THE WRATH OF THE DRAGON
UNTIL Christianity conquered the Caesars and became the religion of the Roman State, it had been often persecuted, but never a persecutor. As if to show that this was merely because it had lacked the power, as if to prove that in this respect the religion of the Christ was no better than the religions of the gods that it displaced, the Holy Catholic Church almost immediately began to persecute, thereby affording a convincing demonstration that it was neither catholic nor holy. Indeed, persecution was an inevitable consequence of the union of Church and State under Constantine; no other result could reasonably have been looked for, with the confusion of civil and ecclesiastical rights that followed the promotion of Christianity to be a State religion.
Let us strive to be just to Constantine, while true to the facts of history. Let us remember that he was of heathen birth and training; that he was never a Christian, in any proper sense of the term; that he delayed his baptism until his death-bed, in the vain hope of thus washing away all his sins at one fell swoop, and entering the new life regenerate and holy; that during his lifetime he never quite learned the difference between Christianity and heathenism, or that there was any fundamental difference. How, indeed, should he suspect such a thing, in view of the conduct and doctrines of the churchmen of his day? Let us remember, furthermore, that as Imperator Constantine was Pontifex Maximus of the old religion, and that he naturally imported into his newly professed faith this same idea of imperial headship.
And finally, let us take his point of view. Constantine was not a religious man, but he was a statesman, the greatest of the Caesars after the greater Julius. He saw in Christianity a marvelous force of conviction that had made it triumph over the most cruel and persistent persecutions. He saw in the church, spread throughout the Roman empire, the greatest unifying agency of his day. a society of men bound together in a solidarity to which no other institution could compare. Upon his mind broke the truth that here he had an instrument ready to his hand by which he might consolidate his empire as no predecessor had been able to do—that the civil machinery might be duplicated by the ecclesiastical in every province and town of his domains. A beautiful dream, do you say? But Constantine made it real, and by doing it proved himself one of the great creative statesmen of the world—a man who ranks with Caesar and Charlemagne and Napoleon.
But it was essential to the realization of this dream that the church should remain a unit. Heresy and schism could not be tolerated, and accordingly Constantine did not tolerate them. He persecuted, not as a bigot, but as a ruler; not for religious, but for civil reasons. At first he personally inclined towards Anus and his followers, but he saw that the orthodox doctrine would finally prevail in the church. He had no narrow prejudices about such matters—orthodoxy and heresy were all one to him—so he at once became the supporter of orthodoxy and threw the whole weight of the imperial power into the scale at the Council of Nice to secure a condemnation of Arianism and a definition of the doctrine of the Trinity as the only orthodox Christian teaching. He was successful, and then set himself the task of persecuting the Arians out of existence; and though some of his successors in part undid his work, his policy was crowned with ultimate success, a century or more after his death.
Persecution therefore was introduced into the church of Christ by a man who seems in reality to have been a heathen, in accordance with a heathen theory of imperial functions, and for purposes of State. The Holy Catholic Church did not scruple to profit by the policy of Constantine and even to give him sly encouragement, but it did not at first dogmatically defend persecution. Indeed, the reputable Fathers of the Nicene Church shrank from the idea that one Christian should persecute another. So late as 385, when the Spanish bishop Priscillian and six of his adherents (accused of Manichaeism) were tortured and beheaded at the instigation of Ithacus, another bishop, Ambrose of Milan and Martin of Tours made a memorable protest against this perfidious act and broke off all communion with Ithacus. The church was not yet ripe for the proclamation of the doctrine that Christians were to slay one another for the glory of God.
But a distinguished convert whom Ambrose baptized, Augustine of Hippo, did not shrink from giving a dogmatic basis to what had come to be the practice of the church, and even professed to find warrant for it in Scripture. “ It is, indeed, better that men should be brought to serve God by instruction than by fear of punishment, or by pain. But because the former means are better, the latter must not therefore be neglected. Many must often be brought back to their Lord, like wicked servants, by the rod of temporal suffering, before they attain the highest grade of religious development. . . The Lord himself orders that guests be first invited, then compelled, to his great supper.” And Augustine argues that if the State has not the power to punish religious error, neither should it punish a crime like murder. Rightly did Neander say of Augustine’s teaching, that it “contains the germ of the whole system of spiritual despotism, intolerance, and persecution, even to the court of the Inquisition.” Nor was it long before the final step was taken in the church doctrine of persecution. Leo the Great, the first of the popes, in a strict sense of that term, drew the logical inference from the premises already provided for him by the Fathers of the church, when he declared that death is the appropriate penalty for heresy.
Once more, let us be just: the Roman Church is right in this conclusion if we grant its first premise, that salvation depends not on personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, as a result of which or in connection with which the Holy Spirit regenerates the soul immediately, but is to be attained only through the church and its sacraments—baptism accomplishing the soul’s regeneration, and this new life being nourished and preserved through the Eucharist and other sacraments. Granting this doctrine of sacramental grace, not only is Rome justified in persecuting, but all who believe in sacramental grace are wrong not to persecute. For if salvation is impossible except through the church and its sacraments, every heretic is, as Rome charges, a murderer of souls. Is it not right to restrain and punish a murderer? From this point of view it becomes the duty of the church to root out heresy at all cost of human life—to make the world a desert, if need be, but at any rate to ensure peace. And all persecutors have been half-hearted in the work except only Rome; she has had the courage of her accursed convictions. She alone has recognized that if you say A you must say B, and so on, to the end of the alphabet; that if you once begin to persecute you must not tremble at blood and tears, nor shrink from sending men to the rack, the gibbet, and the stake. The Inquisition is the perfectly logical, the inevitable outcome of Roman doctrine, and the entire system of persecution is rooted in this idea of sacramental grace.
After the theory of persecution was thus fully developed, it remained to put it consistently into practice, This the Roman Church was slow in doing, partly for lack of power, partly because the pressure of need was not strongly felt until the twelfth century. Toward the close of that century these causes of delay no longer existed. During the pontificate of innocent III. (II98-I2I6) the papacy rose to the zenith of its baleful authority. This greatest of all the popes, save Hildebrand, blasphemously appropriated to himself, as the pretended vicar of Christ, the words of the risen Jesus, “All power is given unto me in heaven and earth,” and strove to realize them in Europe. To King John, of England, he said, “Jesus Christ wills that the kingdom should be priestly, and the priesthood kingly. Over all, he set me as his vicar upon earth, so that, as before Jesus ‘every knee shall bow,’ in like manner to his vicar all shall be obedient, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. Pondering this truth, thou, as a secular prince, hast subjected thy realm to Him to whom all is spiritually subject.” This claim Innocent made good throughout the greater part of Europe, here by skilful diplomacy, there by aid of the sword, elsewhere by the spiritual censures of the church. I-Ie humbled the pride of the kings of France and Spain, made and unmade emperors, and compelled England’s most despotic monarch to bow the knee, surrender his realms “to God and the pope,” and receive them back as a feudatory.
But while the pope was thus successfully asserting his claim to be supreme, the dispenser and withholder of all temporal sovereignty, the church was menaced by an internal danger that threatened not merely its supremacy, but its very existence. The twelfth century saw the beginning of that tremendous uprising of the human spirit, in its aspiration after greater freedom, which a few centuries later produced the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Revolution. A reaction began against the despotism that had so long bound the spirit of man in the fetters of absolute dogma. While the popes were triumphing over emperors and kings, heresy was undermining the very foundations of the church. The teachings of Arnold, of Savonarola, of Hus, though more than once the church had believed these detested heresies finally extirpated, had showed an astonishing persistence and fruitfulness. The growth of these heretical sects was doubtless due in part to the simplicity and scripturalness of their teachings, but it is quite as much to be ascribed to the scandalous lives and corrupt practices of the clergy. Men loathed a church in which the cure of souls, from parish priest to pope, was bought and sold as merchandise, when the highest ecclesiastics bartered beneflees with almost as little secrecy and quite as little shame as a huckster displays in crying oranges or green peas in our streets. Men instinctively rejected the ministrations of priests known to be depraved in life, and more than suspected to be unbelievers in the saving sacraments they pretended to dispense. Language is inadequate to describe the iniquity of a system in which the very popes swore by the heathen gods and were atheists at heart, in which monastic institutions were brothels, in which the parish priests, though feared, were also hated and despised for their ignorance, their pride, their avarice, and their unclean lives. There is little danger that one who attempts to paint the manners and morals of the medieval clergy will overcharge his brush with dark color. Words that a self-respecting man can address to men who respect themselves are impotent to convey more than tame and feeble hints of that monstrous, that horrible, that unspeakable sink of iniquity, that abomination of putrescence, that quintessence of all infamies thinkable and unthinkable, known as the Holy Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages.
In sharp contrast with such a church, these heretical teachers preached the simple faith and practice of the apostolic churches, and illustrated by the purity of their lives the beauty of the gospel they taught. True, their savage persecutors did not hesitate to charge upon these sects horrible Immoralities, but these transparent calumnies never deceived anybody—unless we except a few modern historians who ardently desired to be deceived. What gave these heretics favor with the people was not vices, in which they might have rivaled, but could not hope to excel the priesthood, but virtues in which they had few competitors among the clergy. The common people of the Middle Ages were not much given to subtlety of reasoning, but they judged the two trees by their fruits. They looked at the church and beheld rapacity, oppression, wickedness, from highest to lowest in the hierarchy; they looked at these heretical teachers and saw them to be such as Jesus was when upon earth—poor, humble, meek, pure, counting not life itself dear unto them if they might by any means win some. And by thousands and tens of thousands, men turned their backs upon such a church and accepted the teachings of such heretics.
And these teachings were nothing less than revolutionary. They denied that tradition has any authority, they flung aside as rubbish all the writings of the Fathers, all the decrees of councils, all the bulls of popes, and taught that only the Scriptures, and especially the Scriptures of the New Testament, are authoritative in questions of religion, whether of faith or of practice. They denied the efficacy of the sacraments, maintaining that that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit; and therefore denying that an inward spiritual change can by any possibility be produced by an outward physical act. They were Lutherans before Luther, in teaching justification by faith and not by works; and more radical and consistent than Luther in accepting the legitimate consequences of their doctrine; for they rejected the baptism of infants as alike unwarranted by Scripture, and absurd in itself, if sacramental grace be denied. These are the distinctive teachings of Baptists to-day, and the men who held these truths from the twelfth century onward, under what various nicknames it pleased their persecutors to give them, were our spiritual ancestry, our brethren in the faith.
But, alongside of these evangelical heresies of the twelfth century was another type of heresy, as wide- spread, as large in numbers, as threatening to the church, yet widely different in fundamental ideas. This was the sect known to the early church as Manichaeans, one of the first forms of heresy and the most persistent of all, which under various names had endured from the age immediately succeeding the apostles. In the East they were long known as Paulicians, in Italy as the Paterines, in Bulgaria as Bogomils, in Southern France as Albigenses, and in all these places as Cathari. This last was their own preferred name, and designated them as Puritans—or those who, both in doctrine and in life, were purer than the so-called Catholic Church. In this claim they were doubtless justified, for, although they are charged with gross immoralities, there is only too good reason to reject the testimony against them; and their doctrinal vagaries, opposed though they were to the gospel, were less gross than Rome’s idolatrous worship of the saints, the Host, the images.
Both classes of these heretics flourished during the twelfth century in Southern Prance. The church was not at all careful to distinguish between them, and they were often included under the name of Albigenses in one sweeping general condemnation. That name, however, does not properly denote the evangelical heretics, who never confounded themselves with these dualistic heretics, and indeed sympathized with them as little as they did with Rome. But Rome hated both with an impartial and undying hatred; and good reason she had for her hatred, for toward the close of the twelfth century it became a life-and-death struggle between the church and these rapidly spreading heresies. In II67 an Albigensian synod was held at Toulouse. Little is known of its proceedings, but the very fact that such an assemblage could be held shows how powerless the church had become in that region, and how imperative the need was, from the Roman point of view, for active and effectual measures of repression. Before this, recourse had been had to mild measures without effect. Bernard, one of the most eloquent men of his time, and a man of saintly character, had gone on a mission among them. He reports in his letters that the churches were deserted, the altars falling into decay, and the priests starving. He laments that the whole of Southern France seems given over to heresy, and no doubt his grief was genuine.
In the year I2I5 Innocent III. summoned the Fourth Lateran Council. The power of the papacy was shown then as never before or since in the history of Europe. Emperors kings, and princes sent plenipotentiaries as to the court of a more powerful monarch. The pope did not content himself with merely controlling the council; he dominated it. There was no pretense of debate. The pope prepared and handed down such decrees as he wished passed and the council obediently registered his will. Among the decrees thus incorporated into the canon law of the church were three relating to the treatment of heretics: first, that all rulers should be exhorted to tolerate no heretics in their domains; second, if a ruler refused to clear his land of heretics at the demand of the church, he should be deprived of his authority, his subjects should be released from their allegiance, and if necessary, he should be driven from his land by force; third, to every one who joined in an armed expedition against heretics the same indulgences and privileges should be granted as to crusaders. These are still the canon laws of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. They have never been repealed, and if they are not executed to-day it is because Rome lacks the power or thinks it not expedient to use it. The claim is there, ready to be exercised whenever in the opinion of the infallible pontiff the right moment has arrived. And yet Roman priests in America would fain persuade us that Rome is really in favor of liberty and tolerance, that the leopard has changed his spots and the Ethiopian his skin.
Raymond of Toulouse, sixth of the name, at the close of the twelfth century was the most powerful feudatory of France, almost an independent sovereign, allied by marriage and blood to the royal houses of Castile, Aragon, Navarre, France, and England. Most of his barons and the great majority of his people were heretics; and, though he was nominally loyal to the church, his indifference to the suppression of heresy was bitterly resented by the pope. After many warnings, he was excommunicated, and finally a crusade was declared against him. Leaders were found, first in Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, and later in Louis of France; the power of Raymond was broken and the Albigenses were crushed. The war was carried on for twenty years; town after town was captured; the inhabitants were massacred or sold into slavery. A large part of the most fertile region of France was left a smoking waste, without a green thing or a human being in sight. That is Romanism in its bright flower and full consummation: better desolation and death than heresy.
But even then heresy was not suppressed—the snake was scotched, but not killed. The “crusaders” could not find and slay all the heretics, though they tried faithfully to do it. Some fled to other parts, others dissembled or recanted and saved their lives. After the crusade was over, it was found that heresy persisted in secret, that the heroic remedies of fire and sword were not sufficiently drastic to accomplish the desired result. Organized and armed heresy had indeed ceased to show its head, but a mailed knight on horseback could not cope with secret heresy—that required the subtle ingenuity and devilish malignity of a priest. This necessity produced, by a natural evolution, the Holy Office of the Inquisition. (One notes in passing the tendency in the medieval church, wherever any institution or practice arose, more than usually satanic in spirit and administration, to dignify it by the epithet “holy.”)
There was already in existence a system of episcopal courts for the discovery and punishment of heresy. The effectiveness of these courts depended on the intelligence and energy of the bishop. Generally they were not very effective, since the bishop would usually await popular rumor or definite accusation before proceeding against any one. This regular church machinery having proved clumsy and ineffective, it remained to devise a better, Precedent for this already existed in a custom, dating from Charlemagne, of occasionally appointing papal commissioners for a special emergency in a particular locality. It needed only to make such a commission permanent and to enlarge the scope of its labors until it was co-extensive with the church. What the necessities of the time demanded was a continuous process against heresy directed by one mind.
An institution peculiar to the medieval church naturally suggested the fitting agents for this work—the mendicant orders, scattered over the whole of Europe, not under the control of the bishops, independent of the secular clergy, responsible only to the pope. Accordingly, on April 20, I233, Gregory IX. issued two bulls making the prosecution of heresy the special function of the Dominican order. From this time on the institution rapidly developed, and by the close of the thirteenth century had become the most terrible engine of oppression that the mind of man or devil ever conceived, before which kings on their thrones and prelates in their palaces trembled. Inquisitors could not be excommunicated while in the discharge of their duties, nor could any legate of the pope interfere with them or suspend them from office. While performing their duties they were freed from all obligations of obedience to their own generals, as well as to the bishops. Their jurisdiction was universal, and any one who refused obedience to their summons or opposed them became ipso facto excommunicated.
What hope was there for one who, charged with heresy, fell into the clutches of judges such as this system provided? The arrest was usually secret; all that the friends of the accused ever knew, in most cases, was that he had disappeared. It was not considered conducive to health to make any open inquiries about his whereabouts; it having been observed that such inquiries were followed by the disappearance of the too curious inquirer also. The accused was never permitted to have counsel; he was confronted by no accuser; he was not required to plead to any precise indictment. He could call no witnesses in defense; he was himself usually the chief witness for the prosecution—all principles of jurisprudence and all natural equity being set at naught by requiring him to testify against himself. Everything that human—no, everything that diabolical—ingenuity could do to entrap him into damaging admissions and to extract from him a confession of guilt was done. The inquisitor played on the conscience, on the affections, on the hopes and fears of his victim, with cynical disregard of every moral law and inflicting the most exquisite mental tortures, in the hope of securing a confession.
Finally, if all other means failed, the inquisitors had another device for encouraging (such was their grim word) the accused to confess. That was physical torture—the rack, the thumbscrew, the boot, cautery in various forms, every infernal machine that could be devised to produce the most excruciating agony without unduly maiming or killing. Sometimes solitary confinement in a dungeon was tried, as a means more effective than pain of breaking a stubborn will. Months lengthened into years and years into decades, and still the Inquisition’s victim might find himself unconvicted, but with no better prospect of liberty than on the first day. The Inquisition had all the time there was and was willing to wait; its patience never wearied. If a prisoner’s resolution gave way under torture or imprisonment, he had to sign a statement that his confession was not made because of love, fear or hatred of any one, but of his own free will. If he subsequently recanted, the confession was to be regarded as true, and the retraction as the perjury of an impenitent and relapsed heretic, who received condign punishment without further trial. Though no effort was spared to obtain a written confession of heresy, the accused might in the last resort be condemned without it. Only in one way could he be certain of saving his life, and that was by a full confession at once, accompanied by a recantation of his errors and abject submission to the church. Then his life would be spared, but more likely than not it would be spent in some dungeon; only in rare cases was one who once fell into the clutches of the Inquisition suffered to return to his home and estate; and in those rare cases he was subject to life-long espionage and harassment.
When the process was completed and the accused was found guilty of heresy—which was the normal ending of a case—the inquisitors handed the heretic over to the civil power for punishment, with a hypocritical recommendation to mercy. But woe to the secular authority that heeded the recommendation! If a magistrate failed for twelve months to put to death a condemned heretic, the refusal itself constituted heresy, and he became subject to the kind offices of the Inquisition. Even if he were excommunicated, the magistrate must do his duty. The church, with characteristic evasion of the truth, claims to this day that it has never put a heretic to death. The claim is technically correct, if we except those who died in its dungeons and torture-chambers; but the church coerced the civil power into becoming its executioner, and therefore its moral responsibility is the same. When the heretic was dead, the vengeance of the church was not sated. All his lands and goods were confiscated, his blood was attainted, his family were beggared, if they did not share his fate, and his name was blotted out of existence—life, property, titles, all disappeared.
We must not think of the Inquisition as the instrument of wicked men solely, or even mainly, though its satanic origin seems to be stamped all over it. But saintly Bernard was a more bitter persecutor than the infamous Borgias; Innocent III., the purest of the medieval popes, must be called the father of the Inquisition. In fact, the more pious a medieval Catholic was, the more he believed with all his heart and soul in the church and her sacraments, the more he was impelled to persecute. Such men hunted down heresy, not because they hated the heretic, but because they loved the souls of men, whose eternal salvation they believed to be endangered. It is an awful warning to all the succeeding ages of the fathomless iniquity into which a perverted conscience may lead men whose greatest desire is the glory of God.
The names of few of these martyrs have been preserved, but the complaints of their obstinacy and obduracy that abound in the Catholic writings of the period are the convincing testimony to their heroic constancy. They saw the truth clearly and were loyal to it at every cost. They were slain by tens of thousands; a remnant of them were driven into inaccessible mountain fastnesses, where they maintained themselves and their faith for centuries; they became a “hidden seed” in many parts of Europe. By her system of vigor and rigor the Roman Church won a temporary triumph: heresy was apparently suppressed; the reformation of the church was postponed for three centuries.
Title Page - Index
Chapter 9 - The Old Evangelical Party
Chapter 7 - Foregleams of the Dawn