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I am not asking if Roman Catholics find a biblical basis for burning an heretic; that question has been asked here. This question has to do with infallible statements by a Pope regarding how the faithful must think about the burning of heretics.

In the Papal Encyclical Exsurge Domine (1520) given by Pope Leo X we find, among other things, the following:

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….

One of the theses listed within the encyclical (which I understand to have been given ex cathedra and therefore to be infallible) which is under condemnation is the thesis that "the burning of heretics is against the Holy Spirit":

  1. That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit.

Here is a link to a scholarly paper describing how Exsurge Domina meets all five of the criteria for papal infallibility. This paper also describes how the development of the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, dogmatically defined in 1868, was always intended to incorporate the "thousands and thousands" of infallible definitions already issued by the Roman see over the history of the Church:

In other words, (Bishop) Gasser was able to assert “in passing”--that is, as something which did not need arguing and would be taken for granted by his audience-- that there had already been “thousands and thousands” of infallible definitions issued by the Roman see! Even if he did not intend to be taken quite literally and meant only to make the point that “a great many” such definitions were “Ex-Cathedra,” it is obvious that he was not only referring to solemn definitions of revealed truth, such as Pius IX’s definition of the Immaculate Conception a few years previously. There have in fact been only a few such definitions. So Gasser obviously meant to include the many Papal definitions of secondary truths, including censures less than heresy, as genuine “Ex-Cathedra,” infallible definitions.

According to Pope Leo X it is infallibly declared that "We restrain in all the virtue of holy obedience and under the penalty of an automatic major excommunication that all the faithful of both sexes must regard as condemned, reprobated, and rejected the idea that the burning of an heretic is against the will of the Holy Spirit".

If the burning of heretics is not against the will of the Holy Spirit then God must either favor the action or be indifferent towards it. There is nothing within this encyclical indicating which of these two options is correct but it is clear that one cannot be both a faithful Catholic and believe that burning heretics is against the will of God.

Also in this encyclical, there is a command to gather and publicly burn any and all works containing or promulgating any of these theses:

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. They will incur these penalties if they presume to uphold them in any way, personally or through another or others, directly or indirectly, tacitly or explicitly, publicly or occultly, either in their own homes or in other public or private places. Indeed immediately after the publication of this letter these works, wherever they may be, shall be sought out carefully by the ordinaries and others [ecclesiastics and regulars], and under each and every one of the above penalties shall be burned publicly and solemnly in the presence of the clerics and people.

So it appears that every Roman Catholic is specifically commanded not to believe "that heretics should be burned is against the will of the Spirit" and disobedience incurs automatic major excommunication.

Are Roman Catholics in general taught, and do they understand, that they are infallibly commanded, under penalty of automatic major excommunication, to believe that; 1) God favors (or is at least indifferent to) the burning of heretics and, 2) that Roman Catholic Bishops and regular clergy should be regularly collecting and publicly burning anything promulgating Martin Luther's ideas ... or has something occurred which has rendered this injunction fallible?

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  • 2
    Encyclicals are authoritative, not to be criticized or rejected lightly by members of the Church, but they are not infallible. Only three doctrines developed in the past 200 years are considered infallible, and all were issued as bulls: the Immaculate Conception (that Mary was born without original sin), the Assumption (that Mary was taken up body and soul into heaven), and the definition of papal infallibility issued by the First Vatican Council.
    – Ken Graham
    Apr 14, 2023 at 14:36
  • 3
    @KenGraham Pardon me ? The definition of papal infallibility is, itself, defined as 'infallible' ? But how can papal infallibility be stated before the infallible definition of infallibility is uttered ? ? ?
    – Nigel J
    Apr 14, 2023 at 14:46
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    Sequence of events: Papal Encyclical on Immaclate Conception by Pope Pius IX on 8 December 1854. 1st Vatican Council on Papal Infalibility by Pope Pius IX on 29 June 1868. Papal Encyclical on Assumption of Mary by Pope Pius XII on 1 November 1950.
    – Lesley
    Apr 14, 2023 at 16:27
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    @eques You are not allowed to believe the following - "That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit." and you are automatically excommunicated if you do - "We restrain all in the virtue of holy obedience and under the penalty of an automatic major excommunication". Why does this not cover those two ideas? Apr 17, 2023 at 21:59
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    @MikeBorden because as I said it conflates two things: necessity of belief (Dogma) with juridical power (the ability of the Pope or others to assign punishments for violations of Church Law). A major excommunication is a penalty imposed by law not an effect of denying something to be believed. Major Excommunication as a category hasn't existed in law since at least 1983 so of course it's not binding on Catholics today.
    – eques
    Apr 18, 2023 at 17:17

4 Answers 4

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If we grant the claim that Exsurge Domine is infallible teaching, then there is no "still" about it. That just reframes the question, of course. There are some Catholics who (wrongly) believe that the death penalty is forbidden by the Church, and if you present them with this historical tidbit, they will not argue that an infallible doctrine has changed, rather that (they think) it was not infallible to begin with.

Historically the death penalty has been used in many Catholic nations including the Papal States, and it is endorsed by God in the Bible. The statement in Exsurge Domine says little more than that: that capital punishment for heresy is not forbidden by divine law.

The encyclical does not say that executing heretics is mandatory for Catholics, or even that it's a wise policy.

You have summarized the encyclical in a very odd way:

So it appears that every Roman Catholic is specifically commanded not to believe "that heretics should be burned is against the will of the Spirit" and disobedience incurs automatic major excommunication.

Catholics are rarely "commanded" to "not believe" something that came up in a debate between other people many centuries ago. It is unlikely that a Catholic today would know about the arguments raised in this debate, or have a firm opinion about which arguments are stronger. Even if a modern Catholic thinks that burning heretics is wrong, that might not be heresy, rather it might just be an opinion about the impracticality or ineffectiveness of such a policy. The only case for an "excommunication" would be a modern Catholic who was (1) specifically certain that burning heretics is against the will of the Spirit, and (2) told somebody about his oddly strong opinion about a long-since-irrelevant issue, and (3) didn't accept correction from the Church, assuming some representative of the Church had the time and interest to correct him.

EDIT: The OP says "This question has to do with infallible statements by a Pope regarding how the faithful must think about the burning of heretics." What I am saying is, the faithful aren't required to think about the burning of heretics at all. And if they do, there are lots of things they can think about it, except this one particular thing which is forbidden (again assuming Exsurge Domine is infallible).

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  • +1 Isn't this "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. " part of what was infallibly stated? If so, isn't every Catholic currently forbidden (under penalty) from believing that burning heretics is against the will of the Spirit? May 23, 2023 at 11:37
  • Yes. But, you don't "command" a non-belief. A Catholic's catechism isn't a list of things we don't believe (unless it addresses certain common errors). For most Catholics, this particular claim isn't ever going to be an issue.
    – workerjoe
    May 23, 2023 at 13:49
  • So, because the language of Exsurge Domina doesn't forbid believing or thinking certain things, believing or thinking them is okay as long as those things are not read, asserted, preached, praised, printed, published, or defended? A Catholic may, in good faith, believe that God is against burning heretics but they are forbidden to say so? May 24, 2023 at 11:08
  • I would distinguish between someone who "thinks" something versus "believes" something. To "believe" is to put a thought into some kind of action. According to Exsurge Domine, this thought that the Holy Spirit is against the death penalty for heresy is incorrect. And we should all strive to learn more about the faith and correct our errors. However, if a person has this incorrect thought but he never brings it up in conversation or turns it into action (e.g., voting), how is he ever going to know that he's in error? Mortal sin requires full knowledge and deliberate consent.
    – workerjoe
    May 24, 2023 at 14:11
  • The erroneous view condemned is that capital punishment is inadmissible for heresy; that doesn't follow that capital punishment must be administered in any case for heresy only that it isn't "against the Spirit." Again, the bit about "holy obedience" etc that you latch on to isn't the infallible statement per se.
    – eques
    May 24, 2023 at 18:18
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Well, yes. Whether or not Exsurge Domini is infallible, and to what degree (All of it? Part of it? Which parts?) is probably up for debate, but we can assume for the sake of simplicity that this particular condemnation is infallible. A short note, someone else mentioned that encyclicals are authoritative but not infallible. That's not precisely correct. Encyclicals can teach authoritatively and infallibly if they give a definitive doctrine, and there is at least some reason to believe that this is definitive.

So are Catholics compelled to beleive that the burning of a heretic is not against the will of the Holy Spirit (ie the Divine Will)? Sure, I don't see any problem with this. All this teaching is saying is that preaching heresy is a capital crime, and thus to put a heretic to death does not violate the Divine Law.

What is this teaching not saying? This teaching is not saying that

  • Catholics must put heretics to death even if it is illegal in their nation
  • It is prudent to put heretics to death in all scenarios
  • Even that it is generally prudent to put heretics to death in all cultures at all times
  • Catholics must support policies that move towards legalizing the death penalty for heretics

All this teaches is that heresy is a crime which can warrant the death penalty in at least some scenarios, and thus that a nation which puts heretics to death is not doing something intrinsically evil nor even generally immoral. You can still be of the opinion that it is imprudent, unnecessary, or excessive in certain circumstances.

Seems to me to accord with the historical and current teaching of the Church on the death penalty.

1

Is the statement "That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit." still a statement which is against Catholic truth?

I really do not see how this would be an infallible statement.

Are Roman Catholics in general taught, and do they understand, that they are infallibly commanded, under penalty of automatic major excommunication, to believe that; 1) God favors (or is at least indifferent to) the burning of heretics and, 2) that Roman Catholic Bishops and regular clergy should be regularly collecting and publicly burning anything promulgating Martin Luther's ideas ... or has something occurred which has rendered this injunction fallible?

Not all encyclicals are infallible and not everything in encyclicals infallible.

I am not condoning what was written. But such talk is not binding on Catholics.

Even St. Thomas Aquinas states that those sentenced to be executed are not be carried out by ordinary members of society, but must be carried out by those of proper authority, otherwise anarchy would surely take place. Burning of heretics is not for the ordinary faithful to carry out.

Such things happened historically on both sides. The Church is not always correct in the way She handled historical events.

Papal infallibility has very strict rules as to when may be employed.

Is Every Encyclical Infallible?

The short answer is no. Vatican I’s decree “Eternal Pastor” taught: “The Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when discharging the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, and defines with his supreme apostolic authority a doctrine concerning faith or morals that is to be held by the universal Church, through the divine assistance promised him in St. Peter, exercises that infallibility which the divine Redeemer wishes to endow his Church for defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.”

Infallibility is a guarantee that neither the pope teaching individually as the Church’s supreme pastor nor the pope teaching in communion with the whole college of bishops can mislead the faithful on an issue essential to salvation. Encylicals remain very important teaching documents. No pope since 1870 has designated an encyclical as an exercise of papal infallibility, which requires three conditions: 1) the subject is a matter of faith or morals, 2) the pope must be teaching as supreme pastor, and 3) the pope must indicate that the teaching is infallible.

Since 1870, the only such teaching is the 1950 definition by Pope Pius XII of Mary’s assumption. Some people have argued that every canonization is an infallible statement, but that opinion is not official Church teaching.

I do not see anything in the above post meeting the three requirements that make your assurances bindings on Catholics.

The following may be of interest to some:

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  • "No pope since 1870 has designated an encyclical as an exercise of papal infallibility" The encyclical in question is from 1520 so how does the last 200 years answer the question? Apr 15, 2023 at 12:08
  • It seems like the strongest language is used up to and including by the authority of Almighty God "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". Apr 15, 2023 at 12:12
  • And by all that authority "We restrain all in the virtue of holy obedience and under the penalty of an automatic major excommunication". If you do not think about burning heretics in accordance with this encyclical you are automatically excommunicated. Are you saying Pope Leo X was wrong/fallible in using this very strong language? Apr 15, 2023 at 12:16
  • 2
    @MikeBorden if the last 200 years doesn't answer the question, then your linked document purporting to show the encyclical is infallible also doesn't answer the question since it is based upon the same 1870 declaration that Ken refers to
    – eques
    Apr 17, 2023 at 21:11
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    The more important point is that the doctrine outlined in 1870 is applicable to statements made earlier than 1870.
    – eques
    Apr 18, 2023 at 17:15
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There are three issues to consider.

1. Whether the statement is indeed infallible, as it appears to be from its introduction:

"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,"

From a table in John P. Joy's dissertation for STL "Cathedra Veritatis: On the Extension of Papal Infallibility" [1], p. 89, we see that the condemnations of Exsurge Domine are included in 2 out of 3 lists of infallible papal definitions (namely in those made by Louis Billot and by Edmond Dublanchy, but not in that made by Klaus Schatz).

The disagreement on whether the condemnations are infallible lies precisely on the next issue.

2. The nature of the condemnation. Quoting Exsurge Domine, it condemns...

each of these theses or errors as either heretical, scandalous, false, offensive to pious ears or seductive of simple minds, and against Catholic truth.

In latin:

praefatos omnes et singulos articulos seu errores, tanquam (ut praemittitur) respective haereticos, aut scandalosos, aut falsos, aut piarum aurium offensivos, vel simplicium mentium seductivos, et veritate Catholicae obviantes,

As explained and exemplified in [2] & [3], "Aut tends to join alternatives that are mutually exclusive, and when correlated (aut...aut) the one will positively exclude the other." Therefore the Pope defines that

  • some of the condemned propositions are simply false (but not heretical),

  • some others are outright heretical (and therefore also false), and

  • yet some others are just "offensive to pious ears or seductive of simple minds".

Since the Pope did not state the censure that applies to each proposition, from Exsurge Domine alone any of the condemned propositions may be only "offensive to pious ears or seductive of simple minds". And the point is that this censure is time-dependent! E.g., denying the historical factuality of a Flood that wiped out all terrestrial animals, including humans, except those in an ark was "offensive to pious ears" in 1520 but is not so today (at least not to many of today's "pious ears", although there may still be many "simple minds" that cannot disconnect the historicity of the Flood from that of Jesus' Resurrection).

The problem here, as noted in [1] p. 93, is that the final censure (veritate catholicae obviantes) is introduced with et (and) instead of aut, and therefore it applies to all propositions. Therefore, if "veritate catholicae obviantes" is understood as "erroneous", then the Pope is condemning all propositions as erroneous and therefore the condemnation is infallible and time-independent. But if "veritate catholicae obviantes" = "erroneous" then the whole construct does not make sense, because how can a proposition be neither heretical nor even simply false and at the same time be erroneous?

The key here is the meaning of the verb obviō, of which obviantes is the plural present participle in the nominative case: resisting, withstanding, preventing, hindering [4]. Now, I propose that a particular proposition may resist, withstand, prevent or hinder the Catholic truth in any of two ways:

  • either intrinsically, if the proposition is erroneous (this includes the false and heretical censures),

  • or circumstantially, if the proposition, even when not false in itself, in the concrete epistemic context of a particular time either made it difficult to hold a Catholic truth or made it easy to hold an error (this includes the "offensive to pious ears or seductive of simple minds" censure).

Thus, as far as we can know from Exsurge Domine alone it may be the case that the proposition "That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit" "resisted, withstood, prevented or hindered the Catholic truth" in 1520 because in the concrete epistemic context of that time it made it easy to hold an error, e.g. indiferentism, just as heliocentrism 100 years later "resisted, withstood, prevented or hindered the Catholic truth" because in the concrete epistemic context of that time it made it difficult to hold the truth of biblical inerrancy even in the scope in which God wants it to be held.

3. The scope of the condemned proposition

Focusing now on the particular proposition:

  1. That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit.

XXXIII. Haereticos comburi est contra voluntatem Spiritûs.

if we interpret it with Exsurge Domine as its sole context, i.e. taking Exsurge Domine in isolation, it may be understood in any of 3 senses:

  • The universal sense: That all heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit.

  • The majoritarian sense: That most heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit.

  • The minimal sense: That any heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit.

Now, is this context-free exegesis legitimate? In principle one could say that, if the Pope wanted to enforce a particular text X as context for the interpretation of the proposition, he should have placed a reference to X next to the proposition. And that would have been correct if X had been a text from a particular Church Father, or saint, or bishop, etc. But in this case the text X in question is from a previous Ecumenical Council, that is from previous Church magisterium, and all previous Church magisterium is implicitely assumed as context for interpreting a piece of Church magisterium (the "hermeneutic of continuity" of Benedict XVI).

The text X in question is in canon 3 of the Lateran IV Ecumenical Council [5] [6] [7]:

Secular authorities, whatever office they may hold, shall be admonished and induced and if necessary compelled by ecclesiastical censure, that as they wish to be esteemed and numbered among the faithful, so for the defense of the faith they ought publicly to take an oath that they will strive in good faith and to the best of their ability to exterminate in the territories subject to their jurisdiction all heretics pointed out by the Church;

Moneantur autem et inducantur et si necesse fuerit per censuram ecclesiasticam compellantur saeculares potestates quibuscumque fungantur officiis ut sicut reputari cupiunt et haberi fideles ita pro defensione fidei praestent publice iuramentum quod de terris suae iurisdictioni subiectis universos haereticos ab ecclesia denotatos bona fide pro viribus exterminare studebunt

Therefore, the only legitimate interpretation of the scope of the condemned proposition is in the universal sense: "universos haereticos", "all heretics". (But see [8].)

Conclusion:

A Catholic can hold that the censure that applies to proposition 33 is "offensive to pious ears or seductive of simple minds", which is time-dependent. The reason for that censure is clear: canon 3 of the 1215 Lateran IV Ecumenical Council had ordered secular authorities to exterminate all heretics in the territories subject to their jurisdiction. After that order was abrogated by the declaration Dignitatis Humanae of the 1965 Vatican II Ecumenical Council, proposition 33 is no longer "offensive to pious ears or seductive of simple minds".

Alternatively, a Catholic can hold that the censure that applies to proposition 33 is "false", which is not time-dependent, and therefore that the contradictory proposition, i.e. "That (all) heretics be burned is not against the will of the Spirit", must be held firmly by all Catholics at all times. (Of course, that opinion would be binding only for him.) Whether and how that position could be harmonized with Dignitatis Humanae is another story, outside the scope of this answer.

References

[1] https://www.academia.edu/35624835/

[2] https://latin.stackexchange.com/questions/40/whats-the-difference-between-vel-aut-ve-et-cetera

[3] https://latindiscussion.org/threads/distinctions-between-aut-vel-and-sive-seu.25901/

[4] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/obvians#Latin

[5] Lateran IV, English & Latin: http://ldysinger.stjohnsem.edu/@magist/1215_Lateran4_ec12/02_lat4_c01-22.htm

[6] Lateran IV, Latin only: http://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/1215-1215,_Concilium_Lateranense_IIII,_Documenta,_LT.pdf

[7] Lateran IV, English only: https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/lateran4.asp

[8] Since a few Catholic sites have translated "de terris suae iurisdictioni subiectis [...] exterminare" as "to expel from the lands subject to their jurisdiction", I have placed a question in latin.stackexchange.com on the meaning of exterminare in the Lateran IV canon, specifically whether it is kill or expel: https://latin.stackexchange.com/questions/21008/meaning-of-exterminare-in-xiii-century-ecclesiastical-latin

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  • Thank you for this answer. Two questions for clarification please. 1) Isn't there a 4th sense ... a general sense? Since neither Omnes, Maximos, nor Aliquos are actually present couldn't it be understood as the burning of heretics generally, in principle? 2) If the 3rd sense is accurate, are you saying that Catholics are only required to identify one heretic who was burned which was not against the will of the Spirit and they are free to believe God did not favor all the rest? Jun 4, 2023 at 20:22
  • To me, it is clear that the general sense "as the burning of heretics generally, in principle" amounts to, at the very least, the majority sense. "In principle burn them all, but if it happens to be the village idiot, you may spare him."
    – Johannes
    Jun 4, 2023 at 20:41
  • Regarding 2), there is no need to identify the concrete heretic whose beliefs, attitude or both were so detrimental to the faithful at that time and place that burning him or her was not against the will of God. Just accepting that surely sometime, someplace, there was one such heretic is enough.
    – Johannes
    Jun 4, 2023 at 20:52
  • @MikeBorden the general sense you propose would be equivalent to the "aliquos" sense Johannes describes. That is, the negation of No heretics may be burnt (the implied result of "the burning of heretics is against the Spirit") is not all heretics must be burnt but that at least some heretics may be burnt.
    – eques
    Jun 4, 2023 at 22:24
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    It's countering a claim that it is heretical (against the spirit) to use capital punishment for heresy. It's not making a claim about individual execution at all. Or in other words, any particular execution may have been done unjustly or on flawed process, etc and no affect the underlying principle. In a similar way, if SCOTUS ruled that capital punishment was not unconstitutional (as they did in the 1970s), it doesn't mean that all uses of capital punishment before or since were valid or constitutional.
    – eques
    Jun 5, 2023 at 18:30

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