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Does Calvin Bear Any Responsibility for Later Slaughters by Catholics of Calvinists?
Calvin Was Begged To Repent in 1554 To Save Lives
In 1554, critics of Calvin warned that Calvin's killing of Servetus as a mere heretic would give fresh impetus to the Roman Catholic Church to repeal the toleration that it exercised since 1520 toward the Protestant `heresy' (as Catholics viewed it.) Calvin should have foreseen the danger that his conduct would justify the Catholic church to persecute Protestant heretics, for Calvin's action undercut the principled Protestant arguments against persecuting heretics that had caused Catholicism to sheepishly withdraw the practice of persecution by 1520.
Thus, Calvin having had Servetus killed for heresy in 1553, Calvin provided Catholics, as Pastor Benson pointed out in 1753, with "an invincible argument against themselves [i.e., the Calvinists]" that any killing of Calvinist Protestant heretics by Catholics would now be just.
Fritz Barth (1856-1912) made the same point in Calvin und Servet (1909) that the "gravely compromised Calvinism ... put into the hands of the Catholics...the very best weapon for the persecution of the Huguenots [i.e., Calvinists of France], who were nothing but heretics in their eyes."
Zagorin summarizes Calvin's response to this argument in his Defensio of 1554. Calvin was answering Christian critics who warned Calvin's new principle within Protestantism of killing heretics will lead to the Catholics to revisit their then current pattern of tolerating Protestants:
He dismissed the argument that the Protestants' punishment of heretics would likewise justify the Catholics' persecution of Protestants, answering that Catholics were wrong because they persecuted the truth, whereas Protestants defended the true religion ordained by God.
Calvin was using a lawyer's trick in this reply. He changed the issue and then answered the question which he preferred. Calvin never properly addressed the problem whether Calvin's violent ideas toward heretics could revive Catholic violent intolerance of Protestant heretics, as it later did.
In other words, if Calvin's principle of death-to-heretics were well-publicized, as it came to be, then the Catholic leaders would learn Calvinists concurred on that issue. Then, based upon Calvin's clear defense of killing heretics, Roman Catholics could re-assert death to Protestant heretics. At least, the Catholics would be justified killing Calvinist Protestants because the Calvinist leader conceded the principle. The Calvinist Protestants did not all live in safety like Calvin did in Geneva. Over 100,000 Calvinist Huguenots lived in Catholic France. Several million Calvinists lived in the Netherlands under Catholic rule. They were all at risk if Calvin miscalculated what his example of murderous intolerance at Geneva in 1553 would signal to Rome.
The question the critic wanted answered was a good one: `What if the Catholics of France or the Netherlands learn from you a principle, unless you repent quickly, that will be turned on the Calvinists in each land, leaving them no moral defense to say the principle of killing them as heretics is wrong?'
The Boomerang Consequence of Calvin's Intolerance
The Roman Catholic Inquisition's murder of the Calvinists of the Netherlands in 1568 and those of France in 1572, as we shall soon discuss, thus turned in significant part on the failure of Calvin to repent. Calvin's reversal in 1554 of his prior doctrine of tolerance, and then insistence that killing heretics was absolute and inviolable, had foreseeable tragic consequences.
That's the reason why Calvin did not address this crucial point of his critic. As a consequence, the lives of over 25,000 Huguenots -- perhaps as many as 100,000 -- were seized prematurely in 1572. It appears at least 20,000 were killed in the Netherlands in 1568. This was largely due to the fact their spiritual leader -- Calvin -- did not have the good sense of repenting from his decision to have Servetus killed in 1553 as a heretic. For the Catholics took no similar action against the Lutherans who made a mutual pact with the Catholics to never persecute one another as heretics. They each had the Peace of Augsburg protecting them. Catholics and Lutherans had agreed that no Lutheran or Catholic "heretic" in the other's domain would be killed merely for heresy.
Thus, no action was taken by Catholics against Lutherans in this entire period. By contrast, after 1554 when Calvin announced death to heretics, and when the Catholic effort in 1561 failed to enter into the same agreement as the Peace of Augsberg with the Calvinists of France (see infra), the Roman Catholics used the Inquisition in Spain and France as murderous weapons upon the Calvinists.
Let's review this in more detail. The salient facts are simply more tragedies that belong on Calvin's long list of bad "fruit."
Roman Catholic Toleration Is Ended Only For Calvinist Protestants As A Matter of Self-Defense
Calvin can be blamed in significant part for subsequent Catholic resort to killing of Calvinists as heretics. As a French text bitterly relates this consequence from Calvin's defense of the right to kill heretics: "[Calvin's Defensio of 1554] furnished the Catholics an invincible argument... against the Protestants who had reproached them previously against any killing the Calvinists of France." (Louis Mayeul Chaudon, "Servetus," Dictionnaire universel historique (1812) XIX:156.) One can hear the bitterness between the lines of Chaudon's heartbreak over what happened next.
What Calvin had single-handedly done is unwind all the progress at fostering tolerance by Catholics for the Calvinist Protestants in particular, and especially those of France and the Netherlands.
For Erasmus in 1520 successfully poured shame on the Catholics for persecuting heretics. This had the immediate effect of insulating Lutherans. Erasmus' pleas created an era of Catholic tolerance of the Lutheran Protestants from 1520 onward. The Catholics still regarded all Protestants as heretics, yet took no effort at massive violent suppression until its clear hand in the 1568 execution of Calvinists in the Netherlands and the 1572 massacres of Calvinist Huguenots.
Lord Acton (a Catholic) pointed out this Catholic tolerance lasted from 1520 until the Catholic church's wars on the Calvinists, plotted in the late 1560s.
Calvin's Responsibility for the 1568 Decree That All Inhabitants Of The Netherlands Should Be Killed
After 1537, "Calvinism became the theological system of the majority in...the Netherlands." "The third wave of the Reformation, Calvinism, arrived in the Netherlands in the 1560s, converting both parts of the elite and the common population, mostly in Flanders." "By the 1560s, the Protestant community had become a significant influence in the Netherlands, although it clearly formed a minority then." Yet, this was a Catholic land. Its Spanish ruler, Philip II, King of Spain, engaged in various oppressions of the Calvinists. Then in 1566, some Calvinists apparently committed a systematic vandalism of idolatrous images in Catholic churches. This was not a political but a religious rebellion. However, Philip called it a `rebellion' and sent Spanish troops into the Netherlands to suppress it. In 1568, the "Spanish government, under Phillip II started harsh prosecution campaigns, supported by the Spanish Inquisition."
These "harsh prosecution campaigns" against defenseless citizens is recounted in John Lothrop Motley (1814-1877)'s Rise of the Dutch Republic (N.Y.: 1856)(reprint Thomas Crowell, 1901). He relates:
Upon the 15th of February 1568, a sentence of the Holy Office condemned all the inhabitants of the Netherlands to death as heretics. From this universal doom only a few persons, especially named, were excepted. A proclamation of the King [Phillip II of Spain], dated ten days later confirmed this decree of the Inquisition, and ordered it to be carried into instant execution without regard to age, sex, or condition. This is probably the most concise death-warrant that was ever framed..... Three millions of people, men, women and children, were sentenced to the scaffold in three lines. Under the new decree, the executions certainly did not slacken. Men in the highest and humblest positions were daily and hourly dragged to the stake. Alba, in a single letter to Phillip II, cooly estimates the number of executions which were to take place immediately after the expiration of Holy Week at "eight hundred heads." (Id., Vol. 1 at 597-98.)
This is confirmed by other historians. King Philip through the Duke of Alba set up "arbitrary and sanguinary tribunals" throughout the Netherlands, and "multitudes were daily delivered over to the executioner; nothing was to be seen or heard but seizure, confiscation, imprisonment, torture and death." The Protestant William of Nassau, Prince of Orange, sought to rescue the Protestants from further murder, but his army of 28,000 were no match for the Spaniards stationed in the Netherlands.
The Inquisition was working hand-in-glove with Fernando Alvarez de Toledo known as the Duke of Alba aka Alva. He was the right-hand man of King Philip II of Spain. In one episode just prior to the Inquisition decree of 1568, several men had come to the Duke of Alba, pleading for clemency on behalf of those imprisoned for being tolerant of Protestantism. The Duke of Alba made a "passionate and ferocious reply" that "his Majesty would rather the whole land should become an uninhabited wilderness than that a single Dissenter should exist within its territory." (Motley, id, I: 597.) Later the Duke of Alba came to the Netherlands with just such a mission.
Connection to the Events To Come in France in 1572
These sanguinary events in the Netherlands have a connection to those in 1572 in France, which we discuss in the next section. In 1572, King Charles of France instigated by a Catholic cardinal orchestrated the murder of 25,000-100,000 Calvinists known as Huguenots, not pitying women or children.
What politically transpired in the case of the Netherlands in 1568 directly relates to what happened in France in 1572. Cardinal Lorraine of France in 1568 was conspiring with Spain to have King Philip put at the head of France should King Charles of France perchance "die." (Motley, I: 590.) At minimum, Spain in recompense would receive a few territories in France if it suppressed Calvinism in the Netherlands.
The royal throne of France appears to have gotten wind of what was afoot, and felt the pressure from the Catholic Church to kill the Calvinist Huguenots. Soon after this Catholic conspiracy was begun with Spain, the Queen dowager of France (the effective monarch because Charles was still a young boy) wrote to her counterpart in Spain--the Duke of Alva. She discussed the Calvinist Huguenot problem. She said that unless she had 2000 Spanish musketeers, she would have to succumb to a peace, i.e., enter into a peace with the Huguenots. (This did take place in 1570.) But the reply came from the Duke of Alva on behalf of King Philip of Spain. In Motley's account, Alva said "it was much better to have a kingdom ruined preserving it for God and the king by war, than to have it kept entire without war, to the profit of the devil and his followers."
As we shall see, it was this same Roman Catholic ferocious pressure which was applied upon the Queen Mother of France and the young King Charles in 1572 who in turn slaughtered the Huguenots without mercy or trial -- whether man, woman or child.
Calvin's Moral Responsibility For the Deaths of the Calvinists of the Netherlands
But to repeat, Calvin remains morally responsible although obviously not in the same degree as those ordering the murders. For had Calvin not unleashed the dogs of war by saying (Calvinist) Protestants should kill heretics, the alarm at (Calvinist) Protestants gaining power in the Netherlands or in France would have posed no risk to Roman Catholics. But the rise of Calvinist Protestants politically put themselves at risk due to the new policy Calvin announced in 1554 in the wake of the Servetus Affair. Calvin declared that Protestants of Calvinist persuasion would kill heretics, and felt it their duty to do so. Consequently, no Catholic ruler could ever let the Calvinists rise to power. Calvin made it become a life-and-death struggle. For to Calvinists, Roman Catholics were heretics, proven by Calvin's treatment of the Catholic Church in Geneva in 1535. Calvin made every Genevan confess in the Geneva Confession that the Roman Catholic Church was the "synagogue of Satan." Hence, if the Roman Catholics did not kill the Calvinists now, the Catholics easily could imagine it would be too late to save themselves once the Calvinist Huegenots gained political power which appeared only a matter of time.
This Catholic thought-process is precisely what Castellio warned Calvin would be the consequence of killing Servetus, especially due to Calvin's defending Servetus's killing on the principle of `death-to-heretics.' Calvin did not listen. Calvin was wrong. Calvin thus ends up morally responsible for all the predictable responses of the Roman Catholics in thereafter murdering pre-emptively the Calvinist Protestants throughout Europe.
Calvin's Responsibility for The Killings of French Huguenots
The Roman Catholic Lord Acton in his famous article on the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in France exposes the Roman Cathloic church's role in that mass murder. It took place in 1572, beginning in Paris and spreading throughout France. When it ended, 25,000 to 100,000 Calvinist Huguenots of France were murdered as alleged heretics. Acton says up to the 1560s, the "Protestants...had won toleration" from the Roman Catholic church. Until this epoch, the attempt to "arrest [Protestantism's] advance by force had been abandoned."
However, in 1572, the Roman Pope's agents directly orchestrated at the pope's command the French king's actions to suppress the Calvinist Huguenots. Prior to 1572, tensions were rising in France. Catholic meddling only had emerged in 1569 in a minor skirmish. But in 1572, the cat was out of the bag. Death to heretics of the Calvinist stripe was in full swing in France!
In 1572, beginning with the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, the Roman church of France turned to killing Huguenots en masse. The Huguenots were a sect of Calvinists, so the irony should not be lost on anyone. Lord Acton was a famous Roman Catholic as well as objective historian. Acton commented on this 1572 episode: "I... point out that the Popes had, after long endeavours, nearly succeeded in getting all the Calvinists murdered."
History Proves Calvin's Moral Responsibility
The reason for this change in Roman Catholic policy toward Calvinists in particular was directly related to Calvin's actions in 1553 and his later defense of those actions.
For Calvin's change in the standard Protestant refrain that the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares meant no death of heretics was rejected in 1554 by Calvin. He boldly proclaimed killing of Servetus was defensible under the notion that Servetus was a heretic. Calvin now defended killing heretics as perfectly legal and mandatory for a member of Calvin's church. This new Calvinist policy had grave implications upon the safety of Roman Catholics in Geneva or in any land that might adopt Calvinist Protestantism like France or the Netherlands.
For in Geneva, Farel and Calvin banned the Catholic church, expelling all Catholic practitioners in 1535, while brazenly treating the Catholics who remained as all suspected heretics. In fact, the Confession of Faith of 1535 in Geneva, written by Calvin and Farel, said anyone who continued to associate with Catholicism belonged to the "synagogue of the Devil."
On August 27, 1535, Geneva banned any saying of the Mass. Geneva also expropriated the property of the Roman Catholic church, which was a penalty Catholics previously applied historically to heretics. Calvin's view of Catholicism as a heresy was obvious and open for all to see. If Catholics were heretics, and Servetus was a heretic, it does not take a brilliant mind to know the logical deduction of the Roman Catholic pope. He would expect Catholics in France to be persecuted even unto death if Calvinism politically triumphed over France any time after 1554.
As long as this murderous view of this Frenchman (Calvin) was limited to a small city like Geneva, the danger to Roman Catholics was contained. As long as this Frenchman had stood by the firm resolve of all the other Protestants that Jesus' Parable of the Wheat and the Tares meant no death to heretics, Catholics would have to grin and bear Calvin's success at Geneva. But with the killing of Servetus in 1553, and the subsequent dogmatic defense by Calvin in 1554 of killing of heretics (departing radically from Protestant norms and teachings), the Roman pope knew there was no hope for clemency in a Calvinist France for Catholics, should the Calvinists of France take power.
Pope's Efforts To Gain Pact of Peace With Calvinists
To head off this possibility, in 1561, the Pope tried to obtain reconciliation with the Calvinists of France. This meeting was "sponsored by the French government at the Colloquy of Poisy in 1561, where Calvinist and Catholic divines fruitlessly debated their differences."
Having failed to find common ground, the Pope could not ignore that Calvin's Geneva thereafter gave him fresh and notorious examples of how those who are heretics in Calvinist eyes would be burned at the stake.
Calvinists Persist In Killing Heretics in the 1560s
In 1566, Gentilis was arrested at Geneva. He was handed over to authorities in Bern in 1566 for execution. The Calvinist magistrates there "beheaded [Valentine] Gentilis" for his alleged Arian teaching of an inferiority of Jesus to the Father. Gentilis "did not hold the opinions of Servetus, as many writers affirm; but held Arian sentiments, and made the Son and the Holy Spirit to be inferior to the Father." Here, Gentilis' 'crime' is only heresy, not blasphemy. The verdict was death.
Ironically, Calvin held the same view as Gentilis on the inferiority of Jesus to the Father. However, with Calvin's death in 1564, his followers in 1566 began to rectify what they now regarded as heresy even though their deceased leader taught the same thing. They now persecuted unto death those holding to this aspect of the Arian heresy.
Continuing on, there was another case initiated in 1566 at Geneva. This was another heresy "blasphemy" trial pending of a jurist named Grabaldus. A death sentence was hanging over him. However, the defendant died in prison, and the case never went to trial.
In 1572, these several cases were still in recent memory of the Roman Pope who would see them as an alarm to the safety of French Catholics if the Calvinist Huguenots gained political supremacy in France.
Now obviously due to the abandonment of toleration by Calvinist Protestants of heretics, the Roman Catholic church had to abandon toleration in return of Calvinist Protestants. It was a simple equation of self-defense.
Thus, when Calvin and Beza in 1554 defended the right to kill anyone whom they thought was a heretic, these were chilling words to Catholics as well. At that time, the Calvinist Huguenots in France openly operated with military field generals, especially in the South of France. They mustered militia-armies in self-defense whenever frightened at perceived Catholic designs. If the Huguenots should come to power in France -- which was not a far-fetched possibility because several members of the Royal family were Protestant, the Roman Catholics could then face a retaliatory Inquisition at the hands of the armed Calvinist Huguenots.
Hence, because the Geneva Reformer named Calvin insisted Catholics were heretics, Catholics in 1572 had to realize the best defense was an aggressive offense. Thus, Calvin's principle of `death to heretics,' proven by the killing of Servetus and many Genevans thereafter, was a direct threat to Roman Catholics if Calvinism should ascend into dominance in France.
Contrast The Pacific Relations With Lutherans
By contrast, the Roman Catholics had no need to violently persecute Lutherans. In 1555, the Lutheran and Catholic churches had agreed to co-exist within the Holy Roman Empire. Neither would persecute the other as heretics. This was settled in the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. ("Peace of Augsburg," Wikipedia.)
This contrast proves how crucial were the events in 1553 when Calvin had Servetus killed as a mere heretic. To repeat, Calvin's Defensio in 1554 and Beza's similar fulminations that same year made it absolutely clear to Catholics that they had to kill off the Calvinist Huguenots of France. How could the Catholics permit the Calvinists to gain ascendancy in France and potentially turn the tables on the Catholics? If they did not do something violent themselves now, they would find themselves bitterly being killed as heretics later in a Calvinist Huguenot France.
Hence, by inexorable logic, directly deduced from the killing of Servetus in 1553, and the dogma upon which Calvin later defended that killing, the Roman Catholic church orchestrated what remains one of the most bloody episodes of all time: the killing of masses of people merely for being perceived as heretics with no trial or opportunity to defend themselves. Instead, in 1572, their doors were marked and they were dragged from their beds, and clubbed and stabbed to death.
In a systematic wave of terror, the agents of the church and king slaughtered man, woman and child without any trial. Their homes and personages were marked as Huguenot heretics, and they were doomed. The smallest estimate of those murdered in the two month terror was 25,000. The largest estimate was 100,000. The blood of each murdered soul cries out: `Thanks Calvin! You put the sword in the hands of our mortal enemies.'
Despite Catholic Responsibility, Calvin's Responsibility Remains
No one can remove the Roman Catholic stigma from these events. But Calvin's bloody hands were an important contributing factor to the events of 1572. For it was his example with Servetus and his unrepentant doctrine of 1554 that opened the floodgates. It opened them specifically only as to Calvinist Protestants. In 1572, the Lutheran Protestants went to bed as peacefully in those two months as they had since 1555. They had the Peace of Augsburg protecting them. They enjoyed the mutual understanding that no Lutheran or Catholic "heretic" in the other's domain would be killed merely for heresy.
Thus, one can now understand that killing Servetus for heresy had a far reaching impact on the history of Europe. That execution, and the subsequent and radically new Calvinist dogma of `death to heretics' (belatedly raised to justify the crime), clearly led to the mass murder of numerous good Christian souls. They paid the price of the sin of their leader -- John Calvin. Each of those 25,000 to 100,000 dead souls were a moral responsibility of John Calvin as his switch to persecuting heresy gave rise to the unholy alliance of the Pope at Rome and the King of France.