During the Reformation Pope Paul IV, a man of reputedly iron will - though in age seventy-nine at his ascension - is credited with carrying through on the demands of Trent, reforming the morals of both Rome and its clergy. He is also credited with publishing the first Index of Forbidden Books, and with resurrecting another institution to its former ferocity, the Inquisition. Said Erasmus: "An actual reign of terror began, which filled all Rome with fear." When one of his prisoners, a man named Flaminio, escaped the Inquisition by dying prematurely, the Pope bragged that "we have had his brother burned in the piazza before the church of the Minerva...Even if my own father were a heretic, I would gather the wood to burn him." When the Pope died,"Rome celebrated with four days of rioting..."
His successor, Pius IV, informed the Inquisition that they "would better please him were they to proceed with gentlemanly courtesy than with monkish harshness." This was a Pope who "kept clear of war, and reproved those who counseled aggressvie policies." He shepherded the on-again-off-again Council of Trent to its peaceful conclusion, then died after a six year pontificate.
Two men of the same Church, the same Faith, but whose centers of moral gravity were hugely different.
I've got this theory that Christian people know how they ought to behave, and always have known; that when they do evil in the name of Christ, they know they're doing it. They have found a way to justify it, but can they really not know, in their heart of hearts, that not just anything is permissible in service to God's glory? In the case of our forbears, we're often told that the circumstances of history matter, that we should not venture to judge those who took their religion more seriously than we. What seems trivial to us in the age of religious indifference was life and death to them. Their faith held their world together. Unrepentant heresy, for example, left unchecked could, like the plague, destroy it. Such heresy might, under certain treasonous circumstances, merit the penalty of death.
And this I would not deny. In treating of the Spanish Inquisition, one historian tries to see it through Spanish eyes:
We are today so uncertain and diverse in our opinions as to the origin and destiny of the world and man that we have ceased, in most countries, to punish people for differing from us in their religious beliefs. Our present intolerance is rather for those who question our economic or political principles, and we explain our frightened dogmatism on the ground that any doubt thrown upon these cherished assumptions endangers our national solidarity and survival. Until the middle of the seventeenth century Christians, Jews and Moslems were more accutely concerned with religion than we are today; their theologies were their most prized and confident possessions; and they looked upon those who rejected these creeds as attacking the foundations of social order and the very significance of human life...I am not concerned here with the sentence of execution for its own sake, but with the cruelty of the means by which it was achieved and sometimes preceded (torture). I don't know exactly when death by burning came into fashion, but at least from the Middle Ages to beyond the Reformation, it seems to have been the method of choice. Of justifications for the pain inflicted our historian notes that
...God wished all nations to be Christian, and that the practice of non-Christian - certainly of anti-Christian - religions must be a crass insult to the Deity. Moreover, since any substantial heresy must merit eternal punishment, its prosecuters could believe (and many seem to have sincerely believed) that in snuffing out a heretic they were saving his potential converts, and perhaps himself, from everlasting hell...Often the torture so decreed was postponed in the hope that dread of it would induce confession. The inquisitors appear to have sincerely believed that torture was a favor to a defendant already accounted guilty, since it might earn him, by confession, a slighter penalty than otherwise; even if he should, after confession, be condemned to death, he could enjoy priestly absolution to save him from hell...I should add that in noting it, he does not imply approval.
There was the rack, to which "girls of thirteen and women of eighty were subjected"; other victims were suspended by their hands which had been tied behind their backs, and still others bound and water poured down their throats to the point of choking nearly to death (nearly: the "ethical" rule of torture was that it should not permanently maim); and they were bound by cords about the arms and legs, the cords gradually constricted until they "cut through to the flesh and bone."
I'm not picking on the Inquisition in Spain, which some call a model of sanity compared to another European fever, the hunt for witches, this latter crossing denominational lines, such that Luther, Calvin and Pope Innocent the VIII all vehemently urged their prosecution, an opportunity disdained by the Spanish inquisitors, who thought such people - mostly women - more in need of pity than prosecution. Said Luther, "I would have no compassion on these witches; I would burn them all."
But why burning? Beheading or a professional hanging would have been more merciful. Even then it was known how to quickly dispatch a man to the next life. Why the need for torment in the process? Cruelty is a thing from which most of us naturally recoil. The desire to inflict it is usually reserved for objects of hatred, but even so we still know it's wrong, and most of us (I hope) would not yield to the impulse. But our ancestors did. Did they not experience a natural revulsion? They must have known it was awful; that's why they so often threatened it (more often than it was actually used). But how could they have thought that it was morally permissible?
A few possible answers:
1. It was morally permissible because they saw heresy and witchcraft as either so treasonable (as today we might execute a man for betraying his country) or so depraved as to merit both suffering and death. While today the Christian religion is a matter of opinion, back then it was understood to be true and worth suffering and dying for, as did Our Lord Himself. Suffering is part and parcel of the Christian faith, in its foundation and in its history. Redemptive in its purpose, it works to purify the sinful and to satisfy the demand for temporal punishment against the pains of hell. It can be administered without malice, and with a genuinely charitable concern for another's salvation. The Faith's adherents, therefore, had every right to insist on uniformity of belief for the sake of peace and the welfare of souls.
2. It was not morally permissible, but they were not culpable. They were prisoners of their time, and acted according to what they knew. Cruel punishments have been known since recorded history began, and it is only through a gradual enlightenment that mankind comes to know the fullness of truth. Moral doctrine, in other words, like the theological sort, "develops."
3. It was morally permissible because there is Biblical warrant for it. Something to the effect that thou shalt not suffer a witch (or a heretic) to live?
4. It was not morally permissible because they should have known better. The moral law, unlike Revelation (from the Catholic point of view), is fixed, not unfolding. This is confirmed by the fact that it is accessible to reason, while the divine mysteries require some authority, either scriptural or institutional or both, to reveal them and to elaborate upon them. Furthermore, there is no Biblical warrant. Where do we find in the example of Christ, or in the commandments given to his disciples, or even in the primitive Christian Church, any recommendation that cruelty may be employed to compel belief?
I am inclined to number 4. Perhaps other permutations are possible. I should add that I am not particularly interested in comments, or taunts (which do nothing to answer difficulties), from those who do not believe in God as lawgiver to mankind. They will be deleted with dispatch.