Damnable Heresies

The Papal Bull Exsurge Domine was given by Leo X in 1520 to answer Martin Luther and the nascent reformation. The bull includes a long list of heretical propositions put forward by Luther, one of which caught my eye:

L: “That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit.”

Pope Leo says, with reference to this proposition:

“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.”

In other words, it’s against the catholic faith to hold that heretics ought not to be burned. The burning of heretics is an essential part of the doctrine of the catholic church, according to Leo X. Now, I’d like to ask my catholic friends, is this just a personal opinion of the Pope’s, or is the necessity of heretic burning a part of the infallible ordinary and universal magisterium of the church?



7 Responses to Damnable Heresies

  1. mamasboy2100 says:


    Thanks for the kind reply to my last comment.

    Defending things like the role of the Church in the spanish inquisition among a society that has been largely misinformed about the nature of the inquisition is risky business. Fortunately, I think your readership has a better than average understanding of similar events. In light of that, I’ll throw these comments out there and run for cover in the above ground bunker instead of the one 50′ underground.

    Did God command genocide in the OT and if so was that just? If not, then is Scripture wrong or simply widely misinterpreted. If yes, then why was it just? Does the appropriateness of such actions depend on the historical context and individual circumstances? If anybody out there infallibly knows the answers to all of those questions, congratulations. You are better informed and holier than I am. I personally think that Scripture is accurate and that God is not unjust, but I certainly haven’t figured out the “why” yet.

    Regarding the quote of Leo, it seems to me that he doesn’t actually address the question above. The only question that he answers is whether the heretics’ teachings are faithful to Christianity. Whether heresy should be a capital crime is not addressed. What he does say is A) the teaching of certain folk is wrong and B) such teaching shouldn’t be presented as Catholic. Based on this and the historical context, I don’t think Leo is saying that heretics must be burned. So, in summary, the conclusion that heretics must be burned is not part of the magisterium and (as near as I can tell) isn’t even stated by Leo.

    Leo was writing to a culture that practiced capital punishment for heresy on both sides (both Protestant and Catholic). This was often carried out by the secular rulers, because to hold a different religion than the rulers was considered to be insurrection. Thus, it was Queen Mary (not the local Catholic bishop) that ordered numerous Protestants killed and it was her sister Queen Elizabeth (not the local Anglican bishop) who followed up by having just as many Catholics killed. Perhaps that’s a bad example, since it seems to me there was more than a little familial feuding going on in that scenario and things were carried out to an obvious excess, but I think it does demonstrate that determining the punishment for heresy and then carrying it out was often conducted by the secular authorities and was something the Church was most often only indirectly involved in. This makes drawing conclusions about the magisterial nature of such decisions or practices much more complicated.

    Peace be with you.


  2. scholasticus says:

    “I don’t think Leo is saying that heretics must be burned.”

    Read the document again more closely. If it is false to say “heretics should not be burned”, then it is true to say “heretics should be burned.” If the Pope believes that teaching that “heretics should not be burned” is ground for automatic excommunication, then he means that it’s converse is the truth. There’s just not any way around that. I think the only thing you can say is that Leo was wrong. Really, badly, horribly wrong.

    This isn’t an argument against catholicism, i just posted it because I happened to read the bull out of my own curiosity last night and this passage just struck me.


  3. mamasboy2100 says:


    It seems obvious to me your intentions are good. I’ll try to explain my line of thinking here.

    If someone says, it is heresy to say that “driving fast is wrong,” does that then mean that one must always drive fast or that driving fast is always a good thing to do? I think Leo is leaving options open by excluding the statement that burning heretics is wrong. To refute an idea is a narrower task than stating what idea should replace it.

    It is plain that Leo thinks it is sometimes good to burn heretics.

    Does that make sense to you? Is there something I am missing that you would like to point out?


  4. scholasticus says:

    Hi Doug,

    You are perfectly right, Leo thinks it is sometimes good to burn heretics.

    My point (and presumably also the young Luther’s since he’s the one being condemned) is that it is never good to burn heretics.

    I’ll admit I don’t have any really strong argument for that idea because I’ve never really felt the need to defend it. Nor is it really even clear to me that a catholic has to defend Leo’s position either.

    I suppose I find this topic so interesting because I am deeply interested in medieval and early renaissance theology and find so many aspects of it beautiful and profound–but then you read something like this from Leo or something like Luther’s vitriolic anti-semitic tracts like “On the Jews and their Lies” and you just have to shake your head. God help us, these are the people to whom we are deeply and intimately connected, these are those saints we are communing with in the Lord’s supper.

    Sometimes I wonder what barbarism of ours our descendants will shake their heads over.

    At any rate, I think the only thing we can do is love our tradition enough to say to its face that sometimes it is wrong. I’m not grinding a protestant ax here–i.e., i’m not arguing that Leo is wrong, therefore the pope is fallible. (although I did take a potshot with the comment about the magisterium in the body of the post–mea culpa). I’m just saying, the more history we know the better able to we are to judge ourselves, lest we die for our fathers’ sins.


  5. geomac says:

    As a practical matter, the alleged infallibility of the Pope has proven useless. It has not kept the church from error. Yes, Catholics always claim in these cases that the particular practice or doctrine in question was never infallibly declared. But the point is, what is the use of infalliblity if it can’t kept the church from error?

  6. mamasboy2100 says:


    I didn’t take your comments as a potshot at the magisterium, so no offense taken. I have seen you to be a fair minded person in general and think you raise some interesting questions, not just about Catholocism, but Christianity and Judaism as well. Killing in the name of God has a very long history. Is it always wrong? I’m not prepared to say that myself, given the Scriptural and other examples. Personally, as a Catholic, I find it easier to justify in my mind the burning of a heretic in medieval history than the execution of babies by the Israelites entering the promised land. In one case, somebody is going around spreading heresy and sending people to hell. In the other case, I can more easily imagine a baby being raised as a Jew and not having a deleterious effect on souls, but I guess that was not the way tribal people thought and acted. I would assume an omniscient God had good reason for commanding something as heinous as baby killing… either that or I guess Scripture is bunk. Personally, I haven’t found other explanations very compelling (e.g., God really didn’t mean that or the God of the OT being different/harsher than Jesus). I’ll admit, though, that I have only read/heard a smattering of alternate explanations to those OT passages.


    The church is going to wander. We are sinful human beings. The infallible magisterium is there to limit the wandering and to bring folks back to the truth. Before the Nicene creed, people believed all sorts of wrong things about the Trinity that are considered heresy today. Arianism even commanded the assent of a majority of bishops at one point in time. Arius was wrong, but very persuasive. Infallibility will never completely prevent error whether among the bishops as a body are among the bishops of Rome. However, infallible declarations do help limit error and are more than a bit useful in attaining some measure of the unity Christ prayed for in his high priestly prayer that the apostle John records for us.


  7. mamasboy2100 says:

    I ran across this blog on genocide in the OT and thought you might be interested.

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