David Bentley Hart quotes two episodes that, according to him, show the highest and the lowest points reached by Christendom ("No Enduring City," August/September). First, the lowest: St. Thomas Aquinas' view that unrepentant heretics should suffer capital punishment. Lowest? Things are a bit more complicated. Heresies have consequences, and St. Thomas says that if someone is disseminating a wrong idea he should be stopped.
Today, the state reintroduces a series of "sins" which must be dealt with "severely": hate speech, homophobia, etc. People may argue about capital punishment, people may argue about which list of sins should be used, but nobody argues about the right of the state to stop "heretics."
In the Middle Ages, the Church was the moral guardian, and the respublica Christiana had delegated this task to her. This was not good, but this was Christendom, and every society needs some guardians. It is not the fault of St. Thomas to state the obvious, that every wrong idea can produce murder and someone must stop it. If you lament the demise of Christendom, you need the Church to ask the secular arm to stop heretics.
Second: For Hart, the highest point of civility is the decision of Bologna to free all serfs in 1256. Hart thinks that this was "the result of a saturation of a culture in the language of the gospel." Sed contra, I am inclined to think that Bologna's "yuppies" (merchants, bankers, manufacturers, etc.) represented a totally new culture that was breaking away from the gospel. They were eager to gain access to free markets and break feudal bonds, which were a hindrance for the booming economic development of the Italian comune.
St. Paul sends the runaway slave back to Philemon "no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a dearest brother." I consider this the greatest revolution, the "highest point" not in Christendom, but in Christianity. The goal of Jesus is not to change structures, but the heart of man: If the heart changes, the structures will follow, never vice versa.
Hart seems to be looking for an enduring city on this earth; the fascination for medieval Bologna seems a case of nostalgia for political power, nostalgia for "the bells of St. Mary's," nostalgia for Christendom, nostalgia for the gnostic dream of building paradise on earth. But, remember: "My kingdom is not from this world."
Tommaso Maria Gras
ENGLEWOOD, NEW JERSEY
David Bentley Hart replies:
Before answering Tommaso Maria Gras' argument, I have to...