Quantcast

«

»

Apr 18 2014

“How harshly should we judge the Church?”

Trigger warning: Burning at the stake and other torture

In response to my earlier post on the burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno, and modern Catholics who try to rationalize it, I got this comment from petersen:

I think you’re confusing two separate issues: the morality of the action and the blameworthiness of the people who took that action. In the lines from Hess you quote, he says that, in his estimation, the execution of Bruno was wrong. He then points out the *historical* fact that at the time, such executions were accepted. So we can say that the Church acted wrongly. But how harshly should we judge the Church for what it did? When the Church executed Bruno, it was acting within a political-philosophical system that allowed and justified such executions. Such a system does not exist today. So what today seems outrageously immoral would at that time have seemed permissible. Now, we can say that a system like that (i.e., a system that allows executions like Bruno’s,) is a bad one and should not exist. But given that it did exist – and that the Church existed within that system – we cannot judge the Church as harshly for executing Bruno as we could if it did the same thing today. The Church acted in a way consistent with its context. When we’re deciding how blameworthy the Church is, we have to take into account the context in which the action occurred; we cannot simply graft our own standards onto another era’s and blame people accordingly. This doesn’t mean that it wasn’t wrong to burn Bruno. That’s wrong no matter the circumstances. But that the Church’s guilt is lessened by its circumstances – its mitigating circumstances.

Are you freaking serious?

Okay. Let’s take this apart a piece at a time.

I think you’re confusing two separate issues: the morality of the action and the blameworthiness of the people who took that action.

????? That’s what the morality of an action means — how blameworthy (or praiseworthy) the person is who took the action. Yes, some actions are morally complex, and circumstances can affect that. If the morality is complicated, the blameworthiness or praiseworthiness of the people who took the action are complicated, and vice versa. But that’s still what morality means.

In the lines from Hess you quote, he says that, in his estimation, the execution of Bruno was wrong.

Yes. And then he goes on to make excuses for it, to trivialize it, to rationalize it — and to chide “Cosmos” for holding the Church responsible for it.

But how harshly should we judge the Church for what it did? When the Church executed Bruno, it was acting within a political-philosophical system that allowed and justified such executions.

And here’s where we get into the truly ugly meat of the matter.

?????

The Church were, in large part, the ones who created the political-philosophical system. They were largely responsible for it. It’s not like they were serfs in a serfdom. They held the power. They were the ones who created the system that allowed and justified these executions. Why should they not be held responsible for it?

Now, we can say that a system like that (i.e., a system that allows executions like Bruno’s,) is a bad one and should not exist. But given that it did exist – and that the Church existed within that system – we cannot judge the Church as harshly for executing Bruno as we could if it did the same thing today.

YES WE CAN. That is exactly my point. Some things are not only wrong — they are unquestionably wrong, and have always been wrong.

The Church acted in a way consistent with its context. When we’re deciding how blameworthy the Church is, we have to take into account the context in which the action occurred

And once again: They created the context. They were the ones in power.

we cannot simply graft our own standards onto another era’s and blame people accordingly.

YES WE CAN. There are some instances where moral relativism is reasonable. Burning people at the stake is not one of them.

But that the Church’s guilt is lessened by its circumstances – its mitigating circumstances.

They were the ones setting the circumstances. They were the ones in power. And they abused that power in one of the most grotesque ways imaginable. They put Bruno in prison for years. They deliberated carefully, and cold-bloodedly chose to burn him. They paraded him through the streets. When he responded to the screaming crowds, they silenced him by ramming metal spikes through his cheeks and tongue and lips — in the form of a cross. They tied him to a stake. They piled fuel under his feet. They set him on fire. They watched as he burned to death. (As the people who try to terrorize kids about Hell say: Think about what it feels like to have your hand in a flame for even a second — and now think about what it would feel like to have your entire body in flames, and to be helpless to escape from it, and to have it continue for as long as it took to end your life.) They did this in public — as spectacle, and as warning to others. And they did all this, solely and entirely, because they didn’t like the fact that he openly disagreed with their opinions. To speak of how their “guilt is lessened” by “mitigating circumstances” is morally repugnant.

What they did was wrong. It was terribly, horribly wrong. It was vile and despicable. It was among the worst things human beings could possibly do to other human beings, and for among the worst possible reasons. How hard is it to just say that? How hard is it to say it, with no minimizing, rationalization, or excuses?

What the hell is wrong with you?

22 comments

Skip to comment form

  1. 1
    aziraphale

    “The Church were, in large part, the ones who created the political-philosophical system. They were largely responsible for it. It’s not like they were serfs in a serfdom. They held the power. ”

    Excellent point. And one that it’s so easy to miss in the heat of argument – I had never spelled it out to myself. Thank you for making it so clear.

  2. 2
    Konradius

    What;s wrong?
    Easy: it’s having a predetermined conclusion, some facts and a ruler to draw a line between them.
    And then not having a critical thinking ability to take a step back and look what you wrote and then delete it.

  3. 3
    Holms

    This petersen guy can easily be summarised as “Now, I’m not defending the past actions of the church, but… [defends the past actions of the church”.

  4. 4
    Nick Gotts

    They were the ones setting the circumstances. They were the ones in power.

    In relation to this, I highly recommend R.I. Moore’s The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe 950-1250*.. Moore argues that the early second millenium saw the rise of a new literate, clerical elite, largely supplanting illiterate warriors as the closest advisors of kings as the complexity of medieval European societies and economies increased, and that this elite used persecution – of Jews, “heretics”, “lepers”, sexual minorities, etc. – to consolidate their power. Persecution was, IOW, integral to the power of the medieval and Renaissance church and church-educated elites.

    *I’ve only read the first edition, and that quite a long time ago. Must get the second!

  5. 5
    steffp

    It all burns down to the simple question: who set the “legitimacy”of killing heretics, who wrote the rules.
    R.I Moore’s book is very helpful in demonstrating that it was the church itself. Who else should have an interest to get rid of heretics, to ensure party line was followed?

    The only state influence I can see is in Spain at the time of the Reconquista, when moor-influenced local insurgencies occurred, which led to the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain. Many avoided this by converting to Christianity, some of them insincere. Those were seen as a risk as they might support further uprisings. So a theological question (sincerity of Xian belief) was seen as a political question (likelihood of supporting revolt), and the church given authority to decide on said sincerity. That was the start of the Spanish Inquisition, which soon expanded the task of identifying krypto Jews and krypto-Muslims to prosecuting all kinds of heresies, and delivering the result of their torture to state authorities for disposal. That’s the prime reason why Protestantism never had a chance in Spain.

    If the results weren’t that gruesome, I’d find it hilariously funny that Christian apologists refer to the “brutality of the times” in which their church had absolute say in all questions. Which resulted in unspeakable terror, and the only way to stop this was deprive the church of its power. Protestantism as state religion of feudal lords opposed to the Catholic Habsburgers – as the result of the 30 years war – made it clear that no single religion could demand state to do its bidding. Secularsm – the end of “cuius regio, eius religio”, state religion, dealt the final blow.

    The apologists in their blood-stained tradition-boots ask us to forget that their church opposed every single step towards our contemporary humanitarian tolerance.

  6. 6
    opposablethumbs

    Maybe somebody should remind them that crucifixion was a very common punishment in the Roman Empire around the third decade CE (wasn’t “furcifer” a common insult, even?), so crucifying another messianic “prophet” wasn’t in the least bit special or a dreadful thing to do at all. Why do they make such a big fuss about it?

  7. 7
    opposablethumbs

    How can they say with one breath that crucifixion was the Worst Thing Evar, but that burning at the stake a few centuries later was just business as usual? (sorry for the premature send button)

  8. 8
    Carlos Moya

    Just to specify, morals and ethics are different things, even though they are closely related. Morals are social agreements about what is “good” and what is “bad”, and therefore it’s possible for something as cruel and wrong as death penalty to be technically “moral”.
    Of course, such a “moral” thing is still utterly badong and evil and should be harshly judged. Very harshly.

    #6 As a curious note, crucifixion was the punishment for rebellion or treason, not for heresy or blasphemy. The early (pre-Pauline) Christians were crossed because they were an anti-Roman, strongly nationalist Jewish sect that rebelled against Romans and was defeated. The only survivors were a very small pro-Roman current of the sect, led by Paul of Tarsus.

  9. 9
    Raging Bee

    Funny how this sort of moral relativism comes from people who want us to think their religion is a necessary source of ABSOLUTE and OBJECTIVE morality.

  10. 10
    4ozofreason

    “But that the Church’s guilt is lessened by its circumstances – its mitigating circumstances.”
    Sounds a lot like “situational ethics.”

  11. 11
    Holms

    It occurs to me that heddle would normally be all over this thread; I suspect he still reads here, but is relegated to tut-tutting thanks to a very timely ban. Luckily for him, it is just a single click from here to say, Dispatches.

  12. 12
    Raging Bee

    Yo, Greta, I notice you explicitly invite petersen to come here and continue the debate, and so far at least, he hasn’t shown up at all.

    For my part, I’d just like to say that not even Christianist moral relativism can justify the atrocities at issue here, because the killing was very clearly contrary to the teachings of Christ himself. So even back then, burning people at the stake merely for disagreeing with a religious doctrine was NOT as “accepted” as petersen says it was.

  13. 13
    Petersen

    Thanks, Greta. Per your suggestion, here’s my reply from the last thread:

    That’s what the morality of an action means — how blameworthy (or praiseworthy) the person is who took the action. Yes, some actions are morally complex, and circumstances can affect that — but that’s what morality means.

    I disagree. Morality, as I see it, is primarily about the lawfulness of an action, i.e., whether an action is obligatory, permissible, or prohibited. The amount of praise or blame we give involves not just the lawfulness of the action but the particular circumstances and psychological state of the agent. Someone who does an obligatory action for cynical, selfish reasons is less praiseworthy than someone who does the same thing for noble reasons; someone who does something impermissible out of ignorance is less blameworthy than someone who does it out of malice.

    The Church were, in large part, the one who created the political-philosophical system. They were largely responsible for it. It’s not like they were serfs in a serfdom. They held the power. They were the ones who created the system that allowed and justified these executions. Why should they not be held responsible for it?

    If we’re trying to figure out how blameworthy people are, we shouldn’t think of “the Church” as one single unit. I made the mistake of talking about it like that in my original comment – that was an error. When we say things like “the Church condemned Bruno,” we’re using “the Church” to mean the set of people who made up the institution at that particular time and who condemned Bruno. Yes, the Church as an institution was largely responsible (not entirely, though – an important thing to remember) for that political-philosophical system, but the individuals who condemned Bruno were not. That system had existed and had been developing for a long time before Bruno’s trial. The Church as it existed in 1600 did not stand over and above that system as its creator; it, too, was caught up in that system. The people who executed Bruno had themselves entered into a system in which heresy trials were already prescribed. Those individuals did not create the system themselves. They applied a pre-existing system. This does not absolve them of all responsibility, but it sets some limits. They cannot be blamed for the existence of system itself.

    Some things are not only wrong — they are unquestionably wrong, and have always been wrong.

    Agreed. But, again, that’s separate from the issue of praise/blame. Maybe an analogy will help: imagine two 20-year-olds who both believe in Jim Crow-style segregation. One is living today, in 2014, and the other lives in 1914. Now, segregation was just as wrong in 1914 as it is in 2014. But are both people equally responsible for their belief? I say no. The person in 1914 grew up in a world where segregation was normal and accepted; he was taught that it was fine from the earliest age. It’s only to be expected, then, that he believes segregation is okay. The person in 2014, however, grew up in a world where that kind of segregation was near-universally considered wrong. He, therefore, has less of an excuse for thinking it’s good, so he is more blameworthy than the person in 1914. The point is, whether something is lawful (i.e., moral,) doesn’t change over time. But how blameworthy a given individual is does change over time. It all depends on how reasonable it was for that person, given his context, to believe that something unlawful is actually unlawful.

    There are some instances where moral relativism is reasonable. Burning people at the stake is not one of them.

    I don’t think this is moral relativism. Moral relativism would mean that the lawfulness of an action itself changes across time and culture. That’s not true. Burning people at the stake is always and everywhere wrong. But certain cultural conditions might make people less blameworthy – not immune to all blame, mind you, merely less blameworthy – for conducting heresy trials.

    They put him in prison for years. They deliberated carefully, and cold-bloodedly chose to burn him. They paraded him through the streets. When he responded to the screaming crowds, they silenced him by ramming metal spikes through his cheeks and tongue and lips — in the form of a cross. They tied him to a stake. They piled fuel under his feet. They set him on fire. They watched as he burned to death[...]They did this in public — as spectacle, and as warning to others. And they did all this, solely and entirely, because they didn’t like the fact that he expressed disagreement with their opinions. To speak of h their “guilt is lessened” by “mitigating circumstances” is morally repugnant.

    Such spectacles were common, they had been common for centuries, and they were not only used by the Church to punish heresy. A variety of crimes against the state were punishable by public execution, which goes to my point that the system was not created by the people who executed Bruno. It was not created by the Church of 1600. That system was not entirely created by the Church at all, but was a group effort between the Church and various states which stretched back centuries and changed over time.

    I don’t think it’s “morally repugnant” to say that their guilt is lessened. It’s to understand that people do not act in vacuums, and the context of people’s actions into account when evaluating their character and the degree of blame we should attach to them.

  14. 14
    Roy G

    @Petersen
    What the hell are you on about?

    Morality, as I see it, is primarily about the lawfulness of an action

    Moral relativism would mean that the lawfulness of an action itself changes across time and culture. That’s not true.

    But the lawfulness of an action does change over time. Killing your slaves was once legal, d’uh, slavery was legal. Raping your wife was once legal, and in some parts of the world is still and is becoming legal. So the lawfulness of an action does change over time and from culture to culture.

    Burning people at the stake is always and everywhere wrong.

    It was wrong, but it was also moral? Because, as you say, it was legal and therefore moral?

    But certain cultural conditions might make people less blameworthy – not immune to all blame, mind you, merely less blameworthy

    Just to be clear here… Iraq is about to enact a law that says that you can marry a girl as young as 9, even younger if the parents approve, and that you are allowed to rape your wife. You’re saying that, if you live in Iraq, raping a child you married would be a moral action, and that we would be remiss in blaming an Iraqi for that as much as we blamed, say, a European or an American?

    Yeah…

    To speak of how their “guilt is lessened” by “mitigating circumstances” is morally repugnant.

    This. So much this.

  15. 15
    Petersen

    @14: By “lawful” I mean with regard to the moral law, not the law of a particular state. And for the purposes of this discussion, we don’t need any fancy or in-depth account of precisely what that moral law is. All the term “moral law” has to mean here is the difference between right and wrong in general. An action is “lawful” if it is morally right or permissible, “unlawful” if it is morally wrong.

    Forgive my Kantian rhetoric. I can see how that might have been confusing.

  16. 16
    joemccarron

    Peterson is right.

    And the law clearly reflects what he is saying. Generally for something to be culpable two requirements need to be met. Mens rea (guilty mind) and Actus reus (guilty action).

    Here although the act is wrong and conceded to be wrong by all parties the mens rea varies due to what people understood at the time. Why do minors get a lesser punishment than adults? The same is true if you think someones mental illness mitigates the offense. To acknowledge a role of mens rea does not mean you are relativist.

    Now laws generally operate within a single culture at the same time so there is no real good legal parallel explaining how we might treat people from dramatically different cultures and times differently. Its true the law doesn’t excuse people just because they come from a different culture. But nevertheless that is often due to practical difficulties and not necessarily because there is a theoretical problem with it.

    Picking people out of ancient times and judging them based on our modern sensibilities as if they were raised to hold the same beliefs we do is demonstrates ignorance. Was everyone in ancient times just so much more evil than we are today? Legal justice isn’t perfect enough to do this, but people should be judged in light of all the circumstances of their actions.

  17. 17
    steffp

    Peterson is wrong.

    We’re not discussing legal prosecution of time-travelling bishops or cardinals from the 17th century. We’re not discussing that Christian favorite subject of “personal guilt”.

    We’re discussing the role of an institution in a certain time period. We’re discussing the Catholic Church’s treatment of theological dissenters. We discuss it in the context of historic power structures, and we have to admit that at that time the RCC dominated most of Europe’s monarchic states. So, the structures which enabled he RCC to submit heretics to the mundane powers to execute them, were not the result of “brutal times”, they were the result of a long-standing policy of the Vatican, who in turn glorified the feudal Lords and kings as “betters by God’s grace”.

    The killing of apostates is a biblical commandment. Deut 13:6-9; Deut 17:3-5; 2 Chronicles 15:13; affirmed in Math. 15:1-9; Romans 1:31. The authority to judge on apostasy is the church’s – 1 Corinthians 2:15
    The RCC and other Christian churches had to be forced to stop killing heretics. So they reluctantly reduced the punishment of apostates to mere ecclesiastical penalties. But nevertheless, the death penalty is still on the book, and they still defend their inquisitors as being “lawful”.

  18. 18
    Roy G

    @15 Petersen

    I can see how that might have been confusing.

    A bit, yes.

    I’m still very confused, though. The moral lawfulness of an action depends on how moral that action is, and the morality of the action depends on it’s lawfulness? I don’t see how you can get out of circular reasoning here, especially with:

    An action is “lawful” if it is morally right or permissible, “unlawful” if it is morally wrong

    Unless you’re talking about absolute morality, isn’t this the definition of moral relativism? For me, shooting a girl because believing getting an education is evil is morally wrong, so for me that’s unlawful. The Taliban obviously thinks that is morally right, so for them it’s lawful. Won’t this mean that no-one except those that see their own actions as wrong would ever be blamed for anything, or blamed as much as “certain cultural conditions” allow them to be blamed?
    And if you are talking about absolute morality, I call bullshit: There is no such thing.

    @16 joemccarron

    people should be judged in light of all the circumstances of their actions.

    In that case my question from @14 still stand: If an adult man marries and has sex with a child, and the society he lives in accepts this, it would be wrong for me to call him a child rapist?

    Was everyone in ancient times just so much more evil than we are today?
    Everyone? Probably not. Much more evil? Again, probably not. If society and people in general were crueller, more merciless, harsher? Yes. Should we blame people of ancient times for this? Sure. Why not? If everything is to be seen in light of all the circumstances of the relevant culture, every action ever would be judged morally good.

  19. 19
    Petersen

    @18 Roy G

    I’m still very confused, though. The moral lawfulness of an action depends on how moral that action is, and the morality of the action depends on it’s lawfulness? I don’t see how you can get out of circular reasoning here, especially with:
    “An action is ‘lawful’ if it is morally right or permissible, ‘unlawful’ if it is morally wrong.”

    Maybe I shouldn’t have used the word “lawful” in the first place, as it is easy to get confused between the moral and political senses of the word. I’m used to using it in the Kantian sense, but I should have been more careful. Let me explain further:

    There’s nothing circular about my line you quoted. I was defining the words, not making an argument. “Lawful” means morally right, and “unlawful” means morally wrong. The morality of an action doesn’t depend on its lawfulness; the morality of an action is its lawfulness.

    Unless you’re talking about absolute morality, isn’t this the definition of moral relativism? For me, shooting a girl because believing getting an education is evil is morally wrong, so for me that’s unlawful. The Taliban obviously thinks that is morally right, so for them it’s lawful. Won’t this mean that no-one except those that see their own actions as wrong would ever be blamed for anything, or blamed as much as “certain cultural conditions” allow them to be blamed?
    And if you are talking about absolute morality, I call bullshit: There is no such thing.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “absolute morality.” If you reject moral relativism, then it seems you’re upholding an absolute morality (unless you’re going for full-on moral nihilism, which I don’t think you are.) An “absolute morality” is a morality which applies everywhere and always, and which does not depend on the opinions of particular people or cultures. If you say it’s wrong to shoot girls for getting an education regardless of what the Taliban thinks, then you’re advocating an absolute morality.

    As for how cultural conditions affect blameworthiness, see my post @13. @16 also gives a very good distinction between mens rea and actus rea. That’s the distinction I’m getting at: the wrongness of an act and the blameworthiness of the agent are two distinct, though related, things.

  20. 20
    Kagehi

    Short version of his excuses, given a bit different framework for it, “The descendants of cannibalistic tribes don’t eat people any more, so, its wrong ‘now’, but it wasn’t back when they where still eating people.” Right, got it… lol

  21. 21
    Nick Gotts

    If we’re trying to figure out how blameworthy people are, we shouldn’t think of “the Church” as one single unit. I made the mistake of talking about it like that in my original comment – that was an error. – Petersen@13

    It seems to me you’ve changed the subject, from talking about how we should judge the Church – an institution – to how we should judge individuals.

    When we say things like “the Church condemned Bruno,” we’re using “the Church” to mean the set of people who made up the institution at that particular time and who condemned Bruno. – Petersen@13

    No, we are not. A formal institution such as the Church is not simply the sum of the individuals making it up: it has structures and procedures for making decisions, a history, traditions, an institutional memory, lands, buildings and other possessions, legal powers…

    The Church as it existed in 1600 did not stand over and above that system as its creator; it, too, was caught up in that system.

    It makes sense to talk of individuals as being “caught up in that system” (but see below); it makes no sense at all to try to palliate the intolerance, brutality and sadism of the Church of 1600 because it had held a powerful position and practised that intolerance, brutality and sadism for centuries*. The Church itself made much of the suffering of Christian martyrs and the evil of those who imposed these sufferings, so it was institutionally hypocritical as well as intolerant, brutal and sadistic.

    When we turn to individuals, you have a little more justification, but not much. Is it really feasible to suppose that those who ordered Bruno’s execution did so out of “noble motives”, unalloyed with a determination to protect their own power and privileges, and the sadistic enjoyment of the suffering of those who had the insolence (as they would see it) to defy them? I don’t think so.

    *It’s worth noting that Pope Nicholas I, in a letter to the Bulgarians of 866, condemned torture to force confessions:

    If a thief or a robber is apprehended and denies that he is involved, you say that in your country the judge would beat his head with lashes and prick his sides with iron goads until he came up with the truth. Neither divine nor human law allows this practice in any way, since a confession should be spontaneous, not compelled, and should not be elicited with violence but rather proferred voluntarily. But if it just so happens that you find nothing at all which casts the crime upon the one who has suffered, aren’t you ashamed and don’t you recognize how impiously you judge? Likewise, if the accused man, after suffering, says that he committed what he did not commit because he is unable to bear such [torture], upon whom, I ask you, will the magnitude of so great an impiety fall if not upon the person who compelled this man to confess these things falsely?

    Torture to force confessions was not officially approved by the Church, as far as I can discover, until 1252, in Innocent IV’s bull Ad extirpanda.

  22. 22
    Al Dente

    Besides supporting the Church’s political power, actions against heretics had other secular consequences. The property of a heretic was divided between the local bishop, the local legal power, and the head of the local inquisition. So there was a monetary benefit for convicting someone of heresy. As Nick Gotts points out @21, torture was authorized to ensure a heretic made a proper confession of heresy to the Inquisition.

    There was a similar system of dividing the spoils used for those convicted of witchcraft. The local lord got a split, the bishop got a split, and the “witch finder” got a split of the witch’s property. In 1630, the Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt cut out the bishop’s and witch finder’s share. Trials for witchcraft in Hesse-Darmstadt went from 30 or 40 a year to two or three. It’s amazing how free of witches Hesse-Darmstadt became after the Duke made witchcraft trials unprofitable for the Church and the witch finders.

Leave a Reply