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Protestant and Catholic Defenses of Persecuting Heretics, Infidels, and Blasphemers

Saint Robert Bellarmine's Treatise on Civil Government

De Laicis is the title of Saint Robert Bellarmineʼs Treatise on Civil Government, and features the same general conclusion found in Luther and Calvinʼs writings, namely that it was the duty of the state to punish blasphemers and heretics. The final chapters, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22 should be required reading for Christians today, lest they forget what role the Bible and church tradition played in supporting religious intolerance in the past.

Below are some paragraphs from “Saint” Bellarmine in chapter 21 that illustrate one way to interpret the Bible, a way shared by Bellarmine, Luther and Calvin, the latter of whom Bellarmine mentions approvingly in so far as their views overlap with it comes to persecuting heretcs, but Bellarmine could have cited Luther and Melanchthon on the same matter. (This was also the same Bellarmine who played the role of prosecutor in Catholic church cases against Giordano Bruno and Galileo):

John Calvin, after he had publicly punished as a heretic Michael Servetus with the ultimate penalty, and after it was debated by other sectarians, published a book in which he demonstrates that it is permissible to take notice of heretics with a sword. Also Benedict Aretus, in a history of the punishment of Valentius Gentilis, argues that the same Gentilis was rightly punished by the Magistrate Bernensis. Theodore Beza [Calvinʼs successor in Geneva] teaches the same, at greater length, in a book on the punishment of heretics by a magistrate.

Incorrigible heretics, and especially recidivists, can and should be expelled by the Church and be punished by the secular powers with temporal punishments and even by death itself.

The first proof is from Scripture: The Scripture of the Old Testament (in Deuteronomy XIII, 12) commands most severely that false prophets who encourage the worship of false gods be put to death, and in Chapter XVII, after saying that in doubtful cases the High Priest should be consulted, soon adds: “If the person is haughty, however, and is unwilling to obey the command of the High Priest, let him die by the sentence of the judge. (Deuteronomy XVII, 12). And, again, in Chapter XVIII, the false prophet is sentenced to be killed. And, in reality, Elias (or Elijah), Josias (Josiah), Jehu, and others observed this law by killing a great many false prophets, as is clear from III Kings, XVIII, and IV Kings, X and XXIII, there is almost no difference between our heretics and the false prophets of those days. Nor did only the holy Kings and Prophets punish blasphemers with death, but even Nabuchodonosor [now more often spelled Nebuchadnezzar], as is said in Daniel III, promulgated an edict, that whoever should blaspheme the God of Daniel, that is, the true God, should be put to death and his home be destroyed; in the same edict, he performed a most worthy service to the True God, as St. Augustine remarks in his Epistle 50 and elsewhere. In the New Testament, in Matthew XVIII, we find that the Church can excommunicate and treat as aliens and tax-gatherers those who refuse to obey and to allow them to be treated by the secular powers as no longer children of the Church. We have, then, in Romans XIII, 4, that the secular power can punish criminals with the sword: “It is not without purpose that the ruler carries a sword; he is Godʼs servant, to inflict His avenging wrath upon the wrongdoer.” From these two scriptural passages, it can be clearly inferred that it is permissible that heretics, who by the judgment of all are rebels against the Church and disturbers of public peace, be cut off from the Church and be punished with death by a secular judge.

Moreover, Christ and His Apostles have placed heretics in the same category as those matters that can be disposed of, without question, by fire and sword; for in Matthew VII the Lord says: “Be on your guard against false prophets, who come to you in sheepʼs clothing but underneath are wolves on the prowl.” In Acts 20: 29: “I know that when I am gone, savage wolves will come among you who will not spare the flock.” It is certain that heretics ought to be known by the title of “wolves,” as St. Ambrose explains in his commentary on the beginning of Chapter X of St. Luke. But ravenous wolves are killed for an excellent reason, if they cannot otherwise be driven away; for much more should be made of the lives of the sheep than of the deaths of wolves. Likewise, in John X, 1: “Truly, I assure you: Whoever does not enter the sheepfold through the gate but climbs in some other way is a thief and a marauder.” Under the name of thief and marauder heretics are meant, and all subversives and founders of sects, as Chrysostom and Augustine explain; how thieves and marauders should be punished has been explained. Likewise, in II Timothy, II, heresy is compared to a cancer which is not cured by medications but should be excised with a knife, otherwise it will spread progressively and the whole body will be destroyed. Finally, Christ, in John, Chapter II, using a whip forces the merchants to leave the temple. Peter, in Acts V, killed Ananias and Sapphira because they had presumed to lie to the Holy Spirit; and Paul, in Acts XIII, vs. 6-12, struck with blindness the false prophet who was trying to keep Sergius Paulus, the Roman proconsular governor, from the Faith.

Bellarime ends his book with this paragraph at the end of chapter 22:

An Eighteenth Argument [against the punishment of heretics]: Never did the Apostles call upon the secular arm. [But] St. Augustine replies (in Letter 50, and elsewhere) that the Apostles never did because then there was no Christian Ruler they could call upon. For, at that time, the words of the Psalm (II, 2 & 10) were verified: “The kings of the earth, and the princes conspire together against the Lord and against His anointed.” (v. 2) And after the time of Constantine, that began to be verified which is written later in the same Psalm: “And now, O kings, give heed; take warning, you rulers of the earth: Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice before Him; with trembling pay homage to him… ” (vs. 10-12) Soon the Church implored the help of the secular arm.

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