Attempting To Reverse History

The Protestant Magazine March/April 2017

One hardly knows whether to be righteously indignant at some of the astounding attempts by Roman Catholic writers to misrepresent and pervert the facts of history, or whether to pass over these exhibitions of a misguided zeal for the reputation of the Papacy as too ridiculous to demand any serious attention. It must be remembered, however, that no matter how monstrous the falsehood, the constant repetition of it produces a prejudicial impression upon the public mind unless the truth is restated.

We do not remember that we have seen in print a more flagrant disregard of the well-established and generally admitted facts of history than was shown in a recent editorial in the Wester Watchman (Roman Catholic), in which an address of the German emperor upon the life of Admiral Coligny was discussed. From this editorial we take two paragraphs:

“The history of St. Bartholomew’s massacre has never been written. Somehow we prefer the Protestant to the Catholic account. Catholics say only 30,000 were slain; Protestants put the number at 70,000. We prefer the latter figure. Catholics tell us that the massacre was the outburst of sudden and uncontrollable frenzy; Protestants say it was carefully planned. If there were 70,000 Huguenots in Paris the night of the massacre, so much the more justification for the slaughter. What were they doing there? Paris was a city in which Huguenots dare not dwell. What brought them to the capital in such number on that fatal night? They meditated the very slaughter that was meted out to themselves. The 70,000 Huguenots in Paris meant 70,000 conspirators brought thither by Coligny to destroy the peaceful Catholics of that peaceful Catholic city. They got what they had planned for others.

“We have heard ring out many a time the very bells that called the Catholics together on the fatal night. They always sounded sweetly in our ears. They warned the Catholics of Paris that foreign cutthroats to the number of 30,000 or 70,000 were prowling the streets of the capital, waiting for an opportunity to murder them. Catholics are always slow to rise to their own defense. They have always too much confidence in the good will and honor of their non-Catholic neighbors. But this time they were alert, and they caught their enemies napping. The Lutherans of Germany were hard-drinking fanatics. The Calvinists of Switzerland were canting cutthroats. The Huguenots of France were common thugs. In their inroads on the peaceful provinces of France they burned fifty cathedrals and five hundred parish churches. They knew the Huguenots, and they drove them off the Continent. You cannot excite any pity in our souls by whining accounts of Catholic atrocities in the seventeenth century. We have never written a line in extenuation or palliation of the Inquisition. We never thought it needed a defense.” —Western Watchman, Nov. 21, 1912.

Such remarkable assertions as are here made show an astonishing ignorance concerning a most important historical event, or an astonishing determination to change the truth of history. The main facts concerning this attempt to exterminate Protestantism in France on St. Bartholomew’s day, August 24, 1572, an act which has been designated by Lord Acton, himself a Roman Catholic, as “the most monstrous of crimes,” are matters of record which cannot be set aside, even by an editor who claims to be in the closest communion with the pope. There is not sufficient foundation for the shameless assertion that the Huguenots “meditated that very slaughter that was meted out to themselves,” to give it even the appearance of plausibility. One who is not hardened by the Jesuitical system of morality would blush for shame over making a statement so devoid of any appearance of truth. We can hardly understand the mental or moral makeup of a writer pretending to an average acquaintance with history who claims that the Huguenots had gathered in Paris “to destroy the peaceful Catholics of that peaceful Catholic city,” in face of the fact that so early as the conference at Bayonne in 1564, at which both the Duke of Alva and Catherine de’ Medici were present, the suppression of heretics in France by murder was definitely under consideration. That the number actually slaughtered was far greater than the number originally suggested was merely the logical outcome of adopting the principle that the murder of heretics was justifiable.

And what moral standard does one have who declares that “our heroes are the Duke of Alva and Catherine de’ Medici”? The Catholic Encyclopedia, to which this same editor has awarded unstinted praise, thus describes the conduct of the Duke of Alva, that bloodthirsty enemy of heretics, in his campaign in the Netherlands in 1557: “On August 22, Alva, accompanied by a body of select Spanish troops, made his entry into Brussels. He immediately appointed a council to condemn without trial those suspected of heresy and rebellion. . . . The ‘Council of Blood’ was the popular designation of Alva’s tribunal.”—Vol. I, p. 371.

It is true that Pope Pius V, in recognition of such valuable services, “bestowed on him a consecrated hat and sword, a present heretofore given only to sovereigns”; but this only shows to what depths the Papacy had fallen in its determination to throttle the Reformation.

The same Roman Catholic authority characterizes Catherine de’ Medici as “dictatorial, unscrupulous, calculating, and crafty,” as being “intensely superstitious,” and declares that “her methods were so essentially egotistical as to border on cynicism.”—The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. lll, p. 444.

And these monsters of iniquity are now lauded as “heroes” by a Roman Catholic editor in America. Would the heroic extermination of heretics, carried on by the Duke of Alva, be duplicated in America if this orthodox editor were in control of affairs?

In marked contrast with the perversion of facts which we have quoted is the treatment of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew by Lord Acton, who was regius professor until his death, in 1902, in his article published in the North British Review, October 1869, which appears in “The History of Freedom and Other Essays,” published by Macmillan and Company, 1909 (pages 101-149). Lord Acton did not permit his adherence to Roman Catholicism to close his eyes to the facts of history, and his regard for truth was not extinguished by an intemperate zeal to defend the Papacy at all hazards. The following extracts from his article show how shamelessly the editor of the Western Watchman perverted the facts:

“The opinion the Massacre of St. Bartholomew was a sudden and unpremeditated act cannot be maintained. . . .

“By the month of February, 1572, the plan had assumed a practical shape. . . .

“The court had determined to enforce unity of faith in France. An edict of toleration was issued for the purpose of lulling the Huguenots; but it was well known that it was only a pretense. Strict injunctions were sent into the provinces that it should not be obeyed; and Catherine said openly to the English envoy, ‘My son will have exercise but of one religion in his realm.’ On the twenty-sixth [of February] the king explained his plan to Mondoucet, his agent at Brussels: ‘Since it has pleased God to bring matters to the point they have now reached, I mean to use the opportunity to secure a perpetual repose in my kingdom, and to do something for the good of all Christendom. It is probable that the conflagration will spread to every town in France, and that they will follow the example of Paris, and lay hands on all the Protestants. . . . I have written to the governors to assemble forces in order to cut to pieces those who may resist.’ The great object was to accomplish the extirpation of Protestantism in such a way as might leave intact the friendship with Protestant states. . . .

“Salviati had written on the afternoon of the twenty-fourth [of August]. . . . It was a fair sight to see the Catholics in the streets wearing white crosses, and cutting down heretics; and it was thought that, as fast as the news spread, the same thing would be done in all the towns of France. This letter was read before the assembled cardinals at the Venetian palace, and they thereupon attended the pope to a Te Deum in the nearest church. The guns of St. Angelo were fired in the evening, and the city was illuminated for three nights. To disregard the pope’s will in this respect would have savored of heresy. Gregory XIII exclaimed that the massacre was more agreeable to him than fifty victories of Lepanto. For some weeks the news from the French provinces sustained the rapture and excitement of the court. It was hoped that other countries would follow the example of France; the emperor was informed that something of the same kind was expected of him. On the eighth of September the pope went in procession to the French church of St. Lewis, where three and thirty cardinals attended at a mass of thanksgiving. On the eleventh he proclaimed a jubilee. In the bull he said that forasmuch as God had armed the king of France to inflict vengeance on the heretics of the rebellion which had devastated his kingdom, Catholics should pray that he might have grace to pursue his auspicious enterprise to the end, and so complete what he had begun so well. . . .

“Gregory XIII appears as a pale figure between the two strongest of the modern popes, without the intense zeal of the one and ruthless volition of the other. He was not prone to large conceptions or violent resolutions. He had been converted late in life to the spirit of the Tridentine Reformation; and when he showed rigor, it was thought to be not in his character, but in the counsels of those who influenced him. He did not instigate the crime, nor the atrocious sentiments that hailed it. In the religious struggle a frenzy had been kindled which made weakness violent, and turned good men into prodigies of ferocity; and at Rome, where every loss inflicted on Catholicism and every wound was felt, the belief that in dealing with heretics murder is better than toleration prevailed for half a century. The predecessor of Gregory had been Inquisitor-General. In his eye Protestants were worse than pagans, and Lutherans more dangerous than other Protestants. The Capuchin preacher, Pistajo, bore witness that men were hanged and quartered almost daily at Rome; and Pius declared that he would release a culprit guilty of a hundred murders rather than one obstinate heretic. He seriously contemplated razing the town of Faenza because it was infested with religious error, and he recommended a similar expedient to the king of France. He adjured him to hold no intercourse with the Huguenots, to make no terms with them, and not to observe the terms he had made. He required that they should be pursued to the death, that not one should be spared under any pretense, that all prisoners should suffer death. He threatened Charles with the punishment of Saul when he forebore to exterminate the Amalekites. He told him that it was his mission to avenge the injuries of the Lord, and that nothing is more cruel than mercy to the impious. When he sanctioned the murder of Elizabeth, he proposed that it should be done in execution of his sentence against her. It became usual with those who meditated assassination or regicide on the plea of religion to look upon the representatives of Rome as their natural advisers. . . .

“The theory which was framed to justify these practices has done more than plots and massacres to cast discredit on the Catholics. This theory was as follows: Confirmed heretics must be rigorously punished whenever it can be done without the probability of greater evil to religion. Where that is feared, the penalty may be suspended or delayed for a season, provided it be inflicted whenever the danger is past. Treaties made with heretics and promises given to them must not be kept, because sinful promises do not bind, and no agreement is lawful which may injure religion or ecclesiastical authority. No civil power may enter into engagements which impede the free scope of the church’s law. It is part of the punishment of heretics that faith shall not be kept with them. It is even mercy to kill them that they may sin no more.

“Such were the precepts and the examples by which the French Catholics learned to confound piety and ferocity, and were made ready to immolate their countrymen.

“But the desire to defend what the pope approved survived sporadically, when the old fierceness of dogmatic hatred was extinct. A generation passed without any perceptible change in the judgment of Rome. It was a common charge against De Thou that he had condemned the blameless act of Charles IX. The blasphemies of the Huguenots, said one of his critics, were more abominable than their retribution. His history was put on the Index; and Cardinal Barberini let him know that he was condemned because he not only favored Protestants to the detriment of Catholics, but had even disapproved the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. Eudaemon-Johannes, the friend of Bellarmine, pronounces it a pious and charitable act, which immortalized its author. Another Jesuit, Bompiani, says that it was grateful to Gregory, because it was likely to relieve the church. The well-known apology for Charles IX by Naude is based rather on political than religious grounds; but his contemporary Guyon, whose History of Orleans is pronounced by the censors full of sound doctrine and pious sentiment, deems it unworthy of Catholics to speak of the murder of heretics as if it were a crime, because when done under lawful authority, it is a blessed thing. . . .

“Two works were published on the medals of the popes, by a French and an Italian writer. The Frenchman awkwardly palliates the conduct of Gregory XIII; the Italian heartily defends it. In Italy it was still dangerous ground. Muratori shrinks from pronouncing on the question, while Cienfuegos, a Jesuit whom his order esteemed one of the most distinguished cardinals of the day, judges that Charles IX died too soon for his fame. Tempesti, who lived under the enlightened rule of Benedict XIV, accuses Catherine of having arrested the slaughter, in order that some cause should remain to create a demand for her counsels. The German Jesuit Biner and the papal historian Piatti, just a century ago, are among the last downright apologists.

“Then there was a change. A time came when the Catholics, having long relied on force, were compelled to appeal to opinion. That which had been defiantly acknowledged and defended required to be ingeniously explained away. The same motive which had justified the murder now prompted the lie. Men shrank from the conviction that the rulers and restorers of their church had been murderers and abetters of murder, and that so much infamy had been coupled with so much zeal. They feared to say that the most monstrous of crimes had been solemnly approved at Rome, lest they should devote the Papacy to the execration of mankind. A swam of facts were invented to meet the difficulty: The victims were insignificant in number; they were slain for no reason connected with religion; the pope believed in the existence of the plot; the plot was a reality; the medal is fictitious; the massacre was a feint concerted with the Protestants themselves; the pope rejoiced only when he heard that it was over. These things were repeated so often that they have been sometimes believed; and men have fallen into this way of speaking whose sincerity was unimpeachable, and who were not shaken in their religion by the errors or the vices of popes. Möhler was preeminently such a man. In his lectures on the history of the church, which were published only last year [1868], he said that the Catholics, as such, took no part in the massacre; that no cardinal, bishop, nor priest shared in the councils that prepared it; that Charles informed the pope that a conspiracy had been discovered; and that Gregory made his thanksgiving only because the king’s life was saved. Such things will cease to be written when men perceive that truth is the only merit that gives dignity and worth to history.”

The pretense that Rome never changes, and the promulgation of the doctrine of papal infallibility, make it very embarrassing for the Roman hierarchy to face the record of the Papacy; but absolute silence is far better than the attempt to reverse history by charging upon Protestants the crimes committed, either at the instigation of, or with the approval of, some of the popes. The history of the Papacy constitutes the severest indictment against its claim to be the depositary of truth, the defender of the faith, and the protector of the people. And this history can never be reversed. 

Editor’s note: The 500th anniversary of Luther’s pivotal role in the Protestant Reformation is not well remembered if it reverts to a warm fuzzy for something long past. The Reformation directly challenged central tenets and errors of the Western Christian church. It was resisted in a Counter-Reformation that was empowered by the still-unrepudiated Council of Trent and carried forward with often military brutishness by a Jesuit order established in 1540 with the express aim of destroying the Reformation. The Reformation led directly not just to the Thirty Years’ War, but to the establishment of the modern sovereign states we still protect, to the development of the modern concept of individual rights, religious freedom and sanctuary in the New World.

Much has changed since 1517, and we can take some comfort that the style (if not the claims) of the Papacy has much moderated. There is much to applaud in recent efforts to rehabilitate the Roman church and deal with a history that as late as this 1913 editorial was much obsfucated by its proponents. For example, in March 2000, under Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger authored the official document entitled “Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past.” It attempted to apologize and cut loose the church from its less savory-past and move on to reconciliation. While this was an admirable document in many respects, it attempted to hold the “magisterium” above the sordid details of history and call for the inheritors of the Reformation to let bygones be bygones—but without revoking Trent and the claims of primacy, a dynamic that still lurks in the shadows of church-state relations. This article not only underscores the value of keeping the story true, but underlines the won-by-blood victories of the Reformation, which not coincidentally led to sunlight in the Roman church as well.

Article Author: The Protestant Magazine