No matter whether Protestant or Catholic, the late Pope John Paul II lamented that believers in Christ would sometimes seek to use violence against consciences and to forcibly stamp their religion upon others. The Medieval view was that heresy was a mortal sin that killed the soul. Some argued that such was a capital crime given that the murder of souls was direr than the murder of bodies. Governments also usurped religion for political purposes, seeing religion as glue that held society together. On both sides there was often exaggeration as to the blood lust of the other. Indeed, to this very day, anti-Catholic bigots will use impossibly large numbers in their prejudicial arguments and slurs against the Church. Some critics bring up the crusades or the inquisitions as if they happened last Tuesday. Forgotten is the real threat that Islam posed for the Christian world and how money and power, as well as an invention called the printing press, fueled the Protestant Reformation. Many of the inquisition courts were very modest in their efforts. While there were various national courts, when there is criticism, the target is usually the harsher Spanish Inquisition, which was even criticized by Rome. Further, as I already said, Protestant monarchs would repress the freedoms of Catholics just as Catholic leaders had sought to minimize the damage of non-Catholic factions in their nations. The Inquisition in Italy is regarded by all authorities as the most mild. Crimes were not just heresy but infractions for which today’s civil courts would also render punishment. Of 75,000 cases judged, some 1,250 may have received the death sentence.
What was the position of the Protestant reformers?
Calvin sought to persecute heretics (particularly Roman Catholics) so as to keep Protestant believers in the lands divided by the Reformation faithful to his new teachings. He viciously persecuted the Spaniard, Michael Servetus, having him burnt alive on October 27, 1553. As early as 1545, Calvin had written, “If he [Servetus] comes to Geneva, I will never allow him to depart alive.” He kept his promise.
Melancthon, one of the more mild reformers and the editor for Luther’s many works and teachings, would write to Bullinger, “I am astonished that some persons denounce the severity that was so justly used in that case.”
Theodore of Beza wrote: “What crime can be greater or more heinous than heresy, which sets at nought the word of God and all ecclesiastic discipline? Christian magistrates, do your duty to God [speaking in Calvin’s Geneva of 1554], who has put the sword into your hands for the honor of His majesty; strike valiantly these monsters in the guise of men.” He went on to characterize those who demanded freedom of conscience “worse than the tyranny of the pope. It is better to have a tyrant, no matter how cruel he may be, than to let everyone do as he pleases.”
Martin Luther also fanned the flames of intolerance, “Whoever teaches otherwise than I teach, condemns God, and must remain a child of hell.”
Much of this information (and numbers) is taken from The Truth about the Inquisition by John A. O’Brien and published in 1950 by The Paulist Press. It should be noted that the numbers of deaths under King Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth have been challenged by other researchers.
King Henry VIII of England took upon himself the role of grand royal inquisitor. O’Brien states that the king took the lives of some 72,000 Catholics, many who were cruelly tortured. Father Francis Marsden offers the correction: “Henry’s victims were John Fisher and Thomas More, the Carthusian abbots and monks, and a few more Catholics, plus all those (several hundred) executed after the Pilgrimage of Grace. There were also a number of Protestants executed for denying the Six Articles of 1540. But he certainly did not kill 72,000.” Nevertheless, the best estimate from Wikipedia is that approximately 70,000 people were executed (for all offenses) during the reign of Henry VIII. Another critic suggests that there may have been 4,000 Catholics killed under Henry VIII, not “judicially” executed, but killed by agents of the Crown, soldiers and the like. There were some Catholic revolts put down by force. The figures go up and down, making a historical analysis difficult. But for those facing death, no matter what the number, it was bad.
Queen Elizabeth, says O’Brien, proved herself the former’s daughter by putting to death more people in one year than the Inquisition had done in 331 years! Here too, Father Marsden insists that “In England and Wales, we have about 500 martyrs and confessors in total over the period 1534 to 1679. I believe the last Catholic died in prison about 1720. Elizabeth’s victims may have been about 300, plus those executed after the rising of the Northern Earls of 1569-70. But this is over the whole of her reign, 1558-1603.” By contrast, “the death toll of the Inquisition is in the range 2000 to 5000.”
Yes, there was more than enough blame to go around. Maybe it is time for respect and dialogue and if need be, the charitable anathema, instead of mockery and half-truths? Of course, sometimes the truth is hard to discover. I was told that one of Sir Thomas More’s own letters makes mention of the death of 4,000 Catholics in the minor port town of Chelsea. However, another critic corrected that in 1528 the population of Chelsea was reported to be 190 adults and children, including 16 households which grew no corn, and Sir Thomas More reported that 100 were fed daily in his household, 49 though not all those would have been living in the parish. In 1548 there were 75 communicants (16 years and over).
The Catholic Truth Society reckoned that 318 men and woman were put to death for the Faith in England between the reigns of Henry VII and Charles II. “After being hanged up, they were cut down, ripped up, and their bowels were burned in their faces.”
The entire population of England and Wales at that time was only around 4 million.
O’Brien makes reference to the whole vicious enmity that would bring persecution and deaths for centuries. Henry VIII got the ball rolling (or heads rolling) and even had himself declared head of the Church in Ireland. Monasteries were closed and destroyed, monks were imprisoned, dispersed and executed, and lands were confiscated.
It was a Protestant England that committed genocide upon a starving Catholic Ireland. The guilt for that blood is on the hands of many, including the one who initiated the break with the true Church. Today, the truth of this betrayal is admitted in UK school text books. Crops were sold by the landowners even as the tenants themselves starved.