Before we even consider the actual Inquisition, let’s clear the landscape of hoary tales and misconceptions. Contrary to popular notions, the Inquisition
- began in France, not Spain, and indeed, the well-known Inquisition trial of Joan of Arc for heresy was the result of trumped-up charges supported by bribes from English King Henry VI;
- had no jurisdiction over Jews, but only over Catholics (including converted Jews who were accused of reverting to Judaism while pretending to be Christian);
- executed about 1 percent of those brought before it for a total, using the even the most damning estimates, of less than 40,000 people executed (about half in effigy only) over the roughly 730 years of its existence.
The Inquisition as an ecclesiastical institution did not exist until 1233, but was first proposed in France by King Louis VIII in 1226. His decree of that year ordered that people excommunicated by the diocesan bishop, or his delegate, receive “due punishment,” a task his successor expressly delegated to barons in 1249. Similar decrees emerged in various Western kingdoms.
This occurred against the backdrop of concern about religiously imbued peasant revolts and popular movements such as the Cathari (Albigensians), which persuaded many Christians to deny some of the more philosophical tenets of the faith and to adopt an anticlerical (and anti-nobility) proto-puritannical stance. In response to these realities, the Third Lateran Council in 1179 authorized bishops or their delegates to conduct judicial processes to declare certain believers to be heretics, as needed.
However, when civil authorities and laypeople took to enforcing such decretals the pseudo-justice meted out was brutal and in most cases based on primitive legal concepts.
Remember that this was an age in which torture of commoners was the norm in all legal proceedings; the theory was that such people could not be trusted to tell the truth unless it was under duress. Often guilt or innocence was discerned by “sink or swim” methods, including tying a rock to the accused’s neck and seeing if God revealed the person’s innocence by somehow preventing the drowning. Hence the term “trial.”
As a further example, allow me to cite Simon de Montfort, the earl of Leicester who married into the French nobility, who boasted that in 1211 his men had burned alive many neo-Manicheans (followers of a body-soul dualistic philosophy). The gentleman and his men were convinced they were carrying out an edict of King Philippe Auguste, which was based on a Lateran III decree about eliminating heresy, thus they deemed that, undoubtedly, theirs was a Christian deed.
When Pope Gregory IX established the papal inquisition, including norms applicable to the whole Church, in 1233, it was a step toward introducing throughout Europe the legal notion of a judicial inquiry in which recorded testimony and evidence was weighed. The original intention was high minded and civilizing.
It also reflected the general behavior of the clergy in these matters. In 1076 Pope Gregory VII excommunicated a Christian mob in Cambrai that had seized and burned a Cathar judged by the bishop to have be a heretic. In 1145 clergy at Liege rescued victims from a similar crowd.
Unfortunately, Gregory IX’s inquisition came at a time in which the most common episcopal judicial proceedings, in France, were operated with the presiding judge taking an investigative role, rather than that of an impartial arbiter. The Inquisitor was born.
Gregory assigned the enforcing task to St. Dominic’s Order of Preachers. Along with the Franciscans, the Dominicans were critical of corruption within the ranks of the clergy—oddly enough, much like the Cathari, yet from the standpoint of orthodox or conventional Christian teaching.
The Inquisition was a failure of judgment and a departure from the faith on a number of grounds.
Jesus’ words and example emphasized persuasion and charity toward those who would not listen to the good news. Faith was described as a gift from God, rather than something earned or acquired.
Apostles were never encouraged to do more than simply walk away from the unbeliever: “And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words: going forth out of that house or city shake off the dust from your feet.” (Matthew 10:14) Unbelievers who were enemies? “Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you.” (Matthew 5:44)
As if that were not enough, the Inquisition became an instrument of the Spanish state when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel established the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, seizing control of the papal inquisition within their domains in 1478, with permission from Pope Sixtus IV. The Spanish monarchs were allowed to appoint three clerics, usually Dominicans, to run the Holy Office, whose name came to inspire terror until it was abolished in 1834 by Queen Isabel II.
The major flaws of the Holy Office, in addition to the lack of charity and presumption of judging others implicit in the entire exercise of inquiring into the “purity” of someone else’s faith, was that like any state institution it became subject to political abuse, corruption and sheer incompetence. The Holy Office became a convenient means to further consolidate the nation’s Iberian and Christian character after the final battlefield victory over the Moors and the expulsion of Jews, both in the momentous year 1492.
It allowed suspicion to be cast on many of Islamic or Jewish background who converted to remain in Spain, on the basis of testimony often offered for venal reasons. Similarly, envious people falsely accused at least two major Spanish literary figures—including Miguel de Cervantes and Fray Luis de León—leading to their incarceration for years until they were cleared.
An aggressive counting of people publicly executed in Autos de Fe between 1701 and 1746 yields 111 deaths and 117 executions in effigy—the latter of people adjudged heretics yet somehow not in the custody of the Inquisition.
The papal Holy Office was not abolished until 1968 by Pope Paul VI. Its successor agency, the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith, at one time headed by one Joseph Ratzinger, cardinal and later pope, only has claim on the control of official texts and the public works of theologians, with no penalty greater than suppression of the material in question.