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What is the Inquisition?

What is the Inquisition? Sooner or later, any discussion of apologetics with Fundamentalists and other non-Catholics will address the Inquisition. It is a handy stick for Catholic-bashing, simply because most Catholics seem at a loss for a sensible reply. This tract will set the record straight.

There have actually been several different inquisitions. The first was established in 1184 in southern France as a response to the Catharist heresy. This was known as the Medieval Inquisition, and it was phased out as Catharism disappeared.

Quite separate was the Roman Inquisition, begun in 1542. It was the least active and most benign of the three variations.

Separate again was the infamous Spanish Inquisition, started in 1478, a state institution used to identify conversos—Jews and Muslims who pretended to convert to Christianity for political or social advantage and secretly practiced their former religion. More importantly, its job was also to clear the good names of many people who were falsely accused of being heretics. It was the Spanish Inquisition that, at least in the popular imagination, had the worst record of fulfilling these duties.

The various inquisitions stretched through the better part of a millennium, and can collectively be called “the Inquisition.”

The Main Sources

Fundamentalists writing about the Inquisition rely on books by Henry C. Lea (1825–1909) and G. G. Coulton (1858–1947). Each man got most of the facts right, and each made progress in basic research. The problem is that they did not weigh facts well, because they harbored fierce animosity toward the Church that had little to do with the Inquisition itself.

The contrary problem has not been unknown. A few Catholic writers have glossed over incontrovertible facts and tried to whitewash the Inquisition. These well-intentioned but misguided apologists are, in one respect, much like Lea, Coulton, and contemporary Fundamentalist writers. They fear, while the others hope, that the facts about the Inquisition might prove the illegitimacy of the Catholic Church.

Don’t Fear the Facts

But the facts fail to do that. No account of foolishness, misguided zeal, or cruelty by Catholics can undo the divine foundation of the Church, though admittedly these things are stumbling blocks to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

What must be grasped is that the Church contains within itself all sorts of sinners and knaves, and some of them obtain positions of responsibility. Paul and Christ himself warned us that there would be a few ravenous wolves among Church leaders (Acts 20:29; Matt. 7:15).

Thinking that Fundamentalists might have a point in their attacks on the Inquisition, Catholics tend to be defensive. This is the wrong attitude; rather, we should learn what really happened, understand events in light of the times, and then explain to anti-Catholics why the sorry tale does not prove what they think.

Phony Statistics

Many Fundamentalists believe, for instance, that more people died under the Inquisition than in any war or plague; but in this they rely on phony “statistics” generated by one-upmanship among anti-Catholics, each of whom, it seems, tries to come up with the largest number of casualties.

In fact, no one knows exactly how many people perished through the various Inquisitions. We can determine for certain, though, one thing about numbers given by Fundamentalists: They are far too large. One book popular with Fundamentalists claims that 95 million people died under the Inquisition.

The figure is so grotesquely off that one immediately doubts the writer’s sanity, or at least his grasp of demographics. Not until modern times did the population of those countries where the Inquisitions existed approach 95 million. Inquisitions did not exist in Northern Europe, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, or England, being confined mainly to southern France, Italy, Spain, and a few parts of the Holy Roman Empire. The Inquisition could not have killed that many people because those parts of Europe did not have that many people to kill!

Furthermore, the plague, which killed a third of Europe’s population, is credited by historians with major changes in the social structure. The Inquisition is credited with few—precisely because the number of its victims was comparatively small. In fact, recent studies indicate that at most there were only a few thousand capital sentences carried out for heresy in Spain, and these were over the course of several centuries.

What’s the Point?

Ultimately, it may be a waste of time arguing about statistics. Instead, ask Fundamentalists just what they think the existence of the Inquisition demonstrates. And what is that something? That Catholics are sinners? Guilty as charged. That at times people in positions of authority have used poor judgment? Ditto. That otherwise good Catholics, afire with zeal, sometimes lose their balance? All true, but such charges could be made even if the Inquisition had never existed and perhaps could be made of some Fundamentalists.

Fundamentalist writers claim the existence of the Inquisition proves the Catholic Church could not be the Church founded by our Lord. At first blush it might seem so, but most people see at once that the argument is weak. One reason Fundamentalists talk about the Inquisition is that they imagine it was established to eliminate the Fundamentalists themselves.

Not “Bible Christians”

They identify themselves with the Catharists (also known as the Albigensians), or perhaps it is better to say they identify the Catharists with themselves. They think the Catharists were twelfth-century Fundamentalists and that Catholics did to them what they would do to Fundamentalists today if they had the political strength they once had.

This is a fantasy. Fundamentalist writers take one point—that Catharists used a vernacular version of the Bible—and conclude from it that these people were “Bible Christians.” In fact, theirs was a curious religion that apparently came to France from what is now Bulgaria. Catharism was a blend of Gnosticism, which claimed to have access to a secret source of religious knowledge, and of Manichaeism, which said matter is evil. The Catharists believed in two gods: the “good” God of the New Testament, who sent Jesus to save our souls from being trapped in matter; and the “evil” God of the Old Testament, who created the material world in the first place.

The Catharists’ beliefs entailed serious—truly civilization-destroying—social consequences. Marriage was scorned because it legitimized sexual relations, which Catharists identified as the Original Sin. But fornication was permitted because it was temporary, secret, and was not generally approved of; while marriage was permanent, open, and publicly sanctioned. In addition, ritualistic suicide was encouraged, and Catharists refused to take oaths, which, in a feudal society, meant they opposed all governmental authority. Thus, Catharism was both a moral and a political danger.

Even Lea, so strongly opposed to the Catholic Church, admitted: “Had Catharism become dominant, or even had it been allowed to exist on equal terms, its influence could not have failed to become disastrous.” Whatever else might be said about Catharism, it was certainly not the same as modern Fundamentalism.

The Real Point

Many discussions about the Inquisition get bogged down in numbers and many Catholics fail to understand what Fundamentalists are really driving at. As a result, Catholics restrict themselves to secondary matters. Instead, they should force the Fundamentalists to say explicitly what they are trying to prove.

However, there is a certain utility—a decidedly limited one—in demonstrating that the kinds and degrees of punishments inflicted by the Spanish Inquisition were similar to (actually, even lighter than) those meted out by secular courts. It is equally true that, despite what we consider the Spanish Inquisition’s lamentable procedures, many people preferred to have their cases tried by ecclesiastical courts because the secular courts had even fewer safeguards.

The crucial thing for Catholics, once they have obtained some appreciation of the history of the Inquisition, is to explain how such an institution could have been associated with a divinely established Church and why it is not proper to conclude from the existence of the Inquisition that the Catholic Church is not the Church of Christ.

To that end, it is helpful to point out that it is easy to see how those who led the Inquisitions could think their actions were justified. The Bible itself records instances where God commanded that formal, legal inquiries—that is, inquisitions—be carried out to expose secret believers in false religions. In Deuteronomy 17:2–5, God said: “If there is found among you, within any of your towns which the Lord your God gives you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, in transgressing his covenant, and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden, and it is told you and you hear of it; then you shall inquire diligently [note that phrase: “inquire diligently”], and if it is true and certain that such an abominable thing has been done in Israel, then you shall bring forth to your gates that man or woman who has done this evil thing, and you shall stone that man or woman to death with stones.”

It is clear that there were some Israelites who posed as believers in and keepers of the covenant with Yahweh, while inwardly they did not believe and secretly practiced false religions, and even tried to spread them (cf. Deut. 13:6–11). To protect the kingdom from such hidden heresy, these secret practitioners of false religions had to be rooted out and expelled from the community. This directive from the Lord applied even to whole cities that turned away from the true religion (Deut. 13:12–18). Like Israel, medieval Europe was a society of Christian kingdoms that were formally consecrated to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is therefore quite understandable that these Catholics would read their Bibles and conclude that for the good of their Christian society they, like the Israelites before them, “must purge the evil from the midst of you” (Deut. 13:5, 17:7, 12). Paul repeats this principle in 1 Corinthians 5:13.

These same texts were interpreted similarly by the first Protestants, who also tried to root out and punish those they regarded as heretics. Luther and Calvin both endorsed the right of the state to protect society by purging false religion. In fact, Calvin not only banished from Geneva those who did not share his views, he permitted and in some cases ordered others to be executed for “heresy” (e.g., Jacques Gouet, tortured and beheaded in 1547; and Michael Servetus, burned at the stake in 1553). In England and Ireland, Reformers engaged in their own ruthless inquisitions and executions. Thousands of English and Irish Catholics were put to death—many by being hanged, drawn, and quartered—for practicing the Catholic faith and refusing to become Protestant. An even greater number were forced to flee to the Continent. We point this out to show that both sides understood the Bible to require the use of penal sanctions to root out false religion from Christian society.

The fact that the Protestant Reformers also created inquisitions to root out Catholics and others who did not fall into line with the doctrines of the local Protestant sect shows that the existence of an inquisition does not prove that a movement is not of God. Protestants cannot make this claim against Catholics without having it backfire on themselves.

NIHIL OBSTAT: I have concluded that the materials
presented in this work are free of doctrinal or moral errors.
Bernadeane Carr, STL, Censor Librorum, August 10, 2004

IMPRIMATUR: In accord with 1983 CIC 827
permission to publish this work is hereby granted.
+Robert H. Brom, Bishop of San Diego, August 10, 2004

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