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burning heretics

On that rather inadequate medium, Twitter, I found myself in discussion with a new commentator here, Br Alexis Bugnolo, on the issue of burning people alive. Quoting Leviticus 20:14, he argued that this showed that Jesus must approve of people being burned alive because the moral precepts of Moses, being part of the Law, are upheld by him. This seemed, and on reflections still seems, to me to confuse means and ends. That, at least, seems to be the conclusion to be drawn from the teaching of the Church on the death penalty. The Church permits it because we are a fallen race in a fallen world. In times and places where letting a dangerous killer live would pose a danger to the innocent, then, regrettable as it is, the death penalty is necessary; the execution should do what the killer never did, that is recognise the sanctity of human life, and it is the State’s duty to execute as humanely as can be contrived. All of this is set out in admirable clarity by St Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitaewhere the sainted Pope addresses the question long begged, of how a Church which recognises all human life as sacred, and therefore opposes abortion and euthanasia, can support the State-sponsored execution of people.

Does that mean that I think those Popes and other Catholics who advocated the burning of heretics were wrong? Wrong by what standard? At the time, that was what men did – as Byron put it, sincerely convinced that all the Apostles would have done as they did. As so often, the Church went with the times. As so often when it does, the results were not good ones. Even within its own terms, the policy of burning people failed. All Phillip and Mary did was to encourage their opponents to be even bloodier when they gained the upper hand; far more Catholics than Protestants were killed in this grisly fashion. Blood begat blood, and an eye for an eye made the world blind. But neither Protestantism nor Catholicism was extirpated from this land. In the longer term, both sides have left a legacy which has allowed generations of secularists to excoriate Christianity as a religion which thinks that burning people is God’s will.

So, the Law certainly prescribes the death penalty, but the Church is at liberty to do two things it seems: the first is to limit its incidence; and the second is to modify the means by which the sentence should be carried out. Br Alexis pointed out that in Matthew’s Gospel we are told that those the king rejects go into the fires for eternity. This is true, but is that a reason we should imitate Satan and set fire to people whilst they are alive?

But should we read the passages about ‘fire’ literally? Some do, indeed, insist on it, and they may, of course be correct; but is the balance right here? Has anyone been brought to the love of Christ by being told that unless they love Him they will burn in Hell? It is precisely this scenario which supports, and will continue to foster, the Dawkinsites. It posits, if you think about it, God as a cosmic bully who commands obedience against the threat of eternal torture; hence Dawkins’ characterisation of God as an abusive father.

That is not, I think, an unfair view. It fails to explain, for example, why such a God chose the method He did for our redemption? If a threat of Hell-fire would do it, then surely all that would have been necessary was the revelation it was so; why the Incarnation? Why did God have to die on the Cross and be resurrected? Does that make me a universalist? No, and for those who want to know why, I commend some earlier posts here and here, as well as an excellent post by Rob on the subject of hell, here.

The best account, of course, is that offered by the Catholic Church in its catechism, here. In its infinite wisdom, the Church points out the true nature of hell, which is not what sinful man dwells upon, with his portrayal of it as a place of fire and pain, but rather this:

The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.