In earlier posts, we have reviewed the torturous historical path that finally ended with the prohibition of human slavery. Other ancient practices once considered both useful and moral have similarly been pared back in recent centuries.
One is the use of torture to obtain criminal confessions, to punish wrongdoers and terrorize the public (or sometimes even to entertain them). Torture once had wide approval from the state, the church, and the public. Today civilized people consider it so barbarous that their governments only torture prisoners in secret.
The Church’s view of the death penalty has similarly developed in recent years. The execution of dangerous criminals by the state is now seen as “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” that is no longer admissible where “effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens.”
Another modern freedom—despised in earlier ages and even now in some places—is freedom of religion. The persecution of a religious minority might include fines or other punishments for religious speech or public practice. In some places, an absolute prohibition would be enforced by the death penalty. The first Christians were themselves persecuted by the Roman Empire. After the legalization of Christianity, Christians opposed the idea of compelling religious belief. The memory of persecution was fresh, and many scriptural passages counseled tolerance. Exodus 22:21 reminded the ancient Israelites:
“You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
The same message flows from Jesus’ parable of the wheat (the faithful) and the tares (the unbelievers) in which the farmer refused to remove the weeds which had grown up among the wheat:
[H]e replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” [Matt. 13:29–30]
Such verses seemed to preclude the use of violence to either spread or enforce belief in Christianity. The early ecclesiastical writer Tertullian wrote:
“[I]t is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man’s religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion—to which free-will and not force should lead us.” [Tertullian, Ad Scapulam, Chap. II.
This began, however, to change. The persecution of Christians officially ended in the empire in the year 313 A.D., after which, Christians began to have influence in government.
The earliest example of the execution of a heretic by Christians occurred in the year 385 A.D. Priscillian, a Spanish priest had been excommunicated for his unorthodox teachings. Priscillian’s accusers—dissatisfied with the Church’s judgment—brought the matter before a secular court and convinced the emperor Maximus to execute Priscillian.
The execution was broadly condemned. St. Martin of Tours and St. Ambrose protested the execution and Pope Siricius excommunicated Bishop Felix of Trier, in whose city the execution had taken place, and who had supported Priscillian’s accusers.
Accusations of heresy would remain—for centuries—chiefly a matter of church discipline, and not punishable by the state. The issue began to change in the eleventh century with the rise of the Catharists and Albigenses. These sects—in addition to their doctrinal departures from church teaching—also attacked the social institutions of marriage, the family, and property. In his article Religious Toleration, Joseph Pohle noted that the first move came from the state:
“Emperor Frederick II, who was anything but a warm supporter of the papacy, introduced the penalty of burning for heretics by imperial law of 1224. The popes, especially Gregory IX (d. 1241), favored the execution of this imperial law, in which they saw an effective means not alone for the protection of the State, but also for the preservation of the Faith.”
Initially, the purpose of state punishment for heresy was seen as necessary for preserving the civil society itself. It was not long, however, before the distinction between dangerous heretics and civilly harmless heretics became irrelevant. The heresy itself, rather than its societal effects, was all that came to matter at a time when severe punishments were routinely dispensed.
Nor would there be any decline in this brutality with the arrival of Martin Luther’s reformation, as both Protestants and Catholics piously tortured and killed one another. Despite the antagonisms of the Protestant reformation, support for such cruel suppression of heresy began to wane. The blood-lust of the French revolution dulled men’s enthusiasm for slaughter throughout much of the Western world.
The last known western execution for heresy appears to have occurred in 1826 with the hanging of a Spanish schoolmaster by the civil authorities after having been found guilty of deism by Church authorities.
In time, the principle of religious freedom came to be seen as flowing naturally from the dignity of the individual as illustrated in the gospels. The Second Vatican Council in its Declaration on Religious Freedom taught:
“This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.“
The Catechism recognizes the right of every person to freedom of religion and its free exercise, and without “external constraint in religious matters by political authorities.” It declares that it is the duty of government to ensure “the freedom to profess one’s faith, to hand it on, and raise one’s children in it.” [CCC ¶ 2108, 2211]
The time for liberty is coming
Since the fall of man, God has worked through a strategy to bring humanity back to friendship with himself. Part of that plan involved raising mankind—through the nation of Israel—to a moral and practical level such that the world was primed for the coming of Jesus. While the early Christians spread the word about Jesus, their ethical teachings on human dignity and love of neighbor raised the standing of every person, especially that of women, children and slaves, yet in many areas of human freedom, advancement was slow, as we have seen throughout this series.
Despite the often stubborn lack of progress, the evils of slavery, of torture, of religious persecution—when the time was ripe—were washed away as in a flood. These wrongs—once as accepted as the proverbial “death and taxes”—are now viewed as ignorant and evil cruelties. Despite any trends and fads of the moment, the long-term movement is toward liberty. The coercive state is headed for the same scrap heap as these earlier evils.