This is an article about how Catholics are people. It’s no big news that Church is for sinners, not holy people. This explains the excesses that happened. But why would Catholics ever support a Crusade against Protestants to begin with? In France, there were many reasons to suppress the Protestant movement. The French could look across the channel and see how the Protestants looted the beauty that it took generations of poor people to accumulate. The beauty meant for all in the churches was stolen by the wealthy Protestants who supported the Protestant Crown. It’s no coincidence the Grantham’s owned Downton Abbey:
Formerly for nuns and the poor they cared for, now for the wealthy.
French Catholics had a lot of reason for concern that the endowments and donations made by their ancestors would be looted by Protestants. Indeed, when the Reformation eventually reached France with the French Revolution, this was exactly what happened.
Additional concern was the horror of civil war. The suppression of the Huguenots kept the terror of the Revolution at bay. The first four days of the bloody part of the revolution (September 1792) killed 1,400, which is roughly half of those killed in the entire 300 years of the Spanish Inquisition. A year later, 17,000 death sentences and 10,000 deaths due to maltreatment in prison would prove the suppression of the Huguenauts didn’t go far enough.
The Spanish Inquisition kept such death and disaster at bay with comparatively very little loss. If only a similar inquisition had taken place in France, perhaps the disaster of the Reign of Terror wouldn’t have occurred.
This is all to say that the history of the church should be judged within its own time and framework. This suppression of Protestants is clearly not in line with the current calls to Ecumenism, and today would be out of place because our situation and understanding is different. The Catholic Church ever deepens in her understanding of our faith, which causes us to change in our expression of that never changing deposit of Truth.
For the situation with the Huguenots, that means we need to understand the Church and State were still seen as intimately linked. This is known as Gallicanism. The Church in France saw themselves as much more independent from the Vatican, and as one of the three estates of France (along with nobility and lower classes). This contrasts with Ultramontanism (not to be confused with Montanism), which was the outcome of the revolution. Ultramontanism sees the Pope as superior to the Civil authority. Gallicanism is more in line with the Orthodox view, where for a great length of time the Roman Emperor actually chose the leader of the Orthodox Church. Because the Church in France was Gallican, any heresy attacking the authority of the Church was also an attack upon the State.
This can help us understand the crusade against the Huguenots. The Huguenots were a similar threat to France in the 1500’s as Al Qaeda was to America after 9/11. Religious and political fury combined in France as it combined in America. It therefore becomes easy to see why a Church full of sinners would unleash on that threat, and why the state would fail to intervene. Was everything the Church did at this time good? No. Was it understandable within the situation and depth of understanding about the Catholic faith people had? Yes.