This 1891 Encyclical on Dueling is Surprisingly Relevant Today

Ilya Repin (1844–1930), “Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky's Duel”
Ilya Repin (1844–1930), “Eugene Onegin and Vladimir Lensky's Duel” (photo: Public Domain)

This is kind of cool: Leo XIII wrote an encyclical on dueling

Pope Leo XIII was a prolific author. In case you didn’t already know that, he wrote 85 encyclicals in his 25-year reign as pope, which didn’t include dozens of other informal letters and contributions. About 10% of these alone were devoted to discussing the Rosary. He also focused heavily on education and the reforming of seminaries, and also wrote at length on ecumenism long before Unitatus Redintegratio was published in Vatican II.  Among all of his extensive work (and his encyclicals are certainly extensive!) 45% of these were on civil issues, especially, that of social justice. Truly, no one else has contributed more to the topic of social justice than Pope Leo XIII, which is why I think, particularly with the landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum, he should be named the Doctor of Justice.

But there’s a gem in the middle of all of these fantastic papal writings that sticks out like a sore thumb. On September 12, 1891, Pope Leo XIII wrote Pastoralis officii (“of the Pastoral Office”), on the practice of dueling. Yes, dueling! The practice of settling disputes through private combat, typically involving swords. If you’re thinking Count of Monte Cristo, you’re on track.

Why on earth would the pope, the supreme pontiff, the Vicar of Christ, the head of the militant Church, ever need to write an encyclical on this topic? I literally laughed out loud when I was completing my masters, pouring over older church documents for my thesis, and found this jewel. I read it immediately.

Dueling is actually one of the oldest practices of civilizations. Though we think of dueling as European, the practice is found in the antiquities of nearly every major civilization to include Scandinavia, Latin America, Russia, the Orient, Greece, India, and the list goes on.

Dueling was acceptable in society for so long for several reasons. It isolated and solved private disputes in cultures where violence was acceptable. Why engage in a war when a noble could solve the matter in combat himself? More to the point, though, it was popular in an unwritten code of honor. Duels were not always fought in the interest of killing one’s opponent, but mainly to gain socio-judicial “satisfaction” for an offense, while demonstrating bravery and courage in defense of one’s honor. Though, once mortally wounded, dueling did typically end in the death of the loser. It was usually the practice of nobility and on rare occasions, petticoat duels were held between women. The popularity of this practice is almost unimaginable to the modern person, which is why in the 19th century Pope Leo XIII felt he had to say something.

He writes in Pastoralis officii:

“It is indeed a deadly error and not restricted to your country, but has spread so far that practically no people can be found free from the contagion of the evil.” §1.

Prior to writing the letter, the thoughtful bishops of Germany and Austria-Hungary wrote the pontiff in concern for the morality and mortality of the practice.

The Church, though, had actually already taken action against dueling prior to this encyclical. The topic was of such concern that the Fourth Council of Lateran (1215) devoted efforts in exterminating the practice throughout Christendom:

Moreover no cleric may be put in command of mercenaries or crossbowmen or suchlike men of blood; nor may a subdeacon, deacon or priest practice the art of surgery, which involves cauterizing and making incisions; nor may anyone confer a rite of blessing or consecration on a purgation by ordeal of boiling or cold water or of the red-hot iron, saving nevertheless the previously promulgated prohibitions regarding single combats and duels.  Fourth Lateran Council, §18.

Lateran IV was not the only council which made decrees on the subject. The Council of Trent also devotes teaching on the evil practice:

The abominable practice of dueling, introduced by the contrivance of the devil, that by the cruel death of the body he may bring about also the destruction of the soul, should be utterly eradicated from the Christian world. Emperor, kings, dukes, princes, marquises, counts, and temporal rulers by whatever other name known, who shall within their territories grant a place for dueling between Christians, shall be excommunicated and shall be understood to be deprived of the jurisdiction and dominion obtained from the Church over any city, castle or locality in which or at which they have permitted the duel to take place, and if they are fiefs they shall forthwith revert to their direct rulers. Those who entered the combat as well as those who are called their seconds shall incur the penalty of excommunication, the confiscation of all their property, and perpetual infamy, and are in conformity with the sacred canons to be punished as homicides, and if they are killed in the combat they shall be forever deprived of Christian burial. Those also who give advice in the matter of a duel, whether in questions of right or of fact, or in any other way whatever persuade anyone thereto, as also those who are present, shall be bound by the fetters of excommunication and everlasting malediction; any privilege whatsoever or evil custom, even though immemorial, no notwithstanding. Council of Trent, §19.

With penalties like excommunication and loss of property even for the second and third parties, the bishop of Germany and Austria-Hungary had cause for great concern for it was a well known practice of Catholics in public offices to engage in this violence which left many of them dead. Seeking counsel and apologetic material to bring an end to dueling, they implored Leo to help however he could.

The pope relays in the letter:

“Mindful of your pastoral duty and moved by your love of neighbor, you wrote to me last year concerning the frequent practice among your people of a private, individual contest called dueling. You indicate, not without grief, that even Catholics customarily engage in this type of combat. At the same time your request that We, too, attempt to dissuade men from this manner of error… Hence, We praise your zeal. It is clearly known what Christian philosophy, certainly in agreement with natural reason, prescribes in this matter; nevertheless, because the vicious custom of dueling is being encouraged with greatest forgetfulness of Christian precepts, it will be expedient to briefly review these rules.” §1.

Leo then explores several aspects of private combat and explains the reasons it us against natural law. Central to his argument is the teaching of a double error:

Clearly, divine law, both that which is known by the light of reason and that which is revealed in Sacred Scripture, strictly forbids anyone, outside of public cause, to kill or wound a man unless compelled to do so in self defense. Those, moreover, who provoke a private combat or accept one when challenged, deliberately and unnecessarily intend to take a life or at least wound an adversary. Furthermore, divine law prohibits anyone from risking his life rashly, exposing himself to grave and evident danger when not constrained by duty or generous charity. In the very nature of the duel, there is plainly blind temerity and contempt for life. There can be, therefore, no obscurity or doubt in anyone's mind that those who engage in battle privately and singly take upon themselves a double guilt, that of another's destruction and the deliberate risk of their own lives. §2.

The bottom line is that if one engages in a duel, they are either guilty of homicide by unnecessarily slaying their opponent, or they are guilty of self-murder, suicide, for there is no justifiable reason for risking one’s own life.

Though many understood the extreme risk to life that came with dueling, many still had trouble with the proper defense of one’s honor. Let’s call it their “public image”. Leo called them ‘absurd’ and ‘fallacious’ in judgment. If you think for even a moment that duels were limited to brash and unintelligent folks, you’ll be shocked to learn of some who were involved in these private battles.

Aaron Burr, Vice President of the United States under Thomas Jefferson held one of the most duels of modern history.

Andrew Jackson, famous General of the U.S. Army, and later President of the United States, fought two duels and is said to have privately fought many more. 

Abraham Lincoln agreed to a duel in 1842 against his State Auditor, and at the last moment was talked out of the engagement.

Even Mark Twain agreed to a duel which was avoided just prior to combat.

Even these brilliantly intelligent men were susceptible to this disease of society. Why, though? Respect, for one. Custom, for others. The common error in each of these, no matter the real reason, Leo points out:

Fear is not a just excuse for those who accept the challenge of a duel. They are afraid that they will be publicly disgraced as cowards if they refuse. §5.

He goes on to derail this reasoning with the calamity of those who engage in dueling:

The generally held argument that this sort of struggle washes away, as it were, the stains that calumny or insult has brought upon the honor of citizens surely can deceive no one but a madman. Even if the challenger of a duel is the victor, all reasonable persons will admit that the outcome simply proves he is the better man in strength or in handling a weapon, not the better man in honor. But if he falls in the combat, does he not prove by the same token how absurd is this way of protecting his honor? §4.

With that, he gives an official condemnation.

In our time, we really don’t think much about the practice of dueling, do we? Like I said, I laughed out loud when I found the encyclical, thinking it was odd and unnecessary. It turns out, it was completely necessary. But I didn’t stop the thought there. Are there ways in which we duel today?

During my masters course in Apologetics there was a student who wrote letters to the pope and his bishop, in an attempt to create a censure or a ban on any public debates against our Protestant brethren for a period of 5 years. I’ll never forget it. He was incredibly impassioned about this idea, but why? To him, I think, like the duel, the debate was an opportunity to settle odds of opinion which were never entirely resolved. To this day, I’ve not known a debate which ended in the conversion of one of the participants; the event is seemingly entirely for the benefit and enlightenment of the audience. The famous debate between William Lane Craig and Richard Dawkins comes to mind. I’m not in tune with my classmate’s idea, but I can appreciate the evaluation of the fruits of many public debates. Likewise, with our own presidential debates, there are many who agree that they do not foster any significant turn in the opinions of voters. Our presidential debates have only created further division according to many.

Scripture refers to the tongue as a sword:

“There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts…” – Proverbs 12:18

What other versions of the duel are there in modern society? We participate in gossips, and some bad mouth their opponents in social media. These are like social murder to others and on this account we are certainly guilty of the double error Leo XIII spoke of as we kill our reputations likewise.

If the tongue is like a sword, then we are certainly capable of verbal dueling. The other half of Proverbs 12:18 reads, “… but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, let us show our humility and virtue when conflicted or wronged. We don’t need “satisfaction” in the ways the world tells us – we need to please God by bringing healing to others, including our enemies.