When Charity Becomes a Weapon



Last week, I commended “spiritual ecumenism“: “We become more receptive to the Gospel through the insights of other Christians, and, in gratitude, recognize that they are ‘part of me,’ and that we cannot possibly remain indifferent to their ‘joys and sufferings.'” Another compelling reason to become interested in ecumenism might come from realization of the destructive effects of Christian disunity. On the eve of the Second Vatican Council, Yves Congar wrote:

Historically, the divisions among Christians, the fiercely cruel wars, carried out in the name of dogmatic differences, are largely responsible for the genesis of modern unbelief (Herbert of Cherbury, Spinoza, the Philosophes of the eighteenth century). Concretely, the division among Christians is a scandal for the world. The world is exonerated, to a degree, from the duty to believe.

I was reminded of these destructive effects when I was paging through a recent edited volume, Moderate Voices in the European Reformation. In the conclusion, the book’s editor, Mark Greengrass of the University of Sheffield, implicitly shows how the state of Christian disunity can cause radical changes in the meaning of such important concepts as “charity,” “clemency” and “pity.” (I apologize for the length of this, but I do think that this is an important excerpt. I will add emphases for those who only have a little while – they can just read the italicized text):

… let us briefly examine the uses of the term ‘charity’ in the sixteenth century. ‘Charity’ was at the heart of the Christian understanding of friendship, good neighbourliness and social accord. It was the basis of the shared Pax Christi, the moment of expressed sociability that brought together the living and the dead in harmony; indistinct, we are told, from the social purpose of the Mass. In the Pauline Epistles, charity is slow to chide, meek and long-suffering – the embodiment of the moderate voice of Erasmus in the earlier sixteenth century. Yet this moderate voice gained a second meaning with the Protestant Reformation. In sixteenth-century France, charity was often presented as ‘ardente’ or ‘violente’, all-consuming in its perfection. In John Foxe’s martyrology (but the same is doubtless true of sixteenth-century Protestant martyrologies in general) the term ‘charity’ is used in a variety of contexts, at once combative and conciliatory. ‘Burning charity’ was how Foxe described the English Lord Chancellor’s justification of the bishops’ search for heretics: ‘euen like as a good shepheard doth see to his flocke, that none of his sheepe hath the scabbe or other disease for infecting other cleane sheepe, but wyll saue & cure the said scabbed sheep.’ ‘Burning charity’ and ‘discreet severity’ was how he depicted the chancellor of Oxford and London, Dr John Story’s search for the ostensible heretic John Warne and his family. If this can be seen as mere irony on Foxe’s part, it is only part of the story. Elsewhere Foxe would refer to the Chancellor’s ‘antichristian charity’ – the ‘charity’ that the fox shows the chickens whom he stalks, the ‘charity’ that Bradford claimed he found in Ottoman Turkey in his examination, but not in England. In another vein Foxe accepted that charity was closely related to witnessing for the truth, citing 1 Corinthians 13 (‘If I yield my body to the fire to be burnt, & haue not Charitie, I shall gayne nothyng thereby’). Charity was only as good, in short, as the righteousness of the cause in which it was expended: ‘the goodnesse of the cause, and not the order of the death: maketh the holyness of the person’. Charity was not simply a matter of keeping one’s head down and getting on with the neighbours. It came from God. ‘Charity keepeth Gods commaundements, a pure hart loueth and feareth God aboue all’. Those that preach God’s truth, providing that they do not aim to stir up sedition, are part of the ‘chayne’ of Christian charity. God’s witnesses on earth, especially those who suffer for his truth, are at one with another in the ‘knotte’ of charity, separated, imprisoned, beleaguered in body, but ‘present in the spirite, coupled together with the vnity of fayth in the bonde of peace, whyche is loue’. Among the martyrs and their sustainers, there was, in short, a sense of charity, of belonging in Christian community to one another under God. So, for Foxe, the notion of charity was a sectarian weapon capable of rhetorical deployment against an enemy whose lack of charity demonstrated their depravity, and could be evoked in the name of a godly cause and in defence of the brotherhood of the elect.

Foxe was registering that sublimate of Augustinianism, traces of which were so widespread in sixteenth-century Europe. In the early fifth century AD, Augustine had responded to the threat posed by the Donatists by elaborating in a set of letters the principles that justified the use of physical coercion to punish those who deviated from the true faith. One of his central sources, of course, was the gospel passage from Luke 14:16-24 where Jesus told of a rich man who, when his guests declined his invitation to his feast, commanded his servants to go out into the streets and ‘compel them to come in, that my house may be filled’. Compelle intrare – to rescue those who had strayed from righteousness – was the message to the Christian Church and magistrates. Augustine presented it as a necessary wake-up call to those who were ‘asleep’ in thier false belief, a ‘sharp medicine’ to reclaim sinners before it was too late. Here was ‘charity’ at work; saving souls who would afterwards thank their saviour for the action taken on their behalf, even if it had been a ‘bitter pill’ at the time. The Church of England’s ‘Homily on Charity’ emphasized the responsibility placed upon the Christian magistrate to bring their subjects to embrace the truth faith as a ‘loving father correcteth his natural son’. … For the present, we should simply record the mixed message contained in the oxymoron ‘charitable emnity’. ‘Clemency’, too, could be given the same ambiguous voice. It was the Dominican friar, Jacques Clément who killed Henri III in August 1589 on the grounds that he was a tyrant. League pamphlets proclaimed the assassination as an act of godly ‘clemency’, that quality of hearing and responding in mercy to petitions that Seneca had most applauded in a virtuous prince. The last Valois prince’s murder of the Guise princes (on the festival of St Clement, as the League pamphlets did not fail to point out) was a treason against ‘clemency’, just as God’s wrathful clemency thereafter was a sign that he had listened and responded in mercy to the pleas of his faithful people.


The messages of ‘charitable enmity’ and ‘wrathful clemency’ could be turned on their head. What was wrong with tolerating those who opposed God’s truth was that it was a form of auto-deception; a dangerous folly. In 1572, Elizabeth I was told by her bishops in an open letter to put away her ‘foolish pitie’ and order the execution of her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. This was not a matter of adiaphora in their eyes. She represented a real and present danger, and one from which the fledgling Protestant Church in England required active political protection. ‘Foolish pitie’ – another oxymoron – was repeated in a letter to Walsingham from Sir Amias Paulet, Mary’s gaoler at Fotheringhay in the last months of her life. Writing in 1586 and reflecting on the decade and more of dithering in high places about the fate of the captive queen, that ‘bosom serpent’ and ‘root and well-spring of all our calamities’, he reflected: ‘Others shall excuse their foolish pitie as they may’. Patrick Collinson has located the phrase precisely in the margins of the English Geneva Bible, a treasure-house of Protestnat instances of the finger-post. Against the passage in the second book of Chronicles about godly King Asa, who dethroned his idolatrous mother but then failed to kill her, the Geneva Bible has the marginal gloss: ‘Herein he showed that he lacked zeal. For she ought to have died both by the covenant and by the law of God, but he gave place to foolish pity’. And Paulet would have recognized instantly the ‘law of God’ in question described in Deuteronomy 13:

If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which though has not known … thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death … Neither shall thy eye pity him.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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One Response to When Charity Becomes a Weapon

  1. Pingback: Trent and Vernacular Liturgy? « Catholic Sensibility

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