’s magisterium at various points in history, they need to employ some hermeneutic tools. As I’ve said in other contexts, if one wants to ask adult questions then they have to be willing to go beyond 4th grade answers.

_(3) Tools: _
One needs to consider among other things–
(a) the historical and cultural context of the statement;
(b) what event(s) or proposition(s) occasioned the statement;
© the exact wording of the statement;
(d) the subject matter, i.e., is it dogma, morals, or contingent social/political situation calling for a contingent judgment
(e) what level of authority is being exercised as made clear in the wording.
(f) subsequent doctrinal and moral developments often providing broader contexts; and contingent judgments responding to changing social, cultural, and political contexts.


Again, shoutout to @Fr_of_Jazz for this excellent response.

(4) The statement in question is from Exsurge Domine =ED], against the errors of Martin Luther, listing and rejecting 41 doctrinal and moral propositions asserted by Luther in the context of his works. It reads: “33. That heretics be burned is against the will of the Holy Spirit.”
(a) He denied the authority of a state to use capital punishment for heretics in the social, cultural, and political context of his times.

(i)The belief that the Church and political life were interlocked was presumed, accepted, and willed by the people. Heresy was, therefore, a crime against the civil government, treason.
(ii) Heretics weren’t just people who believed differently; but often had armies and political agendas that were seditious to the political order of the time.
(b) Luther had written: “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation”
© ED rejects the assertion that capital punishment of heretics (under certain conditions in the context of the times) is against the will of God.
(d) (i) The method of burning at the stake was a common method of execution at the time. The emphasis is not on the method, which is entirely contingent.
(ii) The relationship of church and state juridically and in the minds of the people at the time is contingent.
(e) Leo X closes by saying that the propositions rejected are “either heretical, scandalous, false, offensive to pious ears or seductive of simple minds, and against Catholic truth.” Luther’s contingent political judgment while rejected at the time cannot be considered heretical. There is no language indicating Leo X is infallibly defining a dogmatic or moral teaching. It is also important to recall that in Protestant lands at the time likewise “heretics” were burned at the stake.
(f) Changes regarding the role of religion in the social order and consequently a clearer understanding of the right to freedom of the will from external constraint in religious matters makes it evident that heresy is not a capital offence.

(5) Conclusions:
(a) It is absurd in the extreme to think that the method (burning at the stake) was ever the issue. Denial of the right of the state at the time to use capital punishment to repel heresy was.
(b) As per (4)(f) above heresy is not now viewed as a capital offence.
© Capital punishment (for crimes other than heresy) is still not absolutely rejected in RC moral teaching although its use given the context of the times and the available means to protect society now is extremely limited. “Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases [requiring capital punishment] are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” (Evangelium vitae, 56)

I hope this helps.


Again, can you quote how this “agreement” took place?

Maran atha!



So when did Luther got burned at the stake?

Maran atha!



No, that is not what the Church stated. There is a difference between a non-believer and a heretic.

Nothing changed dogmatically.

Much has changed societally.

The Church still teaches capital punishment is not intrinsically evil, because it’s not intrinsically evil. The Church also teaches that in modern times there are rarely instances when capital punishment is necessary and the state should refrain from exercising this particular right.

The right remains. The exercise of it should be restrained.


A quote from yourself to start perhaps, you said yourself Clement disbanded the order, and he did so because the Templars were heretics.

Vox in Exclesio and more bluntly Ad Providam both condemn the Templars as heretics, and the latter is specifically directed to two aims; granting former Templar Holdings not confiscated by France to the Knights Hospitaller and calling former templars to repent of their heresy and reconcile themselves to the Church.

If that’s not a statement that Templars are heretics in the eyes of the Church, then what is? Does Clement need to hold an audience and wave a sign saying Templars are Heretics? What a pity they did not have twitter, he could have given us a Trump statement on the matter.


Martin Luther had some powerful protectors in the territory in which he resided. The secular powers in his territory saw the benefit in cutting with Rome and they protected him.


There is a difference between stating that a heretic MAY be executed (what the Church actually taught) and that they MUST be executed (what the Church never taught).

The Church did not impose execution, and in some civil jurisdictions heretics were not killed. They may have been expelled from the territory or they may have been excluded from public life such as being prevented from working/holding office/etc.


You do realize that this was propaganda, right?


Again, you are speaking of a Pope that made a statement due to the pressure from the secular power–was the Pope wrong? Yes. But that’s what took place.

Making the Church into a powerhouse that could confront all the states and their military forces while simultaneously rejecting the Church because she interferes in the matters of state is a double burden that is used only to fault the Church and never to credit the Church for the good that it brought.

Be real.

People took advantage of things back then, as they do now.

The Church has always been caught in the middle of human affairs–then, it was more a matter of survival and saving than anything else (the just war tenets and all those other consensus that the Church had to engage); were there Priests, Bishops, and Popes that were caught up in the affairs of the world? Yes. Were there rules and regulations that we would consider unfair? Yes.

Can modern society claim its freedoms and advances without crediting the past? No.

So it is hypocritical to blame the Church for what society did when the Church, in spite of all the errors, remains the one entity who pushed for the betterment of the world more than any other.

Maran atha!



Wait, so the Church didn’t have all the governments of the world in her pocket?

…and what about the many days/weeks/months before this protection took place, why was he not burnt at the stake?

Maran atha!



…only if it says anything good about the Catholic Church; otherwise, it’s just right.

Maran atha!



Executing ANYONE is immoral.


I’m reminded of this thread from two years ago regarding killing heretics. The person I spoke to said the issue with killing heretics now as opposed to then wasn’t that killing heretics was wrong, but that doing so now would cause scandal.


Do you mean Henry VIII?


Friend, do you actually deny that Church authorities supported and encouraged the execution of heretics in some cases? It does no one any good to deny something that St John Paul II apologized for.


St John Paul II apologized to the world for the Church’s role in such practices in times past.
Yes, the Church never technically executed anyone, but they certainly gave their blessing to the state to do so.


Ah Verd , looks like ya got caught up in the trap of, show me proof, prove it ( response ) from those who threw out that bait, looks like it was done to debunk your question instead of trying to help ya find and answer, but, looks like Melchior_1 actually tried to answer your question and it looks like it is a decent and direct answer, hopefully you saw it and can make some heads or tails out of it in regards to if it is a good enough answer to what you are looking for.


Has it always been the case?


The thing is, there seems to be little evidence of the Church abandoning oppressive measures where it still has power enough to maintain them. Anti-homosexual laws for example are still promoted by the Church. If the Church had not lost its temporal power and influence, what would it have done about the practice of burning heretics (yes, by the state, but with the literal blessing of the Church and without condemnation of those who did it)? Is not handing over a heretic to be burned the same offence as handing over a baby to be aborted at a non-Catholic hospital. The Church claims to be the same ‘yesterday, today and tomorrow’. Is it? What changed and when?

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