The more I examine the historical documents of Roman Catholicism, the more convinced I am that the Protestant Reformation was a good idea. Believe it or not, the belief that heretics should be burned to death is the historic and infallible declaration of Catholicism. In the papal bull Exsurge Domine by Pope Leo X condemning the errors of Martin Luther, Leo declared that it is an error to be opposed to the burning of heretics. Among the list of errors he opposed were:
- That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit.
In other words, if you say that burning heretics to death is against the will of the Spirit, you are in error. This document meets the requirements for infallibility since Pope Leo X was acting as the pope when issuing this decree: “In virtue of our pastoral office committed to us by the divine favor we can under no circumstances tolerate or overlook any longer the pernicious poison of the above errors without disgrace to the Christian religion.” He closes by saying:
“No one of sound mind is ignorant how destructive, pernicious, scandalous, and seductive to pious and simple minds these various errors are, how opposed they are to all charity and reverence for the holy Roman Church who is the mother of all the faithful and teacher of the faith. . . . We have therefore held a careful inquiry, scrutiny, discussion, strict examination, and mature deliberation with each of the brothers, the eminent cardinals of the holy Roman Church, as well as the priors and ministers general of the religious orders, besides many other professors and masters skilled in sacred theology and in civil and canon law. We have found that these errors or theses are not Catholic, as mentioned above, and are not to be taught, as such; but rather are against the doctrine and tradition of the Catholic Church, and against the true interpretation of the sacred Scriptures received from the Church. . . . With the advice and consent of these our venerable brothers, with mature deliberation on each and every one of the above theses, and by the authority of almighty God, the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and our own authority, we condemn, reprobate, and reject completely each of these theses or errors as either heretical, scandalous, false, offensive to pious ears or seductive of simple minds, and against Catholic truth. By listing them, we decree and declare that all the faithful of both sexes must regard them as condemned, reprobated, and rejected. . . . We restrain all in the virtue of holy obedience and under the penalty of an automatic major excommunication.”
He strictly forbids anyone from reading the writings of Martin Luther:
“Moreover, because the preceding errors and many others are contained in the books or writings of Martin Luther, we likewise condemn, reprobate, and reject completely the books and all the writings and sermons of the said Martin, whether in Latin or any other language, containing the said errors or any one of them; and we wish them to be regarded as utterly condemned, reprobated, and rejected. We forbid each and every one of the faithful of either sex, in virtue of holy obedience and under the above penalties to be incurred automatically, to read, assert, preach, praise, print, publish, or defend them.”
This is in direct contrast to the teaching of Pope Francis who called Luther “a witness to the gospel” and said that he did not err on justification. If Luther did not err on justification, then who exactly was the Council of Trent condemning? The document also makes reference to “the heresy of the Greeks” reflecting the traditional belief of Unam sanctam that the Eastern Orthodox are heretics outside the church.
This is why Catholics who know their history must defend the historical practice of burning heretics to death as the lesser of two evils since those countries which executed heretics avoided turning to Protestantism. Thomas Aquinas agreed with this judgment since heretics corrupt the faith which alone is the way to salvation. Whereas a murderer only kills the body, a heretic kills the soul. But then when it comes to torturing heretics, they can claim that these “were not specifically moral teachings protected by infallibility.”
All of this is in keeping with the decree Ad abolendam by Pope Lucius III which approved of putting heretics to death and was repeated at the Fourth Lateran Council. The Reformer Jan Hus was burned at the stake following his condemnation by the infallible Council of Constance. His death is just one example among many. In addition to the burning of heretics, there are many other things in church history that are embarrassing to Catholics.
In response to the charge that burning heretics is immoral, someone might argue that it is moral because God in the Old Testament required certain sinners to be punished with fire. But these laws are only moral because God explicitly commanded Israel to do this to paint a picture of hell. If hell does not exist, then it would be immoral. On the other hand, no church or state has the authority to burn heretics to death because this command was given to Israel alone and therefore to do so today would be immoral. There is no warrant for the state today to enforce the first table of the law or burn people to death. This law was for Israel alone as a theocracy and no nation today is the same as theocratic Israel.