Why did the Catholic Church in the middle ages burn heretics to the stake during the inquisitions?

The Catholic Church in the early centuries (4th century, 5th century, etc.) never did this. Arius and other early heretics were never burned to the stake. Instead, heretics of the early Church were exhiled from the Church.

Why did this change during the middle ages?

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

21 Comments to “Why did the Catholic Church in the middle ages burn heretics to the stake during the inquisitions?”

  • Louis P. Wu

    It was cold back then, really, really cold.


    To eliminate political enemies of the Church. You could look it up.

  • donttakemywordforit1123

    Uh well burnings were a symbol of purging the demon in the body. And exiled by the church? What type of punishment is that for a person who doesn’t like the church? It’s like I got exiled form the gettingpunchedinthecrotch club. I wouldn’t miss it.

  • Boum Boum

    No !!! No ! …the catholic church never did that indeed, all those torched by fire were indeed fakirs, they volunteered for this, so the church can not be blamed at all ! is that better ?

  • Slugsie

    They were cold. Ever hear of the mini ice-age from back then?

  • Bebe Jeebus

    “Unquestioned authority breeds corruption.”

    Thomas Paine said

    “All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”

  • Angry Candy

    It’s a vulgar display of power, lest the unwashed masses feel too self-sufficient.

  • Pinching Salt

    They were protecting their power over the masses and their massive influence in political offices. They executed those that they felt threatened by and by burning and torture they hoped to quell such threats by using fear.

  • Derrick Braswell

    The Romans would not allow them to burn their citizens

  • Mark

    People were EXTREMELY violent at the time (in addition to the Inquisition, our mdoern practice of breaking a bottle of champagne over a boat’s prow grew out of cataputling unbaptised babies (“they’re going to Hell, anyway”, right?) against ships… I’m sure the Black Plague had something to do with it. (“Fire purifies”, and to a degree, it actually does.) Out of that came such illogical things as dunking or burning people accused of dabbling in the “black arts” – if people disappeared of flew away, then they were witches; if they didn’t (and they never did) and died, “oops, I guess that person wasn’t a witch”.

  • William

    The hate and foulness that is xianity knows no bounds.

  • Hip to be square

    The Catholic Church didn’t; the state did.

  • Kevin Anthony

    There was no central authority, such as the Catholic Church. Anytime you have an imperfect,earthly entity claim absolute authority, you get absolute corruption

  • William Roberts

    The simple answer is that they could not get away with it. Once the rulers reailized that they could use the church to legitimize their rule, they opened the way for the church to increase their own power over the people.

  • XAndrewX Roman Catholic Christian

    No. The Catholic Church never had the authority to execute anyone.

    In the Case of the spainish inquisition it was spanish kings who killed. This was the same with all euro nations.

    No one has ever shown where the Catholic Church ever had the authority to execute anyone.

    “There are not more than 100 people in the world who truly hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they perceive to be the Catholic Church. ….As a matter of fact, if we Catholics believed all of the untruths and lies which were said against the Church, we probably would hate the Church a thousand times more than they do.”

    —–Archbishop Sheen


    Peace be with you


  • David

    Partly because of Religious Fundamentalism (yes, Catholics can be rabid fundamentalists, too)
    Partly because they wanted the assets of Jewish bankers who had been forced to convert to Catholicism

    – Christians back then were not allowed to charge interest on money loans because it was considered to be “against the Bible,” which, technically, it is. But Jewish people were happy to lend money at interest because it was very profitable. Over a few centuries, the Jewish folks were so successful at their banking business that the Christian Church and the Kings wanted an excuse to get their $$$. So they made them either convert to Christianity, or else leave the country, and they couldn’t take their $$$ with them.

    When they converted, other spies watched them, then reported to the Church authorities what Jewish traditions they maintained. If they still observed the Jewish Sabbath, the Inquisition would arrest them, and then without informing them of their “crime,” tell them to CONFESS! They would generally ask, “What did I do?” The Inquisition would reply, “CONFESS!” and administer some sort of torture to “loosen their tongue.” The victim would tell a long list of minor religious offenses, which a scribe would write down, and the torture would continue until the victim admitted to the same crime that the spy had reported seeing.

    This horrible procedure prompted the American Revolutionaries to require that all people accused of a crime be told what they had been accused of.

    Then, if the victim had survived 3 different tortures (including “waterboarding”) and had not guessed what he had been accused of, then he was considered to be “unrepentant” and then burned at an “Auto de Fe” (Ceremony of God) where the local Bishop promised “Great Spiritual Benefits” to all who attended to watch the proceedings.

    Once the victims were dead, the Church and the Crown divided the victim’s wealth, and left the family to fend for themselves.

    Incidentally, this is why the Spanish Empire fell. Once they had executed all the Jewish people in Spain, they had no one left to borrow money from, to finance their operations.

    So let this be a lesion to you . . . (oops, a lesson, I mean) . . .
    Added —
    Technically, the Church didn’t do the killing. The Secular government did.
    But the Church decided who was a heretic, and did the actual “inquiring” (thus the name, “Inquisition”) by use of torture. The Church did not want blood on its hands, so turned the condemned person to the secular government, which was anxious not to run afoul of The Inquisition, and was happy to get half the property of the executed infidel.

  • cristoiglesia

    They did not. I fact the Church was instrumental in bringing the inquisitions to a close. The inquisitions were secular in nature. God bless!

    In Christ
    Fr. Joseph

  • Daver

    In the days of the early Church, the Catholic Church was the Roman Empire’s “state religion”.

    However, after the fall of Rome, the Church had to rely on non-Roman, far more barbaric types to “enforce” Church Doctrine.

    Therefore, it wasn’t the Church itself that burned heretics at the stake. It was the local “secular” authorities abusing their “power”.

    Also, do you realize that “burning heretics at the stake” was much more widely practiced by non-Catholic Christians?

  • imacatholic2

    You have some unlearning to do.

    Modern historians have long known that the popular view of the Inquisition is a myth. The Inquisition was actually an attempt by the Catholic Church to stop unjust executions.

    Heresy was a capital offense against the state. It was considered a type of treason. Rulers of the state, whose authority was believed to come from God, had no patience for heretics. Neither did common people, who saw heretics as dangerous outsiders who would bring down divine wrath.

    When someone was accused of heresy in the early Middle Ages, they were brought to the local lord for judgment, just as if they had stolen a pig. It was not easy to discern whether the accused was really a heretic. The lord needed some basic theological training, very few did. The sad result is that uncounted thousands across Europe were executed by secular authorities without fair trials or a competent judge of the crime.

    The Catholic Church’s response to this problem was the Inquisition, an attempt to provide fair trials for accused heretics using laws of evidence and presided over by knowledgeable judges.

    From the perspective of secular authorities, heretics were traitors to God and the king and therefore deserved death. From the perspective of the Church, however, heretics were lost sheep who had strayed from the flock. As shepherds, the pope and bishops had a duty to bring them back into the fold, just as the Good Shepherd had commanded them. So, while medieval secular leaders were trying to safeguard their kingdoms, the Church was trying to save souls. The Inquisition provided a means for heretics to escape death and return to the community.

    Most people tried for heresy by the Inquisition were either acquitted or had their sentences suspended. Those found guilty of grave error were allowed to confess their sin, do penance, and be restored to the Body of Christ. The underlying assumption of the Inquisition was that, like lost sheep, heretics had simply strayed.

    If, however, an inquisitor determined that a particular sheep had purposely left the flock, there was nothing more that could be done. Unrepentant or obstinate heretics were excommunicated and given over to secular authorities with pleas for mercy that were frequently ignored. Despite popular myth, the Inquisition did not burn heretics. It was the secular authorities that held heresy to be a capital offense, not the Church. The simple fact is that the medieval Inquisition saved uncounted thousands of innocent (and even not-so-innocent) people who would otherwise have been roasted by secular lords or mob rule.

    Where did this myth come from? After 1530, the Inquisition began to turn its attention to the new heresy of Lutheranism. It was the Protestant Reformation and the rivalries it spawned that would give birth to the myth. Innumerable books and pamphlets poured from the printing presses of Protestant countries at war with Spain accusing the Spanish Inquisition of inhuman depravity and horrible atrocities in the New World. Most of these lies are still being circulated as fact.

    For more information, see:
    + The Real Inquisition, By Thomas F. Madden, National Review (2004) http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/madden200406181026.asp
    + Inquisition by Edward Peters (1988)
    + The Spanish Inquisition by Henry Kamen (1997)
    + The Spanish Inquisition: Fact Versus Fiction, By Marvin R. O’Connell (1996): http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/history/world/wh0026.html
    + The Church of the Apostles and Martyrs (1963) by Henri Daniel-Rops
    + Religious Dissent in the Middle Ages (1971) edited by Jeffrey B. Russell
    + The Inquisition (1927) by A. L. Maycock
    + The Inquisition: A Political and Military Study of Its Establishment (1932) by Hoffman Nickerson
    + Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error (1978) by LeRoy Ladurie
    + The Albigensian Crusades by Joseph R. Strayer
    + Magic and Witchcraft in the Dark Ages (1996) by Eugene D. Dukes
    + Seven Lies About Catholic History (2010) by Diane Moczar

    With love in Christ.

  • Skipper54

    Technically the Church did not execute any heretic. The Church had no authority to effect a death sentence their greatest punishment was excommunication. Those killed by the inquisitions (and there were few fewer than you think) were executed by the government and not the church.

    Granted the Church turned them over to the state knowing that the state’s punishment for heresy was death. But factually they were executed by the state courts and not the Church directly.

  • 徐成燦

    Until the 13th century the official policy of the Church regarding heretics followed the teaching of St. Paul, St. Augustine of Hippo, St. John Chrysostom, St. Cyprian of Carthage and other Fathers of the early Church, that heretics were to be permitted full religious liberty and were not to be harmed in any manner, other than exclusion from the Christian community.

    As St. Cyprian of Carthage wrote: “Of what use is cruelty? What has the rack to do with piety? Surely, there is no connection between truth and violence, justice and cruelty…. It is true that nothing is so important as religion, and one must defend it, but by dying for it, not by killing others; by long-suffering, not by violence; by faith, not by crime. If you attempt to defend religion with bloodshed and torture, what you do is not defense, but desecration and insult. For nothing is so intrinsically a matter of free will as religion.”

    Beginning in the 13th century, however, the Albigensian heretics, against whom St. Dominic preached, had become emboldened not just to preach a non-Catholic doctrine, but overtly began, with aggression and hostility, to attack the Catholic Church, the Holy Mass, the Sacraments, and the doctrines of the Church as a whole. In addition, with anarchist tendencies, they began to undermine the moral basis of human society by subverting oaths, denying the right of the state to punish criminals, forbidding marriage and procreation, and encouraging suicide, especially by starvation.

    Therefore, the Papal Inquisition, a system of ecclesiastical courts for trying and punishing heresy, was established in 1230, with jurisdiction over Catholics and fallen-away Catholics only. These courts were commissioned to seek first the reformation of the heretics by warnings or slight penances, which most accepted. Their scrupulous rules of procedures protected the accused with more safeguards than defendants in modern courts receive today.

    ONLY RELAPSED OR INTRANSIGENT HERETICS WERE EVENTUALLY FOUND GUILTY AND, AS THE ECCLESIASTICAL COURTS’ AUTHORITY ENDED THERE, WERE TURNED OVER TO THE STATE, WHICH AT THAT TIME CONSIDERED HERESY A CRIME OF ANARCHY AND HIGH TREASON, UNDERMINING THE STATE. The Papal Inquisition was revived in the 15th century to deal with false conversions of Jews and Mohammedans (the so- called conversos), and in the 16th century to deal with the virulent Protestant heresy that was sweeping Europe.

    Individual Protestants may have been sincerely religious, but Protestantism, as a movement, began as an instrument of greed and bloody tyranny in the hands of Martin Luther and others, which produced civil and international wars, enslaved the common people under the principle that their ruler might determine their religion by the principle “cuius regio, eius religio,” and led directly to absolutist nationalism.

Leave a Reply