A Rambling on Historic Events

John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, a Catholic historian, writer, and politician once wrote that “To commit murder is the mark of a moment, exceptional. To defend it is constant, and shows a more perverted conscience.” Lord Acton wrote this in an 1887 letter to Mandell Creighton on the subject of how the king and pope’s exemption from inspection for heresy on the grounds that all they did was for the good of the church was unfair. “A crime does not become a good deed by being committed for the good of a church.” (Lord Acton.) To illustrate this point, Acton refers to the Saint Bartholomew’s day massacre.

The Saint Bartholomew’s day massacre, which occurred in 1572, was instigated and supported by the king and pope. In the beginning of the massacre, the king’s Swiss Guard was ordered to kill at least a dozen of the Protestant leaders who had gathered shortly beforehand for the wedding of the King’s sister Margaret. This act incited numerous groups of Catholics, causing chaos and carnage throughout France. In the weeks it took for king’s repeal to be acknowledged, approximately seventy thousand people died for the sole reason that they practiced a different religion than their murderers. As the fact that he repealed his original orders shows, the king quickly changed his views on the massacre, which, while far from completely pardoning him, at least alleviates some of his guilt. The pope, however, publicly endorsed the massacre, even after it spiraled out of control.

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This leads to Lord Acton’s point: do the Catholic people who murdered the Protestants in the spur of the moment and on the understanding that they were defending their dearest beliefs or the Pope, who publicly supported these murders and instructed good people to join in them display a more “perverted conscience?” Based on the events and politics of the St. Bartholomew’s day massacre, I am inclined to agree with Lord Acton that the Catholic mobs, despite being the actual murders, are truly more innocent than the pope and court.