Liberty Matters

When Did the Church Defend Freedom of Conscience?“ A Final Reply Ralph Raico


Ralph Raico wonders if I understand the “full implications” of a passage he quoted from Lord Acton – a passage that I quoted from as well. Unfortunately, Ralph failed to quote a crucial part of that passage, a part in which Acton said that “if the struggle had terminated speedily in an undivided victory, all Europe would have sunk down under a Byzantine or Muscovite despotism. For the aim of both contending parties was absolute authority.”
Even in the part quoted by Ralph, Acton says that we owe the rise of civil liberty, not to the Catholic Church per se, but to that “conflict of over four hundred years” between the church and various secular powers. Acton knew better than to attribute liberal ideas to the church of that era; it sought “absolute authority,” just as various secular powers did, and it was the resulting conflict that prevented any one power from gaining absolute power. I agree that this institutional conflict among competing powers resulted in something of a stalemate for a long time, but this doesn’t mean that the Catholic Church was some kind of pro-freedom, liberal organization.
To address one of the points Ralph makes, let us take a brief glance at Gregory VII. We should keep in mind that, in his Dicatus Papae (#19), Gregory claimed that the pope “may be judged by no one.”[[40] This reflected the absolutist pretensions of the papalists, which included the right to depose kings and emperors. Thus after Gregory had excommunicated Henry IV, he called upon German princes to unseat him, so his detestation of secular powers extended only to those rulers who refused to obey the church. As Tierney and Painter put it: “Kings and feudal princes were to him essentially police chiefs who had the duty of using coercive force to achieve objectives laid down by the church…. He did not covet the policeman’s office. He regarded it as beneath his dignity.”[41]
Now, I don’t wish to be misunderstood here. I think that the Papal Revolution (as it is sometimes called) was a good thing for Europe, since it maintained the independency of the church and thereby prevented a dangerous concentration of political power. But we need to keep things in perspective. The church was seeking to maintain its position of power, as were various secular rulers. And, as with various secular rulers, the church sometimes used that power for evil purposes.
According to Ralph, “We are comparing the evils committed by the Church and the state.” I’m afraid that this “we” does not include me, for I completely agree that states throughout history, collectively considered, murdered far more people than the church ever did. It is also true that Stalin murdered far more people than Pol Pot ever did, but I don’t regard this as a mark in Pol Pot’s favor.
Let us agree, for the sake of argument, with Ralph’s lowball estimate that the church was responsible for the murders of only a few thousand people during various inquisitions. Even putting aside all the tortures and imprisonments that didn’t result in executions, that is still a lot of murders. I find myself unable to locate liberal tendencies in an institution that was directly responsible for a few thousand murders, most of which were extremely gruesome.
The church never had much of an army, so, as Ralph surely knows, it frequently called on secular powers to do its dirty work. It is therefore quite facile (as Acton repeatedly pointed out) to absolve the church of any responsibility for the resulting horrors of war. Whom, for example, does Ralph suppose the Catholic Church backed during the 16th-century Dutch Revolt, as King Philip II of Spain and his henchman, the Duke of Alba (or Alva) – the fanatical Catholic commander of the Spanish army in the Netherlands – went on their murderous rampages? Among other complaints, such as burdensome taxes, the Dutch did not want the Inquisition brought into their country, and they paid a heavy price in blood and treasure for their desire to be left alone. So where was the liberal outrage of the Catholic Church during all this?
Moreover, the church sometimes gave its blessings in retrospect to mass murderers. Consider the Albigensian crusade in southern France – in particular the horrendous massacre of heretics (men, women and children) in Béziers (1209). Upon hearing this good news, Pope Innocent III (one of the supposedly great pontiffs) was ecstatic. This massacre, Innocent pointed out, was a double blessing: wicked heretics (the Cathars) were being killed, and their killers were that much closer to attaining salvation.
God hath mercifully purged his people’s land and the pest of heretical wickedness ... is being deadened and driven away…. Wherefore we give praise and thanks to God Almighty, because in one and the same cause of his mercy, He hath deigned to work two works of justice, by bringing upon these faithless folks their merited destruction, in such a fashion that as many as possible of the faithful should gain their well-earned reward by the “extermination” of these folk.[[42]
Consider one more example: the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. This wholesale massacre of Huguenots (French Calvinists) began with the attempted assassination of a Huguenot leader, Gaspard de Coligny, in Paris (22 August 1572). On the morning of 24 August, several dozen other Huguenot leaders were murdered, after which the violence escalated throughout Paris. Then, to quote the historian J.H. Elliott, “Within a few hours Coligny and two or three thousand of his fellow-Huguenots had been butchered in the capital, and it was not long before the anti-Protestant frenzy was spreading through France.”[43]
Historians disagree over the role played by Catherine de Medici in these events, but she and her Catholic advisers (the Guises) certainly planned the assassination of Coligny, and, at minimum, the Guises were behind the second stage of the plot. After that, however, popular religious hatred got out of control and led to mass killings that even French officials could not stop.[44]
I wish to make two points here.
First, when, in an earlier reply to Ralph, I noted the widespread religious hatred that fueled the Wars of Religion in post-Reformation Europe, he chided me for failing to present any “evidence” for my claim. Never mind that Ralph does not hesitate to generalize about what the common people in ancient Rome and Greece supposedly believed about the state, and that he does so without providing a scintilla of evidence for this and sundry other claims.
I find it hard to believe that an accomplished historian, as Ralph certainly is, would question the commonplace observation that post-Reformation Europe was rife with religious prejudice and hatred, and that those intense feelings had a lot to do with the violence of that period. But if Ralph does need evidence, I would suggest that he begin with the widespread anti-Protestant frenzy that precipitated most of the thousands of murders (possibly as many as 7,000, according to some estimates) during those horrible days in August 1572, and then go from there.
Second, and more important for our purpose, was the role of the Catholic Church in the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. Here again historians disagree (though Lord Acton believed that the papacy was probably complicit in the early stage). At the very least, however, we know that “Gregory XIII was duly delighted, and had a special medal struck to commemorate the great event.”[45] Thus, instead of merely toting up the number of murders for which the church was directly responsible, we should also take into account the many more murders – including some outright massacres -- that merited its approval. Any institution that would strike a medal to commemorate the indiscriminate slaughter of thousands of innocent people should not be praised as a harbinger of liberalism.
We need to ask: When did the church defend freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of commerce, and other classical liberal/libertarian values? Although some individual Catholics defended these values from time to time, the church itself lagged behind Protestants and secularists in such matters, often by centuries. The church, depending on the circumstances, has been both a force for good and a force for evil, but it was never a defender of the classical-liberal agenda.
I have not mentioned some of Ralph’s points, such as the correct understanding of Dante – we still disagree on this, though it is a pretty minor dispute – but I have attempted to cover the major issues. My thanks to Ralph for participating in this discussion.
[40] For this document, see Brian Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300, with selected documents (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964), 50.
[41] Brian Tierney and Sidney Painter, Western Europe in the Middle Ages, 300-1475, 4th ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), 231.
[42] Quoted in G.G. Coulton, Inquisition and Liberty (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959), 103-4.
[43] J.H. Elliott, Europe Divided, 1559-1598 (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), 220.
[44] For a detailed account, see Mack P. Holt, The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
[45] Elliott, 220.