Should heretics receive the death penalty? Not surprisingly, the Catholic tradition has saints on both sides of this question.
Today is the feast of Saint Martin of Tours – he was opposed to the death penalty for heretics and actively sought to stop it.
On the other hand, Saint Thomas Aquinas explicitly stated that formal heresiarchs should be killed by the state for the common good of society.
Let’s break in down in a few easy points:
Saint Martin on Killing of Heretics, 10 Easy Points…
- Saint Martin of Tours lived from 316-397.
- He was born in what is now modern day Hungary.
- Martin was a soldier who converted Christ after giving half his cloak to a homeless man (who turned out to be a vision of Christ).
- A bishop named Priscillian had created a large movement in Spain and France teaching the following oddities:
- lay people must renounced marriage
- fasting on Sunday
- ascetic “mountain retreats” for the laity during Lent
- bringing the Eucharist home
- using the title “Doctor” which is Latin for “Teacher”
- The First Council of Saragossa had condemned Priscillian and six of his companions as heretics.
- Catholic bishops of the region asked that the Emperor Magnus Maximus bring the death penalty against Priscillian and his followers.
- Saint Martin rushed to the Imperial court of Trier to remove them from the secular jurisdiction of the emperor. Martin prevailed upon the emperor to spare the life of the heretic Priscillian.
- When Martin had departed, the emperor ordered Priscillian and his followers to be beheaded in AD 385.
- Martin was angry and refused to remain in communion with the emperor.
- Incidentally, Saint Ambrose of Milan and Pope Siricius agreed with Saint Martin.
Saint Thomas Aquinas on Killing of Heretics, 10 Easy Points…
- Saint Thomas Aquinas lived from 1225-1274.
- He was a Dominican.
- The Dominicans from their inception were dedicated to the extirpation of heresy, namely Albigensianism.
- In his Summa theologiae II-II, q. 11. a. 3, he writes: “Therefore if forgers of money and other evil-doers are forthwith condemned to death by the secular authority, much more reason is there for heretics, as soon as they are convicted of heresy, to be not only excommunicated but even put to death.”
- Thomas, in accord with the Old Testament and the New Testament (Romans 13), that the death penalty is a present reality and a right of the secular prince.
- Murderers kill the body and they get the death penalty.
- Heretical teachers kill the soul.
- Killing the souls is much worse for the Church and for secular culture.
- Therefore, heresiarchs should receive the death penalty.
- Thomas repeats his belief about six times. He’s very confident about it being the teaching of the Catholic Church.
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