Religious Crimes, Secular Punishments
Rhys M. Blavier
(c) copyright 2015
Heresy [her-uh-see] /ˈhɛr ə si/
noun, plural heresies.
1. opinion or doctrine at variance with the orthodox or accepted doctrine, especially of a church or religious system.
2. the maintaining of such an opinion or doctrine.
3. Roman Catholic Church. the willful and persistent rejection of any article of faith by a baptized member of the church.
4. any belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs, customs, etc.
On July 26, 1826, Cayetano Ripoll, a school teacher in Valencia, Spain, was the last person executed by order of the Holy Inquisition. Although the penalty for his crime was to be burned at the stake, the Spanish government, instead, merely garroted / hanged him to death. After he was pronounced dead, officials of local Bishop Simon López cut Ripoll’s body down, dropped it into a barrel painted with symbolic flames, and then threw the barrel into an incinerator. What was Ripoll’s crime? He was a believer of the heresy of deism, and was accused of teaching deism to his students. On July 15, 1834, after the death of King Ferdinand VII, the regent Maria-Cristina issued a final decree which definitively ended the power of the Holy Office. In 1838, Mariano José de Larra wrote of the end of the Inquisition, “Here lies the Inquisition [emphasis in original], the daughter of faith and fanaticism. She died of old age.”
There are actions which are crimes against others regardless of religion or faith. Murder, theft, and libel would all be examples of such crimes. There are also crimes which are ONLY crimes in the context of religion or faith. Apostasy, blasphemy and heresy would be examples of those crimes. While few would challenge the idea of secular governments having, at the very least, a legitimate role to play in the prosecution and punishments of “civil” crimes, only a belief that governments have a role in elevating and / or defending religion or faith can justify the use of civil power and authority to punish actions which are only crimes in the context of religion or faith.
Due to limitations of time and space, this paper will only deal with the idea of “heresy” as a religious crime enforced and punished by civil authority but the topic applies equally to any such religious crime. First, let me posit the idea that it is impossible to punish religious crimes with a loss of life, freedom or property without the complicit consent, if not the actual instruments of civil authority and law. This idea rests upon a belief that ONLY a legitimate governmental authority can be used to enact such punishments which take away civil rights, liberties, freedom, property, wealth, or life from a person or persons under its jurisdiction.
Without the consent and cooperation of a civil government, no person can be held to personal jeopardy or physical loss by any religious authority, at least not without that religious authority also being subject to civil law for such real actions. This is also demonstrated by the lack of civil enforcement of religious edicts or punishments which are made from outside the borders or jurisdiction of a civil government. Take, as an example, the Muslim fatwa imposed on author Salman Rushdie by religious authorities outside of his resident nation-state of the United Kingdom. While Mr. Rushdie might be considered in legitimate danger from those who would see such a religious judgment executed against him, that danger does not come from the civil government under whose jurisdiction he resides and which, in fact, provides him with protection from those who would cause him such harm. This is a fundamental component of the ideas of religious freedom and toleration, as well as of the separation of church and state.
An obsession with heresy seems to have been a facet in the development of the Christian Church from its earliest days. As early as the letters of St. Paul in the 1st century A.D., orthodoxy and heterodoxy were given as one of the three divisions which defined a Christian. This would make sense, as Paul seemed determine to make of Christianity something which was previously unknown in the world … a religion with a singular source of the “correct” interpretation and practice, a singular source of authority for the practice of a relationship with (a) God. While the Eastern / Orthodox Church was confounded by frequent theological disputes, mostly regarding the nature of the Trinity, for much of its history, the Roman Church accepted the Nicene Creed and was free of major fragmentation of the Church (owing to heresy) from the time of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 until the 12th century. 
In his Epistle to Timothy, St. Paul was the first person to condemn Christian heretics when he wrote “Of whom is Hymeneus and Alexander, whom I have delivered up to Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme.” The traditional death penalty of stoning apostates and heretics was, in the early church, changed to the spiritual penalty of exile from the community of believers (excommunication). During the “era of persecution”, “the early Christians never thought of using any force save the force of argument to win back their dissident brethren.”
Tertullian, sometimes called “the Father of Western Theology”, argues that no Christian can be a jailer, executioner or even serve in an army as an officer, saying “the duty of a military commander comprises [gives] the right to sit in judgment upon a man’s life, to condemn, to put in chains, to imprison and to torture.” Such a statement is a long way from the horrors of the Inquisition. In fact, Tertullian, a strong advocate for absolute toleration, goes on to say “… it is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature that every man should worship according to his convictions. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion. It must be embraced freely and not forced.”
So, if the earliest Christian theologians and writers denied that Christians had the right or authority to condemn others, or to cause any physical punishment to others, what happened to change that? The answer is quite simple; Christianity became the majority religion and found itself with power over the beliefs and actions of others. By the end of the 4th century, Christianity was the Roman Empire’s only legal religion. From that position, “religious affairs acquired a civil, judicial dimension which they did not begin to lose in Europe until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”
In the introduction to his book, Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe, Edward Peters writes:
“… the experience of heterodox and orthodox beliefs created structures of authority and dissent that affected both spiritual and temporal life in all sphere’s of activity through the first thirteen centuries of European history. After the fourth century the heretic was at odds, not merely with a part of one of the Christian Communities within the Roman Empire, but with the empire itself, conceived and self-proclaimed as a Christian community. An organized, articulated, hierarchical Church now defined orthodoxy in conciliar canons and papal decrees which were read and recognized throughout the Roman-Christian world. Civil sanctions were added to individual and institutional condemnations of particular heretics and heretical and schismatic movements.”
One must not think, however, that it was only that the Roman Christian church used the power and authority of civil government to its advantage; from the 4th century on, civil governments, and structures of European kingdoms and empires used the Christian faith to support their authority and jurisdiction over the lands they claimed for themselves. The relationship in Europe between church and state was a fully realized, co-dependent relationship which both church and state used to their maximum advantage, each propping the other up and each using the other to advance their own agendas … namely, the acquisition of more power and authority over more land and people without limit or restriction.
The condemnation and capital punishment of heretics did not, of course, start with the Roman Church. In the Old Testament / Jewish Bible, it is written in the book of Deuteronomy (12:25) that heretics are to be carefully examined and, if three reputable witnesses will testify that one has “gone and served other gods”, the heretic is to then be led out of the city and “stoned with stones until they die.” In ancient Greece, asebeia – a failure to worship the gods of the orthodox Hellenic pantheon – was a capital crime. Such a law was, in fact, used to sentence the philosopher Socrates to death. In classic Rome, the gods were firmly allied with the state. Heresy and blasphemy stood equal with the crime of treason, and were also punishable by death. According to Durant:
“Where no accuser could be found to denounce an offender, the Roman judge summoned the suspect and made an inquisitio, or inquiry, into the case; from this procedure the medieval inquisition took its form and name.”
Durant goes on to say that, using Roman laws, Eastern emperors inflicted the death penalty on Manicheans and other heretics.
The Romans not only executed their heretics, they recognized the strong role that religion and religious leaders held in their societies, and frequently in direct opposition to the advancement of the Roman Empire into distant lands. In the 1st century, around 57 - 60 A.D., the Roman General Suetonius Paulinus, decided that the Druids of Wales constituted a threat to the Roman Empire for the resistance they inspired in the native Celtic population. He led a Roman force to invade the Welsh island of Anglesey, a sacred centre of the British Druids and of the native Welsh culture, and executed all of the Druids that could be found, as well as destroying their sacred groves, altars and other religious sites on the island. In addition, the Romans also killed most every man, woman and child on the island. As Celtic history was largely an oral history kept by the Druids, this single event destroyed not only the Welsh / British Druids but most of the historical knowledge of their society and culture, as well.
Whether it is coincidental or not, there can be no mistaking the historical view the Roman Church had of itself as the center of the Christian world, just as the Roman Empire had seen itself as the center of the “civilized” world. As Rome wanted its power and authority to extend as far as it could send its legions and government, so the Roman Church wanted its power and authority to spread as far as it could send its missionaries and, eventually, its own armies. Ironically, it can be argued that it was the movement of the Roman Imperial Court from Rome to Constantinople, and the resulting weakness of the Western Roman Empire, which allowed the Roman Church to see itself as completely unrestrained by the secular authority of the Roman Empire. St. Ambrose, the 4th Century Bishop of Milan (the administrative capital of the Western Roman Empire), wrote that “Where matters of faith are concerned it is the custom for bishops to judge Christian emperors, not for Emperors to judge bishops,” and “The emperor is within the church, not above the church.”
The role that the Roman Church saw for itself, as outside of and above any secular authority or limitations, was without precedent in the whole of human history. The Roman Church took on the role of being the authority which confirmed the legitimacy of even kings and, later, of emperors. The Roman Church would frequently use its powers to excommunicate individuals, and to place the lands and people of secular rulers, at all levels, under interdiction as a way to force secular leaders to submit and conform to ecclesiastical authority. The ability to try members of the clergy, of any level, even the lowest clerks, was claimed as the exclusive purview of the church, for crimes and matters both ecclesiastical and temporal. Religious belief was also required for participation in secular activities, jobs, and government. In 1842, G. J. Holyoake was the last (and possibly even the first) person in Britain to be imprisoned on charges of atheism. In 1880, Charles Bradlaugh was elected as Britain’s first openly atheist member of Parliament, although his atheism meant that he could not take the mandatory Oath of Allegiance and was, as a result, barred for several years from taking his rightful seat in Parliament.
In 1095, Pope Urban II added a new weapon to the arsenal of the Roman Church’s power over the whole of Christendom / Europe … crusade. Defined as “War proclaimed by the pope on Christ’s behalf and fought as Christ’s own enterprise for the recovery of Christian property, or in the defence [sic] of Christendom against external or internal foes.” Through the declaration of a Crusade (“Deus Vult” – God Wills (it)), the Pope not only offered any Crusader remission of all sins committed over the course of his lifetime and automatic entry into heaven upon death, he even claimed the authority to, among other things, forgive non-religious debts, if not completely then at least for the duration of the time spent on Crusade, as well as freedom from bondage for serfs and commutation of death sentences for those who would join a Crusade. Though most are recognized as efforts to “free the Holy Lands” from Islam, crusades were also declared to, among other reasons, conquer and convert pagans in the Baltic regions, and to combat heresy.
That last justification for a Crusade, to combat heresy, was the grounds used against the Cathars in southern France and the secular lords who refused to combat that heresy in their own lands. Known as the Albigensian Crusade, what occurred in the Languedoc region of southern France has been called, by some, the first genocide in Europe. Between 1022 and 1328, an unknown number of Cathars were burned for their beliefs and for refusing to renounce those beliefs and rejoin the Roman Church. The “Genocide in Occitan” began on July 22, 1209, the first day of the sacking of the Cathar stronghold of Beziers, which was home to approximately 200 Cathars. The Cistercian Abbot-Commander of the invading forces, Arnaud Amaury, when asked how the Crusaders could tell Cathar from Catholic, is reported to have replied “Kill them all. God will know His own.” This command was obeyed. On that first day alone, some 20,000 residents – men, women, and children – were indiscriminately slaughtered, including as many as 7,000 who had taken refuge in the town’s cathedral. In the end, Beziers was burned to the ground; its people, living and dead, with it.
The traditional figure given for the estimated number of the murdered over the course of the Albigensian Crusade, from the massacre at Beziers in 1209 to the mass burning of the 225 Cathar perfecti of Montségur on March 16, 1244, is 1,000.000. In addition, the Albigensian Crusade also saw the creation of the Holy Inquisition in the Languedoc in 1231, which insured that the toll of dead heretics would not end with the cessation of that Crusade. Durant tells us:
“The most rigorous code of suppression was enacted by Frederick II in 1220-39. Heretics condemned by the church were to be delivered to the “secular arm” – the local authorities – and burned to death.”
“Gregory adopted into the law of the Church Frederick’s legislation of 1224; henceforth Church and state agreed that impenitent heresy was treason, and should be punished with death.”
One of the key aspects of the Albigensian Crusade and its relation to medieval politics is that, for the exact same benefits as going on Crusade in the Holy Land, minor and landless nobles from northern France could go on Crusade, take land, wealth and slaves in southern France and be home again in time for the harvests in their own lands with little to no hardship and a mere 40 days a year commitment. It has also been noted that not only were there few hardships suffered by crusading in southern France but that the rewards were the same for spilling Christian blood in Europe as for spilling the blood of infidel Muslims in the Holy Lands. It was by this method that Simon de Montfort (the Elder) became a major landholder in southern France, and very wealthy as a result, and positioned his son, Simon de Montfort (the Younger) to eventual rise to be the de facto ruler of England and known as “the Kingmaker”.
The reason this Crusade was so important in European medieval history is that, in the feudal age, control of land, through fiefdom and vassalage, was the primary “currency” of power and the more land one controlled, the more powerful they were. In addition, though his rule had little meaning in southern France prior to the Albigensian Crusade, by the end of it the King of France was not only in authority over the region, and even the owner of large portions of it, he NOW had direct coastal access to the Mediterranean Sea, as well.
With the beginning of the Inquisition, the Roman Church’s obsession with ferreting out and punishing heretics of all manner went into high gear. With the death penalty already authorized in both religious and secular law, a new dimension was added when:
“In 1252 Innocent IV permitted the use of torture to obtain a confession. If a confession were made, the individual could recant and be given a canonical penance; if he remained obdurate he was handed over to the secular power which customarily executed heretics by burning at the stake.”
While originally seen as part of the duties of all bishops and archbishops, who “were commanded to visit personally once or twice a year, or to empower their archdeacons or other clerics to visit, every parish in which heresy was thought to exist.” it was difficult to combat the indifference of the bishops who, “When reproached for their inaction they replied: “How can we condemn those who are neither convicted nor confessed?”” In addition,
“Bishop and legate, … were alike unequal to the task of discovering those who shrouded themselves under the cloak of the most orthodox observance; and when by chance a nest of heretics was brought to light, the learning and skill of the average Ordinary failed to elicit a confession from those who professed the most entire accord with the teachings of Rome. In the absence of overt acts, it was difficult to reach the secret thoughts of the sectary. Trained experts were needed whose sole business it should be to unearth the offenders and extort a confession of their guilt.”
Eventually, two mendicant orders, the Dominicans and the Franciscans, were instituted and utilized to meet the new needs of the Roman Church.
It is impossible to know how many were killed under the authority of the Inquisition, to say nothing of the numbers tortured, imprisoned, banished, finned, burned in effigy, or otherwise punished, but the desire to punish heresy as a secular crime did not end with either the middle ages or the reach of the Roman Church. Much of the early experience in America, which colored the idea of a strong separation of church and state, can be seen as following the models so firmly established in Europe over a period of hundreds of years. Some of the ideas or practices which were condemned as heretical 400 years ago are frequently just as insignificant and baffling to us in the modern age as are those of 1,000 years past.
In the 1630s, English Puritans fled to New England and created the Massachusetts Bible Commonwealth.
“In the Bay Colony, the Puritan leaders had a free hand in building their Zion exactly after the blue print which they were confident God had made for them. For a full half century they were permitted to shape their government as they chose, they could legislate against heresy and Sabbath-breaking, they could force attendance at worship, they could control the press, they could make education serve the ends of religion.”
The simple act of calling Roger Williams to the pulpit of the Salem Church drew censure from the General Court. “It seems to the court preposterous to maintain that “a church might run into heresy, apostacy [sic] or tyranny and yet the civil magistrate could not intermeddle.”” Regarding some of the writings of Williams, which were critical of that government:
“To attack the charter, the very foundation of the Bible Commonwealth, was just as dangerous as denying the authority of the State to enforce the decision of the Churches in religious matters, and the Governor and Assistants agreed that Williams should be held to account.”
One of the great “heresies” condemned and attacked by the Bible Commonwealth was Quakerism. In July 1656, two female Quaker missionaries from Barbados arrived in Boston. They were warned by Governor John Endicott to “Take heed ye break not our ecclesiastical law for then ye are sure to stretch by a halter.” When they asked to see a copy of the laws, they were refused. Later, at its meeting in October 1656, “the General Court denounced the Quakers as a “cursed sect of heretics lately risen up in the world”” whom the government needed to take defensive measures against. Wertenbaker tells us that:
“Statues were enacted by which masters of ships bringing Quakers to the colony were to be fined heavily; the Quakers themselves to be severely whipped, and closely confined in the house of correction. Any person concealing or circulating books or “writings concerning their devilish opinions” was to be fined five pounds for “every such book or writing,” while to defend the Quakers or their beliefs was punishable by fine, imprisonment or banishment.”
Roger Williams eventually fled the jurisdiction of the Bible Commonwealth to found the colony of Rhode Island. Wertenbaker says: “The Rhode Island answer is a landmark on the stony road of religious freedom in America, revealing as it does the innate weakness of the fortress of intolerance.”
As we have watched the rise of religious conservatives who seek to again enmesh the government of the United States, not to mention other governments around the globe, in the business of abiding by and enforcing religious laws, we must be aware of the past history of cooperation , if not actual mergers, of governments with religious bodies or beliefs. Contrary to the narrative so frequently spoken by those with obviously religious political agendas, The Framers did not write The Constitution as a document to protect and promote religion in the lives of Americans. They were learned and well-read men who understood the danger represented by state support of religion or religious beliefs. In fact, it must be the case that the parents of many of The Framers knew people who had been involved in, or victims of attempts to create religious states in the British colonies of the New World. I imagine they knew full well what horrors such efforts had wrought on these shores. I only hope that we today can learn to understand and appreciate their fears.
 Law, Stephen, Humanism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2011) p 23
 Pérez, Joseph, The Spanish Inquisition, (Yale Press, 2006) p 100
 Peters, Edward, Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980) p 1
 Lyon, H.R. (editor), The Middle Ages: A Concise Encyclopædia, (Thames and Hudson, 1989) p. 169 [Heresy]
 Vacandard, E. (Elphége), The Inquisition: A Critical and Historic Study of the Coercive Power of the Church (Kindle electronic edition, 1915), Loc 82 of 2170
 ibid., Loc 90 of 2170
 Justo L. Gonzáles, The Story of Christianity, Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (HarperCollins Publishers, 2010), 91–93
 Vacandard, E. (Elphége), The Inquisition: A Critical and Historic Study of the Coercive Power of the Church (Kindle electronic edition, 1915), Loc 90 of 2170
 ibid, Loc 101 of 2170
 Peters, Edward, Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980) p 2
 ibid, p 2
 Durant, Will, The Story of Civilization IV: The Age of Faith, (Simon and Shuster, 1950) p 776
 ibid, p 776
 ibid, p 776 – 777
 ibid, p 777
 Tierney, Brian, The Crisis of Church and State, 1050 – 1300 (Medieval Academy of America, 1988 reprinted 2004), p 9
 ibid, p 9
 ibid, p 9
 Law, Stephen, Humanism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2011) p 23
 ibid, p 23
 Lyon, H.R. (editor), The Middle Ages: A Concise Encyclopædia, (Thames and Hudson, 1989) p. 106 [Crusades]
 Durant, Will, The Story of Civilization IV: The Age of Faith, (Simon and Shuster, 1950) p 588
 O’Shea, Stephen, The Perfect Heresy: The Revolutionary Life and Death of the Medieval Cathars (Walker & Company, 2000), p 9
 Durant, Will, The Story of Civilization IV: The Age of Faith, (Simon and Shuster, 1950) p 775
 Durant, Will, The Story of Civilization IV: The Age of Faith, (Simon and Shuster, 1950) p 778
 ibid, p 779
 O’Shea, Stephen, The Perfect Heresy: The Revolutionary Life and Death of the Medieval Cathars (Walker & Company, 2000), p 72
 Lyon, H.R. (editor), The Middle Ages: A Concise Encyclopædia, (Thames and Hudson, 1989) p 302 [Simon de Montfort the Elder] and [Simon de Montfort the Younger]
 Durant, Will, The Story of Civilization IV: The Age of Faith, (Simon and Shuster, 1950) p 552-579
 Lyon, H.R. (editor), The Middle Ages: A Concise Encyclopædia, (Thames and Hudson, 1989) p 129-130 [Feudalism]
 ibid, p179
 Vacandard, E. (Elphége), The Inquisition: A Critical and Historic Study of the Coercive Power of the Church (Kindle electronic edition, 1915), Loc 988 of 2170 (Kindle electronic edition)
 ibid, Loc 999 of 2170
 ibid, Loc 1009 of 2170
 ibid, Loc 1009 of 2170
 Wertenbaker, Thomas Jefferson, The Puritan Oligarchy (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1947 and 1970), p vii
 ibid, p 216
 ibid, p 216
 ibid, p 227
 ibid, p 227
 ibid, p 228
 ibid, p 228