An Inquisition Primer


Catholic urban legends are myths of history created in the fervor of anti-Catholic passions. Unfortunately, they long ago became part of our cultural framework and are accepted today as undeniable truths.

Though centuries old, Catholic urban legends usually crop up as rhetorical devices meant to undermine positions taken by the Church on current public issues. That’s why Catholics questioning the morality and ethics of embryonic stem cell research, for example, will suddenly have Galileo thrown in their face. Rather than argue the issue at hand, those opposed to the Church position dust off a non-historical legend from the trial of Galileo to make the case that the contemporary Church opposes any and all scientific advances.

There is perhaps no better trump card in the deck of anti-Catholic urban legends than "The Inquisition." The Inquisition is raised as banner proof that the Church is the intolerant, oppressive enemy of modern thought, science, and freedom.

Many people know nothing about what inquisition courts were or what purpose they served within different societies and at different periods in history. The only thing they know about the Inquisition is the caricature in Catholic urban legends. This is frequently the Catholic understanding as well.

Following is a short primer on the Inquisition.

Where did the inquisition courts come from?
From its inception, the Church had to confront those who persisted in representing their beliefs as Christian when what they said or did contradicted the faith of the Apostles. Early accounts contained in the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters describe the leadership of the infant church responding to those falsely representing the faith. We speak today of the primary role of Church leadership in preserving the Deposit of Faith passed down from the Apostles.

The early Church usually depended on admonition, avoidance and, if persistent, expulsion from the community for those who persisted in false teaching. As Christianity became the faith of the Roman Empire and the nascent European kingdoms, the faith was understood as the fundamental, unifying principle of culture and community. To step outside that faith was not only viewed a violation of Christian unity, but also as a fundamental denial of the meaning of humanity and the right ordering of the world.

To act against "heresy" was not considered enforcing church discipline or imposing doctrinal conformity. Heresy was seen as an evil that threatened both the salvation of souls and the very heart of the community. Heresy was not an individual acting alone; heresy was an attack on the whole community and the whole purpose of life.

It was out of this fundamental understanding—shared by secular as well as religious authorities—that society would look for a means to preserve unity of faith and culture.

The difficulty in all this was the state’s role. While the Church always struggled to remain free of the control of local secular officials, severe abuses arose when the Church’s concern for the purity of the Apostolic faith was trumped by the motivations of secular authorities.

What was "The Inquisition"?
There was never really something we could call "The Inquisition"—a clear, unified, consistent Inquisition functioning throughout Europe and elsewhere down through the centuries. By definition, inquisitions were local "ecclesial investigations." Particularly in the beginning, they were investigations and trials conducted or overseen by the Church through a papal representative, the local bishop, or a member of a religious order appointed by the pope for the task. These inquisitions were rarely ongoing, and decades could go by without a given region resorting to any such trials. In England, inquisition courts waxed and waned; in the German states they were even rarer.

Inquisitions typically involved a judicial process that aimed at confession and conversion. Local bishops working with local authorities under local circumstances usually conducted the inquisitorial courts. Their goal was to secure a person’s repentance for heretical views or for engaging in activities contrary to the faith. If that goal was not achieved and the person persisted in serious heresy, he would be turned over to the secular authorities.

The Church conducted the investigations and trials. Punishment was left to the hands of the secular authorities. In Protestant states after the Reformation, the state conducted the investigation and trial and imposed punishment.

An inquisition as a formal Church process was not codified until the thirteenth century. This formal institution was primarily to reserve to the Church the right to address heresy, as opposed to mob rule and the oft-incoherent secular courts that had frequently handled heresy over the previous two hundred years. It was a particular response, however, to the Albigensian Crusade of the early part of the thirteenth century that led the Church to formalize the inquisition courts.

What was the Albigensian Crusade?
The Albigensian movement in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was a heresy that grew in southern France. Albigensians rejected the sacraments and believed that the "evil god" of the Old Testament had created the physical world. In 1208, they killed a papal representative, and Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) called for a "crusade" against the heretical sect. Unfortunately, that’s what he got. Innocent had stressed education, confession, clerical reform and solid preaching as an answer to heresy, but the "Albigensian Crusade" quickly deteriorated into attacks by mobs, petty rulers, vindictive local bishops, and armies from northern France over the next twenty years, destroying the Albigensians.

The papacy realized that it had to exerciser greater control over the treatment of heresy. This would allow for some measure of persuasion and conversion, rather than prosecution and slaughter by secular courts or mob rule.

In 1231, Pope Gregory appointed the Dominican order to act as papal judges of heresy and to take control away from the local secular authorities. Over the next two decades, a series of canonical instructions were drawn up for conducting medieval inquisition courts.

By the mid- to late-fourteenth century, however, these papal-commissioned inquisitors had disappeared from many parts of Europe. Inquisition courts themselves varied in use from prince to prince, kingdom to kingdom over the years. Though succeeding popes would attempt to exercise some control over these courts, a vast, papal-controlled singular inquisition never really existed in Europe.

How did these medieval courts function?
The medieval inquisition courts functioned like circuit courts. Sermons would be preached on the dangers of heresy and the accused was allowed a period of grace for confession and repentance. Those who refused to recant were tried. Those found guilty and still refusing to recant would be excommunicated and turned over to the secular authorities for punishment. For the most part, these courts functioned similarly to secular courts, but their sentences and penances were usually far less harsh.

Did medieval inquisition courts employ torture?
Common to judicial practice going back to Roman times, torture was used at times to obtain proof of accusations. But, again, the goal was not conviction of heretics but the salvation of their souls. Very often, the general laity simply wanted the heretic destroyed, while secular authorities wanted to punish. The courts of the inquisition hoped to bring the heretic back into the fold, and guidelines were strict against using torture as punishment. Numerous works of popular art notwithstanding, no priest or religious was allowed to take an active role in torture.

Although no such action can be justified today, it is important to note that the courts of the medieval inquisition were actually modifying and limiting a practice common to secular judicial proceedings of the time. The use of torture in inquisition courts was much less extensive, and far less violent, than the norms of secular courts.

What "crimes" were tried in courts of inquisition?
Sixteenth-century Protestant reformers propagandized that inquisition courts were historically aimed at simple, Bible-believing Christians. For the most part, however, those prosecuted in the courts of the inquisition were not people with any organized theology of religious dissent. For the most part, they were the ignorant, the troublemakers, the braggarts and, all-too-often, the drunkards belching out foolishness when under the influence.

Much like any court today, the inquisition courts often functioned as a form of social control, aimed at those who publicly lived in a way contrary to accepted norms. In most countries, those on trial rarely were advocates of a contradictory or heretical theological system of beliefs. Fornication, adultery, refusal to attend the Sacraments, and disregard of common devotional practices were the common practices investigated by the inquisition courts. In fact, in many inquisition courts a major focus was on clergy living dissolute lifestyles, rather than laity.

Were inquisition courts aimed at scientists?
No. Inquisitions rarely involved themselves in the area of science, despite the well-known case of Galileo. Most cases involved.aspects of everyday life.

Galileo’s trial in 1633 created its own wealth of Catholic urban legends, most notably the idea that the Church stood in oppressive opposition to scientific advancement. The historical reality was not that Galileo was condemned because he could not prove scientifically a theory that appeared to violate Scripture, but rather that he presented that theory as fact in his public writings. Additionally, he had lectured Church authorities publicly about the true meaning of Scripture.

In fact, the few "scientists" that fell under the courts of inquisition were generally in trouble because of their attempts to make theological pronouncements, as had Galileo. Their trials had little or nothing to do with their scientific studies.

Where does the Spanish Inquisition fit into all of this?
The Spanish Inquisition is the source of most of the myths surrounding "The Inquisition." But the Spanish Inquisition was actually a mid-fifteenth century adoption of inquisition courts for a very specific political purpose. It was a government-controlled inquisition aimed primarily at faithful Catholics of Jewish ancestry. The image of a Spanish Inquisition burnings hundreds of thousands of Protestant heretics has no basis in fact— there were few if any Protestants in Spain.

Though first established with papal approval, the Spanish Inquisition quickly came to be dominated by the Spanish monarchy—not the Church. It had strong and ugly racial overtones as it was aimed at those of Jewish and, later, Muslim ancestry. While it certainly was a force that kept Protestant thought out of Spain in the Reformation and post-Reformation era, the number of those actually prosecuted for such theological dissent was very small.

The last major outburst of the inquisition in Spain was again aimed at Jewish converts in the 1720s. The Spanish Inquisition was formally ended by the monarchy in 1834, though it had effectively ended years earlier.

The Spanish Inquisition became the primary source of the myths and Reformation propaganda that created the Catholic urban legend of the Inquisition. This is the urban legend of an all-embracing, papally dominated Inquisition that lasted from the thirteenth through the seventeenth centuries, supposedly aimed at a hidden, Bible-believing Church.

This myth of the Inquisition grew out of sixteenth-century Reformation propaganda. It served as a means to generate anti-Catholic sentiment, particularly during the revolt of Netherlands against Spain that began in 1548. The myth of the Inquisition created a black legend that circulated throughout sixteenth-century Europe. It portrayed Spain as a symbol of repression, brutality, intolerance, and backwardness for centuries. This image became inextricably tied to the Church in general.

Oddly enough, the building of the myth of the Spanish Inquisition had little to do with the actual racial persecution in Spain against Jewish converts to the faith. That real tragedy of the Spanish Inquisition would not be rediscovered until unbiased historical studies of the late nineteenth century.

If the inquisition was not quite the horror that the Catholic urban legend suggests, does that mean we should simply ignore it?
History—and its lessons—should never be ignored. There can be no denying that the inquisition courts existed. As described in the papal apology of Pope John Paul II at the beginning of the New Millennium, "Men of the church, in the name of faith and morals, have sometimes used methods not in keeping with the Gospels in the solemn duty of defending truth."

The Inquisition is classic proof that the Church includes sinners who do sinful things, and that good people can make wrong decisions. It is also a classic example of what happens when those who represent the Church are caught up in the norms and ethics of the society in which they live. They can far too easily judge the Gospel with the eyes of culture, rather than the culture by the Gospel.

That said, it also has to be remembered that the Inquisition as presented in the Catholic urban legend is far from the reality of history. It is unfair to use it as a cudgel against contemporary Catholic positions, and it is pure bigotry to present it as a defining element of Catholic faith, yesterday or today.


Robert P. Lockwood, director of communications for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, is  the author of A Faith for Grown-Ups: A Midlife Conversation about What Really Matters (Loyola Press).

This article appeared in Volume 18 Number 7.