Saturday, October 22, 2005
Burning Heretics and the Will of the Spirit
A Reformed Protestant friend continues our discussion: 'I was just reading the papal bull issued to Luther --Exsurge Domine. One of the things the bull condemns and views heretical is item 33. "That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit". So I guess the pope *_did _*believe that burning heretics is the will of the Spirit....' I wouldn't be surprised if various clerical authorities, including the pope, were supportive of capital punishment via burning at the stake. I can only be thankful that this is not dogma. Pope Leo X did not go on to state his objections to that item 33 as motivated by some doctrine that burning heretics is indeed the will of the Spirit. He didn't and I can only thank God for that. On the other hand, neither can the Church assent to Luther's assertion about the will of the Spirit because we have no authority to assert that. Scriptures do speak of rebels against God dying in various ways, some quite horrible. True, too, that Scriptures warn those who oppose God of unquenching/eternal flames in Hell. I know you call this equivocation, but, to me, that's exegesis. There are difficult passages like that couple dropping dead when St. Peter exposed them of pulling a fast one on the Church. Did St. Peter will them to die? I don't know, but he didn't act surprised when they did. Was it the power of God that slew them? Sure looks like it. God is a loving Father but also a righteous judge. I think item 33 up there from Luther opens up a point of apparent contradiction with Scriptures which can cause confusion. The proper doctrine is that God as righteous judge has the right to pass sentence over the guilty with severe penalties, but we have constant recourse to "the mercy of almighty God who does not wish the death of a sinner but rather that he be converted and live," as stated in the same papal bull. That item cited by the papal bull is not in itself clear about this complicated relationship between mercy and justice. Hence, I would agree that item 33 should be withdrawn in favor of a more complete explanation. Scriptures are clear about the severe penalties against those who cause scandals that cause the fall of those whose faith is yet weak. It is unpleasant to think about it, but the warnings against those responsible for such scandals are clear and are clearly severe. In that papal bull in question, I think what the Pope is saying is "don't say that" rather than saying "the opposite is true." Note as well that this was a rather violent age (16th century). An assent to such punishment on both sides of the Tiber reflects what is known about that period: tolerance had not yet taken root. Finally, I will again assure you that papal infallibility does not mean impeccability. Several popes were guilty of various villainy, including political maneuvers as well as directly condoning sinful acts, but not as dogma. Infallibility is always about universal doctrine on faith and morals, and is always given and driven by the Holy Spirit, in spite of the unsuitableness of the vessel (the apostles and bishops). When I trust the Magisterium, I am not putting my trust in the persons of the bishops and the pope, but on the Holy Spirit. I would also suggest reading through an informative discussion over at Amy Welborn's blog, Open Book, about torture, papal decrees and other such matters. There are some interesting insights in that discussion from a few months ago.