Monday, 2 September 2013

Brotherly Love - How Christians Settle Disputes

Christians settling technical matters of theology
You have to hand it to French Catholics, they certainly know how to deal with those who disagree with them.

You might think that, being good Christians and so valuing every human life as sacred, and valuing truth an honesty above just about all else, they would deal with dissent and disagreement on the basis of honest exchange and debate between equals, with arguments for and against being weighed in the balance and a rational decision being arrived at with honours even all round.

You might think that they would use the methods which, by and large, scientist use to resolve their differences, albeit with some robust exchanges of opinion and occasional regrettable descent into ad hominem and abuse, usually to the detriment of the abuser's reputation. But when was the last time you heard of science splitting into two or more warring factions over some obscure point of interpretation, each launching murderous attacks on the other and the state organising official persecutions against holders of the minority opinion? When was the last time a scientific court ordered the execution of a scientist for disagreeing with Newton or Galileo?

Strangely though, and unlike the impression Christians like to give of their regard for other people, being the creations of their god, French Catholics, like so many Christians elsewhere, use very unChristian methods when it comes to dealing with disagreement.

I have previously blogged in Feel The Christian Love about how they, with the enthusiastic support of the Pope, dealt with the thirteenth century Cathar sect of southern France with the Albigensian Crusade in which many tens of thousands of Cathars were put to death and the population of entire towns like Bezier were slaughtered en masse whether Cathar, Catholic or Jew, simple for living in a Cathar-majority area.

I'll now look at how French Catholics dealt with the Calvinist Protestant sect known as the Huguenots. If you're a Christian and want to retain a false belief that your Iron-Age cult is one of peace and respect for human life and dignity, you should stop reading now.

John Calvin
The Huguenots were members of the Protestant Reformed Church of France which was inspired by the sixteenth century writings of Jehan Cauvin (John Calvin), himself a Catholic convert follower of Martin Luther who fled to Switzerland during an early series of violent attacks on Protestants. He did most of his theological writing in Switzerland. Amongst his writings we find this little gem of Christian feminism:

We take nothing from the womb but pure filth [meras sordes]. The seething spring of sin is so deep and abundant that vices are always bubbling up from it to bespatter and stain what is otherwise pure.... We should remember that we are not guilty of one offense only but are buried in innumerable impurities.... all human works, if judged according to their own worth, are nothing but filth and defilement.... they are always spattered and befouled with many stains.... it is certain that there is no one who is not covered with infinite filth.

In John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait, 1989,
William J. Bouwsma, Oxford University Press, USA, p. 36.

But it's not the rather nasty, misogynistic and sex-obsessed theology of the Huguenots we are dealing with here, but the way they were dealt with by the majority Catholic population, the Catholic Church and the Catholic-controlled French state.

The origins of the Huguenots is a little complicated and obscure. In addition to the Calvinists, another strand came from an associated sect of the Cathars whose brutal suppression I have mentioned above. They were the Waldensians, a fundamentalist Christian sect which arose in Lyon, France in the twelfth century. They had continued as a secret society in the Luberon region of France but emerged from secrecy when they tried to join the Protestant Reformation and had a French translation of the Bible prepared for them. This was the first French Bible although an earlier one had been published in Franco-Provençal, the regional language of Provence. Many of the Waldensians who emerged from hiding were promptly massacred by Frances I at the Massacre of Mérindol.

The historical importance of this is not that yet another massacre had been inflicted by one Christian sect on another but that the French Protestants had a Bible in the local language, so giving access to it to ordinary people. This was considered essential by Protestants who used it to show that Catholic dogma was not supported by the Bible but was taught to enhance the power of the clergy and to justify clerical corruption which went hand in hand with Catholicism just as much then as now. Of course this incensed the Catholic clergy who held a monopoly on biblical interpretation by dint of the fact that ordinary people, by and large, couldn't read it to check that what they were being told was true. Nor could they read the frankly embarrassing parts of it.

By the mid sixteenth century, despite persecution, the Huguenots comprised some 12.5 percent of the sixteen million French population gaining many recruits from amongst the aristocracy and city-dwellers. This incidental increase in Huguenot influence and power provoked a Catholic backlash. In 1559, Francis II succeeded his father Henry II who had sought to protect Huguenots. Under the influence of his wife, also known as Mary Queen of Scots, a fanatical anti-Protestant, this protection was removed and Huguenots were rounded up, tried for heresy by Catholic judges, tortured and burned at the stake in the time-honoured Christian method for settling matters of theology and biblical interpretation.

Luckily, however, Mary was widowed in 1561 and returned to Scotland where she had earned the loathing of a growing Protestant population for her persecution of the Huguenots, her flagrantly licentious sex life and for murdering her second husband with the help of a lover. Ironically, she had to seek the protection of her cousin, the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I of England who kept her in prison for many years before having her head cut off for what may well have been a trumped-up plot to make a bid for the English Crown.

Back in France things were temporarily improving for the Huguenots. The Edict of Saint-Germain had given legal recognition and protection to the Huguenots. This didn't prevent growing communal tension between Catholics and Protestants however and this tension gradually took on a dynastic character as the rival Houses of Guise and Bourbon adopted one or other religion as they tried to enforce their claims to the French crown then in the possession of the House of Valois - which supported either Protestants or Catholics according to the way the political and military wind was blowing at the time.

In all, a series of eight religious civil wars were fought between 1562 and 1598. During one of the periods of 'peace' between these wars Parisian Catholics indulged in one of their favourite pass-times when they murdered some 25,000 Huguenots in Paris in what became known as the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre between 24 August and 2 September 1572. Tens of thousands more were murdered in copycat slaughters in other French towns including Aix, Bordeaux, Bourges, Lyon, Meaux, Orleans, Rouen, Toulouse, and Troyes. The perpetrators were granted a free pardon in an amnesty in 1573.

Despite these massacres, supported also by Henry of Navarre, the Huguenots were in control of some sixty French towns and cities. Henry succeeded to the French Crown as Henry IV in 1589 but found it expedient to renounce his Protestant faith. Never-the-less he promulgated the Edict of Nantes which proclaimed religious tollerance and ended offical religious discrimination. Naturally he was quickly assassinated by a Catholic fanatic, François Ravaillac, for this humanitarianism and denial of the Catholic right to persecute, torture and kill the heretics of their choice in order to settle the finer points of theological debate.

Over time however, Henry IV's Edict of Nantes fell into disuse and was increasingly ignored untill it was abolished altogether by Louis XIV and replaced with the Edict of Fontainebleau which made Protestantism illegal in France. It also banned Protestants from certain professions, closed their schools and compelled them to send their children to Catholic schools. Dragonnades were sent in to loot their houses and forcibly convert them to Catholicism.

One charming little measure was employed with enthusiasm and, naturally, with the full backing of the Catholic Church. This was to make it illegal for a Catholic child to live in a Protestant household. This might seem innocuous but the Catholic Church had conveniently declared that any baptised Catholic could baptise another person into Catholicism by the simple device of saying, "I baptise thee in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, Amen". Once so baptised they became legally Catholic, so any Catholic could baptise a Protestant child and make it illegal for them to live with their parents. No Huguenot parents could allow any of their children to come into contact with any Catholic for fear they would be baptised and the parents would be reported and have their children taken away. Catholic school teachers could, and did, take Huguenot children away from their parents by casting this simple magic spell over them.

With these measures, three quarters of the Protestant population of France was converted, forcibly or otherwise, to Catholicism and the rest (some 200,000) managed to escape to Protestant countries (emigration was illegal). As illegal escapees, naturally their land and property was forfeit to the state, or more usually, to the local officials and Catholic clerics who had been harassing them.

And so the Catholic Church settled the question of what was the best way to worship a god whose existence no one has yet found the slightest scrap of evidence for. About the only tactic it didn't employ was to settle the matter by civilised debate, scholarly analysis of the Bible and objective examination of available evidence. They knew full well that this option was not available to them. An independent observer might have been forgiven for thinking the affair was all about power, privilege and greed, and had nothing to do with humanitarian Christian principles, if indeed there are any such things.

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  1. If I remember correctly, "kill them all, God will know his own" dates from the Albigensian Crusade.

    1. Yep. Said by the Cistercian abbot-commander, Arnaud, in charge of the Christian army besieging the predominantly Cathar city of Bezier, which also had a large Catholic population who had stayed to protect their homes and property, when asked how they should tell the Cathars from the Catholics.

      See Feel That Christian Love


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