Persecution. —GENERAL—Persecution may be defined in general as the unlawful coercion of another’s liberty or his unlawful punishment, for not every kind of punishment can be regarded as persecution. For our purpose it must be still further limited to the sphere of religion, and in that sense persecution means unlawful coercion or punishment for religion’s sake.
The Church has suffered many kinds of persecution. The growth and the continued existence of Christianity have been hindered by cultured paganism and by savage heathenism. And in more recent times agnosticism has harassed the Church in the various states of America and Europe. But most deplorable of all persecutions have been those that Catholicism has suffered from other Christians. With regard to these it has to be considered that the Church herself has appealed to force, and that, not only in her own defense, but also, so it is objected, in unprovoked attack. Thus by means of the Inquisition (q.v.) or religious wars she was herself the aggressor in many instances during the Middle Ages and in the time of the Reformation. And even if the answer be urged that she was only defending her own existence, the retort seems fairly plausible that pagan and heathen powers were only acting in their own defense when they prohibited the spread of Christianity. The Church would therefore seem to be strangely inconsistent, for while she claims toleration and liberty for herself she has been and still remains intolerant of all other religions.
In answer to this objection, we may admit the fact and yet deny the conclusion. The Church claims to carry a message or rather a command from God and to be God‘s only messenger. In point of fact it is only within recent years, when toleration is supposed to have become a dogma, that the other “champions of Revelation” have abandoned their similar claims. That they should abandon their right to command allegiance is a natural consequence of Protestantism; whereas it is the Church‘s claim to be the accredited and infallible ambassador of God which justifies her apparent inconsistency. Such intolerance, however, is not the same as persecution, by which we understand the unlawful exercise of coercion. Every corporation lawfully constituted has the right to coerce its subjects within due limits. And though the Church exercises that right for the most part by spiritual sanctions, she has never relinquished the right to use other means. Before examining this latter right to physical coercion, there must be introduced the important distinction between pagans and Christians. Regularly, force has not been employed against pagan or Jew: “For what have I to do to judge them that are without?” (I Cor., v, 12); see Jews and Judaism : Judaism and Church Legislation.
Instances of compulsory conversions such as have occurred at different periods of the Church‘s history must be ascribed to the misplaced zeal of autocratic individuals. But the Church does claim the right to coerce her own subjects. Here again, however, a distinction must be made. The non-Catholic Christians of our day are, strictly speaking, her subjects; but in her legislation she treats them as if they were not her subjects. The “Ne temere”, e.g., of Pius X (1907), recognizes the marriages of Protestants as valid, though not contracted according to Catholic conditions: and the laws of abstinence are not considered to be binding on Protestants. So, with regard to her right to use coercion, the Church only exercises her authority over those whom she considers personally and formally apostates. A modern Protestant is not in the same category with the Albigenses or Wyclifites. These were held to be personally responsible for their apostasy; and the Church enforced her authority over them. It is true that in many cases the heretics were rebels against the State also; but the Church‘s claim to exercise coercion is not confined to such cases of social disorder. And what is more, her purpose was not only to protect the faith of the orthodox, but also to punish the apostates. Formal apostasy was then looked upon as treason against God—a much more heinous crime than treason against a civil ruler, which, until recent times, was punished with great severity. (See Apostasy; Heresy.) It was a poisoning of the life of the soul in others (St. Thomas Aquinas, II-II, Q. xi, articles 3, 4.)
There can be no doubt, therefore, that the Church claimed the right to use physical coercion against formal apostates. Not, of course, that she would exercise her authority in the same way today, even if there were a Catholic State in which other Christians were personally and formally apostates. She adapts her discipline to the times and circumstances in order that it may fulfill its salutary purpose. Her own children are not punished by fines, imprisonment, or other temporal punishments, but by spiritual pains and penalties, and heretics are treated as she treated pagans: “Fides suadenda est, non imponenda” (Faith is a matter of persuasion, not of compulsion)—a sentiment that goes back to St. Basil (“Revue de l’Orient Chrétien”, 2nd series, XIV, 1909, 38) and to St. Ambrose, in the fourth century, the latter applying it even to the treatment of formal apostates. It must also be remembered that when she did use her right to exercise physical coercion over formal apostates, that right was then universally admitted. Churchmen had naturally the ideas of their time as to why and how penalties should be inflicted. Withal, the Roman Inquisition (q.v.) was very different from that of Spain, and the popes did not approve the harsh proceedings of the latter. Moreover, such ideas of physical coercion in matters spiritual were not peculiar to Catholics (see Religious Toleration). The Reformers were not less, but, if anything, more, intolerant (see Inquisition). If the intolerance of Churchmen is blamable, then that of the Reformers is doubly so. From their own standpoint, it was unjustifiable. First, they were in revolt against the established authority of the Church, and secondly they could hardly use force to compel the unwilling to conform to their own principle of private judgment. With this clear demarcation of the Reformer’s private judgment from the Catholic‘s authority, it hardly serves our purpose to estimate the relative violence of Catholic and Protestant Governments during the times of the Reformation. And yet it is well to remember that the methods of the maligned Inquisition in Spain and Italy were far less destructive of life than the religious wars of France and Germany. What is, however, more to our purpose is to notice the outspoken intolerance of the Protestant leaders; for it gave an additional right to the Church to appeal to force. She was punishing her defaulting subjects and at the same time defending herself against their attacks.
Such compulsion, therefore, as is used by legitimate authority cannot be called persecution, nor can its victims be called martyrs. It is not enough that those who are condemned to death should be suffering for their religious opinions. A martyr is a witness to the truth; whereas those who suffered the extreme penalty of the Church were at the most the witnesses to their own sincerity, and therefore unhappily no more than pseudo-martyrs. We need not dwell upon the second objection which pretends that a pagan government might be justified in harassing Christian missionaries in so far as it considered Christianity to be subversive of established authority. The Christian revelation is the supernatural message of the Creator to His creatures, to which there can be no lawful resistance. Its missionaries have the right and the duty to preach it everywhere. They who die in the propagation or maintenance of the Gospel are God‘s witnesses to the truth, suffering persecution for His sake.
OUTLINE OF PRINCIPAL PERSECUTIONS.—The brief outline here given of persecutions directed against the Church follows the chronological order, and is scarcely more than a catalogue of the principal formal and public onslaughts against Catholicism. Nor does it take into account other forms of attack, e.g., literary and social persecution, some form of suffering for Christ’s sake being a sure note of the True Church (John, xv, 20; II Tim., iii, 12; Matt., x, 23). For a popular general account of persecutions of Catholics previous to the nineteenth century see Leclercq, “Les Martyrs” (5 vols., Paris, 1902-09).
Roman Persecutions (52-312). The persecutions of this period are treated extensively under Martyr. See also Acts of the Martyrs and the articles on individual martyrs or groups of martyrs ( The Ten Thousand Martyrs; Forty Martyrs; Agaunum. for the Theban Legion). An exhaustive and reliable work is Allard, “Les Persecutions” (5 vols, Paris, 1885); also his “Ten Lectures on the Martyrs” (New York, 1907); and for an exhaustive literature see Healy, “The Valerian Persecution” (Boston).
Under Julian the Apostate (361-63).—Constantine’s edict of toleration had accelerated the final triumph of Christianity. But the extreme measures passed against the ancient religion of the empire, and especially by Constans, even though they were not strictly carried out, roused considerable opposition. And when Julian the Apostate (361-63) came to the throne, he supported the defenders of paganism, though he strove to strengthen the old religion by recommending works of charity and a priesthood of strictly moral lives which, a thing unheard of, should preach and instruct. State protection was withdrawn from Christianity, and no section of the Church favored more than another, so that the Donatists and Arians were enabled to return.
All the privileges formerly granted to clerics were repealed; civil jurisdiction taken from the bishops, and the subsidies to widows and virgins stopped. Higher education, also, was taken out of the hands of Christians by the prohibition of anyone who was not a pagan from teaching classical literature. And finally, the tombs of martyrs were destroyed. The emperor was afraid to proceed to direct persecution, but he fomented the dissensions among the Christians, and he tolerated and even encouraged the persecutions raised by pagan communities and governors, especially in Alexandria, Heliopolis, Maiouma, the port of Gaza, Antioch, Arethusa, and Caesarea in Cappadocia (cf. Gergory of Nazianzus, Orat. IV, 86-95; P.G. XXXV, 613-28). Many, in different places, suffered and even died for the Faith, though another pretext was found for their death, at least by the emperor. Of the martyrs of this period mention may be made of John and Paul (q.v.), who suffered in Rome; the soldiers Juventinus and Maximian (cf. St. John Chrysostom’s sermon on them in P.G., L, 571-77); Macedonius, Tatian, and Theodulus of Meros in Phrygia (Socrates, III, 15; Sozomen, V, 11); Basil, a priest of Ancyra (Sozomen, V, 11). Julian himself seems to have ordered the executions of John and Paul, the steward and secretary respectively of Constantia, daughter of Constantine. However, he reigned only for two years, and his persecution was, in the words of St. Athanasius, “but a passing cloud”.
In Persia—When the persecution of Christianity was abandoned by the Roman Government, it was taken up by Rome‘s traditional enemy, the Persians, though formerly they had been more or less tolerant of the new religion. On the outbreak of war between the two empires, Sapor II (310-80), under the instigation of the Persian priests, initiated a severe persecution of the Christians in 339 or 340. It comprised the destruction or confiscation of churches and a general massacre, especially of bishops and priests. The number of victims, according to Sozomen (Hist. Eccl., II, 9-14), was no less than 16,000, among them being Symeon, Bishop of Seleucia; there was a respite from the general persecution, but it was resumed and with still greater violence by Bahram V (420-38), who persecuted savagely for one year, and was not prevented from causing numerous individual martyrdoms by the treaty he made (422) with Theodosius II, guaranteeing liberty of conscience to the Christians. Yezdegerd II (438-57), his successor, began a fierce persecution in 445 or 446, traces of which are found shortly before 450. The persecution of Chosroes I from 541 to 545 was directed chiefly against the bishops and clergy. He also destroyed churches and monasteries and imprisoned Persian noblemen who had become Christians. The last persecution by Persian kings was that of Chosroes II (590-628), who made war on all Christians alike during 627 and 628. Speaking generally, the dangerous time for the Church in Persia was when the kings were at war with the Roman Empire.
Among the Goths.—Christianity was introduced among the Goths about the middle of the third century, and “Theophilus Episcopus Gothiae” was present at the Council of Nicaea (325). But, owing to the exertions of Bishop Ulfilas (340, d. 383), an Arian, Arianism was professed by the great majority of the Visigoths of Dacia (Transylvania and West Hungary), converts from paganism; and it passed with them into Lower Moesia across the Danube, when a Gothic chieftain, after a cruel persecution, drove Ulfilas and his converts from his lands, probably in 349. And subsequently, when in 376 the Visigoths, pressed by the Huns, crossed the Danube and entered the Roman Empire, Arianism was the religion practiced by the Emperor Valens. This fact, along with the national character given to Arianism by Ulfilas (q.v.), made it the form of Christianity adopted also by the Ostrogoths, from whom it spread to the Burgundians, Suevi, Vandals, and Lombards.
The first persecution we hear of was that directed by the pagan Visigoth King Athanaric, begun about 370 and lasting for two, or perhaps six, years after his war with Valens. St. Sabas was drowned in 372; others were burnt, sometimes in a body in the tents which were used as churches. When, in the fifth and sixth centuries, the Visigoths invaded Italy, Gaul, and Spain, the churches were plundered, and the Catholic bishops and clergy were often murdered; but their normal attitude was one of toleration. Euric (483), the Visigoth King of Toulouse, is especially mentioned by Sidonius Apollinaris (Ep. vii, 6) as a hater of Catholicism and a persecutor of the Catholics, though it is not clear that he persecuted to death. In Spain there was persecution at least from time to time during the period 476-586, beginning with the aforesaid Euric, who occupied Catalonia in 476. We hear of persecution by Agila (549-554) also and finally by Leovigild (573-86). Bishops were exiled and church goods seized. His son Hermenigild, a convert to the Catholic Faith, is described in the seventh century (e.g. by St. Gregory the Great) as a martyr. A contemporary chronicler, John of Biclaro, who had himself suffered for the Faith, says that the prince was murdered in prison by an Arian, Sisibert; but he does not say that Leovigild approved of the murder (see Saint Hermengild; and Hodgkin, “Italy and her Invaders”, V, 255). With the accession of Reccared, who had become a Catholic, Arianism ceased to be the creed of the Spanish Visigoths.
As for the Ostrogoths, they seem to have been fairly tolerant, after the first violences of the invasion. A notable exception was the persecution of Theodoric (524-26). It was prompted by the repressive measures which Justin I had issued against the Arians of the Eastern Empire, among whom Goths would of course be included. One of the victims of the persecution was Pope John I who died in prison.
Among the Lombards—St. Gregory the Great, in parts of his “Dialogues”, describes the sufferings which Catholics had to endure at the time of the Lombard invasion under Alboin (568) and afterwards. But on the whole, after Autharis’s death (590) the Lombards were not troublesome, except perhaps in the Duchies of Benevento and Spoleto. Autharis’s queen, Theudelinda, a Catholic princess of Bavaria, was able to use her influence with her second husband, Agilulf, Autharis’s successor, so that he, although probably remaining an Arian, was friendly to the Church and allowed his son to be baptized a Catholic (see Lombardy).
Among the Vandals.—The Vandals, Arians like the Visigoths and the others, were the most hostile of all towards the Church. During the period of their domination in Spain (422-29) the Church suffered persecution, the details of which are unknown. In 429, under the lead of Genseric, the Goths crossed over to Africa, and by 455 had made themselves masters of Roman Africa. In the North, the bishops were driven from their sees into exile. When Carthage was taken in 439 the churches were given over to the Arian clergy, and the bishop Quodvultdeus (a friend of St. Augustine) and the greater part of the Catholic clergy were stripped of what they had, put on board unseaworthy ships, and carried to Naples. Confiscation of church property and exile of the clergy was the rule throughout the provinces of the North, where all public worship was forbidden to Catholics. In the provinces of the South, however, the persecution was not severe. Some Catholic court officials, who had accompanied Genseric from Spain, were tortured, exiled, and finally put to death because they refused to apostatize. No Catholic, in fact, was allowed to hold any office.
Genseric’s son, Huneric, who succeeded in 477, though at first somewhat tolerant, arrested and banished under circumstances of great cruelty nearly five thousand Catholics, including bishops and clergy, and finally by an edict of February 25, 484, abolished the Catholic worship, transferred all churches and church property to the Arians, exiled the bishops and clergy, and deprived of civil rights all those who would not receive Arian baptism. Great numbers suffered savage treatment, many died, others were mutilated or crippled for life. His successor, Guntamund (484-96), did not relax the persecution until 487. But in 494 the bishops were recalled, though they had afterwards to endure some persecution from Trasamund (496-523). And complete peace came to the Church at the accession of Genseric’s son Hilderic, with whom the Vandal domination ended (see Africa).
In Arabia.—Christianity penetrated into South Arabia (Yemen) in the fourth century. In the sixth century the Christians were brutally persecuted by the Jewish King Dunaan, no less than five thousand, including the prince, Arethas, being said to have suffered execution in 523 after the capture of Nagra. The Faith was only saved from utter extinction at this period by the armed intervention of the King of Abyssinia. And it did in fact disappear before the invading forces of Islam.
Under the Mohammedans.—With the spread of Mohammedanism in Syria, Egypt, Persia, and North Africa, there went a gradual subjugation of Christianity. At the first onset of invasion, in the eighth century, many Christians were butchered for refusing to apostatize; afterwards they were treated as helots, subject to a special tax, and liable to suffer loss of goods or life itself at the caprice of the caliph or the populace. In Spain the first Mohammedan ruler to institute a violent persecution of the Christians was the viceroy Abderrahman II (821-52). The persecution was begun in 850, was continued by Mohammed (852-87) and lasted with interruptions till 960, when the Christians were strong enough to intimidate their persecutors. The number of martyrs was small, Eulogius, Archbishop of Toledo (March 11, 859), who has left us an account of the persecution, being himself the most famous (see Mohammed and Mohammedanism).
Under the Iconoclasts.—The troubles brought on the Church of the East by the Iconoclastic emperors cover a period of one hundred and twenty years. Leo III (the Isaurian) published two edicts against images about 726 and 730. The execution of the edicts was strenuously resisted. Popes Gregory II and III protested in vigorous language against the autocratic reformer, and the people resorted to open violence. But Constantine V (Copronymus, 741-75) continued his father’s policy, summoning a council at Constantinople in 754 and then persecuting the orthodox party. The monks formed the especial object of his attack. Monasteries were demolished, and the monks themselves shamefully maltreated and put to death. Under Constantine VI (780-97), through the influence of his mother, the regent Irene, the Seventh Ecumenical Council was summoned in 787, and rescinded the decrees of Copronymus’s Council. But there was a revival of the persecution under Leo V (813-20), the bishops who stood firm, as well as the monks, being the special objects of his attack, while many others were directly done to death or died as a result of cruel treatment in prison. This persecution, which was continued under Michael II (820-29), reached its most fierce phase under Theophilus (829 42). Great numbers of monks were put to death by this monarch; but at his decease the persecutions ended (842) (see Iconoclasm).
MODERN PERIOD.—We have reviewed. the persecutions undergone by the Church during the first millennium of her existence. During her second millennium she has continued to suffer persecution in her mission of spreading the Gospel, and especially in Japan and China (see Japanese Martyrs; Martyrs in China). She has also had to face the attacks of her own children, culminating in the excesses and religious wars of the Reformation.
For an account of the persecutions of Irish, English, and Scotch Catholics, see England; Ireland; Scotland; Penal Laws; and the numerous articles on individual martyrs, e.g. Blessed Edmund Campion; Venerable Oliver Plunket .
Poland.—Within the last century, Poland has suffered what is perhaps the most notable of recent persecutions. Catholicism had continued to be the established religion of the country until the intervention of Catherine II of Russia (1762-96). By means of political intrigues and open hostility, she first of all secured a position of political suzerainty over the country, and then effected the separation of the Ruthenians from the Holy See, and incorporated them with the Orthodox Church of Russia. Nicholas I (1825-55), and Alexander II (1855-81), resumed her policy of intimidation and forcible suppression. The latter monarch especially showed himself a violent persecutor of the Catholics, the barbarities that were committed in 1863 being so savage as to call forth a joint protest from the Governments of France, Austria, and Great Britain. After his death the Catholics were granted a certain measure of toleration, and in 1905 Nicholas II granted them full liberty of worship (see Poland; Russia).
For the persecution of Catholics in the Ottoman Empire see .
In modern times, however, a new element has been added to the forces opposing the Church. There have indeed been occasional recrudescences of the “Re-formers”, violence dictated by a frenzied fear of Catholic progress. Such were for instance the Charleston and Philadelphia disturbances in 1834 and 1844, and the “No Popery” cries against the establishment of the Catholic hierarchy in England and Holland in 1850 and 1853. But this was no more than the spirit of the Reformation. For the attitude of the South American republics during the nineteenth century, see the articles on those countries.
Liberalism.—A new spirit of opposition appears in the so-called “Liberalism” and in Free Thought, whose influence has been felt in Catholic as well as Protestant countries. Its origin is to be traced back to the infidel philosophy of the eighteenth century. At the end of that century it had grown so strong that it could menace the Church with armed violence. In France six hundred priests were murdered by Jourdan, “the Beheader”, in 1791, and in the next year three hundred ecclesiastics, including an archbishop and two bishops, were cruelly massacred in the prisons of Paris. The Reign of Terror ended in 1795. But the spirit of infidelity which triumphed then has ever since sought and found opportunities for persecution. And it has been assisted by the endeavors of even so-called Catholic governments to subordinate the Church to the State, or to separate the two powers altogether. In Switzerland the Catholics were so incensed by the attacks of the Liberal party on their religious freedom that they resolved on an appeal to arms. Their Sonderbund (q.v.) or “Separate League” was at first successful in the war of 1843, and in spite of its final defeat by the forces of the Diet in 1847 the result has been to secure religious liberty throughout Switzerland. Since that time the excitement caused by the decree on Papal Infallibility found vent in another period of hostile legislation; but the Catholics have been strong enough to maintain and reinforce their position in the country.
In other countries Liberalism has not issued in such direct warfare against the Church; though the defenders of the Church have often been ranged against revolutionaries who were attacking the altar along with the throne. But the history of the nineteenth century reveals a constant opposition to the Church. Her influence has been straitened by adverse legislation, the monastic orders have been expelled and their property confiscated, and, what is perhaps most characteristic of modern persecution, religion has been excluded from the schools and universities. The underlying principle is always the same, though the form it assumes and the occasion of its development are peculiar to the different times and places. Gallicanism in France, Josephinism in Austria, and the May Laws of the German Empire have all the same principle of subordinating the Church to the Government, or separating the two powers by a secularist and unnatural divorce. But the solidarity of Catholics and the energetic protests of the Holy See succeeded often in establishing Concordats to safeguard the independent rights of the Church. The terms of these concessions have not always been observed by Liberal or Absolutist Governments. Still they saved the Church in her time of peril. And the enforced separation of Church from State which followed the renunciation of the Concordats has taught the Catholics in Latin countries the dangers of Secularism (q.v.) and how they must defend their rights as members of a Church which transcends the limits of states and nations, and acknowledges an authority beyond the reach of political legislation. In the Teutonic countries, on the other hand, the Church does not loom so large a target for the missiles of her enemies. Long years of persecution have done their work, and left the Catholics with a greater need and a greater sense of solidarity. There is less danger of confusing friend and foe, and the progress of the Church is made more apparent.