This past week, in remarks made at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama condemned ISIL/ISIS, denouncing it as “a brutal, vicious death cult that, in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism—terrorizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subjecting women to rape as a weapon of war, and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions.”
But in doing so, he said that Christians were not free of blame, referring to the Crusades, the Inquisition, and racism:
Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.
Unfortunately, this common line of “argument” against Christianity, while regularly employed, is seriously lacking; it is suburban, clichéd, and quite anti-intellectual. I’ve heard and read this line of argument countless times, and I have addressed these specific subjects in numerous articles and three of my books.
Let’s look at the Inquisition. It was flawed, often wrong, and sometimes very bad, but it did not hold people without trial or even charges, as occurs today in Guantanamo Bay. Nor did it refuse to provide a legal defense for the accused, as occurs today in human rights commissions and tribunals in civilized, secular countries such as Canada. There are records of common criminals purposely blaspheming because they preferred the justice of the Inquisition to that of the secular courts. And most of those who appeared before the Inquisition were found innocent and sent on their way; many others, found to have contravened Church teaching, were asked to recant or reform and it was unusual for violence and execution to used against them.
There were also inquisitions in a number of Protestant nations, sometimes far more thorough and brutal in their oppression than those in Catholic countries, particularly of anyone suspected of witchcraft. Even the Victorian Protestant historian Henry Charles Lea (1825-1909), who spent much of his life studying and writing about the Inquisition (he wrote a multi-volumed history on the topic) and was no friend of the Catholic Church, conceded that the victims of the Inquisition were “relatively few” and that at times the Inquisition was all that stood between civilization and moral anarchy.
The history and origins of the Inquisition are less sinister and more straightforward than is commonly recognized. The Church has always tried to prevent or respond to errors within the Faith. One problem is the persistent idea today that Christianity consists of people merely being nice to each other, getting along with others, and simply being “good”. But Christianity is, first, about redemption and salvation; and its moral code must be understood in light of the Church’s teaching about salvation. The Church, as the Body of Christ, exists to save souls—not to make people feel good about themselves—and the Inquisition must be understood within that context.The Inquisition as such was not some single, permanent body but a multi-dimensional institution that did different things and behaved in different ways depending on when and where it operated. Inquisitions were local; there were inquisitions throughout the Catholic world, but in many areas they were almost entirely inactive. In Germany, the Inquisition was generally passive, and in England it remained quiet for decades on end. The Inquisitions were asked to intervene in cases of heresy, and in many places heresy was rare for long periods of time. This changed significantly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with the Albigensian (or Cathar) movement, particularly in the south of France. Today, it’s become fashionable to see the Albigensians as reformers or peace-loving proto-hippies. Hardly. In 1208 they murdered the representative of Pope Innocent III and promised the same for any further delegates from the Church. Church.
Initially the Church tried to argue them out of their ideas and for some years the Dominicans, in particular, preached and wrote in an attempt to put matters right and to facilitate reconciliation. But that attempt failed and a crusade was called by the Pope, emphasizing that the Cathars had to be educated, their confessions heard, and their route back into Christianity made as easy and fluid as possible. That hope did not materialize. The Cathars had become deeply unpopular and over two decades they were attacked by peasant mobs, armies, and local religious and military leaders. The Cathars were destroyed, but the Church realized that this no way to deal with militant heresy.
In 1231, Pope Gregory ordered the Dominicans to take charge of papal courts and decisions, working to prevent mob rule and to guarantee that the accused received a fair trial and the right of defence. This was the foundation of the Inquisition, and it was a move to control and limit violence, disruption, and division. It’s important to grasp that while the popular percpetion is that the Inquisition was determined to maim and kill, the central aim was actually to bring people back to the Church. A soul saved was a success; a person executed was a failure. Even if we cynically assign selfish motives to everybody involved, this would not have led to gratuitous violence but an obsessive effort to remove the heresy from the person rather than the person from the world.
Although no priest, monk, or member of any religious order was allowed to use torture, the Inquisition did use torture and people did suffer terribly. As they did when tortured by state bodies, the military, Islamic societies, and virtually every other power and force in medieval society. Torture existed. It was used. And used often. The Inquisition used it no more and usually less than other authorities with judicial power in the era. There were entire pamphlets written on the limits of torture in such cases and there were severe penalties for those who went beyond or broke these rules. But this has not prevented the popular myth of the ubiquitous and blood-thirsty Inquisition.
The Spanish Inquisition was established in the fifteenth century and modeled after the papal courts that already existed in Europe. It was founded precisely because Spain and the Church there were profoundly threatened by a real and pressing danger to the foundations of society and civilization. The country, in the late 1400s, had been taken back from the Muslims and from Muslim armies; it was subsequently united, but found itself a Catholic state with a large Jewish and Islamic minority. The reason for its foundation was the challenge of the large number of conversos, people who had left Islam and in particular Judaism for Christianity—some of them were new or recent Catholics, others came from families where parents or grandparents had converted. Both Muslims and Jews were in a highly unfair and difficult position. To participate fully in the emerging Catholic Spain, and to make any meaningful advance in Spanish society, they were far better off as Christians; tolerance varied from region to region and era to era but it was never advantageous to be non-Catholic in a country that increasingly linked religion with citizenship. The papacy supported the Spanish Inquisition in its early days, but the Inquisition soon became an organ of the Spanish state and the Spanish monarchy and was, to a certain extent, soiled by all of the politics and personal ambitions that secular power and secular ambition introduce to any struggle.
We could say so much more. But, to us enlightened denizens of the 21st century, the inquisitions seems entirely intolerable, inhumane, and uncivilized. Again, it is true that evils and sins were committed; abuses and falsehoods destroyed lives. But the mythology of millions of people tortured and executed is just that: mythology. As historian Fr. Marvin R. O’Connell, professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame, explains, “During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Spanish sovereignty extended from Italy to most of Latin America, on average less than three persons a year were executed by the Inquisition, which was formally constituted in all those places as well as at home.”
If we see the world anachronistically and without any sense of historical and cultural context, we will never understand it at all. But, today, when men are burned alive, when innocent children are beheaded in front of their parents, and when women are gang-raped—all with the backing of a widespread interpretation of Islam—we see not history but contemporary barbarism. It is far easier to accept myths about the past than to research the facts, just as it is far easier to draw facile parallels rather than directly face the horrors and dangers of the present.