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Lord Acton's Example

The Roman Catholic -- Lord Acton -- Denounced 300 Year Old Murders by Popes

A true Christian must recognize and denounce a murder done by his church leader. It is virtue to admit it. It would be complicity to cover it up. It would be compounding the crime to make pathetic illegitimate excuses. Lord Acton gave us a noble example of how true Christians respond to evidence that their religious leaders are criminals, even if such crimes took place 300 years earlier. The taint and criminality does not fade with time.

In the 1860s, Lord Acton evaluated his Roman Catholic Church by the same measure that Standford Rives attempts to do with Calvin and Servetus. Mr. Rives indirectly demonstrates that a repentance is necessary from the Reformed Calvinists of today -- the spiritual ancestors of Calvin.

Lord Acton in 1859 was the editor of a Roman Catholic monthly paper. When the Pope told him to shut it down, he obeyed. He was a good and faithful Catholic. However, Lord Acton continued to write articles critical of the papacy, and concluded the Roman Catholic Church was guilty of an unrepentant murder 300 years earlier when it killed as heretics the Huguenots in 1572. Acton said the Popes and all of Catholicism owed an apology and appropriate repentance. Acton said this episode also proved the papacy was certainly not infallible. It could only persuade by the force of Scripture, not by tradition or anyone's feelings of loyalty.

To that end, Acton revived the memory of this Huguenot massacre in an article published in October 1869 in the North British Review. He concluded his book-long essay by saying that there was no evidence to absolve the Roman Church of premeditated murder. 1 Acton argued that it was not only facts that condemned the papacy for this heinous crime, but the whole body of "casuistry" (phony excuses) developed by the church that made it an act of Christian duty and mercy to kill a heretic so that he might be removed from sin. 2

Acton pointed out that only when the Roman Church could no longer rely upon force but had to make its case before public opinion that it sought to explain away the Huguenot murders. Yet, in doing so, the church resorted to lies. "The same motive which had justified the murder now promoted the lie," Acton wrote. A bodyguard of lies was fabricated to protect the papacy from guilt for this monstrous sin. 3 Acton wrote:

The story is much more abominable than we all believed.... S. B. [St. Bartholomew's] is the greatest crime of modern times. It was committed on principles professed by Rome. It was approved, sanctioned, and praised by the papacy. The Holy See went out of its way to signify to the world, by permanent and solemn acts, how entirely it admired a king who slaughtered his subjects treacherously, because they were Protestants. To proclaim forever that because a man is a Protestant it is a pious deed to cut his throat in the night....

Acton said that for three centuries the Roman church's canon law had affirmed that the killing of an excommunicated person was not murder, and that allegiance need not be kept with heretical rulers. Legitimized murder and authorized treason were part of the Roman church's official teachings. As a result of such license for murder, Charles IX of France in killing the Huguenots was praised by the Catholic church as a good Catholic. Soon after the mass slaughter of innocents in their beds, Charles was highly praised by the pope for having killed so many of these Huguenots.

Acton contended that these acts of murder by the Roman church's leaders had discredited them as a source of reliable teachers.

Incidentally, another Roman Catholic critical of his church on this principle was Von Dollinger (1799-1890). This Bavarian was a Doctor of Theology and Professor of Canon Law at the Catholic Universities of Landshut and Munich. In a work praised by the famous Prime Minister of England, Gladstone, as "the weightiest and most worthy of documents," Von Dollinger wrote in 1869:

A man is not honest who accepts all the Papal decisions in questions of morality, for they have often been distinctly immoral; or who approves the conduct of the Popes in engrossing power, for it was stained with perfidy and falsehood; or who is ready to alter his convictions at their command, for his conscience is guided by no principle. 4

As thanks, Von Dollinger was publicly excommunicated by the Catholic Church in 1871. 5

Acton after studying the same materials upon which Dollinger relied likewise wrote:

The papacy contrived murder and massacre on the largest and also on the most cruel and inhuman scale. They were not only wholesale assassins but they made the principle of assassination a law of the Christian Church and a condition of salvation.... [The Papacy] is the fiend skulking behind the Crucifix. 6

As Lord Acton (along with Dollinger) tried faithfully to correct his church, while always remaining a Catholic, he wrote his famous letter dated April, 1887, to Bishop Mandell Creighton. In it, Acton made his most well-known pronouncement about the papacy:

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

As the Encyclopedia points out, "Most people who quote Lord Acton's Dictum are unaware that it refers to Papal power and was made by a Catholic, albeit not an unquestioning one." 7

The most stunning observation, however, was Acton's feelings towards those Catholics who connive to condone these acts of murder out of loyalty to the pope. He said this is not mere error, but crime itself -- the approval of murder after-the-fact.

What made these conniving excuses more deplorable is that these were men who professed religion. Acton said it made their crime by ratification also sacrilegious. Their consciences became warped due to a desire to defend the indefensible. This insightful statement, which applies with equal force to a dozen Calvinist-inspired accounts of the Servetus trial, should pique the conscience of every loyalist of Calvin. It is no good to find pathetic excuses for Calvin's conduct rather than to "renounce" him as Acton said he was compelled to do of the Papacy itself. He says:

Was it better to renounce the papacy out of horror for its acts, or to condone the acts out of reverence for the papacy? The Papal party preferred the latter alternative. It appeared to me that condone the actssuch men are infamous in the last degree. I did not accuse them of error, as I might impute it to Grotius or Channing, but of crime. I thought that a person who imitated them for political or other motives worthy of death. But those whose motive was religious seemed to me worse than the others, because that which is in others the last resource of conversion is with them the source of guilt. The spring of repentance is broken, the conscience is not only weakened but warped. Their prayers and sacrifices appeared to me the most awful sacrilege. 8

Acton called his fellow Catholics to repent rather than distort their beliefs to accept the intolerable. Calvinists who have bent the truth repeatedly to exonerate the inexorable have fallen prey to the same "weakened" and "warped" conscience. It is time to repent from this compounding sin, and denounce Calvin as the murderer he indubitably was. Then we are one step closer to making Jesus our sole teacher, as He commanded us to regard Himself.

Study Note

Owen Chadwick in Acton and History (Cambridge University Press, 2002) questions, without explaining why, Acton's claim that historical revision of the Massacre was justified due to the correspondence of the papal nuncio at Paris, Antonia Maria Salviati.  Chadwick introduces the topic: "He [Acton] thought the use of Salviati was the chief historical originality of his essay." (Acton and History at 67.) Acton relied upon a small portion of Salviati's writings which had been written in an unexpected place -- an appendix to the third volume of Sir James Mackintosh's History of England published between 1825-1840 . Id. How did Mackintosh obtain access? Mackintosh had access to the papal archives during the period of Napoleon's regime (id., at 68) which is the time when the pope and papal states were prisoners of Napoleon. (Chadwick does not explain this fact.)

Chadwick then says another source of the papal nuncio's writings are from the Prefect of the Papal Archives (Chadwick: 72) called Father Theiner. His appendices of documents added to the first of three volumes on his life of Pope Gregory XIII contain these papal nuncio records at the time of the Bartholomew Massacres. Chadwick says when you read these documents, you begin to "doubt" Acton's thesis which Chadwick apparently means to be so if one believes Father Theiner's integrity. However, Chadwick says that MacKintosh's version of the identical letters is often longer than Theiner's version, and clearly suggest Theiner deleted unfavorable passages. Because Mackintosh had astonishing access -- which was lost with the fall of Napoleon -- no one can seriously contend Mackintosh had a bias to fabricate. Chadwick relates the facts which point to Father Theiner removing passages that implicated the Catholic church in the Massacres:

[P]aragraphs of Mackintosh contained matter which Theiner's transcript of the letters did not contain. Sometimes these omissiosn were of negligible interest. But occassionally,  and especially to a man of Acton's bias in favor of disclosing what discredited, they staggered. Id., at 67-68.

Chadwick provides a very important example from the day of the incident of the massacres at Paris where Mackintosh quotes Salviati, the papal nuncio at Paris saying -- but which Theiner omits:

I can be as happy can be ..the king and queen-mother ...have been able to extirpate the poisonous roots with such prudence, at a time when all the rebels were shut up in their cage. Id., at 68.

Chadwick admits that "Theiner left out the passage." Id.

Chadwick then explains that Acton investigated Mackintosh further, and verified his work in the archives by obtaining Chateubriand's copies of the same papal letters which Mackintosh copied. Acton made for himself handwritten copies of those letters which are still in Acton's notes. From them, Acton concluded "Theiner ...omits whatever is irrelevant to his purpose." Id., at 69.

After the publication in 1869 of the North British Review article in October 1869, the Pope in 1870 calledTheiner to his office, and insisted "Theiner must have taken Lord Acton into the Secret Archives and given documents for his use," which Theiner denied. Id., at 73. After giving a solemn oath that he did not do so, the Pope then blamed Acton had somehow entered the Secret Archives on his own. A personal conflict for Theiner's remaining life ensued. He tried to redeem himself by obviously slipping the Trent Archives for publication to a non-Church source. He told Acton by letter of this soon before he died. Theiner implicitly turned over a leaf to spread the truth and stop the Church he served to suppress information all Christians had a right to know about.


1. His article entitled "Massacre of St. Bartholomew," was published in the North British Review in October 1869, and later reprinted in Acton's work History of Freedom (MacMillan, 1907) at 101.

2. Thanks are given for the inspiration to this section to John Robbins, The Trinity Foundation (April 4, 2005), from his article at http://www.trinityfoundation.org/horror_show.php?id=33 (accessed 2/18/2008).

3. The effectiveness of these lies can be measured by looking at the article " St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Bartholomew's_Day_Massacre (2/18/2008). Apparently oblivious to Lord Acton's research, the author writes of the killings: "The St. Bartholomew's Day massacre (Massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy in French) was a wave of Catholic mob violence against the Huguenots" and "From August to October, similar apparently spontaneous massacres of Huguenots took place in other towns, such as Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lyon, Bourges, Rouen, and Orléans." He leaves out entirely the evidence collected by Acton that the church urged the action taken.

A recent update to the Wikipedia article claims: "The question of whether the massacre had long been premeditated was not entirely settled until the late 19th century; Lord Acton changed his mind on the matter twice, finally concluding that it was not." The citation for support is solely "The subject of Butterfield's chapter, referenced below." Then it cites Butterfield, HerbertMan on his Past, Cambridge University Press, 1955, Chapter VI, Lord Acton and the Massacre of St Bartholomew.

The key term in this claim is "long" -- how long was the massacre in contemplation is the issue. However, the length of premeditation by the monarchy (to whom the article alone points as culprits) does not suggest it was unpremeditated or completely spontaneous, as the writer of Wikipedia leads one to assume. The quote from Acton upon which the issue of his later views rests comes from 1895. The context gives plenty of evidence of church and monarchy for years before discussing the general idea of a massacre as a plan. Yet, Acton speaking of the role of the monarchy says it was "not a thing long and carefully planned." (See quote immediately below.) The implication was it was not premeditated by the monarchy in the common meaning of a 'thing long and carefully planned.' The focus by Acton in the quote was on the Monarchy's planning -- it had been brief. But that is no retraction of Acton's earlier view from 1869 of the church's long role in planning to instigate the monarchy to commit the massacre.

We find this borne out if if we hunt down to what Butterfield alludes.  Acton in 1895 wrote of premeditation of the massacre by the MONARCHY (not the church) as follows:

The premeditation of St. Bartholomew has been a favourite controversy, like the Casket Letters; but the problem is entirely solved, although French writers, such asGuizot and Bordier, believe in it; and the Germans, especially Baumgarten and Philippson, deny it. It is perfectly certain that it was not a thing long and carefully prepared, as was believed in Rome, and those who deny premeditation in the common sense of the word are in the right. But for ten years the court had regarded a wholesale massacre as the last resource of monarchy. Catharine herself said that it had been in contemplation, if opportunity offered, from the year 1562. Initiated observers expected it from that time; and after the conference with Alva at Bayonne, in 1565, it was universally considered probable that some of the leaders, at least, would be betrayed and killed. Two cardinals, Santa Croce and Alessandrina, announced it at Rome, and were not believed. In 1569 Catharine admitted that she had offered 50,000 crowns for the head of Coligny, and corresponding sums for others. The Archbishop of Nazareth reported to the Pope in the autumn of 1570 that the Treaty of St. Germain had been concluded with the intention of slaughtering the Protestants when they were beguiled by the favourable conditions granted them, but that the agents disobeyed. (Acton, Lectures on Modern History at 161.)

But there is nothing here being discussed about the Roman Catholic Church's role in the massacre. Acton's last word in 1869 on its role was one of premeditation by the RCC. Hence, the Wikipedia article omits mention of the RCC role, and the premeditation that Acton found with itself to instigate another-- the French Monarchy--to commit this murder of innocents. And apparently relying upon an exaggerating reading of Butterfield, we have lopped off entirely in Wikipedia the responsible party as instigator -- the RCC. So nothing changes despite the excellent historiography by Acton -- his words are buried by obfuscation and misconstruction of what he did say.

4. Von Janus [Pseud. for J.J.I. Dollinger], "The Pope and the Council," The North British Review (N.Y.: Oct. 1869) Vol. 1, 67, at 70 (translation and reprint attributed to Von Janus, Der Papst und Das Council (Leipzig, 1869).) This was published as a book in 1870 as: Janus, The Pope and the Council (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1870).

This was "supposed at first to be by Acton," but in fact Von Janus was actually J.J.I. Dollinger, proven by Gladstone's letter of October 10, 1869 to Dollinger. See William Gladstone, The Gladstone Diaries (ed. H.C.G. Matthew)(Oxford University Press, 1982) Vol. VII at 144-145. Gladstone explained that he suffered "indignation" to whatever "curtails and disfigures within her borders the common inheritance of the Christian faith." Id., at 145. His next letter urges E.B. Pusey to read this Pope and the Council, as it "profoundly struck" him. Id. In the article on "Johann Dollinger," in the Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) V:98, it acknowledges he wrote Papst.

See also, "The Pope and the Council," The North British Review (1869) vol. 51 at 127.

5. "Johann Dollinger," The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913) Vol. 5 at 94.

6. John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, Selections from the Correspondence of the First Lord Acton (Longman's Green, 1917) at 55 (letter of 1879).

7. See "John Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton," Wikipedia (2/18/2008).

8. John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, Selections from the Correspondence of the First Lord Acton (Longman's Gree, 1917) at 55.