'Protestant' Issue: Submission to the Pope

There are a few revisionists who have tried to claim that Joan was a 'Protestant' (until it's explained that there weren't any Protestants in the early 15th century, at which point the claim is shifted to 'proto-Protestant').mn1
Having been raised Protestant myself and therefore initially puzzled by Joan's theology, which is considerably different from anything taught by Protestantism, I would find this 'theory' particularly amusing were it not for the fact that it attempts to elaborate upon the claims used against Joan by the men who cruelly put her to death. This makes the theory not merely ridiculous, but also unconscionable. But let's examine some of the claims made to back up this notion, beginning with general issues followed by a refutation of specific allegations that have been made by one particular revisionist.

Margin Note 1:
One enterprising person on the "Baptist Board" claimed that she was not only Protestant, but specifically Baptist (nearly two centuries before the Baptist movement began). Undoubtedly, she must have been an American Southern Baptist, like Jimmy Carter...

There are two primary misconceptions at the heart of the theory: 1) The stereotype which says that medieval theologians considered the clergy to be God-like figures with infallible powers to condemn souls via excommunication, and who therefore had to be obeyed even above the Almighty Himself : therefore, so the reasoning goes, Joan's statement that she would obey the Church "so long as Our Lord is served first"1 is alleged to be a heretical attempt on her part to "merely" serve God rather than submitting firstly to the clergy. 2) A second misconception holds that Joan never submitted to the Pope and "Church Militant" to any degree at all, or that her submission was disingenuous. Both are wrong.

1) Concerning the first issue: To see what medieval theologians actually said on this topic, we can look to the writings of the premier medieval theologian himself, St. Thomas Aquinas, who was so revered by the clergy of Joan's era as to be referred to simply as "Sanctus Doctor" ("the Holy Teacher"). In a supreme irony, Aquinas' views are far more 'extreme' on this point than anything which Joan said at her trial: in his famous work "Scriptum super Sententiis" he bluntly states "it is better to die excommunicated" by the clergy rather than to submit to something which is contrary to God's law.2 In other words: "So long as Our Lord is served first." Much of what Joan says, in fact, is straight out of the writings of Aquinas, St. Hildegard, and other medieval theologians and visionaries, meaning that those who wish to claim that Joan was a "Protestant" would need to make the same claim for Aquinas and company - and the numerous Popes who promoted their doctrines. Medieval doctrine held that one needed to obey the accepted body of Divine law, not every single ruling or opinion that was handed down by individual tribunals or clergymen: after all, some of these rulings and opinions were themselves considered heretical by the medieval Church - including the ruling against Joan, which was opposed from the beginning by clergy such as the Archbishop of Embrun and soundly denounced by the Inquisition itself after the English were driven out of Rouen [the legitimacy of the trial will be dealt with farther below].
Concerning the related issue of clerical infallibility (the stereotype which says that every tribunal was considered incapable of error and therefore, in the minds of some revisionists, could not be defied under any circumstances): this is a distortion based mostly on doctrines that deal with entirely different issues. Among other sources, Aquinas and St. Hildegard outline the actual doctrine in the "Summa Theologica" and "Scito Vias Domini" (respectively), where they point out that a sentence of excommunication by an ecclesiastic tribunal is neither an infallible ruling nor does it condemn the person's soul. Hildegard warns the clergy that if they convict someone in error it is they who will be punished for it by God, not their victim;3 Aquinas similarly states that an erroneous excommunication has no effect.4 A just excommunication, likewise, merely formally declares the existence of unrepented mortal sin which is already separating the person from God.5 God is the ultimate judge, according to these prominent medieval theologians; the clergy were considered to be free from error only if they were truly acting under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (which only God can know), a point which Cauchon and his loyal defenders airily gloss over.
Since the entire basis for the "Protestant Theory" is the notion that placing "God first" is somehow anti-Catholic, the theory falls apart upon debunking this notion - all the specific arguments that have been put forward in favor of it [some of which will be dealt with in detail farther below] are merely subsidiary points, each baseless in and of themselves but also rendered irrelevant by this central issue and by the fact that the evidence proves that Joan did, in fact, submit to the Pope and Church; which brings us to the second major issue:

2) Concerning Papal submission, there are two main points that need to be covered:
A) Joan's accusers at the trial - and their modern apologists - have tried to twist medieval theology in a particularly ironic fashion with regard to "Unam Sanctam" (Boniface VIII's decree which forms the basis of the doctrine of absolute Papal supremacy), cited relentlessly by Cauchon at the trial. This is interesting, given that Cauchon and many of the other judges were staunch supporters of conciliar authority (i.e., the power of the Councils over that of the Pope) and firm believers in the proposition "Sacrosancta", which a number of these men would use, in a post-Schism environment, to directly contradict "Unam Sanctam" at the Council of Basel, when they tried to depose Pope Eugenius IV (the same Pope who was on the Papal throne during Joan's trial). These men could not have believed in "Unam Sanctam" very firmly; some historians have labeled them "schismatics", in fact. Pope Eugenius IV was certainly of this opinion when he denounced the group at Basel as the allies of Satan, and some of them (e.g., Nicholas Lami, who had served briefly at Joan's trial) used much the same language in referring to the Pope.6 If anyone was showing "proto-Protestant" tendencies here, it would seem to have been Joan's judges. This brings us to point B: Joan herself, on the other hand, said repeatedly (according to the eyewitnesses) that she did submit to the Pope and also the Council of Basel, but this was "creatively edited" (so to speak) on Cauchon's orders when the minutes were recorded and the transcript drawn up, allowing nothing but a few, more vague, statements concerning her submission to make it into the record. Those revisionists who base their arguments on the latter are therefore using a source which is proven unreliable by the preponderance of the other evidence, a tactic which is no more permissible than rejecting the Nuremburg witnesses in favor of German documents, as the Holocaust deniers like to do. Such a tactic is normally called 'falsification of history', and should be labeled as such in this case as well.
It should be noted, however, that even in the Condemnation transcript's version there is nothing that would legitimately condemn her as a heretic, except in the imagination of some of the more dishonest falsifiers. Here are some examples of the tactics that have been used by one particularly disreputable fellow of my acquaintance whose misconceptions and dishonesty make him a remarkable, but not necessarily unusual, specimen of the type. Some of his points:

- He puts forth one of his claims using a particularly reprehensible argument: after having first made vicious attacks upon Joan's intelligence in one of his email conversations with the present author, in which he tried to represent Joan as mentally "confused", he then offers up, out of the opposite side of his mouth, a disingenuous excuse for one of Cauchon's dirty tricks by piously declaring that an "intelligent girl" like Joan would have understood the technical theological terms that Cauchon was using to try to muddle the issue of "submission to the Church"; therefore Joan allegedly would have no right to complain (in this guy's world, Joan's intelligence is conceded only when it can be used as the basis for an argument against her). Joan herself said that she didn't understand these terms, as quoted by eyewitnesses,7 and the issue on this particular point is not one of intelligence but rather experience. For some reason our revisionist is apparently under the impression that a farmer's daughter like Joan would be experienced in the usage of theological language, in which case our revisionist is the one who is confused. In any event, Joan's replies to questions on this issue truly show her intelligence and good sense, as well as her orthodoxy: she replied in essence that the distinctions they were trying to make between the Ecclesia Militans and Ecclesia Triumphans are irrelevant, since the two halves of the Church are one and united under God's authority.8 One can refer to Aquinas' doctrines on this matter for proof that her view is in harmony with medieval Catholic theology. Likewise for our revisionist's comments on Joan's statement: "In case the Church should prescribe the contrary, I should not refer to any one in the world, but to God alone", which is cited as proof of her alleged Protestant tendencies. Again, the doctrines of Aquinas cited near the top of this page refute such an interpretation - Joan's comment is practically straight out of "Scriptum super Sententiis". But our revisionist ignores this, or is unaware of it, and therefore continues with a series of mocking statements claiming that Joan is "contradicting" her previous resolutions to submit to the "Church", etc, etc. One can detect the distinct echo of Pierre Cauchon's spirit in such tactics.

- He then forges on by claiming that Joan was being disingenuous when she said she would submit to the Pope if her judges allowed her to be brought to him, based on the view that this was merely a stalling tactic on her part and Cauchon was therefore right to deny her request. What Cauchon's apologists never seem to consider are the following obvious points: Joan's full quotes on this issue, which reveal her actual motives, were related by eyewitnesses such as the assessors Richard Grouchet and Friar Isambart de la Pierre: they explained that she had said she wanted to be taken to the Pope so that 1) her true words (as opposed to the distortions that her accusers were writing down) could be given directly to an authority, and 2) so that she could be tried by a non-partisan, neutral party rather than by the Anglo-Burgundians. Even English documents prove that the trial was, in fact, run by themselves and their partisans rather than by a non-partisan tribunal of the Inquisition [click here to see this evidence] - in profound violation of Inquisitorial guidelines which forbade partisan judges from overseeing such a trial. It's not coincidence that the Inquisitor who approved the trial, Jean Graverent, was an English appointee and firmly in their camp; his deputy who was dispatched to take part in the trial, Vice-Inquisitor Jean LeMaitre, had to be threatened by the English (according to the eyewitnesses) in order to "encourage" him to take part. Inquisitor-General Bréhal would later denounce the proceedings when the case was examined on appeal, declaring that Cauchon and his supporters were guilty of, quote: "manifest malice against the Roman Catholic Church, and indeed heresy" ("malicia manifesta contra Ecclesiam Romanam, aut etiam ab heresi").9
Much of the debate between Joan and her accusers over "submission to the Church" revolved around the paradoxical situation whereby Joan was being asked to submit to the "Church Militant" while being denied the right to be tried by valid representatives of the entire Church Militant; the "Church" was being invoked in what was little more than a secular trial. The eyewitnesses said that she saw through this charade and therefore considered their use of the term "Church" to refer only to the tribunal itself. A large portion of what is perceived as her "opposition to the Church" is in reality nothing more than opposition to her secular enemies. Her response on the issue of submission to the Pope was beautifully appropriate as a way of calling Cauchon's bluff : his "beau procès" would be revealed as the fraud that it was if the case were to be examined by less partisan theologians or by the Pope, and this seems to have been the real reason why he refused to honor her appeals to the Papacy: after all, he had similarly refused Joan's milder request on March 15th to allow her responses to be examined by the clergy (i.e., outside of the tribunal's members).10

This latter issue bears further examination, since our revisionist likes to claim that the entire clergy allegedly opposed her, therefore it wouldn't make any difference who oversaw her trial. On the contrary, clerical opposition to her virtually disappears outside of the Anglo-Burgundian group and their contacts. It has sometimes been alleged that Johannes Nider counts as a neutral party, but Nider himself states that his informant on the matter was a man known to have been one of Joan's bitterest detractors among the pro-English clergymn2 - none other than the same Nicholas Lami (cited above in connection with his comments about the Pope) who was initially present at her trial before going off to Basel. Working from such a biased source and being in such close contact with pro-English partisans, Nider can hardly be invoked as a neutral or balanced observer, and his opposition to her stems from the erroneous information given by Lami: virtually every point is proved false by the other evidence.
So let us take a look at the rest of the clergy: despite claims that she was allegedly opposed even by pro-Armagnac clergy and nonaligned foreigners, on the contrary the great Sorbonne cleric Jean Gerson supported her, as did the Poitiers clerics, the nun Christine de Pisan, etc. So did Jacques Gelu (the Archbishop of Embrun); similarly for the Roman clergyman who wrote a supportive document in 1429,11 whose fellow Italians were proclaiming her "another Saint Catherine come down to earth"; similarly for the churchman sent to her by the Duke of Brittany (a frequent English ally, no less), etc. There are records of public masses being held for her as far away as the Alps after her capture, as a show of continued support by the clergy and their flock. The list can go on. Among this group, the only glimmer of opposition cited by revisionists comes from a badly garbled, partial summary of a letter, attributed to Regnault de Chartres, that was entered into a later document. Chartres, who had previously given her his approval at Poitiers, now suddenly accuses her of pride for wearing expensive clothing (undoubtedly written while Chartres himself was attired in his own richly endowed archiepiscopal vestments), and claims that she was stubbornly acting according to her own will (as visionaries usually tend to do, much to the disgruntlement of a certain type of clergyman). Since Chartres was a member of La Tremoille's faction, which had recently tried to assassinate another popular Royal commander, Lord Richemont, it seems clear that this is just more of the same shenanigans routinely engaged in by that group; and if this letter is the only, relatively mild, criticism emanating from clergy outside of the Anglo-Burgundian circle and their associates, then this exception merely proves the rule. The majority of the clergy seem to have supported Joan, meaning that her circumstances would have been very different if the matter had been left to valid Church policy without English involvement: to repeat, the Inquisitorial authorities who called for her trial were cronies of the English.

Margin Note 2:
Nider's version of Joan's case is easily recognizable as the usual propaganda then being circulated by the English, and is contradicted by the preponderance of the other documents.

- As a final comment on this fellow's claims: it is alleged that Joan never invoked the saints and therefore was supposedly "Protestant" on that account.mn3 Joan's surviving letters contradict this, as she makes frequent mention of "Saint Mary"; even the Condemnation transcript and other Anglo-Burgundian sources11 mention her veneration of the saints and the Virgin Mary (e.g., "I refer myself to God... to the Blessed Mary, and to all the blessed saints of Paradise");12 and likewise for many similar statements throughout the transcript (mostly mentioning Saints Catherine, Margaret, and Michael, but also the Virgin Mary and saints in general). In a crowning irony, her accusers took her to task for venerating the saints and tried to claim that she was guilty of "idolatry" for doing so.13 It is this argument which smacks of Protestantism, and it was made by Cauchon, not Joan.
The only "evidence" our revisionist offers to the contrary are the claims made in a dubious and profoundly dishonest book by Karen Sullivan; click here to read a refutation of this book's arguments and its methods.

The chief fallacy of such revisionist theories generally boils down to one essential problem: people who haven't bothered to research medieval theology, or to look at what the clergy as a whole said about Joan, simply assume that Cauchon's arguments at the trial were consistent with medieval theology and his views consistent with those of the clergy in general, therefore (so it is assumed) his views on all these subjects can be used as a guide to what the Church as a whole believed on such matters, therefore this proves that his arguments were valid -- a hopelessly circular line of reasoning. Once one looks at sources besides those written by Cauchon and his cronies, it quickly becomes clear that his arguments were most definitely not consistent with standard medieval theological works, nor were his procedures consistent with standard Inquisitorial rules, nor were his views on Joan consistent with the view taken by most of his fellow clergy outside of the Anglo-Burgundian circle. Those who choose to take his side and repeat his claims despite the above facts are not only falsifying history, but are abetting the campaign that he waged to tarnish the reputation of his victim.

Margin Note 3:
This argument was suddenly put forward after someone told him that Protestants do not venerate the saints, leading to an attempt to claim that Joan didn't either. Once he finds out that Protestants don't emphasize the Eucharist, as Joan clearly did, then he'll undoubtedly try to deny that aspect of her faith as well.

I will conclude with two quotes that are central to the theological points concerning this issue. Just as Aquinas, considered the greatest of all Catholic theologians, could state "quia potius debet excommunicatus mori..." ("for it is better to die excommunicated..."),14 so Joan, considered by some to be the greatest of all Catholic saints, could state: "Nostre Sire premier servi" ("[So long as] Our Lord is served first").15 If the latter [Joan] is "Protestant", then so is the former [Aquinas] and all of the Popes who have supported his teachings - a position that no reasonable person could take.

Back to the Archive, main page.

Copyright © 2002, Allen Williamson. All rights reserved.