Frederick, Aquinas, and sacrilege

Frederick II’s Constitutions of Melfi present an extremely expansive view of royal power. Among the most famous—or infamous—provisions is the law that no one was permitted to dispute the judgments, laws, deeds, and counsels of the king (I.4). Indeed, to do so was, under the law, similar to sacrilege (ibid.). It has been argued that Aquinas’s approach to the law represents a rejection of Frederick’s centralizing, totalizing approach. One would assume, therefore, that Aquinas would reject Frederick’s decree that questioning his official acts was similar to sacrilege. But this is not quite what happens. In his treatment on sacrilege, Aquinas adopts a position very similar to Frederick’s (especially as it was interpreted)—and, we shall see, other sources in the classical legal tradition.

It is worth noting, of course, that Frederick did not invent this law. It was initially a constitution of King Roger II, dating to the middle of the twelfth century, which Frederick then took up into his great code for Sicily in 1231. But a closer examination of the law reveals even more interesting dimensions. Kenneth Pennington has observed that this provision of Roger’s was drawn from an even older source: Justinian’s Codex (9.29.2). But Roger edited it in interesting ways. Justinian stated that it was only forbidden to dispute the judgments (Disputari de principali iudicio non oportet) of the emperor. This was the likeness (instar) of sacrilege for Justinian. Roger expanded to prohibition to all the official acts of the king, not merely his judgments, but declared that it was only similar (par, from pars) to sacrilege (Est enim par sacrilegio disputare). Pennington notes that Andreas de Isernia, the commentator on Frederick’s Constitutions, picked up on the change from instar to par by Roger and Frederick and suggested that the change meant that it was permissible to petition the king to amend something he had done if it was against the common good.

In other words, while Justinian’s provision in the Codex was narrower than Roger’s, covering only the judgments of the emperor, it was understood as an absolute prohibition: it was the likeness of sacrilege to question the emperor’s judgments. Roger expanded it to cover all the official transactions of the king, but commentators like Andreas de Isernia understood another slight variation in the language of Roger’s law (later Frederick’s) to relax (slightly) the rigor of Justinian’s law. If the king’s decision was contrary to the common good, a subject did not commit sacrilege by questioning it and petitioning the king to amend it.

Just a brief look, therefore, changes the complexion of Frederick’s expansive provision. For one thing, it was not an innovation by a centralizing, totalizing dictator. Frederick was merely restating a century-old law of Roger II. Ernst Kantorowicz, in his wonderful Frederick the Second, describes the conditions of lawlessness that preceded Frederick’s accession to the throne. Restating Roger’s laws, therefore, was a necessary part of restoring order in Sicily. More than that, Roger was simply adapting the much older law of Justinian for Norman Sicily. And far from signifying the expansion of royal power, a subtle—but, Pennington argues, obvious—linguistic change was understood to moderate the force of the law. But whether questioning the acts of the king is the likeness of sacrilege or merely similar to sacrilege, and whether there is an exception to the prohibition, it is still strange to modern sensibilities to describe it in those terms.

One point, raised by Alasdair MacIntyre and others, is that Thomas Aquinas implicitly rejected the expansive legislation of Frederick II and Louis IX in favor a decentralized, natural law approach. I have previously questioned this claim: I think MacIntyre is wrong about some of the historical contingencies, including Frederick’s imperial legislation (as opposed to his Sicilian legislation), and wrong about Aquinas. In fact, one finds some support for the seemingly very expansive statute of Frederick (and Roger and Justinian) in Aquinas’s treatment on sacrilege (ST II-II q.99).

The first objection in Aquinas’s treatment of sacrilege is that sacrilege seems not to be the violation of a sacred thing, since Gratian (C.17 q.4 d.p.c. 29, added in the second recension) notes that sacrilege includes questioning the ruler’s decisions and appointments (ST II-II q.99 a.1 obj. 1). The claim is that the ruler’s decisions and appointments seem to have nothing to do with sacred things. Thus, if questioning the ruler’s decisions and appointments is sacrilege, sacrilege has nothing to do with sacred things. Obviously, for Aquinas, sacrilege is irreverence for sacred things (ST II-II q.99 a.1 co.). How, then, to answer the objection?

It would be easy, perhaps, to say simply that there is nothing sacred about the ruler’s decisions and appointments and therefore questioning them is not sacrilege. But this is not what Aquinas does (cf. ST II-II q.99 a.1 ad 1). He observes that Aristotle holds that the common good of the nation is a sacred thing (Ethic. I.2, 1094b10). Aquinas explains this elsewhere, noting that care for the common good has a likeness to God’s rule over the universe (In I Ethic. L.2). Therefore, irreverence for the sovereign and his decisions is called sacrilege by a kind of likeness (ST II-II q.99 a.1 ad 1). In other words, Aquinas answers the objection not by holding that the ruler and the ruler’s acts are not sacred, but by holding they are—through their connection to the common good.

Now, obviously, one may say that the common good exception is a significant exception, but that itself requires some examination. To escalate all questions to questions of the common good is itself opposed to the virtue of prudence. For one thing, the ruler and the subject do not have the virtue of prudence in precisely the same way in all cases (cf. ST II-II q.47 a.12). Indeed, Aquinas notes that we ought to defer to the undemonstrated conclusions of prudent men to the same extent as the demonstrated conclusions (ST I-II q.95 a.2 ad 4). But the natural law does not require the same law for all: the conclusions of practical reason are not the same for everyone (ST I-II q.94 a.4 co.). In other words, a question of the natural law is more serious and more obvious than a mere case of disagreement with the conclusions of the ruler. The exception does not seem then so large.

In this regard, Aquinas follows his contemporary Andreas de Isernia’s commentary on Frederick’s statute (I.4). While Aquinas avoids the question of instar and par, preferring the formulation secundum quandam similitudinem sacrilegium dicitur, set up by Roger’s variation on Justinian’s Codex, he ultimately lands in the same place: questioning the decisions of the ruler is called sacrilege by a kind of similitude, except (implicitly for Aquinas) where they do not serve the common good. Indeed, it is because the ruler’s acts are connected the common good that they assume a sacred character for Aquinas—following Aristotle.

And Aquinas’s argument shows how widespread the claim was, really. We have seen that Frederick merely restates Roger’s law, which was an adaptation of Justinian’s Codex. Aquinas notes that Gratian’s dictum following the canon Si quis suadente (C.17 q.4 c.29) sets forth the same rule, but more absolutely: it is sacrilege to dispute with the judgments or appointments of the ruler. This is an interesting observation, since Si quis suadente, a famous decree of Innocent II at the Second Lateran Council, establishes the privilegium canonis—the personal inviolability of clerics and religious, violations of which were reserved specially to the Apostolic See, except in cases of penitents in articulo mortis. Gratian’s dictum notes that there are more components to sacrilege than merely laying violent hands on a clerk or monk (C.17 q.4 d.p.c. 29).

In other words, the entire legal tradition from Justinian to Roger to Frederick, passing through Gratian, Aquinas, and Andreas de Isernia, holds that it is akin to sacrilege—and sometimes sacrilege simpliciter—to question the official acts of the ruler. This goes back to Aristotle and is founded upon the ruler’s responsibility to pursue the common good in his official acts.