Blaming Scotus for the origin of voluntarism, or the separation of morality from happiness, or the rejection of the moral precepts of the Decalogue (the second table) as permanent natural norms, are all reasons why moral theologians (often with Thomistic loyalties) have loved to hate him over the centuries. Some of these narratives are more interesting than others. But as Charles Taylor notes in the epilogue of A Secular Age, such narratives of “intellectual deviation” presume that the world is really driven by ideas among the elite more than it is shaped by social processes or what he calls social imaginaries. In considering the use of the Subtle Doctor in sixteenth-century debates regarding forcible baptism for my research, I have come across a real and palpable reason to blame Scotus, along with numerous other theologians, Church officials, and Christian rulers throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period, who defended the religious coercion of unbelievers to effect conversion. I focus on Scotus here.
John Duns Scotus (d. 1308) lived in a period of Christendom marked by the crusades against both external enemies like the Saracens and internal ones such as Jews and heretics. The consensus among canon lawyers and scholastic theologians following the aftermath of the destruction of Jews at Mainz and elsewhere during the First Crusade and the Albigensian Crusade was that heretics were to be treated differently from non-baptized unbelievers. Coercive force such as imprisonment and even death could be used in the former case as a disciplinary measure to maintain the vow of the baptized but no punishment was to be extended to coerce baptism in the case of Jews or pagans under Christian rule, at least not in a direct way. The bottom line, according to the long-standing custom of the Church and the teachings of Augustine and Gregory the Great, was that faith can never be forced but is a gift accepted willingly and freely.
Scotus entered the theological discussion on this topic as did most commentators on Book Four of the Lombard’s Sentences. His innovation lies in the fact that he gave praise and justification to the anti-Jewish policies of the seventh-century Visigothic king Sisebut, who initiated a statewide policy of forcible baptism among adults and children for the sake of Catholic unity. Even though the Fourth Council of Toledo (633) praised Sisebut’s zeal, it rejected the manner in which he forced conversion. The council taught that force in conversion was contrary to the “form of justice.” Nevertheless, the council appeared to keep the door open to such a practice by recognizing that following a case of forced baptism, the “convert” must be required to keep the faith so as not to cause scandal.
The Subtle Doctor made opportune use of the Visigothic case. His argument in support of Sisebut was a kind of thought-experiment unrestrained by negative norms. If infidels remain in their unbelief within a Christian society, they are guilty of a greater sin than forcing them to convert. The primary reason Toledo and subsequent Church policy had rejected this practice, at least up until Aquinas made robust theological arguments from the natural form of justice, was that it would bring scandal to the faith due to the likely result of the forced convert’s apostasy. Scotus held that even if the convert apostasized, their children at least three or four generations down the line would accept the faith voluntarily and without question. Again, the greater sin was to let infidels remain in their unbelief. The ruler has the power and authority to compel his subjects toward what is good and nothing is better for them or their descendants than salvation. The right of the Christian ruler comes from God whereas the right of the parents to raise their children in unbelief is an abuse that merits punishment.
Although Scotus had his followers on this issue like Gabriel Biel in the following centuries, his arguments were mostly unconvincing to Christians. That is until the ‘affairs of the Indies’ surfaced in the sixteenth century. Although it is more than expected to find the Subtle Doctor’s arguments employed in Sepúlveda’s defense of war and conquest of the Amerindians, it is disheartening to see Vitoria flirt with his arguments as well. In the commentary on the Secunda secundae (see Appendix 2 of his Political Writings, ed. Lawrence and Pagden), Vitoria entertains Scotus, to a point, by arguing that it is not altogether untenable or unlawful for a Christian ruler to coerce his unbelieving citizens in religious matters, if it can be certain that no undesirable consequences like social disorder would follow. His reason came from a Thomistic principle of ordering all human affairs in a commonwealth to what is most beneficial for its citizens. While he did emphatically hold the traditional teaching that coercion in baptism is evil, Vitoria’s position ended up being too ambiguous because of its preoccupation with logical niceties characteristic of Scotus’ thought and yet weak and mute in the face of gross injustices against human dignity perpetrated by Christians.
When the generation of the School of Salamanca after Vitoria wrestled with this question (e.g. Peña, Luis de León, and Mancio de Corpus Christi), they turned to Domingo de Soto, whose arguments on this question depended on the commentaries of Cardinal Vio Cajetan. The first outright rejection of the Scotian position on forcible baptism in the context of New World debates was first put forward by this Superior General of the Dominicans who was responsible for sending the first prophetic missionaries of the order to Santo Domingo. Cajetan wrote that Scotus supported the Council’s praise of Sisebut, which meant for Scotus that they were not opposed to his intention. Scotus concluded then that even something good such as Catholic uniformity and orientation to the supernatural life can arise from a bad intention to coerce. Cajetan’s Pauline response, unlike the Subtle Doctor, was quite simple: one cannot bring about good from evil.
Subtlety is a good thing so long as it is not an excuse to evade a case of serious moral wrongdoing or even worse, to tacitly endorse one. Cajetan’s resolve for defending the freedom of unbelievers across the Atlantic was only matched by his commitment to preaching the Gospel. As superior, his message to the Dominican Vicar General of Spain in 1508 was clear: send preachers at once to the New World “under threat of grave sin.” A resounding love to preach the Good News mixed with an uncompromising respect for the freedom of one’s interlocutor is a rare combination these days, as in any age. Thankfully, we have the living examples of Montesinos, Mendoza, and Córdoba from five hundred years ago.