The ancient western world did not have the concept of "heresy" or "heretic." Greco-Roman society tolerated all religions and did not impose restrictions on free thought. Acts of intolerance were rare, and if they occurred, they were never justified by deviations from one doctrine or another. All this was dramatically changed with the advent of Christianity. Initially, this was a messianic movement among Jews, but by the fourth century it became the religion of the emperors and established itself as the exclusive and obligatory state religion. From the fourth century on, the profession of religious, mythical beliefs became the touchstone of morality, reversing the humanistic principles of ancient morality. and the first totalitarian system was established with a religious hierarchical organization as the exclusive ideological, political party and with a secular state power as its executive branch. Laws were introduced that legalized religious, dogmatic assertions, imposed obligatory adherence, and prohibited any deviation in thought.
The people of Western Europe were born and baptized into it. Their whole lives were controlled on earth and their destiny in the hereafter was determined. This ecclesiastical state reached its peak during the Middle Ages and lasted for about 15 centuries. Opponents were punished -- too often by death, torture, and confiscation of property -- their only "crime" being that of daring to speak out against the scheme imposed by a totalitarian, ecclesiastical party. In this theocratic society the designation of "heretic" became the catch word for the elimination of any inconvenient person or group. Bloody persecution of any deviation in thought was declared a moral virtue and a divine command.
It is appalling and sad, indeed, that even in the twentieth century the Roman Catholic church and some scholars and students of the past steadfastly defend the church's criminal activity by claiming, for example, that the Inquisition was legally just and used correct legal procedure. This is like saying that the Stalin or Hitler regimes were just as long as they adhered to their legal procedures. The same Catholic scholar calls anybody who objectively points to historical facts and indicates the moral depravation induced and imposed by the church on society, an "enemy of the church."
As far as social issues are concerned, the church never had any policy for social justice; it went along with and supported anybody in power as long as the ruler guaranteed the supremacy of the church and a free hand. The clergy, though stratified themselves, always belonged to the privileged class. It is no wonder that within the church we find from time to time some reaction in the form of social movements as represented by the early religious "heresies" of the "fratricelli" and the Poor of Lyon, Anabaptists, some supporters of Marxism, and in more recent times, Liberation Theology. The Reformation brought new trends in religious practice: the assertion of individual, personal experience as a basis for religion, an emphasis on biblical studies, and the search for biblical principles. It also underscored the need for tolerance, at least in the initial phase, for its own survival. Unfortunately, the "reformed" churches quickly became as intolerant as the old Roman church and ossified into the old dogmatic tradition. The few leaders of liberal religious thought who did emerge did not attempt to develop a systematic formulation of the Christian faith from this new approach. Their assertions were partial, limited, and concerned more with the application of religion in practical life than with dogmata. They opposed the moral corruption and power of the popes and the clergy, the prostitution of the ecclesiastical offices for money, the selling of religious "rewards" (e.g. indulgences) for financial benefits, the idolatry of saintly images, and the worship of saints. Superstitious worship of relics proliferated to astronomical figures -- e.g. Wittenberg was a museum of 5000 relics! However, any real investigation of the accepted dogmas or dogmatic assertions was persecuted by both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches.
Out of this background then stands out the solitary figure of Michael Servetus, a bold mind daring to analyze afresh accepted dogmas and the authority of the ancient creeds and medieval theologians. He remains one of the greatest minds in human history, one who contributed to universal culture. With the rediscovery of humanism in the first half of the fifteenth century, Servetus became one of its most prominent representatives. He remained, however, a deeply religious person with Christ as the central motif of his existence and guide for his personal and professional conduct. In the realm of theology Servetus combined a rational mind with a deep mysticism devoted to the person of Jesus Christ and a return to the original messianism of pre-Nicaean Christianity. His theology was not based on following the established doctrines, but on biblical exegesis. He analyzed critically all previous thought, but conceded final authority only to the Bible. He could not accept the eternity of Jesus' Sonship. He looked for the foundation of the dogma of the Trinity in harmony with the Bible, and not with Greek philosophical speculation. He agreed with Thomas Münzer and David Joris only in his opposition to infant baptism. He was not interested in Anabaptism as an expression of social class interests under the cover of religious reform and a return to the social model of primitive Christianity. Anabaptists, however, had a legitimate reason to blame the church for betraying the moral and social values of original Christianity. The church had not applied the moral principle it supposedly propagated to its own organization or to the political institutions of society. It always tried to affiliate itself with the groups holding power regardless of the social and economic infrastructure.
Servetus' humanism in the realm of medical studies was expressed in the acceptance of Galenism, but his version of Galenism was subordinate to the method of observation and not to the dogmatic following of immutable knowledge received from antiquity. Many before him made observations on the disproportionate anatomical size of the pulmonary artery and its suggested role as supplier of nutrition to the lungs. His critical thinking allowed him to break with the old concepts and to formulate pulmonary circulation for the first time in print. But he was not yet a man of the Enlightenment. He ascribed much more importance to theology than to experimental and scientific knowledge and even placed the description of his discovery in a theological treatise since his theological concept of the soul as residing in the blood was its principal premise.
The genius of Michael Servetus extends to many fields of human endeavor: jurisprudence, mathematics, meteorology, geography, astrology, philosophy, medicine, theology, and biblical criticism, listed in increasing order of his preference. Several scholars succinctly described his role in the history of human thought. The biographer of John Calvin, E. Stähelin, wrote: "[Servetus] was in intellectual endowments undoubtedly the peer of the greatest men of his century, Calvin included." Friedrich Trechsel, nineteenth century church historian, wrote: "Servetus personified the antitrinitarian spirit, and worked it out into a comprehensive system, giving it its first speculative and systematic form. Previous Antitrinitarians had either been merely negative, or their teaching had gone off on a tangent, and had left only sketches and hints, and were less concerned with dogma than with practical ends." The German scientist Karl Vogt declared him "the greatest savant of his century." The French theologian Henri Tollin said he one of the greatest mystics in Spanish literature of all time. The greatness of Servetus did not escape even Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo, Spanish scholar, the enemy of the Reformation and a great supporter of the Catholic Inquisition, who said: "Of the all Spanish heresiarchs none surpasses Servetus in boldness and originality of ideas, in the order and consistency of his system, in logical vigor, and in the ultimate consequency of his error." The German theologian Adolf von Harnack thus described the importance of Servetus' thought: "The representative the most remarkable of the union of the two tendencies -- speculative mysticism and cold rationalism -- was Michael Servetus, the Spanish thinker who is distinguished also for his profound piety. In him was found the fusion of all that was the best in the sixteenth century development if one puts aside the evangelical Reformation. Servetus equally distinguished himself as a learned experimenter, as a critical thinker, as a speculative philosopher, and as a Christian reformer in the best sense of the word." Auguste Dide, the French Senator and the president of the International Committee for the Monument to Michael Servetus, in his inaugural speech at the unveiling of Servetus' statue in Annemasse in 1908 said: "The day when Servetus, tortured, captive, and facing death, opposed the arrogant absolutism and pride of his persecutors and executioners, with the doctrine of the never ending progress, Servetus placed himself in league with the emancipators who would create a new secular Europe and who prepared the French Revolution." At the same ceremony, professor of philosophy Otto Karmin said: "Amidst the most inhuman sufferings, he affirmed the principles of free thought which has triumphed since and the principle of free belief which became the Magna Carta of the Unitarian Protestants and of the liberal churches. These churches live by the doctrines for which Servetus sacrificed his life." José Barón Fernández, who emphasized the contribution of Servetus to medicine, which alone would guarantee him immortality, called him one of the brightest geniuses through whom Spain contributed to universal culture: "The profound knowledge of any of the disciplines on which he discoursed manifests the depth of his erudition combined with the rigor and honesty of the inquiry." Nevertheless, Fernández acknowledges Servetus' singular role in history by the fact that he was burned in effigy by the Catholic Inquisition at Vienne and alive by the Protestant Calvinists at Geneva. Such a circumstance did not occur to any other dissenter persecuted for theological ideas.
During his lifetime, Servetus was often accused of being proud, vain, and arrogant. But his stubbornness and rigidity should not be confused with his fidelity to his principles. The sixteenth century, as an epoch of controversies and polemics, offered a style expressed in heated and offensive debates. Servetus remained a humble man open to rational argument. During the process at Geneva in the debate with Calvin he was ready to modify his views provided that his opponent's arguments were extracted from the biblical text. After he was condemned to death, Servetus with humility asked Calvin, who was directly responsible for his unjust martyrdom, for forgiveness. To be saved from the stake he only had to state "Jesus Christ the eternal Son of God." Instead, his last words were: "Jesus Christ, Son of the eternal God." He was convinced of the correctness of his reading of the scripture, which he revered, and died defending not his life but his doctrines.
His personal sacrifice opened the eyes of thinking people to the madness of the established religious, social, moral, and political principles. Soon after his death, a polemic on the freedom of religious thought was initiated by the treatises of Protestant humanist Sebastian Castellio and culminated later in the mature Socinian tractates demanding separation of church and state and absolute freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. The Socinian tradition in turn opened the gates of the Enlightenment with writings of philosopher Pierre Bayle, John Locke, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, and David Hume, leading eventually to the establishment of the principles of American democracy by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. From a historical perspective, Servetus died in order that freedom of conscience could become a civil right of the individual in modern society.
Today, we take for granted the freedoms of thought, of inquiry, of conscience, and of religion recovered after almost fifteen centuries and about 50 million victims. These liberties, however, are very fragile indeed. The forces of darkness are still with us in the world. It is enough to look at some of the Islamic countries still under the yoke of theocratic governments and ruled by the religious laws of Islamic "sharía." The Catholic church still does not give up political power and uses every possible approach to control people and countries. One mechanism designed by the church was the formation of the secret society Opus Dei, founded by the Spanish priest José María Escrivá de Balaguer in 1928.
Balaguer is described by former members of the organization as a megalomaniac, a man of boundless personal ambition, who even secured for himself a title, the Marquis of Peralta. "He saw himself as a divine mandatory .... Whatever he proposed was not really his. It was God's proposal, and no changes or shadings were accepted." The Opus Dei that started as a small, charismatic group with evangelical ideals became a sect or cult with characteristic features such as psychological indoctrination, veneration of its founder, and a complete disregard for the human dignity of its members, which it will use even for illegal activities.
Opus Dei has flourished under Pope John Paul II who bestowed on the organization the status of Personal Prelature, thus making it responsible directly to Rome. The purpose of this organization is conquest of power. From the beginning, it was bent on seizing power in Spain in order to revive Catholicism and counter the forces of Freemasonry and Marxism. Its founder, Balaguer, believed during the Civil War in Spain in a Judeo-Masonic-Communist conspiracy to conquer the world and "destroy the throne and the Altar." The organization accomplishes its goals by infiltrating elites in banking, government, academies, advertising, and the cinema. It exploits countries and human weaknesses and practices coercion, compelling its members to do what is convenient for the organization. Or, as another example, observe the rising specter of the Catholic "sharía" under the guise of democracy in Poland.
Recent reports from Poland indicate that the church influences the legislature directly by controlling the state and imposing church laws and regulations. "In 1991 Parliament passed a bill which declares that the Christian ethical system is the basis of education in the public schools, and that the will of the parents is binding -- the child has no choice about attending religious classes .... Masses and prayers have become part of official ceremonies, as Poland shifts back towards being a Catholic country. There are crosses in official offices, police buildings, schools and the army. A bill has been passed ordering the state to return church property taken by the communists (no other organization or individual has yet received such recompense) .... Politicians related to the church often say officially that homosexuals are sinners. Divorce cases have been transferred to the higher court level to increase their cost and so decrease their number. There is no sex education program, and efforts are being made to limit the availability of contraceptives." Poland rapidly follows the path of Iranianization and sinks back into the Middle Ages. According to a published report from Poland:
The influence of the Catholic Church is widespread, and the position of its parliamentary arm, the Christian-National Union (ZChN), has strengthened. This group ... has the role of ideological supervisor of the legislature and many of the departments of state administration. The ZChN 's ... religious supervision of the state is the driving force behind Poland's transformation from an emerging democracy into a quasi-religious state.
The church obtained enormous benefits: special tax privileges, property rights, and privileged access to television and radio.
The Church has become institutionalized as a part of the State. Among other encroachments on secular authority, the army has been clericalized, with priests now playing the role of the former political commissars; the Church hierarchy is regularly "consulted" on the filling of state posts ... religious ceremonies have been made a programmatic part of national holidays and celebrations; religious symbols and icons have been introduced into the buildings of all public institutions, including the parliament.
More dangerous is the encroachment of the church on the consciousness of society:
There is a common belief that the Church is a rising, new guiding force for society, with an obligatory "one true world view." Not surprisingly, the social response has been one of fear; the similarities with the past are too conspicuous to go unnoticed. Hypocrisy and self-censorship have returned like a plague. New falsehoods, full of "blank spaces" and simplifications that distort the Polish past, have replaced those of communist history. A new set of stereotypes have been introduced into Polish culture and tradition. Well-tested Orwellian principles of Newspeak are deforming language: distinctions are made between freedom and "real freedom" or "well-organized freedom." Many concepts are being wrongly identified: universal moral values are Christian values; abortion is the equivalent of killing children; moral relativism is nihilism; anti-clericalism is anti-God; atheism is communism .... The school is a principal target of the Church's efforts .... Religious classes in Poland, mandated by law, [have as their aim] introduction of formal instruction in the catechism, which is to say religious indoctrination. A centuries-old tradition of religious instruction that excludes the practice of skepticism or counter-argumentation is used in the classroom .... The introduction of catechism courses to the classroom undermines the school's fundamental purpose .... It dulls the ability to think critically and introduces cognitive dissonance .... The classes ... damage the secular authority since the classes are in essence obligatory .... Many children attend religion classes only because they fear the academic consequences of having a blank space in the "religion/ethics" section of their school certificate. Instead of honesty and moral courage, the schools are teaching opportunism, hypocrisy and cynicism. The schools are also propagating both intolerance and the belief in the existence of "only one truth" in the sphere of morality. To serve this truth, new family life classes are being prepared to supplement existing religion classes, in order to teach the Church's views on family ...
In the United States the threat is real, too. It is appalling and extremely dangerous, indeed, when a Christian presidential candidate called openly from the podium at the 1992 Republican National Election Convention for a "religious war" to satisfy his narrow views and those of his religious party. Another leader of the Christian organization wrote in a newspaper: "I want you to just let a wave of intolerance wash over you. I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good ... Our goal is a Christian nation. We have a biblical duty, we are called by God, to conquer this country. We don't want equal time. We don't want pluralism." The newly elected right wing Speaker of the House of Representatives announced that he planned to enact a school prayer amendment to the Constitution by July 4, 1995, the purpose of which was "reestablishing the Creator at the center of the American polity." In a speech to the Heritage Foundation he affirmed that he had "a vision of America in which belief in the Creator is once again at the center of defining being an American." The leaders of the religious right do not hesitate to spread lies, to censor schools, press, textbooks, and newspapers. These groups are well organized, financed, and train their apparatchiks to raise "a cadre of people who are militant, who are fierce, and who are unmerciful" in order to fight a religious crusade "that will make the Civil War look civil." But the most ominous aspect is that this "religious war" declared by the presidential candidate has now become a shooting war with many innocent victims.
Christianity as we know it in its post-Nicaean variety proved itself to be a bankrupt movement morally and ideologically. The world needs to return to the old moral humanistic values with no restraint on the development of the individual, his/her full realization in harmony with nature and other human beings, and a respect for human dignity and human values.
The problems in modern post-Christian societies we are facing arise partly from the fact that we have a tendency to forget the past. And too often people are deceived by the pseudomoral jargon of the established churches. Just as Jews remind us constantly of the recent Holocaust, the world should not forget the past; rather, we should study it to be aware of the twisted paths that religious organizations and institutions were able to impose on mankind. The future lies in overcoming its lingering relics and building a new, better society.
Literature on church history is extremely abundant. The reader will find, however, a good and objective introduction to the field with extensive lists of sources in:
1. Flick, Alexander Clarence, The Rise of the Mediaeval Church and its Influence on the Civilization of Western Europe from the First to the Thirteenth Century. (New York: Burt Franklin, 1909); Johnson, Paul, A History of Christianity. (New York: Atheneum, 1976); Cairns, E. Earle, Christianity Through the Centuries. A History of the Christian Church. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervaan Publishing House, 1982). Twenty-eighth edition. A good source of selected original documents, in English translation, pertaining to the subject can be found in Barry, J. Colman, editor, Readings in Church History. (Paramus, N.J. and New York, N.Y.: Newman Press, 1960), Vol. 1-3.
2. The Catholic Encyclopedia, (New York: Encyclopedia Press, 1913), Vol. XIV, pp. 763-773. Guiraud, Jean, L'Inquisition médiévales, (Paris: Librairie Jules Tallandier, 1978).
3. Gutiérrez, Gustavo, A Theology of Liberation. History, Politics and Salvation. Revised Edition with a New Introduction. Translated by Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988). Segundo, Juan Luis, Teología de liberación. Respuesta al Cardenal Ratzinger (Madrid: Ediciones Cristiandad, 1985). Hillar, Marian, "Liberation Theology: Religious Response to Social Problems." In Humanism and Social Issues. An Anthology of Essays (Houston: American Humanist Association, 1993), pp. 35-52.
4. For example Pope Agapet II became Pope at the age of 18, Pope Benoit IX at the age of 10; the archbishop of Reims was nominated at the age of 5; Jean de Lorraine became bishop of Metz at age of 4, and, at the same time, had benefices from 3 archbishoprics, 11 bishoprics, and 5 abbeys; Leo X was created a cardinal at the age of 9; Odet de Chastillon, brother of Coligny, became cardinal at the age of 9.
5. Doumergue, Émile, Jean Calvin. Les hommes et les choses de son temps. (Lausanne, Paris: 1899-1927; Slatkine Reprints: Genève, 1969). Tome I, pp. 32-49.
6. Quotes are cited by Earl Morse Wilbur in A History of Unitarianism. Socinianism and its Antecedents. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1945), p. 50.
7. Menéndez y Pelayo, Marcelino,(1856-1912), Historia de los heterodoxos españoles: erasmistas y protestantes, sectas misticas, judaizantes y moriscos, artes magicas. Prologo de Arturo Farinelli. (Mexico: Editorial Porrua, 1982).p. 142.
8. Harnack, Adolf von, Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte, fourth edition. (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1990). Vol. III, pp. 660, 661, quoted by Doumergue, É., op. cit., Vol., VI, p. 251.
9. Inaugural speech of Auguste Dide, published in Progrès de la Haute- Savoie, October 31, 1908.
10. Otto Karmin, a speech published in Progrès de la Haute-Savoie, October 31, 1908.
11. José Barón Fernández, Miguel Servet (Miguel Serveto). Su Vida y Su Obra. Prólogo de Pedro Laín Entralgo. (Madrid: Espase-Calpe, S.A., 1970), p. 15.
12. Hillar, Marian, "Poland's Contribution to the Reformation: Socinians and Their Ideas on the Religious Freedom," in The Polish Review, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 4, pp. 447-468, 1993. Hillar, Marian, "From the Polish Socinians to the American Constitution," in A Journal from the Radical Reformation. A Testimony to Biblical Unitarianism, Vol. 4, No. 3, pp. 22-57, 1994.
13. Mendez-Acosta, Mario, "Opus Dei, a Threat to Liberty." in Free Inquiry, Vol. 15, No. 1, winter 1994/1995, pp. 13-15.
14. "Report from Poland" in International Humanist, April 1992, p. 17.
15. Stanosz, Barbara, "Emerging Democracy or Religious State?" in Uncaptive Mind, Vol. 6, No. 2, 1993, pp. 33-36.
16. Terry, Randall, in The News-Sentinel, Fort Wayne, Indiana, August 16, 1993.
17. Quoted by Paul Kurtz, "The Culture War' Intensity" in Free Inquiry, Winter 1994/1995, Vol. 15, No. 1, p. 4.
Copyright 2015. Marian Hillar. All rights reserved.