The Benefits of Burning Heretics at the Stake.

This discussion on burning heretics was posted on the Roman Catholic EWTN History Forum, but has since been removed:

Burning at the stake -- a different perspective
Question from Don on 05-13-2002:

Dr. Carroll,

In considering the treatment of relapsed heretics (most, but not all, heretics were given the chance to recant before being burned alive), it is obviously important to consider the underlining beliefs motivating such behavior on the part of the Catholic secular and religious authorities.

To those watching someone being burned alive, as well as to the person being executed, it is clear that such a death was a vivid depicture of people's beliefs regarding Hell. In Saint Joan of Arc's Trial of Condemnation, Hell is not referred to as "hell" but as the "eternal fire". The same terminology was later used at the Council of Florence, and is also present in the current Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph #1036).

Does it seem logical that heretics were burned alive, with their mental faculties intact, to give them one last chance to repent before being sent into the "eternal fire"? Could it be that burning an individual at the stake was seen as a merciful death, as a means of giving that person one last chance to save his or her soul before final damnation??? I have read that "burning at the stake was believed by some medieval authorities and scholars to liberate the sinner from his or her formerly damned state and offer some hope of salvation to the now 'cleansed' soul".

The unchanging teaching of the Church is that Hell is the "the unquenchable fire" (#1034) and that it is eternal (#1035). Until the 20th-century, heresy was viewed as a terrible sin, something that the Apostle Paul condemns as damnable (#817), stating in Galatians 1:6-9,

"I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel-- not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed." Some translations have "eternally condemned" or "anathema" instead of "accursed".

Given such an admonition, what should one have expected of the medieval Church? If heretics were (and are) on a "highway to Hell", does it make sense to mercifully kill a relapsed heretic, so that he or she can "peacefully" pass into the "furnace of fire" (#1034)?

In our time, we have religious freedom, a gift from the deists of the Enlightenment. This is a good thing!! We need religious tolerance. One only need look at the events of September 11 to see that!! Tolerance is good and wonderful! Without it, we would probably be fighting numerous religious and ethnic wars, which would cost millions of lives.

In the end, though, our deep religious tolerance may not be a good thing. In giving people the absolute freedom to decide what they do or do not believe, we may have given them the freedom to "think and feel" their way straight into Hell, forever. In our age of complete relativism where there are no absolute truths, the Church has to operate the best she can, and this means a certain level of conformity to the prevailing social norms -- in this case, religious tolerance and ecumenicalism.

The world of medieval Catholic Europe operated under a set of much different circumstances. They did what they felt was right in the eyes of God. They were not "sinners" and did not necessarily use "poor judgment". Ultimately, Christ will judge all people, including those of the Inquisition. Catholics should not feel "embarrassed" by that outcome. I am not.

This is not to say that burning people alive was justified, even if the individual in question was a genuine heretic who repeatedly refused to recant. I guess that any judgment would need to be made on an individual case. We will all die someday, and I fully and firmly believe that God will judge everyone to ultimately spend eternity in either Heaven or Hell. From the perspective of an obstinate heretic who was taken to the scaffold to be executed but who recanted before dying, the Inquisition may have ultimately been a “good” thing, assuming, of course, that the person went to Heaven who would have otherwise gone to Hell, except for the “grace” of the Inquisition. Of course, only God knows for sure.

If you think that the Inquisition was evil or misguided, just consider the state of those countries today where the Inquisitions were the most active – Spain, Portugal, and Italy. Nearly everyone in those countries is Catholic, and consequently, all three of those nations have the most restrictive abortion laws in the world.

Over the course of six hundred years, the Catholic Inquisitions sent between forty to sixty thousand individuals to the scaffold to be burned by the secular authorities. This is less than half the number of abortions done in the United States every month.



Answer by Warren H. Carroll, Ph.D on 05-15-2002:

Well stated. - Dr. Carroll



Question from Jared on 05-13-2002:

Dr. Carroll, in response to the post by Michael Edwards-Ronning on 5-11-02: I think that the popes during that time felt that the killing of heretics was just. To figure, wouldn't it be a lot better for the general population if a few mainstream heretics were killed, so that the whole population was not "infected" by the heresies of the few? What I am trying to say is that it wasn't a terrible idea. Kill a few heretics to save the eternal souls of the population. That may seem harsh, but that is the basis of my assumption. Thanks.

Answer by Warren H. Carroll, Ph.D on 05-15-2002:

Well stated. I agree with you. - Dr. Carroll



Heresey and Burning
Question from David Betts on 05-14-2002:
Dr. Carroll,

The Papal Bull, 'Exsurge Domine,' of Jun 15, 1520, condemned the errors of Martin Luther and his followers. In the translation of this Bull that I have read, Pope Leo X repudiates the following Protestant teaching:

#33. That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit.

This proclamation by Pope Leo X proves the Catholic Church taught that the burning of heretics was acceptable to God. Responsibility for this practice cannot be shifted to the civil authorities, as has been suggested.

You have termed the Reformation a 'Revolt,' which it may have been, but I ask you, what sort of Christian would blindly obey such twisted doctrine ?


David Betts

Answer by Dr. William Carroll on 05-18-2002:
Traditionally, burning at the stake had always been the penalty for heresy because, as previous posters have pointed out, heresy was believed to consign souls to hellfire. That is why this practice was followed. - Dr. Carroll

COPYRIGHT 2002 EWTN       


Re: Burning heretics at the stake
Question from Leslie Tate on 05-17-2002:

I have read with increasing horror the recent posts condoning the burning of heretics at the stake. It seems that the conservative branch of the Church feels that the Crusades, the Inquisition, et. al. were completely justified. The Church is NEVER wrong, and if you EVER question what went on in those years, I suppose you are branded a what, a heretic?? I do know in my historical studies that, without a doubt, there were many corrupt practices taking place in the Church, and that some of the so-called heretics were really just good people trying to make some changes (such as letting the bible be translated into the language of the people, to be read by the people). Would not these people who state that it was the right of the Church to burn heretics say that modern day "heretics" (Billy Graham, perhaps?) be equally condemned because they are Protestant? I cannot believe that ANYONE who professes to be a Christian would ever condone the torture and burning of heretics. I am losing my faith in the Church if this is the case.

Answer by Warren H. Carroll, Ph.D on 05-20-2002:

Heretics are revolutionaries against the Church, and if they are given a free hand can and will imperil the salvation of millions and begin the upheaval of society. Ask anyone who knew the Communist revolution in Russia or Cuba what horrors revolution brings. - Dr. Carroll

COPYRIGHT 2002 EWTN        

It is simply incredible that anyone in the modern Catholic Church could in any way endorse or condone the atrocity of the stake and its use to deal with "heretics" in the middle ages, but that is exactly what Dr. Warren H. Carroll, Ph.D, the Catholic expert for the EWTN history forum, has effectively done. God help us, and save us from the men that think like this!

Dr. Carroll then "clarified" his position on burning heretics:

Heretics and Burning
Question from David Betts on 05-20-2002:

Dr. Carroll,

I have stated before my respect for your work on this forum, and sincerely repeat it now. You defend doggedly and with expert knowledge the truths of the Catholic faith.

I join with all those who believe that no justification for burning heretics can be found in the character and teachings of Jesus Christ. The defense of staking that one poster advanced at your forum --that it offers the terrified heretic one final, merciful chance to repent before being cast into hell—will not stand. That man on the stake was robbed forever, at the Pope’s orders, of any chance for the heartfelt repentance that alone pleases God. No confession of grave sin extracted from a man twisting in agony could possibly bring satisfaction to Jesus Christ. We do not need to consult the magisterium of the Catholic Church to know that this is so. Nor is there any possibility that such a gruesome spectacle could elevate public morality or restore men to a right relationship with God. The Popes who approved this horrendous punishment dishonored God far more than the heretics, and fueled the Reformation.

You speak solemnly of the responsibility of central authorities (as in Russia, Cuba, the U.S. government in 1861, the Bishop of Rome throughout history) to resist revolutionaries, drawing an analogy between dangerous political rebels and heretics. But order and discipline are not always worthy of admiration. Life in Russia under the Czars had little to recommend it. Would you have wanted to be a serf? Concerning Cuba, would you deny that the government of that island was corrupt to the core in the years before Castro? Arguably, it still is, but there were powerful reasons for the uprising that took place there. It is not in praise of Lenin and Marx that men in free countries can still reject the rule of the Czars and the sleek hoodlums who once ran Cuba with an iron fist. Common people have a right to fight tyranny. Do you not see that a Pope who passes beyond his supreme authority to identify and excommunicate heretics, into the realm of BURNING THEM ALIVE, has departed from Christ and taken on the mantle of a tyrant?

Answer by Warren H. Carroll, Ph.D on 05-23-2002:

I do not advocate a return to burning at the stake, and I agree that this penalty should not have been imposed. But revolution is the greatest human evil in history, a veritable feast for Satan. I have a book on this subject which gives plenty of examples: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE COMMUNIST REVOLUTION, which you may obtain from Christendom Press in Front Royal, Virginia by calling toll-free 1-800-698-6649, or at your local library by inter-library loan. If you read this, as I hope you will, please read my account of what happened to Armando Valladares in Castro's Cuba, as unforgettably described in his great book AGAINST ALL HOPE. Anything is better than that! - Dr. Carroll



This is very interesting Dr. Carroll. Your post to Leslie Tate on 5-20 is, at the very least, an apologetic for the burning of heretics in the past, and at the worst, a call to burn present day heretics. I note her mentioning of a present day heretic, Billy Graham, and your lack of any kind of distinction between present circumstances and the past. In fact, it seems that you are using the communist movements in China as an example of why the burning of heretics today would be justified.

I find your response disturbing in the extreme. Folks can say what they wish on EWTN's site about Catholic bashing by protestants but I have yet to read of a protestant justifying or calling for the burning of Catholics.

Some extreme posititions advocating the Catholic past I can see and understand but to dismiss so easily the burning of heretics is, in my mind, unconscionable. I don't think that even the Feenyites go that far.

Shawn Madden

Answer by Warren H. Carroll, Ph.D on 05-23-2002:

In a recent post I tried to clarify my position on this issue. I certainly do not advocate the restoration of the butning of heretics, because in the present climate of opinion it would hurt the Church, and I do not think it should have been done in the past, because we should not deliberately inflict such great pain, nor deprive the heretic of the oppotunity to repent. But I do understand why it was done in the past, for the reasons that several posters have stated. Billy Graham would have been seen as a heretic in the past, and he is in fact a heretic now, though he does love Christ and has done much good. - Dr. Carroll


Note that he says in the above post:

"I certainly do not advocate the restoration of the butning [burning] of heretics, because in the present climate of opinion it would hurt the Church, ... "

So, if the climate were different, and the Catholic Church held the reigns of power over secular governments again, what could we "heretics" that oppose apostate Catholic teaching expect??

In August of 2002 Matthew Bunson replaced Dr. Carroll in the EWTN History Forum. Note this defense of burning heretics at the stake:

Question from Gregory Dulmes on 09-08-2002:

Why are we always apologizing for the inquisitions? Why should Catholics feel bad that Exsurge Domine condemned Luther for the error stating that the burning of heretics was against the will of the Spirit? I tire of self-righteous critics denouncing the Church on this. Let me attempt a defence:

1) Temporal rulers and states have the legitimate authority to administer capital punishment.

2) At the time of the inquisitions, the states involved were explicitly, formally, officially *Catholic* entities. Kings and emperors were crowned in religious ceremonies. Because the Church rebuilt Europe, these kingdoms derived their authority from the Church.

3) A heretic was both a proliferator of doctrinal error *and a social revolutionary*. To be a heretic meant one was dedicated to overthrowing both the Church and the temporal order, i.e., fomenting revolution.

4) The Church executed no one. The Church's main role was to determine if the accused was actually a heretic or not. He or she was then turned over to the state - sometimes. The state's official punishment for heresy was usually a death sentence.

Hence, since a heretic was both a false teacher and a social revolutionary, he threatened to unleash chaos in society. I have no doubt that, given the rulers of the time (rulers *God* allowed to be) that the will of the Spirit was to give the heretic his just deserts (i.e., *justice*), meaning death at the stake. This does not make God or the Catholic Church cruel or sadistic. Any one who thinks this is cruel can simply review the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when heresy triumphed. The tragedy in lives and souls lost speaks for itself.

Lastly, the inquisitions were not only not bad, but were good. Why? Because they were an advancement over the mob violence and vigilante justice that proceeded them. Everything was usually by the book, carried out by the due 'controlling legal authorities'. If a man was executed, you can at least be sure that the accusations against him were true.

Where am I wrong in this?

Answer by Matthew Bunson on 09-08-2002:

Thank you for your views. They are shared by a great many people who object to the seemingly endless number of apologies demanded from the Church.



    No one is more honest with Protestants than we are, for no one knows them better. There is a great deal of controversy now going on as to the attitude of Protestants towards Catholics holding political office. We have published statements from Baptist and Lutheran bodies, and individual declarations from prominent men in all the Protestant sects. They are all agreed on the question. They would not vote for a Catholic for political office, least of all for the presidency of the United States; and they all give the same or similar reasons. Some say it is because Catholics owe their allegiance to the Pope, and therefore they cannot vote for them. Others declare that all Catholics believe in the union of Church and State; and they under no circumstances would vote to give them political power. Others give other reasons; but one and all declare that they would not vote for Catholics, and mostly all for the two reasons given above.
    But is there not a reason behind these two reasons which these Protestants are not willing to admit even to themselves?  Are not these two reasons too theoretical and entirely too academic for the majority of Protestants? They know very little of the meaning and import of allegiance, civil or ecclesiastic; and they do not know what Catholics understand by the term. They have a very vague and indistinct notion of the union of Church and State, and are not aware that such union exists more or less in every state in Christendom. What they really oppose and what they wish to emphasize by their vote is that they do want want to be dragooned into the Catholic Church. They fear that if the Catholic Church should get the upper hand in this country she might induce the state to suppress all heretical worship and compel all to embrace the Catholic faith. And this fear is not irrational, if unfounded. The Church has persecuted. Only a  tyro in church history will deny that. The Apologists in the days of Roman imperial domination inveighed against persecution and with Tertullian deplored that "it was no part of religion to persecute religion." But after the days of Constantine and under the reign of that first Christian emperor the attitude of Christians underwent a change, and persecution of pagans took place in many places in the empire. A hundred and fifty years after Constantine the Donatists were persecuted and sometimes put to death. Against this extreme measure St. Augustine raised his voice; but he was willing that they should despoiled of their churches and of their goods. Protestants were persecuted in France and and Spain with the full approval of the Church authorities. We have always defended the superventions of the Huguenots and the Spanish Inquisition. Wherever and whenever there is honest  Catholicity there will be a clear distinction drawn between truth and error, and Catholicity and all forms of heresy. When she thinks it good to use physical force the Church will use it. She is no better nor holier than God; and God has used physical force to bring people to embrace the truth. If the Church ever again finds herself in the same circumstances as surrounded her in the days of the Donatists and Huguenots and the Moriscoes it is very probable that she will defend herself with the same weapons she used before. But will those conditions ever return? We hope not for the sake of both persecutor and persecuted. The Protestants of the world fear that the history of persecution will repeat itself. If so it will be brought about by themselves. They fear that they will be forced to embrace the Catholic faith. They never will be as long as they allow Catholics to profess their religion in peace. But if they want war they will be promptly accommodated.
    But will the Catholic Church give bond that she will not persecute at all? Will she guarantee absolute freedom and equality of all churches and all faiths? The Catholic Church gives no bonds for her good behavior. She has made mistakes in her policy which she promptly corrected as soon as discovered. She has countenanced violence when more human measures would have been of more avail. Her children and her clergy have often been carried away by popular passion. But she gives no bonds that such things shall not occur again.
     Why should the Church be required to furnish security of good behavior? Civil governments have been tyrannical. But we must have civil government. The state has oppressed, and kings have abused their power. But we must have the state to maintain order and protect life and property. So it is with the Church; only more so. We must have the Church. She is the means of grace to a lost world. She is salvation to all mankind. Without the state we have anarchy; without the Church we have spiritual chaos. ― Western Watchman, A Catholic Journal Devoted To The Catholic Interests In The West, Vol. XXXXIII ― No. 35, St. Louis, Mo.  Dec. 24, 1908, Forty Second Year, pg. 8.