Profiles of Hope – Sebastian Castellio

John Calvin may have disagreed with nearly every aspect of Catholic faith and practice, but there is one area that he and the Inquisition stood in total agreement on.

Heretics should be executed.

Michael Servetus was a 16th century scientist and theologian who had the dubious distinction of being condemned as a heretic by both the Catholic and the Protestant authorities.  He was arrested by the Catholic Inquisition in France,  and sentenced to death.  Although he managed to escape, he made the mistake of then travelling to Geneva, where he was promptly arrested again, this time by the Protestant authorities, under the leadership of Calvin.

Although Calvin had split with the Catholic church many years previously, and had denounced the Pope as the Antichrist, he was in complete agreement with it that heresy should be punished with banishment, torture or death.  Michael Servetus was burned at the stake on October 27th, 1553.

In contrast to both Catholic and Protestant leaders who believed that religious truth must be promoted by the full force of the state, one man stood out as a voice of reason, compassion, and freedom of conscience.

Sebastian Castellio.

In his own words, “To kill a man is not to protect a doctrine, but it is to kill a man.

At great personal risk to himself, Castellio argued strongly and publically against the persecution of ‘heretics’.  To him, a heretic was anyone who disagrees with another on a religious matter.  Given the differences of opinion between religious authorities, everyone is a heretic by someone’s definition.

We might take freedom of religious conscience for granted these days.  Unlike the tumultuous 16th century,  I can live in peace with my Catholic friend or my Muslim neighbour or my atheist colleague. But the ideals that make it possible for our diverse Canadian society to flourish in many ways can trace themselves back to the pioneering teaching of Castellio.

As he said,  “We can live together peacefully only when we control our intolerance. Even though there will always be differences of opinion from time to time, we can at any rate come to general understandings, can love one another, and can enter the bonds of peace.”