Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Dueling and the Church

Today marks the 213th anniversary of the fatal duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, made additionally famous by the hit musical Hamilton. Neither participant was Catholic, and the Catholic Church had little voice in the United States of 1804, but seeing mentions of it reminded me of a quirky area of research which I'd been meaning to write about for some time: the Church's long and often futile efforts to stamp out the practice of dueling.

Dueling, formalized private combat between two people to settle some dispute of law or honor, had deep roots in the Germanic and then Medieval culture in Europe, and the Church spoke out against it early and often. The Catholic Encyclopedia lists the Church's opposition as follows:

St. Avitus (d. 518) made an earnest protest against the law of the above-mentioned Gundobald, as is related by Agobard (d. 840), who in a special work on the subject points out the opposition between the law of Gundobald and the clemency of the Gospel; God might very easily permit the defeat of the innocent. The popes also at an early date took a stand against duelling. In a letter to Charles the Bald, Nicolas I (858-67) condemned the duel (monomachia) as a tempting of God. In the same century his example was followed by Stephen VI, later by Alexander II and Alexander III, Celestine III, Innocent III and Innocent IV, Julius II, and many others. In addition to the judicial, non-judicial combats also occurred, in which men arbitrarily settled private grudges or sought to revenge themselves. The tournaments, especially, were often used to satisfy revenge; on account of this misuse the Church early issued ordinances against the excesses committed at tournaments, although these were not always obeyed. The more the judicial combat fell into disuse, the more the old instinct of the Germanic and Gallic peoples, by which each man sought to gain his rights with weapon in hand, showed itself in personal contests and at tournaments. From the middle of the fifteenth century duelling over questions of honour increased so greatly, especially in the Romanic countries, that the Council of Trent was obliged to enact the severest penalties against it. It decreed that "the detestable custom of duelling which the Devil had originated, in order to bring about at the same time the ruin of the soul and the violent death of the body, shall be entirely uprooted from Christian soil" (Sess XXIV, De reform, c. xix).

Nonetheless, the practice of dueling remained common in areas such as Germany, Poland, Austria, and Hungary into the early modern era. In 1891 Pope Leo XIII considered the practice still prevalent enough that he wrote Pastoralis Officii, an encyclical to the bishops of the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires reiterating the Church's opposition to dueling, which he stated as follows:
Clearly, divine law, both that which is known by the light of reason and that which is revealed in Sacred Scripture, strictly forbids anyone, outside of public cause, to kill or wound a man unless compelled to do so in self defense. Those, moreover, who provoke a private combat or accept one when challenged, deliberately and unnecessarily intend to take a life or at least wound an adversary. Furthermore, divine law prohibits anyone from risking his life rashly, exposing himself to grave and evident danger when not constrained by duty or generous charity. In the very nature of the duel, there is plainly blind temerity and contempt for life. There can be, therefore, no obscurity or doubt in anyone's mind that those who engage in battle privately and singly take upon themselves a double guilt, that of another's destruction and the deliberate risk of their own lives. Finally, there is hardly any pestilence more deadly to the discipline of civil society and perversive to the just order of the state than that license be given to citizens to defend their own rights privately and singly and avenge their honor which they believe has been violated.
In this encyclical he specifically mention that being a member of the military did not exempt one from the ban on dueling, and also cited dueling fraternities at universities for condemnation. Both of these were particular problems in the German speaking world at the time.

In Austria-Hungary, dueling was technically a capital crime, however there was a gaping loophole in the law in that the emperor and the army expected any officer to defend his honor if challenged. This meant that in practice if an officer was challenged to a duel and declined to fight, he could be expelled from the army for failing to protect his honor.

Even theoretical opposition to dueling was punishable in the Austro-Hungarian army. In 1900 Polish Count Ledochowski, a cavalry officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army, spoke and wrote about his moral opposition to dueling and as a result was expelled from the army as someone unwilling to defend his honor. Ledochowski, whose uncle was a prominent cardinal, defended his statements on the basis of Catholic teaching and appealed to the emperor, but Franz-Joseph refused to overturn the verdict. (see Istvan Deak: A Social and Political History of the Hapsburg Officer Corps)

While in modern times, people often complain that the Church metes out its heaviest punishments against sins of the bedroom, the starkness of the penalties for dueling is worth noting. Subsequent popes kept upping the penalties in an effort to get their message through to a honor-based aristocratic culture that was unwilling to listen to moral guidance. Excommunication and denial of Christian burial for those killed in duels had long been a penalty for dueling. In 1752, Pope Benedict XIV declared that duelists should be denied Christian burial even if they survived long enough to request and receive absolution.

After World War One the dueling culture gradually faded away, and although these penalties have never officially been rescinded dueling is no longer a hot button issue in Catholic moral teaching.


August said...

Perhaps the Church went too far. We used to have a leadership class that defended its honor; now we have gay pride parades. I'd prefer the Austro-Hungarian military you mention to our transgender accepting one today.

Mooga Booga said...

If the Russian Empire had cracked down harder on dueling, Pushkin would be alive today and raising hell on Twitter.

Finicky Cat said...

I was just reading about this very thing in an online novel... Oh, wait. ;)

Ian M. said...

Dueling seems like one of those sins that serves a social purpose, similar to gossip. Gossip is wrong, but it has a useful function in that if you know your peers are going to gossip about your bad behavior, it acts to put a check on that bad behavior.

Likewise, dueling seems to place a check on gross insults and slanders. If I know I might get challenged to a duel – with the chance that I might be killed if I accept, or branded a coward if I don’t – I might think twice about gratuitously insulting you. I’ve sometimes fancied that if we could bring back dueling, perhaps this would actually tend to civilize our discourse, rather than to coarsen it.

Maybe we could split the difference and bring back fisticuffs? :)

Howard said...

I can't find the reference now, but I am sure that I have seen a kind of defense of dueling in Chesterton. I think it was an explanation given by Flambeau in one of the Father Brown stories. That doesn't mean that Chesterton thought that dueling was acceptable, only that he thought it was natural, and to follow the commands of the Church sometimes requires supernatural grace.

I often find this distinction in discussions of how the most horrific criminals should be punished. There are many people -- prominently including many Catholic clergy, I am sad to say -- who fall short of the outrage and righteous anger that should be called forth by these crimes. Think of the people who abduct, torture, and murder children -- there are many examples in the news over the past few years if you want lurid details -- and if these stories do not make your blood boil with a desire to see this person shown out of the world in an unpleasant way, you are almost subhuman. Your blood should boil. Yet the Church teaches us to show as much mercy as can be reconciled with prudence and justice; we should not let the crime go unpunished, and the full weight of just punishment is still on the table, but if we can we should attempt to spare the life of even this criminal, and (for several reasons) we should not indulge in an attempt to "even the score" through torture. This is supposed to be difficult. True mercy can only be granted from a cross; this is an example of taking up our crosses.

A murderer may go on living because he is shown true mercy, or because he bribes a judge or a guard to free him, or because the police cannot be bothered to arrest him in the first place. To too many people, the "practical" result is the same, because justice is as meaningless to them as it is to an artichoke. From a truly Catholic perspective, though, they could not be more different.