Anthony Burgess once was reported to have said of
himself, “Just because I don’t believe in God, doesn’t mean I am not a
Catholic!” While Cullen Murphy, in his latest book, self-presents as someone we
might still call a “cultural Catholic” (on page 9: “as a Catholic growing up
with many Jesuit friends”; and on page 24: “I began to explore the Inquisition
as one who happens to be both a Catholic and an American”; and on page 78: “as
a boy growing up in the 1950s and 1960s…I remember references in Catholic liturgy”),
possibly his natural intellectual home is with the religiously hostile New
Atheists, who include Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris,
Christopher Hitchens, and Victor J. Stenger, though Murphy does not himself say
In passing, let us recall that the premier Old
Atheist, more informed and articulate than all of the new ones put together,
was Anthony Flew (1923‒2010). At last he rejected atheism after a lengthy
academic career and much fame. Flew never took interest in Roman law or its
offspring, the Inquisitions. His obituary called him “a welcome counterblast to
recent antireligious best-sellers.” Among those best-sellers, must we add Murphy’s
latest offering, God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making
of the Modern World?
Murphy never claims to be an historian. His
edited informal conversations with noted historians (Eamon Duffy, Henry Kamen,
Edward Peters, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Peter Godman, Francisco Bethencourt)
are nonetheless impressive. But what is curious is the omission of other
serious and relevant historians, including Knights Templar and Joan of
Arc-specialist Régine Pernoud, Helen Rawlings, ‘historian-prophet’ Christopher
Dawson, Paul F. Grendler, and the distinguished Paul Johnson. They do not merit
an entry in the general bibliography.
On page 253, Murphy thanks certain historians for
their guidanceFrancisco Bethencourt, David Kertzer, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie,
Edward Peters, and John Tedeschi. (We prudently wonder how much of the book was
composed by Murphy himself and how much was redacted or ghost-written by
research associates, European style?)
His subject is treated midway in the perplexing
landscape between erudite banter and entertainment, with at least one fine
exception. The disagreement between Benzion Netanyahu and Henry Kamen over the
social causes of the Spanish Inquisition is fittingly presented in “A Clash of
Explanations” (pages 94-102). The conclusion of Henry Kamen is that Spanish
society was already “curdled” before the Inquisition emerged. Curdled (page
101)!? Without this section and with numerous asides and spurious remarks (and
a needlessly ugly dust jacket), Murphy may just remind us of Dan Brown, whose
2003 The Da Vinci Code uses religious themes
and historical references to develop a conspiratorial and fictional plot. Brown
is mentioned neither in the bibliography nor in the index nor in the
acknowledgements, but The Da Vinci Code
is referred to by name on page 29.
In 2003 both Mark Massa and Philip Jenkins
published works on anti-Catholicism subtitled “The Last Acceptable Prejudice.” Francis
J. Beckwith speaks of the “New
Anti-Catholicism.” Acute anti-Catholicism was on display when rapper Nicki
Minaj arrived at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards, held at the Staples Center on
February 12, 2012 in Los Angeles, on
the arm of a man dressed as the pope.
Or again with The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told,
an off-Broadway play performed recently at the Blumenthal Performing Arts
Center in Charlotte, North Carolina that recounts the adventures of “Adam and
Steve.” These are high-class blasphemy compared to the low-class blasphemy of the
Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence’s “Hunky Jesus Competition” in San Francisco in
2008. Many say California is the cultural climate indicator for the way the
rest of the nation will eventually go.
Some Jews complain that other Jews are
anti-Semitic; likewise in our confirmed age of apostasy some “Catholics” may be
anti-Catholic. Mr. Murphy would never ridicule homosexuals, Jews, Muslims, the
handicapped, Communists, socialists,
or women the way he does the Catholic Church, which,
in this book,
was never right and always in the wrong. Perhaps only an apostate can do as
well in promoting this perspective as Murphy has done. Experiencing the Church
“from the inside” is an advantage, as we know from Murphy’s American “spiritual
kinsmen,” James Carroll and Garry Wills, whom he at times cites.
Murphy might profit from the following anecdote.
There was a conversation not long after Vatican II between Henri de Lubac and
Hans Küng on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Küng was complaining
about the Church when de Lubac interrupted him to say, “But she is our Mother.”
During the informal conversations recounted between Küng and Murphy, we hoped
in vain to learn whether de Lubac’s remark to Küng had made a difference (page
182-183). It never crossed Murphy’s mind to imitate the docility of Pierre
Teilhard de Chardin (page 173).
One improves in the spiritual life when not
quarrelling with one’s mother. Murphy’s seething tone is almost unbearable, and
it represents much more than a quarrel. He is devoid of feeling for a medieval
European society (or apparently any society) ripped and bitten by pernicious
sects at various intervals, sects so vile that at least one of them (the
Albigensians, or Cathars) wanted to abolish marriage. He rejects
confidentiality, either professional or personal, and he expects the clergy of
whatever rank to expose their thoughts and deliberations in a way that would
satisfy the curiosity of ecclesiastical enemies. This is an assumption that
infects the bookthe author complains on every page about secret procedures of
the Church down through time in general or the Inquisitions in particular. For
Murphy, matters of conscience should be open to leering eyes.
This is really a book which denounces Church
authority at every turn. For Murphy, the exercise of ecclesiastical authority
is to blame for everything. When Hans Küng’s missio
canonica is discussed on page 110, there is no mention of why Cardinal Šeper was obliged to remove the missio from Küng. Never are two sides treated equally and
with fairness, even when we know that “ideas rule the world.”
Philosophically, Murphy has no evident concern
for the “common good.” Paul Johnson in his History of Christianity
and Ronald Knox in his Enthusiasm give
us details about gnostic sects and other dangerous groups, some from the
Reformation era, but Murphy would depict them simply as points of view in a
world of many competing points of view. In other words, the Church was wrong to
put the label “poison” on any bottle whatsoever, contents notwithstanding.
Murphy is a relativist. For him there is no
absolute truth, certainly no religious truth worth living for or worth dying
for. He is implicitly unwilling to make the distinction between the innocent
and the guilty when it comes to error, since error has the same privileges as
truth. All offenders should be exonerated in a world devoid of truth. Our
author is a naïve scion of the Enlightenment. Here we are talking philosophy,
not practice. Obviously human failing is of a different order. The Inquisitions
may have been the instruments of faltering hands in a Fallen World, but the
philosophy was not the same as that of Auschwitz, nor the Gulag. Somewhere Karl
Barth was supposed to have quipped words to this effect: “If there is no such
thing as heresy, then there is no such thing as the truth.”
Our author further recalls for us the analogy of
an Italian-American son of immigrants in 1942. He is in the army and meets
other personnel from around the United States. He is ashamed of his parents,
who speak broken English, grow grapes in their backyard, wear quaint
old-worldish clothes, and attend saccharine Our Lady of Perpetual Help
devotions in their parish in the Bronx. Little does our soldier know that his
own children will grow up and re-evaluate their grandparents, even going to
Italy to discover what kind of cultural soil produced such sources of spiritual
inspiration for their own youthful generation. The embarrassment of one
generation becomes the pride of the next. Perhaps Mr. Murphy should have a
discussion with Mr. Michael Coren, Mr. H. W. Crocker III, or Mr. Thomas E.
Woods, Jr. on the subject of Catholicism’s role in the formation of Western
civilization, a role in which inquisitions played a miniscule part. Murphy
might investigate “comparative institutions” to see how many people the British
monarchy or the French monarchy tortured in comparison with the Inquisitions.
Murphy is overly preoccupied with applauding Carlo Ginzburg’s call for an orgy
of shame on the part of contemporary Catholics (page 231).
A minor observation: Murphy spends a volume of
words lavishly describing the countrysideespecially the French countrysideand
Roman buildings, particularly the building that houses the Holy Office
Archives. Spare us these tedious excursions, please. Do we really need to hear
about the transponders in the National Archives of the United States (page
201)? Here is an amusingly pertinent line from page 216: “Bits of duct tape lie
among the droppings of banana rats.” It certainly encourages some readers to
adopt the “entertainment theory” about God’s Jury.
Similarly, too much time is spent on describing a
few minor players in the discussion. The low-level curialist who supervises the
Holy Office Archives may be a nice fellow, but we simply do not need to hear
every detail about his automobile, or his personal habits, or his verbal
asides. It matters only to those wishing to be entertained by authors who write
provoked and goaded by the fodder of the news.
There are some micro-corrections for the record.
Had Murphy relied upon Régine Pernoud, he might have profitably avoided the
less-precise usage for the word “crusade” that we find in many references to
the medieval period and the Cathars (page 31). Perhaps “campaign” is better and
On page 110 Murphy states that the Holy Office
Archives were first opened to competent scholars in 1998. My personal
experience is that I used them in 1994, and already there were German and
Italian scholars at work when I arrived. I also had dealings with the
archivist, Msgr. Alejandro Cifres, whom I thank in the acknowledgments section
inside the front cover of my obscure dissertation in anti-Jansenist studies.
A not-so-micro-observation, concerning
accusations against Pius XII that begin on page 5: “It was under
twenty-four-hour papal surveillance, watched over by a marble bust of Pius XII,
a stern and enigmatic pontiff and now a candidate for sainthood, despite his
troubling record in the face of the Holocaust.” Again, on page 229: “To be
sure, they closed the door at the papacy of Eugenio PacelliPius XIIwhose
silence during World War II, as evidence mounted of German genocide, has drawn
both abiding scorn and uneasy apologetics.” Does this suggest that Murphy has
not read Gary L. Krupp’s 2010 Pope Pius XII and World
War II, The Documented Truth: A Compilation of International Evidence Revealing
the Wartime Acts of the Vatican? The Pave the Way Foundation is not
the only important defender of Pius XII, eitherjust the most recent and the
most Jewish perhaps since Eugenio Zolli (1881-1956) or Pinchas Lapide
(1922‒1997). For Murphy so late in the day to engage in Pius-bashing is
unhistorical and venomous.
Our author does not explain why there were so
many Jews in Rome in the first place. Refugees from the Spanish Inquisition? More
exactly refugees from the construction of the new unified Spain, accepted and
resettled by pontifical Rome!
Although he does not include the case of Peter
the Hermit (c. 1050‒1115) possibly stirring up anti-Semitism at the time of the
First Crusade, the Jews and the Inquisitions come in for special scrutiny in
this book, especially the Spanish conversos. Even
so, Jewish scholars, divided among themselves, are likely to produce
interpretations in contrast to Murphy’s. David Kertzer’s work on the Edgardo
Mortara case indicates that the exception proves the rule. The Jews were
relatively well treated in the Pontifical States and their law prevailed in the
Jewish Quarters as an exception to general law in a theocracy. Edgardo was
almost pampered after 1858, when his family fell afoul of legalistic canons
that, because of a transfer of “theological jurisdiction” over a citizen in the
Papal States, seemed beyond even the pope’s reach. Pius IX took special
interest in the case. That legalistic magistrates said of Edgardo, “He is
ours!” is not surprising in a world anxious about the fate of unbaptized babies
and where the indelible mark of the sacrament is understood as a “branding.”
This jurisdictional situation over the baptized
would save Jews during World War II in some parts of Europe, when even the
claim of their false baptismal documents was accepted by civil authorities as
proof of non-Jewishness! Such a reversal, such a twist. While in the Mortara case
the solution may have been defective, it was far from common to find baptized
Jewish children snatched from their parents in order to be brought up by
Catholics in Italy. Such evokes thoughts of the silly talk of the ill-informed.
(For more on the legal system, see James F. Hitchcock’s article “Inquisition.”)
Curiously, Murphy does not dredge up another 19th-century
bogey so dear to the descendants of the Enlightenmentthe alleged banning of
vaccinations in the Papal States during the time of Leo XII. This would have
involved many hundreds of children, and it would have been an illustration of
the Church’s war on science. A missed opportunity?
Occurring in different centuries, the Galileo
affair and the Edgardo Mortara case both have to do with an Augustinian
sacramental theology accepted in the West over the ages. In the one instance,
it concerned the Eucharist, and in the other, baptism. The Church has no
jurisdiction over science, but she does have jurisdiction over and a divine
mandate to protect her own dogmatics. Mr. Murphy should explain the theology
involved to help the reader. Instead, he attacks. Consult Karen Liebreich, Fallen Order: Intrigue, Heresy, and Scandal in the Rome of Galileo and
Caravaggio (New York: Grove Press, 2004) pages 9 and 155. Liebreich,
perhaps no more sympathetic than Murphy to much of this history, at least
introduces transubstantiation in the complex cases of Bruno and Galileo.
On page 3 of Murphy’s book we read:
“The members of the papal curia are famously tone-deaf when it comes to public
are men who in recent years have invited a Holocaust-denying bishop to return
to the Church, have tried to persuade Africans that the use of condoms will
make the AIDS crisis worse, and have told the indigenous peoples of Latin
America that their religious beliefs are ‘a step backward’.” There is not
enough space in any review to answer everything, but the snarky reference to
AIDS begs for a reply.
None other than a senior research scientist at the Harvard
School of Public Health, an AIDS specialist, defended the Pope on the
matter of condoms. See Edward C. Green, “Condoms,
HIV-AIDS and Africa: The Pope Was Right”
(March 29, 2009).
Throughout his book, Murphy refuses to
acknowledge that there are, at the very least, two sides to every story. For
him, the Catholic Church is always wrong, or at least when it comes to the
Enlightenment themes of the Cathars, the Spanish Inquisition, Galileo, the
European Jews, and, by extension, any contemporary dissenters from the Magisterium.
Jean Daniélou once said that we do not lack authority in the Church, but we
lack the exercise of authority in the Church. He was speaking of the immediate
post-Vatican II decomposition. Murphy is against any exercise of valid
authority, seemingly regarding it by definition as merely religious arrogance.
Of course, Murphy rants against Pius IX for the
Syllabus of Errors (1864) and Pius X for the anti-Modernist oath (1910) so he
can sing the praises of Modernism or modernity, as the case may be (pages
171-172) But then he conveniently leaves out the 1950 Humani Generis
controversy in the reign of Pius XII. Liberal historians such as Thomas
Bokenkotter agree with Murphy, but not one of them is cited. Bokenkotter is not
in the general bibliography. Perhaps Murphy felt he had enough anti-Catholic
ammunition without this support.
Faithful to his Irish heritage, Mr. Murphy is not
without humor. On page 201 we read that he thinks the destruction of the
archives of Carcassone was funny, or at least a friend of his thought it was
funny, and so the anecdote was repeated for our entertainment. It gets funnier.
On pages 202 and 226 we learn that in the National Archives “people sometimes
get trapped when the shelving closes.” Laugh Out Loud.
In sum, what is Murphy’s methodological failure?
One can compare institutions with others of the same era, such as the Spanish
Inquisition and, for example, the French monarchy and the English monarchy. If
the Jews were expelled from Spain and the Huguenots were exiled from France, so
were the Anabaptists expelled from Lutheran Germany. We can compare those
events, let us say, horizontally. But vertically, or in a linear time-line, one
cannot in academic history perform facile tricks such as comparing the NKVD or
the Stasi or the Federal Bureau of Investigation with the Spanish Inquisition.
It is tendentious. In another work, Murphy asks, “Are we Romans?” Perhaps that
has the same methodological flaw. We just cannot ask, “Are we God’s jury?” or,
“Are we Inquisitors?”
Walter Isaacson wrote in the New York
Times on May 13, 2007, “In his provocative and lively Are We Rome? Cullen Murphy provides these requisite caveats
as he engages in a serious effort to draw lessons from a comparison of
America’s situation today with that of imperial Rome. Founded, according to
tradition, as a farming village in 753 B.C., Rome enjoyed 12 centuries of rise
and fall before the barbarians began overwhelming the gates in the fifth
century. During that time it became a prosperous and sometimes virtuous
republic and then a dissolute and corrupt empire that was destined to be mined
for contemporary lessons by historians beginning with Edward Gibbon, whose
first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
was fittingly published in the British empire in 1776.”
Indeed, are we Rome?
Perhaps we should look into Vaclav Smil’s 2010 Why America
Is Not a New Rome to get the other side of it. There are always at least two sides.
Since she is not listed in the Murphy
bibliography, and if you, as the gracious reader, want an undistorted and sober
summary of the state of the research on the Inquisition, see Helen Rawlings’
“The Balance of History” (pages 151‒156) in her
2006 The Spanish Inquisition.
Or if you prefer erudite gossip and entertainment
shaped into a conspiracy-fiction narrative, then read Cullen Murphy’s God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World,
and you will not be disappointed. The author denies the conspiracy theory of
history (pages 20-21) while reconstructing an exotic version of his own
invention. We cannot intuit his intended audience nor the real genre of this work,
so perhaps neither historians nor entertainerscalled pundits in the popular
literary worldwill be happy with God’s Jury. Is
Murphy just a younger Malachi Martin or a James J. Kavanaugh, the latter of whom in
1967 brought us A Modern Priest Looks at his Outdated Church?
No! Murphy was never a priest.
As to the argument of
the Inquisition-model morphing and re-morphing itself into our times, from
pre-Christian days to the present, the reasonable response to this hypothesis
is by French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, who is cited by Murphy as
giving a “think what you wish” shrug (page 59). Shrug instead of buying this
intend to wade into the quagmire of anti-Catholicism.
God’s Jury is a device to permit any contemporary dissenters,
not just liberal theologians, to remain in good standing with the Church. In
that event, the author should defend their ideas outright and not use history
as a parable. Murphy defends Hans Küng and the usual European suspects. He
defends some Americans as well, occasionally a non-liberal, but strangely he
omits the famous cases of Barbara Ferrara and Patricia Hussey
(“the abortion nuns”), Roger Haight, Donald J. McGuire, the
Belgian Jacques Dupuis, and the Mexican Marcial Maciel. Cullen Murphy does not
tell us why they are left out, since they incurred canonical penalties in one
form or another. Perhaps there was a word limit from the publisher.
God’s Jury: The Inquisition and
the Making of the Modern World
by Cullen Murphy
Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
310 pages, including Index