Fr. Brian Van Hove, S.J., on the “mythology and reality” of the Inquisitions

If you’ve read Fr. Brian Van Hove’s recent Catholic World Report review of Cullen Murphy’s book, God’s Jury, you might also be interested in his essay, “The Inquisitions of History: The Mythology and the Reality”, on Ignatius Insight:

An ecclesiastical inquisition in Europe was a court system adapted from Roman law. It was an institutional tribunal charged with protecting orthodox religious doctrine and church discipline. From 1414-1418 (Constance) and 1438 (Basle), the church was shaped by lawyers who were consulted for the councils. Canonists were needed for church order and to make crucial distinctions.

Jurists keep good records, clean records and abundant records. Curialists write neatly. Scribes are taught to be legible. Because of this legal infrastructure, we can today study the inquisitions, unlike some other institutions which are lost to us due to a lack of quality documentation. Fortuitously, inquisition material survived European wars. We should also use the plural and speak of “inquisitions” since there were a number of them in different times and places. We now use the capital letter “I” to refer to a specific historical inquisition, such as the Venetian or Spanish, or even the earliest one during the Albigensian era in southern France. For the Inquisition and its procedures in Italy during Galileo’s time, we have John Tedeschi’s The Prosecution of Heresy: Collected Studies on the Inquisition in Early Modern Italy (1991).

Due to the work of newer historians, such as Edward Peters in his Inquisition (1988), we use The Inquisition to speak of the mythology surrounding these institutions. Such mythology passed down to us as folklore, the result largely of successful Protestant anti-Roman propaganda, particularly coming from the Spanish Netherlands.

When medieval Europeans used the word “inquisition,” they referred first to a judicial technique, not an organization or body. There was, in fact, no such thing as “the inquisition” in the sense of an impersonal bureaucracy with a supervisory chain of command. Instead there were those individuals appointed as “inquisitors of heretical depravity” who were assigned by the pope or by the local bishop to inquire into heresy in particular areas. They were called such because they applied a procedure known as inquisitio which could be translated as “inquiry” or “inquest”. In this process, which was already widely used by secular rulers (Henry II used it extensively in England in the twelfth century), an official inquirer called upon the public for information on a given subject from anyone who felt he had something to submit. Normally, this information was treated as acutely confidential. The official inquirer, aided by competent consultants, then weighed the evidence and determined whether there was reason for further action.

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About Carl E. Olson 1190 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.