How did the Church evolve from the representative of peaceful philosophy of Christ into such an authoritarian worldly power? In the matter of its response to heresy, the Church’s progression from nonviolence all the way to burning people at the stake has to be traced through the time when the Church aligned itself with the power of the Roman Empire to become the Roman Catholic Church. The point of view that heresy and other crimes against God or the Church deserved a death sentence emerged around the end of the 4th century. Before that, excommunication was considered an appropriate punishment for non-temporal crime. St. Optatus of Mileve was the first to cite Old Testament examples to justify a sentence of death.
From the early Church and its initial temporal tolerance of heresy, changes in opinion led, over the course of some 1,000 years, to the founding of the Inquisition (from the Latin inquiro, to inquire) as a permanent Church-based judicial institution. Originally based on the search for heretics, alchemists, and witches, the Inquisition system soon became useful as a means for punishing political enemies or seizing land and wealth. Punishments varied over time based on the approach of individual inquisitors and guidelines from various popes.
The evolution of the Inquisition can be traced through three schools in Church thinking. As expressed by notables of the 4th and 5th centuries including St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, and Pope Leo I (440–461), the earliest prevailing view was that it was contrary to Christian belief to punish heretics physically, with excommunication the preferred response. The second stage, which applied through the worst periods of the Inquisition, was based on the writings of Optatus of Mileve, who first cited Old Testament scripture as justification for the death penalty as punishment for heresy. The outlook was applied in the punishment of Priscillian, 4th century Bishop of Avila, generally thought to be the first Christian executed for heresy. This execution, in 385, marked a significant change in direction from the earlier belief shunning temporal punishment. In the third stage, the death penalty was viewed once more as contrary to Christian belief.
The Inquisition: A History
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