Triumph of St Thomas Aquinas over the Heretics (1489-91)
The image is Filippino Lippi’s fresco in the Carafa Chapel in Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome: Triumph of St Thomas Aquinas over the Heretics. The four female figures around Thomas represent Philosophy, Astronomy, Theology, and Grammar. Among the “heretics” pictured are Arius, Apollinarius, and Averroes (on the left) and Sabellius, Euchites, and Manes (on the right). Note the books thrown on the ground in front of them. For more details look here (credit to WGA for the photo as well).
One of the more fascinating issues in the history of parable reception is how the parable of the Wheat and Weeds/Tares is used in connection to the question of whether to “tolerate heretics.”
Thomas’s discussions of this parable need to be read in light of his historical context. Louis IX of France, for example, conducted two crusades, burned thousands of Talmuds and other Jewish texts in Paris, and expanded the French Inquisition, especially against the Cathars in southern France (Cathars were a dualistic Christian heresy that rejected the priesthood and use of church buildings; practiced celibacy, pacifism, and vegetarianism; owned no property; and so forth; see Kerr 2009: 52). Thomas was more restrained in his writings, but he still thought that heresy was serious enough of a matter for the civil authorities sometimes to take action. His focus, though, was primarily on Christian heretics and apostates, since they threatened the health of the church more seriously than others.
In Summa Theologiae, for example, Thomas uses the parable to discuss when and whether people should be excommunicated from the church. The first question is, since people can band together in “wickedness,” whether a whole group can be excommunicated (I will use the page numbers in the CCEL version of Summa Theologiae to make it easier to find online):
I answer that, No man should be excommunicated except for a mortal sin. Now sin consists in an act: and acts do not belong to communities, but, generally speaking, to individuals. Wherefore individual members of a community can be excommunicated, but not the community itself. And although sometimes an act belongs to a whole multitude, as when many draw a boat, which none of them could draw by himself, yet it is not probable that a community would so wholly consent to evil that there would be no dissentients. Now God, who judges all the earth, does not condemn the just with the wicked (Gn. 18:25). Therefore the Church, who should imitate the judgments of God, prudently decided that a community should not be excommunicated, lest the wheat be uprooted together with the tares and cockle (Summa Theologiae p. 5956 in CCEL).
Thomas also discusses this parable several other times in Summa Theologiae. In the “Treatise on the Theological Virtues” (in the Second Part of the Second Part”), for example, one of the questions Thomas answers is: “Whether unbelievers ought to be compelled to the faith?” The first “objection” to this question Thomas seeks to correct is that some interpreters like Chrysostom (Homily 46 on Matthew) argue that the parable of the Wheat and Weeds teaches that “unbelievers ought by no means to be compelled to the Faith.” Chrysostom also concludes that it is wrong to kill heretics since innocent persons would be killed as well. Thomas replies to this objection by saying that “unbelievers” should not be compelled to become Christians but they should not be allowed to “hinder the faith.” On the other hand, heretics and apostates should be treated differently:
I answer that, Among unbelievers there are some who have never received the faith, such as the heathens and the Jews: and these are by no means to be compelled to the faith, in order that they may believe, because to believe depends on the will: nevertheless they should be compelled by the faithful, if it be possible to do so, so that they do not hinder the faith, by their blasphemies, or by their evil persuasions, or even by their open persecutions. It is for this reason that Christ's faithful often wage war with unbelievers, not indeed for the purpose of forcing them to believe, because even if they were to conquer them, and take them prisoners, they should still leave them free to believe, if they will, but in order to prevent them from hindering the faith of Christ.
On the other hand, there are unbelievers who at some time have accepted the faith, and professed it, such as heretics and all apostates: such should be submitted even to bodily compulsion, that they may fulfil what they have promised, and hold what they, at one time, received (Summa Theologiae, pp. 2740-1 CCEL).
The parable also comes into play when Thomas addresses the question: “Whether [Christian] heretics ought to be tolerated?” Thomas argues that it could be examined from two sides.
That's what I will examine in my next post.