This is an article on the Inquisition by my friend and fellow Marian Catechist Phillip Bellini. As is typical of Phillip's work, this is magnificent! I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.
The impression people have of the Spanish Inquisition is, or can be made to seem, particularly repugnant to our modern sensibilities.
If we rationally analyze the Spanish Inquisition, we can come up with four reasons why it has such an evil reputation: (1) that it treated heresy as a crime; (2) that its procedures involved torture and extreme punishment of the guilty; (3) that it was an instrument of personal vengeance and avarice; (4) that it involved the Church directly in oppression, persecution, and the infliction of pain and suffering. Let’s look at those step by step. (1) Heresy as a crime. First of all, what is heresy? It is the juridical persecution of heresy by special Ecclesiastical or Civil courts. Let’s just lay that definition out there. In the earliest days of the Church there was no inquisition. There was excommunication. If you were a heretic you were excommunicated, i.e., Arius and his followers; Nestorius and his followers and the rest of the great heresiarchs who didn’t teach orthodoxy but wrong or bad teaching, not correct teaching.
So the Church had excommunication for heretics. It still does. In the current code of canon law if you are a heretic you fall under the penalty of excommunication. That does not mean if you have an opinion which contradicts Catholic teaching you are immediately a heretic and excommunicated. A heretic has a specific ecclesiastical meaning. It means that it is somebody that has been warned, told about it and still publicly does the contrary. There is a lot that has to happen before you are formally and clearly a heretic. It is simply not just being wrong. But at the point which (and this is what everyone admits) the Christian Faith also became recognized by the state, then the maintenance of public order in matters of religion led to a gradual increase in the state’s interest in religious opinions.
I am going to try and state in the most modern was as I can without ignoring just saying what anybody would have to say. The first really clear case of the Church accepting, going along with or encouraging the state in the suppression of a heresy is that of the heresy of Donatism in N. Africa, latin-speaking N. Africa in the fourth and fifth century and just a little after that.
Donatism was a schism, originally, that came out of the time of the persecution. What I mean is that once the persecution was over there was damage done as there were those who had fallen. There were those who had given up the Sacred Scriptures, there were those who had offered incense to pagan gods, and there were those who had at least allowed someone to sign the rescript that they had that they had participated in such actions. There were people who collaborated or gave in in any way.
There were groups of Christians who said that such people (those who had gone against their faith during the great persecutions) could not be accepted back into the community of the Church, especially if they were clergy. If they were clergy then their ordinations, their Sacraments were all invalid because they apostatized. They thought the clergy could not repent or if they did want to repent could only do so on their deathbed. The Church didn’t accept this practice and so a schism grew up between those who professed to be the inheritor’s of the martyrs and those who are the Catholics who accepted the repentance of those fallen people even if they were clergy. This schism went on for a long time. They had the same liturgy, the same beliefs, everything the same but there was this schism.
St. Augustine engaged in all kinds of debates and many of those debates were with the Donatist bishops. Almost every city had a Donatist church and a Catholic church. They had the same Mass; the same everything. St. Augustine said that in his opinion many of the Donatists were ordinary, good people. He said they believed the Christian faith but were misled by their leaders, and at that time in the Roman Empire the idea of religion having nothing to do with the state was completely foreign to everyone. There was no notion or no state interest in religion. It was a matter of public good and public order. So St. Augustine changes his opinion based on the Gospel story where after the invited refuse to come in to the wedding feast the master says go out on the highways and byways and compel them to come in. This great Saint of the Church supported the emperor’s decision to simply suppress all the Donatist churches so as to say that from now on they are Catholic. He allowed Donatist clergy to become Catholic or they could retire with a pension. There it is. What happened? After this decision the schism was over quickly because it involved masses of people who simply didn’t care about the reasons and were only going to these Donatist churches out of habit. This was the sense of St. Augustine and it is a historical fact.
In the high Middle Ages there is a particularly noxious heresy in southern France called the Albigensians or the Cathari. This was not your ordinary difference of religious opinion. These were people who (and they were really successful at it) taught that there were two gods, one good and one evil. One created the world of the spirit, and an evil god the material world, including the human body, which is under its control. They advocated suicide and abstaining from marriage. They also taught that matter (material things or physical things) were evil and only spirit was good. This is very similar to some New Age ideas people have today. This meant that if you took the question of marriage and family life into account or sexual morality that this type of thing was looked at as evil. They said it would be better to have no physical relationship with anyone, no sexual activity whatsoever! Why? It was to be avoided because that activity would most of all result in the propagation of more bodies, more matter and more physicality. You can imagine what effects this would have on the surrounding society! Nowadays you don’t have to imagine it! So this is a matter which required (for their time) very strong measures.
Let me make this crystal clear at the outset. We are not in any way suggesting that the measures adopted at that time would be appropriate now. Remember the Church’s understanding: the supreme law is the salvation of souls. You have to meet people where they are. You have to take into account their moral culpability and their moral formation. You cannot treat as criminal’s persons who have simply been misled. However, if you were on the opening end of such a battle and it flared up all at once then all of sudden you might have a different attitude and a different approach, especially if you believed that this was going to lead people not just to earthly misery but eternal misery.
We live in very different times and the Church’s interest is not to insist on a golden age when we did things a certain way. We just can’t do those things any more. That would be silly because Divine Providence arranges all things strongly and sweetly. Our age has its own positive points for the salvation of souls, including more aspects which we might call liberal and their age had certain positive points; the salvation of souls. I am not evaluating the means but pointing out that in the situation as it was, the action taken was perfectly understandable. The leaders of the sect were sought out successfully and punished. As a result the heresy ended and it was a very dangerous heresy at that.
So what happened? In this case the state started the Inquisition and the Pope did not want the state to be in charge of it so Pope Gregory IX set up the Inquisition (Emperor Frederick II is the one who set up the Inquisition). Frederick II was an odd character. He threatened the Pope that he would convert to Islam if the Pope didn’t do what he wanted. Such a situation would be terrifying during those times if the Holy Roman Emperor converted to Islam. Frederick set it up but there was no way the Pope was going to allow him to do that. He used the assistance of the Mendicant orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans. These were two orders which almost universally and almost without exception exercised or took care of the Inquisition. What went on during an Inquisition? What happened? These orders were picked because the Mendicant orders were considered to be less worldly. They had less property unlike the big monasteries and abbey’s, and were less politically connected. They had that freedom from worldly motives and they also had more learning. They were appointed to the job also because people were needed who knew theology well, knew what heresy was and what it wasn’t, and also those who knew moral theology well, for they had to know what people would be responsible for and what they are not responsible for.
These Tribunals were also given cases that involved immorality, breaking of private contracts and the profanation of churches. So they just didn’t handle heresy cases but also some other practical moral issues that could really ruin a small town. So what happened? The Inquisition comes into town, a Dominican Father let’s say, and he has some assistants with him. Some public announcements are made with the assistance of the parish priest; the announcement is made that those who have professed or were involved in this heresy of Albigensianism should confess their fault and receive an appropriate penance. They would have the grace period of one month to confess. I’m just describing the historical facts. If someone came forward and admitted to going to their meetings or it was someone who was dating an Albigensian and she didn’t want to marry because she didn’t want to have children (by the way, they also had to be vegetarians in order to reach perfection) well, then they would confess and receive a penance like fasting for one day or do something to make up for what they did. A jury was set up of the clergy and lay people of the town. The parish priest would take care of bringing in the accused. The accused was given counsel, but admittedly counsel then was not as we see it now. The counsel’s principal job was to make sure that justice was done. It was not to defend the accused or to get him/her off the heresy charge. If the accused was guilty he/she had to say that he/she was indeed guilty; the accused couldn’t say, “I plead the 5th amendment,” as that didn’t exist back then. Then the accused had to have two witnesses. The names of the witnesses were not revealed in the beginning. Why? It’s an interesting fact. The accused was asked to give a list of personal enemies, anyone in the town who had something against the accused and why. These people were ordinarily excluded (unless there was a preponderance of the evidence) against the accused person.
Let’s say that it was a fact that a person was guilty of heresy but did not confess and was not sorry, then the accused was sent to jail, because heresy is a crime. Nowadays we don’t think of heresy as a crime in our society. We think of religion as something completely personal and that nobody has any business telling us what to believe and not believe; that’s our culture. This is the way we think. Back then they did not think that way. They thought the religion revealed by God is the highest good of society and if it is undermined then everything will fall apart. People will begin to live immoral lives and become unfaithful to their duties and their families; everything will be a mess. That was the basic rational for all of this. (Sound familiar? Maybe the people then had something!)
We live in a society where we are willing to go to war in the name of freedom. We say our enemies hate freedom. That is, they hate the ideas upon which this country is supposed to be founded. President Lincoln said, “Our founding fathers founded this country dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” We say we will go around the world and tell certain states what they may or may not do, and that they will have to reckon with us if they don’t favor this nation. Whether we are sincere or not is another thing. It’s a doctrine of life and society. Our nation of freedom is a belief not shared by many people on the face of the earth and yet we are willing to kill and be killed in order to defend it. That’s a fact.
After the decree of Pope Innocent IV in 1252, the Inquisition was allowed to use torture. Roman law allowed torture. The European tradition was principally Roman law. It allowed torture of persons who were regarded as certainly guilty. This is something our modern Occidental tradition doesn’t permit. Or does it? In the middle ages they use to torture people because they were convicted of heresy. Now, one can say, “Well, I think you should be willing to fight for freedom,” but it’s not right; we are fighting so people will be free to profess whatever religion they want. What if this religion contradicts our notion of freedom? Then where are we? It’s an interesting question. Shouldn’t freedom of speech stop with those who would take away that freedom and would outlaw it?
The point is that Catholics have to think of what Our Lord said in the Sacred Scriptures about not fussing with the spec in your neighbor’s eye and ignore the beam in your own eye. Societies can do that too! It’s very easy to blame people who lived hundreds of years ago and imagine evils they committed and the wild tortures that are depicted in books. The torture was also partly a punishment. There were days in society when crimes were punished by public shame. One could be put into a stockade or flogged. In those days the monastic rule of St. Benedict and St. Augustine allowed the Abbot to have his confreres flogged. (It’s in the long version of St. Augustine’s rule not the short version.) It was a society in which physical integrity was not as big an issue as it is in ours. Shame is something our society doesn’t have much of these days.
We need to examine the assumptions made because the real reason why people go on and on about the Inquisition is because they do not accept the fact there are societies that hold to different standards of what constitutes the common good of their society than we do now, especially if that standard is the Christian faith. Not only that, but the Protestants had their own Inquisition. They executed each other and Catholics as well. Everybody did this because everybody assumed religion was the most important aspect of civil and social life till it got to the point where it was destroying Europe, and where the reaction, the liberal reaction, was in a certain genuine sense, understandable. People wanted to stop this constant fighting over religious matters and they resolved it in various ways, not always without the view to the good of the people who were living in the countries where they were.
So, they were imprisoned and maybe tortured. They would admit their crime, “Yes, I’m a heretic and I’m sorry.” What happened then? At the end of the Inquisition in the town there was a final gathering called a “general sermon” or called the “act of faith.” It was mostly a liturgical thing. There was a procession, a Mass, a sermon and then the sentences were read out. What were the sentences? It could be the confiscation of goods or imprisonment or the famous handing over to the secular arm, which meant that you were executed. Yes, it happened. Yes, they did it. How many were executed? This is a very important question depending on the sources that you read. I use a very reputable Protestant source as this way no one can make the argument that I am using biased facts. They say in the case of Tomás de Torquemada of the Spanish Inquisition (which is a different matter from the other Inquisition) that in his whole career maybe 2,000 were executed at the most. Sometimes there are quotes of 40,000, 60,000, 80,000 or even 100,000 people executed. Some even say a million. During the 400 years of the Spanish Inquisition they say possibly 30,000 were executed. That’s a high number and I am NOT making light of that in the least! It was terrible. They say 30,000 were burned alive. But let’s not forget Dresden, where 60,000 people were killed in one night during WWII. Let’s not forget Hiroshima and Nagasaki where in an instant, 150,000 people were killed. For what, so that Stalin could invade Eastern Europe? So we could start another war, a cold war? And then after that come up with something else to do? Let’s look at our own civilization before we evaluate others.
The Spanish Inquisition was another matter. It was founded by the Spanish state under King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1479 with the Pope’s approval. What was it? Today we would call it post-war reprisals. The Moors were being driven out but still there were plenty of people who were collaborators with them. The predominant numbers of collaborators were very many people who were of Muslim background and Jewish background who converted openly to Christianity but did not practice Christianity. When they were found they were taken to jail, and it's an understatement to say they were not treated nicely. It was the mentality of the re-conquest of Spain. They were accused and tried. That is the birth of the Spanish Inquisition which lasted till 1808.
There was a grand inquisitor appointed by the King, a counsel, and this Inquisition was in constant conflict with the Holy See because the Spanish Inquisition was run by the state and its measures were harsher on the whole, and they were always escaping the directives of the Holy See. Even Pope St. Pius V, who was an Inquisitor himself before he was Pope, had great reservations about the conduct of the Spanish Inquisition. This is a fact of history similar to some modern facts. Finally, in 1542, the Pope established a Roman Office to try and organize everything so things would not get out of hand, especially given the existence of the Spanish territory abroad. So this is food for thought. Many Saints are associated with the Inquisition. But it’s a word you can hardly say without being slightly embarrassed because it sounds so awful. There it is.
God bless you.