History Of Toleration

This article covers History of Toleration.

In any attempt to deal historically with the attitude of the Church towards religious toleration two considerations have throughout to be kept in mind. In the first place, nearly all ecclesiastical legislation in regard to the repression of heresy proceeds upon the assumption that heretics are in wilful revolt against lawful authority, that they are, in fact, apostates who by their own culpable act have renounced the true faith into which they were baptized, breaking the engagements made by them, or by sponsors in their name, when they became members of the Church of Christ. It is easy to see that in the Middle Ages this was not an unreasonable assumption. The Church of God was then indeed as a city set upon a hill. No one could be ignorant of her claims, and if certain people repudiated her authority it was by an act of rebellion inevitably carrying with it a menace to the sovereignty which the rest of the world accepted. This at least was the case with the Cathari, the Waldenses, and the Albigenses, with the Lollards and the Hussites, and it was still the case with the immediate followers of Luther, of Calvin, of Knox, and of the other early Reformers. Only by degrees and after a considerable lapse of time did generations come into being who could be regarded as inculpably heretical, for the plea of invincible ignorance implies not only that their education took place entirely under heretical influences, but also that they could attain adult life without being effectively confronted with the claims which the true Church makes upon the loyalty of reasonable men. It might plausibly be maintained, for example, that such conditions were at no time realized among the Huguenots of France, or in the more Catholic districts of Central Europe. Hence we cannot be entirely surprised that there were those who excused such measures as the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, or who supported the repressive legislation which was inaugurated by the Catholic sovereigns of Poland and Hungary in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

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In the second place it is to be remembered that owing to the fact that the canon law deals very largely with the enunciation of principles of right and wrong which are of their own nature irreformable, the direct repeal of its provisions has never or very rarely been resorted to. This course undoubtedly has the great advantage of inspiring respect for the sanctity and stability of the law, but the consequence follows that there remain upon the statute-book a number of enactments which owing to changed conditions are to all practical intents and purposes obsolete. The medieval legislation of the Church with regard to usury, testamentary dispositions, matrimony, and especially heresy, largely falls under this category, while the natural result of the retention of a considerable mass of obsolescent decretals must be the creation of an element of, at least temporary, uncertainty, under which some will favour and others resist the legislation that is passing away. For example there was bound to be a period during which rigourists would still appeal to the very uncompromising measures in dealing with heretics which were contemplated by many texts of the canon law, while on the other hand larger-minded contemporaries who were themselves perhaps living under political conditions which forced them to appreciate the advantages of toleration, tended to treat these same provisions as a dead letter and to deny them all validity in practical life. The effect of both these considerations has been to make it extremely difficult to draw a hard-and-fast line between the circumstances under which the Church recognized the desirability of a large toleration of dissident opinions on the ground both of justice and expediency, and those under which it seemed a duty to stamp out by a policy of firm repression an evil germ which threatened indefinite mischief to the well-being of Christian society. Every lawfully-constituted society must put down on principle the propagation of such sedition as threatens its own existence, and this is not persecution so long as reason and humanity are respected in the means of suppression employed.

suffering and persecution

suffering and persecution

Persecution begins when no reasonable proportion is observed between the force used in compulsion and the importance and power of the interests which it is sought to control. To determine the exact point at which legitimate repression passes into persecution is hence a matter of extreme difficulty. For this reason we should probably obtain a clearer view of the toleration of the Church in past history by studying the relations of the papacy with those bodies which like the Jews and pagans were recognized as lying outside her direct jurisdiction. Regarded as a centre of spiritual authority the Holy See did not claim the unbaptized as subjects, but still the popes as sovereigns of a temporal state had to adopt a definite attitude towards the Jews who lived in their dominions. Tracing these relations as a whole and comparing them with the ideas which prevailed among secular rulers of the time the principles formulated, and for the most part acted upon, by the popes, set an example of mildness to the rest of Europe. As early as A.D. 598, Gregory the Great clearly laid down that the Jews, while they were to be restrained from presuming upon the toleration accorded to them by the law, had a claim to be treated equitably and justly. They were to be allowed to keep their own festivals and religious practices, and their rights of property, even in the case of their synagogues, were to be respected (Greg. Mag. Regesta, M. G. H., II, 67 and 383). In the later Middle Ages there may be traced through a long series of pontificates the repeated confirmations of the Bull, assignable probably in the first instance to Pope Callixtus II (c. 1120) and known as “Sicut Judæis”. It was a sort of papal charter of protection to the Jews and in its first sentence are embodied certain words of one of Gregory the Great’s letters just referred to. “As licence”, says this document, “ought not to be allowed to the Jews to presume in their synagogues beyond what is permitted by the law so they ought not to be interfered with in such things as are allowed. We therefore, although they prefer to continue in their hardness of heart rather than be guided by the hidden meaning of the prophets to a knowledge of the Christian faith, do nevertheless, since they invoke our protection and aid, following in the footsteps of our predecessors and out of the mildness of Christian piety, extend to them the shield of our protection.” The document then lays down;

  1. that the Jews are not to be compelled by force to embrace Christianity, but are only to be baptized of their own free will;
  2. that apart from a judicial sentence in a court of law no one is to injure them in life or limb or to take away their property or to interfere with such customary rights as they may have enjoyed in the places where they live;
  3. that they are not to be attacked with sticks and stones on occasion of their festival celebrations, nor are they to be compelled to render any feudal services beyond such as are customary;
  4. that their cemeteries in particular are not to violated. (See M. Stern, “Urkundliche Beiträge”, n. 171.) This charter reissued and confirmed as it was by some twenty or thirty pontiffs during a period of 400 years is certainly of much more weight as laying down the Church’s view of the duty of toleration, as an abstract principle, than any persecuting edicts evoked by special circumstances or coloured by the prepossessions of the individual legislator.

Looking at the documents of unquestioned authenticity extracted by Stern from the papal Regesta it becomes clear that throughout the later Middle Ages the Jews in almost every emergency turned to the popes as to their natural protectors. Despite such legislation as that of the Fourth Council of Lateran (1215) imposing the wearing of a distinctive badge and excluding Jews from public offices, still even such a summary as that in the Jewish Encyclopedia (s.v. “POPES”) distinctly leaves the impression that the Holy See exercised on the whole a markedly restraining influence on the persecuting spirit of the Middle Ages. In particular, more than one of the popes, beginning with Innocent IV, issued Bulls exonerating the Jews from that charge of ritual murder, which, as in the well-known story of little Hugh of Lincoln, prejudiced public opinion so strongly against them (cf. Vacandard, “La Question du meurtre rituel chez les Juifs” in “Etudes de critique et d’histoire religieuse”, 3d series, Paris, 1912). It was again the popes (e.g., Sixtus IV and Clement VII) who at the time of the worst excesses of the Spanish Inquisition exerted themselves to set some check upon the severities exercised against the Maranos in the Iberian Peninsula. The edicts issued at various times for the destruction of copies of the Talmud, the Bull “Cum nimis absurdum” of Paul IV constraining the Jews of Rome to live segregated in a Ghetto and subject to other harassing disabilities, represent rather the prejudices of individual pontiffs than any consistent principle of persecution. Let it also be noted that the influence of the Church has repeatedly been exerted for the protection of pagan races against forcible conversion, and that it has freely tolerated such religious rites amongst savages as were not openly debasing and immoral. The history of the preaching of Christianity in the New World shows many examples in which the fanatical zeal lay with the profligate Spanish adventurers who conquered the country, while ecclesiastical authority advocated sympathy with the natives and indulgence for their religious observances. On the other hand this indulgence shown to pagan customs, obviously enough, could not be extended without limit. Even British rule in India ultimately considered it desirable to abolish the practice of suttee by which the wives of the upper classes were required to commit suicide upon the death of their husbands. This, however, was not effectively prohibited, even in the British provinces, until 1829.

Galileo Galilei facing the Roman Inquisition, Cristiano Banti[99][100]

Galileo Galilei facing the Roman Inquisition, Cristiano Banti.

With regard to the toleration of Christian heretics and schismatics the reader will do well to consult the article INQUISITION. No very systematic measures of repression seem to have come into practice before the twelfth century. The aggressive attitude adopted in the case of the Priscillianists (q.v.) and Donatists was owing less to the action of the bishops than to that of the emperor. On the other hand, it cannot be disputed that after the authority of the popes was firmly established, ecclesiastical campaigns were undertaken against the Cathari, the Waldenses, and Albigenses as well as later on against the followers of Wicklif and Hus. Moreover isolated executions for heresy (burning at the stake being commonly employed for this purpose) were known before the twelfth century both in East and West; though at the same time the actual infliction of the punishment, then as after, must be regarded as an act of the civil power rather than that of any ecclesiastical tribunal. But though an Inquisition of heretical practices may be regarded as having been first formally set up, at any rate in embryo, about the second half of the thirteenth century no measures of extreme severity were in the beginning prescribed or generally adopted. The Fourth Council of Lateran in 1215 imposed as a penalty the deprivation of property and civil stakes. Convicted heretics even though repentant, were excluded from public offices and were compelled to wear a badge. If their retractation was insincere they were liable to be confined in a public prison. At the same time it must not be forgotten that all these medieval heresies, as such an historian as Gairdner has noticed (Lollardy, I, 46), struck at the foundations of social order. M. Guiraud’s account of the extravagant teaching of the Cathari and Albigenses is conclusive upon the point. It cannot be doubted that the severities which then began to be exercised in the name of religion were prompted by no lust for blood. It seemed rather to orthodox churchmen that the Church was so menaced by these subversive doctrines that her very existence was at stake.

Pope Francis shakes hands with Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of Egypt's al-Azhar mosque and university, during a document signing at an interreligious meeting at the Founder's Memorial in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 4, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) See POPE-UAE-DIALOGUE Feb. 4, 2019.

Pope Francis shakes hands with Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of Egypt’s al-Azhar mosque and university, during a document signing at an interreligious meeting at the Founder’s Memorial in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Feb. 4, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) See POPE-UAE-DIALOGUE Feb. 4, 2019.

Under these circumstances it was not wonderful that the ordinances of the canon law, for the most part formulated at a time when Albigensian teachings were a present danger, should have inclined to the side of severity and that to the lawmakers of that age toleration seemed only a weakness. “The proscription of the Albigenses”, says M. Guiraud, “was not the effect of any ferocious hatred of misbelievers too often attributed to the princes of that age. It was inspired by a consideration which has been happily defined by saying that heresy was at that time as much a crime against social order as against religion” (Guiraud, “Chartulaire de Prouille”, I, lxxxiv). Even so anti-Roman an historian as Hase sums up the practical effects of the Lollard movement by saying “Wyclif produced no permanent religious impression upon the mass of the people. His teaching was misunderstood and caused a revolt of the peasants which resulted only in disaster” (Kirchengeschichte 1886, p. 353). Again it was not to be expected that the first fruits of the Reformation would be likely to mitigate the prevalent view of the mischievous nature of heresy. The political and social evils to which the teaching of Luther and Calvin gave rise, as well as the fanatical persecution of the Catholics by so many of their followers, are made clear beyond dispute in such a work as that of Janssen’s “History of the German People”, to which the reader may be referred. It was only natural that the conception of heresy as an attack upon law and order as well as upon religion should be thereby deepened. Moreover in nearly every case where the reproach of intolerance has been cast against the Church, as for example, the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew or the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (see HUGUENOTS), the persecuting initiative has come far more from temporal rulers than from the Church or her representatives. On the other hand, the ferocity of the leading Reformers more than equalled that of the most fiercely denounced inquisitors. Even the “gentle” Melanchthon wrote to Calvin to congratulate him on the burning of Servetus. “The Church”, he said, “both now and in all generations, owes and will owe you a debt of gratitude.” “Let there be no pity”, Luther exhorted his followers, “it is a time of wrath not of mercy. . . . Therefore, dear Lords, let him who can slay, smite, destroy” (see Beard, “The Reformation and Modern Thought”). “John Knox”, said Acton (History of Freedom, p. 44), “thought that every Catholic in Scotland ought to be put to death.” Moreover in any case there is more to be urged than a mere “tu quoque” argument. The Church has often given proof of her moderation when brought into relation with those whom she was not logically compelled to treat as rebels. No better examples can perhaps be afforded than the history of the foundation of some of the colonies in the New World, and notably that of the Province of Maryland.

By Herbert Thurston

This article is borrowed from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14761a.htm


HERGENRÖTHER, Catholic Church and Christian State (tr. London, 1876); DEVAS, Key of the World’s Progress (London, 1906). 189-210; ACTON, Hist. of Freedom (reprinted London, 1907); CREIGHTON, Persecution and Tolerance (London, 1895); DÖLLINGER, Akademische Vorträge, III (Leipzig, 1891), 274-301. These last three works can only be recommended with many reserves. See also bibliography of article INQUISITION.

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APA citation. Thurston, H. (1912). History of Toleration. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved May 1, 2012 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14761a.htm

MLA citation. Thurston, Herbert. “History of Toleration.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 1 May 2012 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14761a.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. July 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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