Help support New Advent and get the full contents of this website as an instant download. Includes the Catholic Encyclopedia, Church Fathers, Summa, Bible and more all for only $19.99...
(CONFERENCES, DISPUTATIONS, DEBATES)
Religious discussions, as contradistinguished from polemical writings, designate oral dialectical duels, more or less formal and public, between champions of divergent religious beliefs. For the most part, the more celebrated of these discussions have been held at the instigation of the civil authorities; for the Church has rarely shown favour to this method of ventilating revealed truth. This attitude of opposition on the part of the Church is wise and intelligible. A champion of orthodoxy, possessed of all the qualifications essential to a public debater, is not easily to be found. Moreover, it seems highly improper to give the antagonists of the truth an opportunity to assail mysteries and institutions which should be spoken of with reverence. The fact that the Catholic party to the controversy is nearly always obliged to be on the defensive places him at a disadvantage before the public, who, as Demosthenes remarks, "listen eagerly to revilings and accusations". At any rate, the Church, as custodian of Revelation, cannot abdicate her office and permit a jury of more or less competent individuals to decide upon the truths committed to her care.
St. Thomas (II-II, Q. x, a. 7) holds that it is lawful to dispute publicly with unbelievers, under certain conditions. To discuss as doubting the truth of the faith, is a sin; to discuss for the purpose of refuting error, is praiseworthy. At the same time the character of the audience must be considered. If they are well instructed and firm in their belief, there is no danger; if they are simple-minded then, where they are solicited by unbelievers to abandon their faith, a public defence is needful, provided it can be undertaken by competent parties. But where the faithful are not exposed to such perverting influences, discussions of the sort are dangerous. It is not, then, surprising that the question of disputations with heretics has been made the subject of ecclesiastical legislation. By a decree of Alexander IV (1254-1261) inserted in "Sextus Decretalium", Lib. V, c. ii, and still in force, all laymen are forbidden, under threat of excommunication, to dispute publicly or privately with heretics on the Catholic Faith. The text reads: "Inhibemus quoque, ne cuiquam laicæ personæ liceat publice vel privatim de fide catholicâ disputare. Qui vero contra fecerit, excommunicationis laqueo innodetur." (We furthermore forbid any lay person to engage in dispute, either private or public, concerning the Catholic Faith. Whosoever shall act contrary to this decree, let him be bound in the fetters of excommunication.) This law, like all penal laws, must be very narrowly construed. The terms Catholic Faith and dispute have a technical signification. The former term refers to questions purely theological; the latter to disputations more or less formal, and engrossing the attention of the public. There are numerous questions, somewhat connected with theology, which many laymen who have received no scientific theological training can treat more intelligently than a priest. In modern life, it frequently happens that an O'Connell or a Montalembert must stand forward as a defender of Catholic interests upon occasions when a theologian would be out of place. But when there is a question of dogmatic or moral theology, every intelligent layman will concede the propriety of leaving the exposition and defence of it to the clergy.
But the clergy are not free to engage in public disputes on religion without due authorization. In the Collectanea S. Cong. de Prop. Fide" (p. 102, n. 294) we find the following decree, issued 8 March, 1625: "The Sacred Congregation has ordered that public discussions shall not be held with heretics, because for the most part, either owing to their loquacity or audacity or to the applause of the audience, error prevails and the truth is crushed. But should it happen that such a discussion is unavoidable, notice must first be given to the S. Congregation, which, after weighing the circumstances of time and persons, will prescribe in detail what is to be done. The Sacred Congregation enforced this decree with such vigour, that the custom of holding public disputes with heretics wellnigh fell into desuetude. [See the decree of 1631 regarding the missionaries in Constantinople; also the decrees of 1645 and 1662, the latter forbidding the General of the Capuchins to authorize such disputes (Collectanea, 1674, n. 302).]
That this legislation is still in force appears from the letter addressed to the bishops of Italy by Cardinal Rampolla in the name of the Cong. for Ecclesiastical Affairs (27 Jan., 1902) in which it is declared that discussions with Socialists are subject to the decrees of the Holy See regarding public disputes with heretics; and, in accordance with the decree of Propaganda, 7 Feb., 1645, such public disputations are not to be permitted unless there is hope of producing greater good and unless the conditions prescribed by theologians are fulfilled. The Holy See, it is added, considering that these discussions often produce no result at all or even result in harm, has frequently forbidden them and ordered ecclesiastical superiors to prevent them; where this cannot be done, care must be taken that the discussions are not held without the authorization of the Apostolic See; and that only those who are well qualified to secure the triumph of Christian truth shall take part therein. It is evident, then, that no Catholic priest is ever permitted to become the aggressor or to issue a challenge to such a debate. If he receives from the other party to the controversy a public challenge under circumstances which make a non-acceptance appear morally impossible, he must refer the case to his canonical superiors and be guided by their counsel. We thus reconcile two apparently contradictory utterances of the Apostles: for according to St. Peter (1 Peter 3:15) you should be "ready always to satisfy every one that asketh you a reason of that hope which is in you", while St. Paul admonishes Timothy (2 Timothy 2:14), "Contend not in words, for it is to no profit, but to the subverting of the hearers".
The disputes of St. Stephen and St. Paul, mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, were rather in the nature of Apostolic pleading than of formal discussions. St. Justin's "Dialogue with Tryphon" was, in all probability, a literary effort after the model of Plato's dialogues. St. Augustine, the ablest disputant of all time, engaged in several set debates with Arians, Manichæans, Donatists, and Pelagians. An interesting summary of each of these great disputations is preserved among the saint's works, and ought to be closely studied by those who are called to defend the Catholic cause. Of particular interest is the celebrated Conference of Carthage, convened by order of Emperor Honorius to finish the inveterate schism of the Donatists. It opened 1 June, 411, and lasted three days. The tribune Marcellinus represented the emperor, and in the presence of 286 Catholic and 279 Donatist bishops, St. Augustine, as chief spokesman of the Catholics, so completely upset the sectarian arguments, that the victory was awarded to the Catholics, many prominent members of the sect were converted, and Donatism was doomed to a lingering death. Another memorable disputation took place in Africa a couple of centuries later (645) between St. Maximus, Abbot of Chrysopolis (Scutari) and the Monothelite Patriarch Pyrrhus, who had been driven from Constantinople by popular violence. It was conducted with rare skill and ended with the temporary conversion of Pyrrhus to the orthodox faith.
At the outbreak of the Lutheran and Zwinglian revolution, tumultuous discussions of religious subjects grew to be epidemic. Luther opened the revolt by inviting discussion upon his ninety-five theses, 31 Oct., 1517. Although ostensibly framed to furnish matter for an ordinary scholastic dispute, Luther did not seriously contemplate an oral debate; for several of his theses were at variance with Catholic doctrine and could not be discussed at a Catholic university. Instead, they were widely scattered through Europe, everywhere creating confusion. An opportunity of disseminating more openly his peculiar tenets regarding justification by faith alone, the slavery of the human will, and the sinfulness of good works was offered to the Reformer by his order during a convention held at Heidelberg in April, 1518, when he directed a dispute on twenty-eight theological and forty philosophical theses in the presence of many professors, students, citizens, and courtiers. Though his novel tenets were viewed with deep displeasure by the older heads, he was successful in winning over several of his younger hearers, notably Brenz and the Dominican, Martin Bucer. Emboldened by the outcome of the Heidelberg Dispute, and having discovered that the road to success lay in captivating the young, the agitator made futile attempts at organizing disputations at the seats of higher learning; but no university would lend its halls to the dissemination of un-Catholic doctrines.
The imprudence of Dr. Eck, who had become involved in a literary contest with Carlstadt and had hastily challenged his adversary to a public debate, gave Luther his long-looked-for opportunity. With his customary energy, he took the direction of the intellectual duel, encouraged both antagonists to persevere, and arranged the details. The city of Leipzig was chosen as the scene. Although the faculty of the university entered a vigorous protest, and the Bishops of Merseburg and Brandenburg launched prohibitions and an excommunication, the disputation took place under the ægis of Duke George of Saxony. The discontent of the Catholics was increased when they learned that Luther had secured permission to subjoin a controversy with Eck on the subject of papal supremacy. Eck came to Leipzig with one attendant; Luther and Carlstadt entered the city accompanied by an army of adherents, mostly students. The preliminaries were carefully arranged; after which, from 27 June to 4 July (1519) Eck and Carlstadt debated the subject of free will and our ability to cooperate with grace. Eck had the better part of the argument throughout, and forced his antagonist to make admissions which stultified the new Lutheran doctrine. Thereupon Luther himself came forward to assail the dogma of Roman supremacy by Divine right. Sweeping away the authority of decretals, councils, and Fathers, he discovered to his hearers, and possibly also to himself, how completely he had abandoned the basic principles of the Catholic religion. There could no longer remain a doubt that a new Hus had arisen to scourge the Church. The debate on the primacy was succeeded by discussions of purgatory, indulgences, penance, etc. On 14 and 15 July, Carlstadt, regaining courage, resumed the debate on free will and good works. Finally, Duke George declared the disputation closed, and each of the contendents departed, as usual, claiming the victory.
Of the two universities, Erfurt and Paris, to which the final decision had been reserved, Erfurt declined to intervene and returned the documents; Paris sat in judgment upon Luther's writings, attaching to each of his opinions the proper theological censure. The most tangible outcome of this disputation was that, while it opened the eyes of Duke George to the true nature of Luther's revolt and attached him unalterably to the Church of his fathers, on the other hand it gained for the Lutheran cause the valuable aid of the youthful Melanchthon, who never understood the merits of the controversy, but was overawed by the vigorous personality of the Reformer.
The Leipzig Disputation was the last occasion on which the ancient custom of swearing to advance no tenet contrary to Catholic doctrine was observed. In all subsequent debates between Catholics and Protestants, the bare text of Holy Writ was taken as the sole and sufficient fountain of authority. This, naturally, placed the Catholics in a disadvantageous position and narrowed their prospect of success. This was particularly the case in Switzerland, where Zwingli and his lieutenants organized a number of one-sided debates under the presidency of town councils already won over to Protestantism. Such were the disputations of Zurich, 1523, of Swiss Baden, 1526, and of Berne, 1528. In all of these the result was invariably the same, the abolition of Catholic worship and the desecration of churches and religious institutions.
Passing over the numerous futile attempts made by the Protestants to heal their intestine quarrels by means of colloquies, we come to the still more hopeless efforts of Charles V to bring the religious troubles of Germany to a "speedy and peaceful termination" by conferences between the Catholic and the Protestant divines. Since the Protestants proclaimed their determination to adhere to the terms of the Augsburg Confession, and, in addition, formally repudiated the authority of the Roman pontiff and "would admit no other judge of the controversy than Jesus Christ", it was to be foreseen that the result of conferences thus conducted could only be to waste time and increase the acrimony already existing between the parties. This was as clear to Pope Paul III as to Luther, both of whom predicted the inevitable failure. However, since the emperor and his brother, King Ferdinand, persisted in making a trial, the pope authorized his nuncio, Morone, to proceed to Speyer, whither the meeting had been summoned for June, 1540. As the plague was raging in that city the conference took place in Hagenau. Neither the Elector of Saxony nor the Landgrave of Hesse could be induced to attend. Melanchthon was absent through a heavy illness brought on by grief and shame at the ignoble part he had taken in the affair of the Landgrave's bigamy. The leading Protestant theologians at the conference were Bucer, Myconius, Brenz, Blaurer, and Urbanus Rhegius. The most prominent on the Catholic side were Bishop Faber of Vienna and Dr. Eck. Present and actively intriguing to prevent an accommodation was John Calvin, then exiled from Geneva; he appeared as confidential agent of the King of France, whose settled policy it was to perpetuate religious discord in the domains of his rival. After a month wasted in useless wrangling, King Ferdinand prorogued the conference to reassemble at Worms on 28 October.
Undismayed by the failure of the Hagenau conference, the emperor made more strenuous efforts for the success of the coming colloquy at Worms. He dispatched his minister Granvella and Ortiz, his envoy, to the papal court. The latter brought with him the celebrated Jesuit, Father Peter Faber. The pope sent the Bishop of Feltri, Tommaso Campeggio, brother of the great cardinal, and ordered Morone to attend. They were not to take part in the debates, but were to watch events closely and report to Rome. Granvella opened the proceedings at Worms, 25 Nov., with an eloquent and conciliatory address. He pictured the evils which had befallen Germany, "once the first of all nations in fidelity, religion, piety, and divine worship", and warned his hearers that "all the evils that shall come upon you and your people, if, by clinging stubbornly to preconceived notions, you prevent a renewal of concord, will be ascribed to you as the authors of them." On behalf of the Protestants, Melanchthon returned "an intrepid answer"; he threw all the blame upon the Catholics, who refused to accept the new Gospel.
A great deal of time was spent in wrangling over points of order; finally it was decided that Dr. Eck should be spokesman for the Catholics and Melanchthon for the Protestants. The debate began 14 Jan., 1541. A tactical blunder was committed in accepting the Augsburg Confession as the basis of the conference. That document had been drawn up to meet an emergency. It was apologetic and conciliatory, so worded as to persuade the young emperor that there was no radical difference between the Catholics and the Protestants. It admitted the spiritual jurisdiction of the bishops and tacitly acknowledged the supremacy of the pope by laying the ultimate appeal with a council by him convened. But many changes had taken place in the ten intervening years. The bishops had been driven out of every Protestant territory in Germany; the Smalkald confederates had solemnly abjured the pope and scorned his proffer of a council; each petty territorial prince had constituted himself the head and exponent of religion within his domain. For all practical purposes the Augsburg Confession was as useless as the laws of Lycurgus. Moreover, as Dr. Eck pointed out, the Augsburg Confession of 1540 was a different document from the Confession of 1530, having been changed by Melanchthon to suit his sacramentarian view of the Eucharist. Had the theologians at Worms reached an agreement on every point of doctrine, the discord in Germany would have continued none the less; for the princes had not the remotest idea of giving up their lucrative dominion over their territorial churches. Eck and Melanchthon battled four days over the topic of original sin and its consequences, and a formula was drafted to which both parties agreed, the Protestants with a reservation.
At this point Granvella suspended the conference, to be resumed at Ratisbon, whither the emperor had summoned a diet, which he promised to attend in person. This diet, from which the emperor anticipated brilliant results, was called to order 5 April, 1541. As legate of the pope appeared Cardinal Contarini, assisted by the nuncio Morone. The inevitable Calvin was present, ostensibly to represent Luneburg, in reality to foster discord in the interest of France. As collocutors at the religious conference which met simultaneously, Charles appointed Eck, Pflug, and Gropper for the Catholic side, and Melanchthon, Bucer, and Pistorius for the Protestants. A document of mysterious origin, the "Ratisbon Book", was presented by Joachim of Brandenburg as the basis of agreement. This strange compilation, it developed later, was the result of secret conferences, held during the meeting at Worms, between the Protestants, Bucer and Capito, on one side, and the Lutheranizing Gropper and a secretary of the emperor named Veltwick on the other. It consisted of twenty-three chapters, in which, by an ingenious phraseology, the attempt was made so to formulate the controverted doctrines that each party might find its own views therein expressed. How much Charles and Granvella had to do in the transaction, is unknown; they certainly knew and approved of it. The "Book" had been submitted by the Elector of Brandenburg to the judgment of Luther and Melanchthon; and their contemptuous treatment of it augured ill for its success. When it was shown to the legate and Morone, the latter was for rejecting it summarily; Contarini, after making a score of emendations, notably emphasizing in Article 14 the dogma of Transubstantiation, declared that now "as a private person" he could accept it; but as legate he must consult with the Catholic theologians. Eck secured the substitution of a conciser exposition of the doctrine of justification. Thus emended, the "Book" was presented to the collocutors by Granvella for consideration. The first four articles, treating of man before the fall, free will, the origin of sin, and original sin, were accepted. The battle began in earnest when the fifth article, on justification, was reached. After long and vehement debates, a formula was presented by Bucer and accepted by the majority, so worded as to be capable of bearing a Catholic and a Lutheran interpretation. Naturally, it was unsatisfactory to both parties. The Holy See condemned it and administered a severe rebuke to Contarini for not protesting against it. No greater success was attained as to the other articles of importance.
On 22 May the conference ended, and the emperor was informed as to the articles agreed upon and those on which agreement was impossible. Charles was sorely disappointed, but he was powerless to effect anything further. The decree known as the "Ratisbon Interim", published 28 July, 1541, enjoining upon both sides the observance of the articles agreed upon by the theologians, was by both sides disregarded. Equally without result was the last of the conferences summoned by Charles at Ratisbon, 1546, just previously to the outbreak of the Smalkaldic War.
In 1561 six French cardinals and thirty-eight archbishops and bishops, with a host of minor prelates and doctors, wasted in a barren controversy with the Calvinists an entire month, which might have been spent far more advantageously to the Church and more in consonance with the duties of their offices had they taken their places in the Council of Trent. The conference had been arranged by Catharine de' Medici, the queen-mother and regent during the minority of her son, Charles IX. Between this typical representative of the Medici and her contemporary, Elizabeth of England, there was little to choose. With both religion was simply a matter of expediency and politics. The Calvinist faction in France, though less than half a million in number, was aggressive and insolent, under the guidance of several princes of the royal blood and members of the higher nobility. The fatal virus of Gallicanism and chronic disaffection towards the Holy See paralysed Catholic activity; and although a general council was in session under the legitimate presidency of the Roman pontiff, voices were heard even among the French bishops, advocating the convocation of a schismatical national synod. We may regard it as an extenuation of the guilt of Catharine and her advisers, that they refused to go the whole length of a schism and chose the alternative of a religious conference under the direction of the civil power. The pope did his utmost to prevent what, under the circumstances, could only he construed as a public defiance of ecclesiastical authority. He dispatched the Cardinal of Ferrara, with Laynez, General of the Jesuits, as his adviser, to dissuade the regent and the bishops. But the affair had gone too far; on 9 Sept. the representatives of the rival religions began their pleadings before a woman and a boy eleven years old. The proceedings were opened by a speech of Chancellor L'Hôpital, in which he emphasized the right and duty of the monarch to provide for the needs of the Church. Even should a general council be in session, a colloquy between Frenchmen convened by the king was the better way of settling religious disputes; for a general council, being, for the most part, composed of foreigners, was incapable of understanding the wishes and the needs of France. Yet these French politicians who refused to submit articles of faith to the decision of a general council because the majority of the Fathers were not French, chose as authoritative expounders of the dogmas of the Church the Genevan Beza and the Italian Vermigli.
It was a deep humiliation for the proud hierarchy of France to be compelled to listen to a long tirade by Beza against the most cherished of Catholic doctrines, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. They suppressed their feelings, out of respect for the king, until the hardy Reformer, in the heat of argument, gave utterance to his conviction that the Body and Blood of Christ were as far distant from the bread and wine, as the highest heaven is from the earth. This was too much for the bishops to bear, and they cried out, "He blasphemeth". It was too much for Catharine herself, and proved to her that the fundamental dogma of the Catholic Church was at stake. Beza's speech, revised and emended, was scattered broadcast among the people of France. We are told that the Cardinal of Lorraine confuted the heretic at the next session in a masterly address; but since he did not set it down in writing its value cannot be ascertained. The only sensible speech made at this colloquy was that of the Jesuit Laynez, who had the courage to remind the queen that the proper place for ventilating subjects concerning the Faith was Trent, not Paris; that the Divinely appointed judge of the religious controversies was the supreme pontiff, not the Court of France. Catharine wept; but instead of following the Jesuit's wise counsel, she appointed a committee of five Calvinists and five lukewarm Catholics, who drafted a vague formula which could be interpreted in a Catholic or a Calvinistic sense, and was consequently condemned by both parties.
The spread of Protestantism and the application of its fundamental principle of private judgment naturally produced far-reaching differences in belief. To heal these and so bring about unity, various conferences were held: at Weimar (1560), between the Lutherans, Striegel and Flacius, on free will; at Altenburg (1568-69), between the Jena theologians and those from Wittenberg, on free will and justification; at Montbéliard (1586), between Beza and the Tübingen theologians, on predestination. None of these resulted in harmony; they rather emphasized divergences in belief and intensified partisanship.
The conference of Poissy was the last attempt made to reconcile or slur over the radical differences of Catholicity and Protestantism. There have been some notable oral debates between champions of the rival religions in more recent times; but in these each side laboured to establish its own position and prove that of its adversary untenable. The most memorable and successful of these modern disputations was the "Conference on the Authority of the Church" held 8 March, 1679, between Bossuet and the Calvinist minister Jean Claude. This was a model of close debate, in which, with due courtesy, each antagonist kept strictly to the subject in hand, the relation of the Church and the Bible. The fondness of English-speaking peoples for public disputes has often shown itself in challenges, generally delivered by Protestant controversialists, to discuss religious topics in public. As a rule, they have produced no good results, since both sides revived wornout arguments and wandered over too wide a field. Such was the "Controversial Discussion between Rev. Thomas Maguire and Rev. Richard T. Pope", held in the lecture-room of the Dublin Institution in April, 1827, Daniel O'Connell being one of the presiding officers. It was printed and widely circulated. Of a similar nature was the "Debate on the Roman Catholic Religion", held in Cincinnati from 13 to 21 Jan., 1837, between Alexander Campbell, the founder of the Campbellite sect, and Bishop John B. Purcell. More satisfactory, because confined within closer limits, was the celebrated "Discussion of the Question, Is the Roman Catholic Religion, in any or in all its Principles or Doctrines, Inimical to Civil or Religious Liberty? and of the Question, Is the Presbyterian Religion, in any or in all its Principles or Doctrines, Inimical to Civil or Religious Liberty?" debated in Philadelphia in 1836 between Rev. John Hughes, later Archbishop of New York, and Rev. John Breckinridge of the Presbyterian Church. Both parties kept their tempers remarkably well; but to judge from the violent riots which broke out not long after, the debate had little effect in extinguishing unreasoning prejudices. With the exception of a debate on the question of St. Peter's residence in Rome, held in the Eternal City in 1872, there have been no oral religious discussions in recent times and this method of elucidating religious truth may be regarded as discountenanced by modern public opinion.
GÖPFERT in Kirchenlex., s.v. Disputation; SANTI, Prælectiones Juris Can. (4th ed., Ratisbon, 1906), lib. V. p. 106; LOISELET, Ce que pense l'Église des Conférences Contradictoires in Etudes (20 Aug., 1905); PASTOR, Die kirchlichen Reunions-bestrebungen während der Regierung Karls V. (Freiburg, 1879).
APA citation. (1909). Religious Discussions. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05034a.htm
MLA citation. "Religious Discussions." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05034a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.
Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is webmaster at newadvent.org. Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.