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The altar of Gregory in St. Peter’s Basilica
contains the remains of Pope Gregory.
‘Thinking different from most—almost a crime worthy of death’
Soon this pope, like most of his predecessors and especially those who followed him, intervened harshly against those who thought differently, against all non-Catholics. His great goal was propagatio fidei, the planned extension of papal power, at almost any cost.
For this reason he interfered in the affairs of England and in the Frank-Merovingian kingdom, whose kings he vainly sought to win over to ecclesiastical reform. He recommended torture and imprisonment as coercive means, and occasionally also the peaceful transformation of pagan places of worship or Gentile customs, ‘so that people thus confidently go to the usual places’, always following the circumstances. He also advised, on occasion, promising converts a tax cut and ‘converting’ the stubborn with higher taxes. To the Sardinians, who still persisted in their paganism, their bishop had to Christianise them by force, as if they were slaves!
But not only did Gregory propagate the conversion of the ‘pagans’ in Sardinia, Sicily, Corsica, and elsewhere. He also tirelessly fought ‘heresy’ and intervened with great zeal in the war against heretics within the missionary war for the expansion of the faith outward, gladly called ‘defence of the Roman Church’ or ‘the pastoral care of the pope’. Not even those who were simply outsiders or disagreed could remain unmolested. ‘Thinking differently than most, leading a different way of life from that led by people in general, increasingly meant a direct questioning of the doctrines and practices of the common people, already constituting almost a crime worthy of death’ (Herrmann)…
Gregory was a propagandist convinced of the virtue of humility. And humble, of course, it is only he who is where the pope is and obeys him with the greatest submission. Conversely, in Gregory’s mind a ‘heretic’ could in no way be humble. The ‘heresy’ was a priori the opposite, a division of hearts, the ruin of souls, a service to Baal and the devil; it was apostasy, rebellion and pride. ‘The place of heretics is pride itself… the place of the wicked is pride, as conversely humility is the place of good’. Tolerance towards ‘heretics’ was unthinkable from the beginning, from New Testament times. The ‘heretics’ were already fought in the primitive Church as ‘antichrists’, as ‘firstborn of Satan’, ‘animals in human form’, ‘beasts’, ‘devils’, ‘slaughter cattle for hell’ and so on. All of this was, indeed, an old and accepted tradition in the Church, which a worthy predecessor of Gregory, Pope Gelasius I (492-496), had summed up in this sentence: ‘Tolerance towards heretics is more pernicious than the most terrible destructions of the provinces by the barbarians’.
In Africa, where after the total annihilation of the Arian vandals the Catholic imperial house prevailed again, the pope was annoyed by the Manicheans, some remains of the Arians, and to a great extent also the Donatists. Once again, as in Augustine’s time, domination was the champion of the impoverished! But soon Gregory forced the repression of the ‘heretics’. In a letter to the African prefect in 593, he is extremely surprised that the state does not act energetically against the sectarians. He later protested also by sending three bishops as delegates to Constantinople before the emperor, for the violation of the imperial laws in Africa. But the truth is that in the second half of his pontificate there is no longer any talk of the Donatists at all.
The ‘great’ pope hated anything that wasn’t Catholic, otherwise he wouldn’t have been ‘great’…
For Gregory the pagans had neither divine nor human rights. And messing it all up—as has been done in his circles to this day—he presented the pagans as persecutors of the Catholics! It is true that he did not advocate outright violence, lashing, torture and jail at any cost for the Gentiles, who according to him ‘live like wild animals’. Nothing of that! Magnanimous and good-natured as he was, he cordially encouraged to wipe out the pagan tenants from ecclesiastical lands by financial imposition. The stubborn and hard-headed peasant who refused ‘to return to the Lord God’ had to ‘be burdened with so many taxes that this punishment would push him to enter the right path as quickly as possible’.
And if even with the most unbearable tax pressure someone was reluctant to enter ‘the right path’, the Holy Father was a little tougher. He then ordered a rigorous prison and, in the case of slaves, even torture which Augustine, the preacher of the mansuetudo catholica or ecclesial meekness, already allowed. And he allowed it not only with slaves but also with all schismatics (Donatists). The clever Numidian thinker twists the words and calls torture emendatio, as if it were a kind of baptismal cure and preparation, a trifle compared to hell.
Gregory thus Christianised the sad remains of Sardinian paganism in the light of doctor Augustine. In 599 he exhorted by letter ‘with the greatest fervour’ to Archbishop Januarius of Cagliari ‘to pastoral vigilance against idolaters’. He first recommended conversion through ‘a convincing exhortation’ and not without evoking ‘divine judgment’. Then he wrote clearly:
But if you find that they are not willing to change their way of life, we wish that you arrest them with all zeal. If they are slaves, punish them with whipping and torment, seeking their correction. But if they are free people, they must be led to repentance employing severe prison, as it should be, so that those who despise hearing the words of redemption, which save them from the danger of death, may in any case be returned by bodily torments to the desired healthy faith.
Through bodily torments a healthy Catholic mentality is achieved…
At that time, ‘pagans’ still existed in many regions, not only where Archbishop Januarius himself tolerated them among his tenants. There were pagans in Corsica, in Sicily, in Campania, let alone in Gaul and even in Great Britain. Everywhere Gregory pushed for their disappearance.
For this he not only set in motion his clergy but the nobility, the landowners and the civil arm too. He had to strike everywhere in union with the ecclesiastical arm. Thus, in 593 he ordered the praetor of Sicily to render all his assistance to the bishop of Tyndaris in his work of annihilating the ‘pagans’. And in 598 he ordered Agnelo of Terracina to seek out the tree worshipers and punish them so that ‘paganism’ would not be passed on to others. He also required the assistance of Mauro, the local military commander. And of course all of this happened, to put it in the words of John the Deacon, ‘through the application of legitimate authority’.
Pope Gregory accepted and even openly sanctioned the religious war to subdue the Gentiles… They had to submit by force without further ado and then more or less smoothly seek conversion: a rule that the Catholic historian Friedrich Heer defines as ‘the Christian policy of conquest and expansion until the eve of the First World War’. In this regard Gregory worked, as we see in his letter to the emperor, with the old Ambrosian idea that ‘the peace of the res publica depends on the peace of the universal Church’. He consequently kept his military commanders and even his own soldiery, which repeatedly prevailed victorious… In the eyes of the Catholic historian of the popes, all this happened ‘in an absolutely natural way’ as by himself Pope Gregory was ‘the bulwark and leader’, the ‘consul of God’, who took in his hands ‘in an autonomous way the history of Italy, the history of his country’.