Sunday, November 6, 2016

Excommunicating Animals, 1870 Article


ANIMALS EXCOMMUNICATED, article in the Sacramento Daily Union 1870

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The ban of excommunication has not been pronounced solely against persons who had made themselves obnoxious. Henry C. Lea, in his "Studies in Church History," relates how it has likewise been pronounced against animals, and even insects. With what effect the reader will glean from what ensues:

The earliest instance on record of excommunication being pronounced against insects occurred in 1120, when a Bishop of Laon excommunicated the caterpillars which were ravaging his diocese, with the same formula as that employed the previous year by the Council of Rheims in cursing the priests who persisted in marrying in spite of the canons. What success attended his efforts is not recorded, but soon afterward St. Bernard found the remedy effectual when, preaching in the monastery of Foigny, which he founded in 1121, he was interrupted by swarms of irreligious flies whose buzzing sorely tried the patience of the orator and the attention of the audience. Wearied beyond endurance, the saint at last exclaimed to his tormentors, "I excommunicate you;" and next morning they were found lying dead upon the floor of the chapel in such multitudes that they had to be swept out.

In all these cases it is observable how completely the original idea of excommunication — the depriving a sinner of participation in a sacrament of which he was unworthy —is lost in the secondary notion of a ban or curse inflicted on persons or things who had never enjoyed or could enjoy communion. The Church is no longer merely the custodian of the body and blood of the Redeemer, but has acquired the attributes of the Deity, the power to bless or to curse, and excommunication is only the traditional form through which to convey too curse that works woe in this world and in the next. In all ages the saints, peculiarly favored of God, were enabled by divine grace to work miracles, but the formula of excommunication embodied the collective authority of the Church, and it was effectual as an every-day operation of that authority, irrespective of the character of the minister who wielded it.

How thoroughly these excommunications of animals were assimilated to the regular use of the censures of the Church is manifested by the form which they subsequently took. Even as the canons, however constantly violated, forbade the expulsion of a Christian without a formal trial, so as civilization advanced, it began to be thought that an unfair advantage was taken of the dumb creatures of God by condemning them unheard, and the practice arose of affording them the opportunity of defense before the ecclesiastical Courts prior to pronouncing the dreadful sentence against them. Perhaps the best known of these curious proceedings was that by which the distinguished lawyer Bartholomew Chassanee. in 1510, made the reputation which subsequently elevated him to the post of Premier President of the Parliament of Aix. The country around Autun being intolerably infested with rats, whose numbers resisted all ordinary means of extermination, the inhabitants applied to the Bishop to have the vermin regularly excommunicated. The Episcopal Court nominated Chassanee to appear as counsel for the rats, in consequence of his having shortly before printed a consultation of vast erudition on trials of that kind. He accordingly undertook the defense and proved that the rats had not been properly summoned to appear, and the trial went over until a formal citation to the defendants was published by the priests of all the parishes in the infested district. He then moved for a longer delay, alleging that the time allowed the rats to put in an appearance was too short, in view of the danger incurred by them through reason of the cats, which rendered all access to the Court dangerous for them; and his learned argument on the point gained an additional postponement. De Thou, to whom we are indebted for these curious details, does not state the conclusion of the trial, but it is fair to presume that the rats were finally condemned and duly excommunicated, in spite of the learning and ability of their advocate, for that was the usual result in these cases, and Chassanee, in his consultation, had admitted its propriety. He argues, after various generalizing ideas, that religion permits us to lay snares for bird and other animals destructive of the fruits of the earth, and that anathema is the surest and most comprehensive of snares. That to preserve the harvests, incantations and other forbidden proceedings are tolerated by the law, and a fortiori it is permissible to use against destructive vermin the excommunication which is authorized and employed by the Church itself. In support of this opinion he cites a case in which the sparrows who soiled the Church of St. Vincent were excommunicated by the Bishop, and another where the rats and caterpillars who swarmed over a wide extent of country were jointly anathematized by the ecclesiastical authorities of Anton, Macon and Lyons.

Such cases, indeed, were by no means rare, In 1451 the fish of the Lake of Geneva were threatened with destruction by the abounding multitudes of leeches. By order of William of Saluces, Bishop of Lausanne, a regular trial was held. The leeches were ordered, under pain of excommunication, to confine themselves to a certain spot, and they duly obeyed, no longer venturing to wander beyond the limits prescribed, In 1480 the Spiritual Court of Autun, on complaint of the inhabitants of Mossy and Pernan, excommunicated the caterpillars, and ordered the priests to repeat the anathema from their pulpits, until it should produced the desired effect. In 1481 a similar sentence was rendered at Macon against the snails, which was repeated in 1487. Another was delivered in 1488, at Autun, against the caterpillars, and the same year at Beaujeau, against the snails. At Troves, in 1516, there were similar proceedings against grasshoppers at Milliere in Normandy. The progress of enlightenment, however, made itself apparent in 1587 at Valence, where a plague of caterpillars led to a former trial and sentence of banishment under pain of excommunication. The obstinate insects refusing obedience, the Grand tear of the Bishop of Valence was proceeding to fulminate the threatened anathema, when he was dissuaded by some discreet lawyers and theologians.


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