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It's The Inquisition Myth, Vs. the various Catholic and Protestant Inquisitions.
June 25, 2007
The Inquisition Myth
Digging under the Inquisition myth we find the various and sundry inquisitions, and an actual institution, in the form of an official Catholic office and growing responsibility, all collectively known as the Inquisition. Some of these were Catholic, some were not, some were good, more were bad, some were horrible. In the times and places instituted, the Catholic Inquisitions were necessary, which is the real bottom line here. The Catholic Church has been beaten up by atheist, secularist and other anti-Catholic historians so badly and for so long that The Inquisition myth has taken on a life of its own, and people no longer ask the obvious questions about it.
Such as, why was any inquisition, or the establishment of the office of the inquisition, even necessary in the first place?
And, if the Catholic Church is the True Church founded by Jesus Christ, and it has remained true to Him, then how could it have done the horrible things attributed to it in the inquisition myth?
And if it's merely a myth, then why is it so enduring?
Before we can answer these questions coherently we need to look at precisely what the inquisitions were, how they came into being and what their purpose was.
Then we can look at what the inquisitions actually did. It’s all wrapped up in the social/cultural dichotomy between encouraging tradition and encouraging chaos.
The Nature of the Inquisitions
Necessity: Tradition is the thing that brings order, predictability and peace to the social group. This applies any social group, from the smallest family to the largest nation or religion. The traditions that describe our table manners are a good example; children must be taught from their earliest ability to sit at table the appropriate manners and ways to eat and participate in discourse at the dining table in the company of others. In any house in which the traditions of table manners have been dispensed with, eating in the company of others potentially becomes an unpleasant, somewhat risky and even disgusting activity. We learn these traditional manners from our parents, who learned them from their parents.
Man is a social being, who thrives in the company of others, and who will wither, in some respects, when isolated. Tradition, in some form, guides nearly every aspect of our social lives. When someone grossly violates tradition, he makes of himself an outcast, or one whom everyone else wishes was an outcast.
Just as a parent may dismiss or temporarily ban a misbehaving child from the table for exhibiting bad manners, a community may sentence a legal offender to jail, fine or some form of service, and a church may penalize, dismiss or even shun an ecclesial offender. All of our rules, from simple manners and rules of civility, to civil law, to contract law, to ecclesial law, all, have their originating roots in some sort of tradition. When everyone behaves in accordance with the rules of the tradition, the result is good social order; when everyone does not behave in accordance with the rules of the tradition, the result is the opposite of order, which is chaos.
Catholic large-T Tradition comes out of the Public Revelation of Jesus Christ and His message. This Public Revelation ended with the death of the last original Apostle. Since then it has been safeguarded by the Church as the Depositum Fide, or Deposit of Faith. Holy Scripture itself was produced from this Deposit. [It produced the canon or approved list of Old Testament books, and it produced all of the New Testament books.]
The purpose of the Church is to preach the Good News to all the nations. The purpose of any Catholic Inquisition was and is to oppose and suppress heresy in the faith, and to keep the original sacred Deposit Of Faith pure and unchanged for all time, until He comes again. The Church may, only in that way, continuously preach the exact same Good News message to all the nations.
Atheist/Secularist Stumbling Block. Contemporary culture is loaded down with those who openly despise tradition in general and ecclesial tradition in particular. Their thinking has been malformed by the errors of Modernism, or Secularism, or Enlightenment/Scientism and they do not see ecclesial issues as clearly as we do. Opposing faith itself, they do not agree with the ancient notion that faith and reason need to cooperate in the quest for ultimate truth. Their concept of cosmos or existence is man-centered, world-centered, material-centered, accidental, random, purposeless and pointless. If there is such a thing as the exact opposite of wisdom, this is it.
What atheists and weak believers have lost is the notion of religious belief, or Divine Revelation being something objective, real and outside the realm of private judgment. To the purely worldly man, nothing is outside the realm of private judgment. To the degree that the believing Jew or Christian is affected by purely worldly “wisdom”, to that same degree do they disvalue their own ecclesial minor and major traditions in favor of “inclusiveness” or loose moral interpretations. They will hold up multiple wildly different religions for comparison and declare them all to be the same, and even give them equal value to atheism itself.
They will even say such incredibly stupid things as “It doesn’t matter what you believe in, so long as you believe in something.” If that statement were true, then saying “Glory to God”, or saying “Glory to Baal”, or saying “There is no God” would all be equivalent, synonymous statements. Obviously, that is not true. It does indeed matter what we believe.
Having abandoned ecclesial tradition, the moral standards and spiritual paths of atheists and weak believers are chaotic and unpredictable. As they move farther into atheism they lose even their very purpose for being. Having abandoned God, Who would never abandon them, they adopt the world, and live for the world only. The pure atheist, if there is any such thing, is without tradition, which is to say without any roots, and he blows with the wind. To say that the atheist believes in nothing is wrong, for history proves that the atheist will eventually believe in anything.
Pure atheism is the path away from morality as universally understood, which leads farther and farther into worldliness, nihilism, hedonism, despotism, Communism, Nazism, other forms of Marxism, and the systematic devaluing of humanity even to the point of despising it.
Once the very notion of sacredness itself is denied, nothing whatsoever is held to be sacred; certainly not human life.
Intolerance of the intolerable. Much is written about the intolerance and the cruelty of the inquisitions. The cruelty charge is put to the lie by the fact that so many people preferred and openly sought to be tried by Church inquisitors rather than by civil courts. People had been being tried, tortured and executed for various “heretical” practices by civil authorities, with no input from the Church, from the beginning. The intolerance charge is largely true. The Church, to remain the Church, could not tolerate heresy growing within it. The first centuries of the Church’s existence were spent trying to extricate itself and distance itself from being subject to worldly kings and emperors, with mixed success. By the time of the Reformation, and its Lutheran-inspired combination of church and state, the Church was forced to more closely ally itself with Catholic princes as a simple matter of self defense.
And many of these Catholic princes were fighting for their kingdoms and their lives against “heretical” Protestant princes and their new religions. Once the Reformation began, a Protestant living in a Catholic land was seen by his prince to be an enemy of the State. But I’m getting ahead of myself. More needs to be said about the beginnings.
God orders, Israel obeys. Long before Christ came to Earth, the Hebrews were recognizing the need to safeguard Tradition. First, God ordered Israel to use formal legal inquiries – inquisitions – to find, expose, try and purge itself of secret unbelievers or false believers. So the first inquisitors were Jews.
What this is describing is a formal and legal inquiry, which is to say, an inquisition. There were Israelites posing as believers and keepers of the covenant, while secretly they practiced and even sought to spread false religions. We see this in Scripture.
So, we see that, by God’s command, secret practitioners of false religions were to be rooted out and expelled from the community to protect the kingdom from hidden heresy. This command from God applied even to whole communities. It was carried forward into the New Testament writings, as we see in 1 Corinthians.
Israel was a society of tribes and communities and cities, with differences between them, but one law. Nations with borders as we recognize them today didn’t really exist yet. In a similar manner, Christian medieval Europe was a diverse society of feudal kingdoms, but all were Catholic. They followed the same tradition laid down in the Old Testament and carried forward in the New.
Catholics and Protestants form inquisitions. Reformers on the continent and in England and Ireland formed their own ruthless inquisitions against Catholics and against other sects of Protestantism. Luther and Calvin preached the right of the state to protect Protestant society by purging it of false religion. Many were banished, and many were executed for “heresy.” Conservative estimates put Catholic executions in England and Ireland alone in the multiple thousands, and many more fled; the crime they were accused of was refusing to convert to Protestantism.
So we see that if the inquisition myth (or truth) provides evidence that a given confession is not or no longer of God, a charge often made against the Catholic Church, then that charge applies equally to Protestantism. The truth of a religious confession must be proved on other grounds.
Catholic Inquisitions have a much longer heritage, going back to well before the Reformation. The root of the inquisitions, which was the imperative to oppose heresy in the community, is as old as the Church itself, and, as we have seen in the above Scripture quotations, was even exercised in the time of Christ and His Apostles, before much New Testament Scripture was even written, let alone recognized as being Scripture. The Christian position toward heresy was softening from the Old Testament penalties, as shown in 1 Tim. 1:20 and in Titus 3:10, toward excommunication or banishment from the community rather than torture and death. Although punishment for heresy was always hotly contested within the Church, with high ranking Churchmen on both sides of the argument, the prevailing official position of the Church solidified into non lethal punishments early on.
The Apostles were convinced of the need for them to protect and transmit an absolutely undefiled Deposit of Faith produced by Divine Revelation, and that any teaching at odds with that Deposit, even if it came from their own mouths, or from the mouths of Angels, was to be opposed as heresy. But, in 1 Tim. 1:20 and Titus 3:10, they did not call for the Old Testament punishments of scourging and death. For the first three centuries of the Church, it was a moot point anyway, since the Church was persecuted, largely underground, and had no real authority or enforcement capability.
Terttulian said that the natural law instructed man to follow the voice of individual conscience in the practice of religion, since the acceptance of religion was strictly a matter of free will and not of compulsion. Already, Christian dissidents had suffered torture, burning and death based on the Old Testament laws, but the larger Church, in its worldly imperfection, was turning from it. Origen wrote of the need to distinguish between the law which the Jews received from Moses and the law given to Christians by Jesus Christ. The former was binding on the Jews, and the latter on Christians, including the Jewish Christians, such as the original Apostles themselves. Jewish Christians who were fully Christian could no longer conform to all of the Mosaic law and thus they could no longer burn, stone or otherwise kill violators of it. And if Jewish Christians could not impose the severest penalties on Jewish violators, it made no real sense for any Christians to impose such severe penalties on Christian violators.
That the Church, with the bishop of Rome in the lead, chose the milder punishments for heresy is a simple matter of historical fact. That is not to say, however, that there were not many renowned Catholic bishops who disagreed and called for the death penalty for heresy, with the penalty to be imposed by civil authority.
The successors of Emperor Constantine saw themselves as “Bishops of the Exterior,” which is to say that, besides being emperors and absolute civil rulers, they assumed responsibility for the material and temporal well being of the Christian religion. Sometimes in league with schismatic or heretical bishops, they persecuted orthodox bishops; sometimes in league with orthodox bishops, they persecuted heretical bishops. We who think we live in troubled times might be interested in reading this part of early Church history; those were very troubled times indeed.
Anti-Catholic authors of history on the topic mix quotations between ecclesial and civil rulers on the topic so regularly as to indicate that they did not differentiate between the words of an emperor and the words of a pope. Since both were Catholic, to them, it was always The Church who was speaking, and so credit for the words spoken was laid at the feet of the Church. Often the same cross-quoting occurred between minor princes and non-pope bishops; since everyone involved was Catholic; many such statements were falsely attributed to representing official universal Church position.
While there was no formally declared doctrine yet, the pattern was quite clear from the record of the first five centuries of the Church’s existence.
We cannot pretend that exceptions did not occur, that all bishops were without sin in this regard, or that all popes enforced or encouraged these rules to the utmost of ability; but we can state that, these were the basic rules as applied by the universal Church during that period of time. The Church contended with heresy from its birth; most of it resulted in beneficial doctrine, meaning, specific ecclesial law, fixing the ancient teaching in clear language. For example, the Arian heresy resulted in a clear definition of the Trinity; the challenges presented by the Gnostic writers ultimately produced the official Canon of Scripture, etc.
The first formal inquisition was established in 1184 in southern France in response to Catharism, or the Catharist heresy. The Cathars posited a completely different cosmos than that of Latin Christianity, any other religion, and the secular culture of the day. In Catharism were two equal deities, one material and evil, and one immaterial and good. Catholic inquisitors, or investigators, were established at the diocesan level in the locations affected by the heresy. Note that Cathars had been being branded, burned and otherwise abused by civil authorities and by mobs for many years before this. The Medieval Inquisition, as it was known, was expanded to include the Waldensian heresy, and took place in southern France and northern Italy.
The Church’s intent was to more accurately ascertain innocence or guilt, and to return as many heretics to the faith as possible. Among those brought before the inquisition, the largest number was found to be innocent, the next largest was returned to faith after penance, and the smallest number was turned over to civil authority for civil punishment, frequently a death sentence. The Medieval Inquisition expanded to include neo-Manichean and other heresies, but it generally faded out as Catharism was suppressed.
The Roman Inquisition that began in 1542 was the least active and probably the most benign of all inquisitions. If the Roman Inquisition was the most benign, then the Spanish Inquisition was the least benign. By this time an office of Inquisitor was established in Rome, and It would send inquisitors to kingdoms at the request of civil authorities to professionally investigate cases of heresy. Rather than diocesan Inquisitors who served the local bishop, highly educated lawyers were drawn from the Orders, most frequently the Dominicans, but also Franciscans and Jesuits. They were sent from Rome to the places requesting their services. Inquisitors were permanent judges who executed their offices in the name of the pope. Wherever they sat, there was the Inquisition. It is important to note how many inquiries did not involve these judges from Rome, but other Inquisitors installed by civil rulers, with the distant approval of Rome.
Inquisition Procedure normally began when the Inquisitor arrived in the location of his assigned task. He would call the citizenry to a public meeting to proclaim a “term of grace” during which the guilty were invited to confess, with guarantee of mild rather than severe punishment. An early form of plea bargaining. The guarantee was that the punishment would be ecclesial rather than civil, and often involved little more than some penance and perhaps a pilgrimage of some sort. Those who confessed often provided the Inquisition, with prompting, evidence against others. During the period of investigation, those being investigated were not detained or deprived of property.
The whole goal was to obtain a voluntary confession, the sooner the better. And with each voluntary confession, it was hoped that more testimony would be obtained against other heretical practitioners.
Guilt could not be proclaimed in the absence of the testimony of at least two witnesses, and most Inquisitors would not be satisfied with that number. They typically examined many, many witnesses, giving greatest weight to the testimony of the Parish Priest. But there was a major fault with the ability of the Inquisitors to accept the testimony of heretics against other heretics. It was assumed that many heretics practiced their heresy in secret, with other heretics, and thus other witnesses to their heresy were not available.
When the Inquisition was sufficiently satisfied that heresy had occurred, the accused would be brought to trial. The charges against him would be read aloud, including supporting evidences; however, witnesses testifying against the accused would not be identified. An opportunity to confess or to speak in his defense was given, and his response was carefully noted. A defense was to identify personal enemies; if the charges originated with these personal enemies, they could be dismissed forthwith, and the false witnesses brought to trial.
At this point in the heresy case, if confession was not obtained, the accused was incarcerated, and all of his property and possessions were confiscated, meticulously catalogued and held aside until the issue was settled. At this point in the investigation, evidence was so heavy against the accused that guilt was assumed. There was no assumption of innocence until proven guilty here, or probably anywhere else on Earth. However, meticulous records of inquisition proceedings show that huge numbers of witnesses were called per individual case, normally including many of the most respected members of the community. And, perjury was, in those days, about as serious a civil offense as one could possibly commit, considering the Commandment regarding bearing false witness.
Still, what was sought more than anything else was a confession. The means to get the accused to confess included:
It is rather interesting that torture was applied not as a sentence or for guilt, but only to obtain a confession of guilt. In actual practice, torture was applied in the smallest fraction of cases, including the worst of the inquisitions. Allowing torture under ecclesial law was an accommodation of civil law, and contained restrictions. Torture could not endanger life or limb, and it could only be applied once, and only when the evidence of guilt was overwhelming. In some instances the “only once” torture rule was circumvented by “suspending” the session rather than ending it, and then simply resuming it later.
If the preponderance of evidence was great, the accused did not confess even under torture, a final decision was made by a group of community leaders. Diocesan Inquisitors had to conduct trials in cooperation with their bishops, and Roman Inquisitors had to conduct trials in cooperation with the Pontiff or his legate, and meticulous records had to be maintained of all proceedings. In the rare cases that went so far as to go through the entire process without a confession, a sort of jury of community citizens was used to produce t a verdict.
A group of independent citizens would be summoned from among the leading citizens of the community. As many as eighty citizens would be summoned and sworn, from among layman, priests, both secular and from orders. They would be solemnly sworn to give verdict, and would examine all evidences in the hands of the Inquisition. These were called the Bon Viri, and they would be tasked to produce two findings:
Although the Inquisitor was the ultimate authority and could override the verdict of the Bon Viri, this was very seldom done, and the record shows that when it was done, it was done to make the sentence more lenient.
All verdicts would be publicly announced at a major public event at which the Inquisitor would preach a sermon. This was a solemn ceremony called the Sermo Generalis, which would later be called the auto-da-fe, or, Act Of Faith. The penitents would be paraded out to stand opposite the Inquisitors and officials during the sermon. The penitents at first wore the Coroza, similar to a bishop’s miter, but later in the Inquisitions this practice would be banned as undignified to the office of the bishop. They wore a garment called a Sanbenito, usually of yellow linen with a cross on the front, and their names on the back.
The Inquisitor would read the charges and the sentences aloud, one at a time. Each penitent in turn would either remove his Sanbenito and go home, confess his crime and accept his penance, or be turned over to the civil authorities for punishment. At that point, all of his previously confiscated property was also turned over to civil authority. The auto-da-fe became enormously popular local events.
The Spanish Inquisition was a State institution to identify conversos - Jews or Moslem Moors who pretended to convert to Christianity for social or political advantage, and secretly practiced their former religion. Forgotten or conveniently neglected by detractors is the fact that it was also important in clearing the names of those falsely accused. This is the Inquisition singled out most for cruelty, unfairness and horror.
It was distinguished from all other Inquisitions by its monarchic character and centralized State control throughout. The man chiefly held accountable by history, rightly or wrongly, is one Thomas de Torquemada, priest, Dominican, Cardinal and Grand Inquisitor. He was the confessor and spiritual director of Isabella before she became queen of Spain. When she ascended the throne, he would become her Grand Inquisitor, confirmed by Pope Sixtus IV, who had previously approved the State Inquisition of Isabella and Ferdinand.
The Spanish Inquisition began with the reign of Ferdinand the Cahtolic and Isabella, in response to the threats from the Moriscos and the Marranos. The Moriscos were pseudo-converts to Christianity from Islam, and the Marranos were pseudo-converts to Christianity from Judaism. Torquemada was the actual organizer of the Spanish Inquisition, at the request of Ferdinand and Isabella, confirmed by Sixtus IV and re-confirmed by Innocent VIII. He was given the office of Grand Inquisitor of the kingdoms of Catile, Leon, Aragon, Velencia and others. The organization was massive. It actually remained operative into the 19th century, and increased it’s scope to oppose Protestantism. It would grow from Torquemada’s beginnings to include the New World.
Torquemada’s appointees ran over 19 different courts; most of Troquemada’s time was spent hearing appeals. He, alone among all Inquisitors, was free to delegate his Inquisitor responsibilities to others, and to personally hear and decide all appeals to Rome. I’m not sure exactly how he did this, but the record shows that he did. While the record shows that he was not quite the ogre popularly described by those who proclaim The Inquisition Myth, neither was he exactly a saint.
It is written that the Morranos posed a real threat and were attempting to “Juda-ize” all of Spain – whether this is true or not I cannot ascertain, but it certainly seems an unlikely possibility. The Marranos had rich Jewish friends with influence, and thus many were able to avoid the Inquisition. (Jews who were not Morranos were not subject to the Inquisition.) To counter this evasion-by-influence, Torquemada convinced the monarchs to force all Jews to either convert to Christianity or leave Spain.
That, to me, is the most serious single charge against the honor and the Catholicity of Torquemada. It meant forcing non-Catholics to become Catholics, or, permanently leave home and property and native country. Quite a choice. Since he couldn’t identify the supposed culprits from among the Jews, his response was to persecute all the Jews.
The Numbers given by those who flaunt The Inquisition Myth just don’t add up. Some Protestant sources have claimed that over sixty five million died in The Inquisition. Yet, the whole of the population of all of Europe wouldn’t reach that number until long after the Inquisitions were all closed. The Black Death is credited with killing from one quarter to one third of the entire population; the Inquisition was nowhere near that size of a fraction. Torquemada, probably the worst of them all, can only be verifiably credited with about 2,000 sentences of death.
The Catholic inquisitions collectively went on for almost a thousand years, and in that time the number of actual deaths accredited to them in all likelihood was only in the range of about 10,000. More Catholics were killed in England an Ireland by Protestant Inquisitions. There were no Catholic Inquisitions in Northern Europe at all. It was Protestants, not Catholics, who sewed other Protestants up in cloth bags and threw them into a lake to drown, and to teach them something or other about Baptism.
The Inquisitions left the Catholic Church with a black eye, surely. No one is proud of the excesses that we all know occurred. But records were kept, and the records show something different than all the negative hype. Strong efforts were made to prove cases, one way or another, with all the means that were available, common and acceptable at the time.
But artistic renderings of half or fully naked women being tortured rule the predominantly Protestant art depicting the period. This despite the relative rarity of torture being implemented at all, let alone against women. The wearing of the sanbenito and to coroza and being publicly paraded today shocks our sensibilities; we even now have laws against such treatment. But, that was then. The Auto-da-fe was designed and intended to be a sort of liturgical re-enactment, and bringing-to-life, of Judgment Day for all the public to see. The fact that these events were very popular shows that heresy was very unpopular, and that safeguarding the faith from heresy was universally seen to be an important undertaking.
The worst of it all was, perhaps, that the Church, or at least some of her representatives, seemingly joined in with the civil rulers and princes in what amounted to a pogrom against the Jews, merely because they were Jews. If the historical record is accurate, then Torquemada – a prince of the Church – actually instigated that State persecution. No Catholic (or Protestant) religious inquisition had any right to interfere in any way with the life of any Jew who was minding his own business.
We may pray that more good than bad came out of all of that, and we may pray for atonement for the sins of many of the Inquisitors and their effect on the larger Church, and on relations with others.
But the best thing we can do for the Church, her image and her unchanging Gospel Message is to live our faith.
Get out there and be Catholic.
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