November 27, 2004


Inquisition (Dr. James Hitchcock, Nov-Dec 1996, Catholic Dossier)

The modern historiography of the Inquisition, most of it by non-Catholic historians, has resulted in a careful, relatively precise, and on the whole rather moderate image of the institution, some of the most important works being; Edward Peters, Inquisition; Paul F. Grendler, The Roman Inquisition and the Venetian Press; John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy; and Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition.

Some of their conclusions are:

* The inquisitors tended to be professional legists and bureaucrats who adhered closely to rules and procedures rather than to whatever personal feelings they may have had on the subject.

* Those roles and procedures were not in themselves unjust. They required that evidence be presented, allowed the accused to defend themselves, and discarded dubious evidence.

* Thus in most cases the verdict was a “just” one in that it seemed to follow from the evidence.

* A number of cases were dismissed, or the proceedings terminated at some point, when the inquisitors became convinced that the evidence was not reliable.

* Torture was only used in a small minority of cases and was allowed only when there was strong evidence that the defendant was lying. In some instances (for example, Carlo Ginzburg's study of the Italian district of Friulia) there is no evidence of the use of torture at all.

* Only a small percentage of those convicted were executed — at most two to three percent in a given region. Many more were sentenced to life in prison, but this was often commuted after a few years. The most common punishment was some form of public penance.

* The dreaded Spanish Inquisition in particular has been grossly exaggerated. It did not persecute millions of people, as is often claimed, but approximately 44,000 between 1540 and 1700, of whom less than two per cent were executed.

* The celebrated case of Joan of Arc was a highly irregular inquisitorial procedure rigged by her political enemies, the English. When proper procedures were followed some years later, the Inquisition exonerated her posthumously.

* Although the Inquisition did prosecute witchcraft, as did almost every secular government, the Roman inquisitors by the later sixteenth century were beginning to express serious doubts about most such accusations.

The Inquisition has long been the bete noir of practically everyone who is hostile to the Church, such as Continental European anti-clericals. But its mythology has been especially strong in the English-speaking lands, including America.

Much of this is due to John Foxe's Acts and Monuments (commonly called his Book of Martyrs), which for centuries was standard reading for devout Protestants, alongside the Bible and John Bunyan. Foxe, an Elizabethan, detailed numerous stories of Protestant martyrs, especially during the reign of Queen Mary. Ironically, in view of the ways the book has been used, Mary's persecution of Protestants had nothing to do with the Inquisition, which did not exist in England.

But the English-speaking hatred of the Inquisition also stems from the unfamiliar legal system that institution employed. “Inquisition” of course means merely “inquiry,” something which in itself is hardly sinister. But most Continental legal systems, in contrast to English common law, were derived from Roman law and used not the adversarial system but one in which the judges were not neutral umpires of the proceedings but were charged with ferreting out the truth.

No one cares what the truth of the Inquisition was--the myth is too handy a weapon for bigots.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 27, 2004 6:40 AM

Whether it's one victim or a million, the question remains: Who Would Jesus Burn?

Posted by: Daniel Duffy at November 27, 2004 9:25 AM

"No one cares what the truth of the Inquisition was--the myth is too handy a weapon for bigots."

As Mr Duffy is more than willing to demonstrate.

Too bad he didn't go for a two-fer and fit the Crusades in there somewhere.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at November 27, 2004 12:14 PM

The truth is still damning. Persecuting someone for their religious beliefs is evil.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at November 27, 2004 12:44 PM

Amen, Robert.

I well remember Catholic teaching, justifying the murder of Hus for example (it was a one-way safe conduct). This is more of the same, just as dishonest as all the rest.

This narrow description of the Inquisition conveniently ignores what its victims faced.

While the Spanish Inquisition is, as Orrin says, the only one most people have heard of, the Netherlands Inquistion was more deadly. And that doesn't even count the heretics who were murdered without process. Alva bragged he'd done in 20,000.

I expect John Paul to nominate him for sainthood pretty soon.

The excesses of the Inquisition are not to be measured by the body count but by the profound immorality of the Church.

Item: Protestant mariners, trading peacefully, who were thrown by storms into Spanish territory, were prosecuted, sometimes burned, by the Inquisitors.

Item: eliminaton of the Jews.

Item: burning of books.

The Inquisition was a terrorist organization and a very effective one.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at November 27, 2004 1:54 PM


Do you guys also believe persecuting people for their secular beliefs is evil?

Posted by: Peter B at November 27, 2004 2:28 PM

One thing that should be remembered is that unlike today, back then religion was not seen as a private matter. Originally, it was the secular authorities who were arresting and executing heretics. That was because heresy was seen as disrupting the social bounds - more akin to radical anarchism today.

The Church established the inquisition as a means to insert some sort of order and justice into the proceedings. In comparison to what existed before, the Inquisition was actually a liberal move.

It's very important to place the Inquisition into its actual context, and not pretend that medieval society was 2004 America.

Another thing I've noticed is that the worst examples of the Inquisition people use are always the one when state authorities used their control of the Church to enact state policy (the Spanish King seems particularly bad in this regard).

Posted by: Chris Durnell at November 27, 2004 2:53 PM

Alexander bragged he beat a million Persians--no one of scientific bent takes such numbers seriously, only fanatics.

Posted by: oj at November 27, 2004 3:17 PM

What did you have in mind in the way of secular beliefs? Communism? Darwinism? I think that it is evil to subject someone to the threat of imprisonment or death solely for their intellectual or religious beliefs. I am against all thought-crime policies by a state. If people are willing to live peacably within society and respect the rights and property of others, then the state should leave them be in their religious or secular belief systems.

Chris, what you are saying is that we should judge the Church by the standards of men. Fine, but that is not what they represent, they represent the standards of God. If they can't meet those standards, then they should say so and recuse themselves from the intermediation of God and men.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at November 27, 2004 4:55 PM


That's a simple preference for freedom as an end to decency as an end. Vindicating the rights of Klansmen, communists, paedophiles, psychopaths, etc. makes perfect sense if you don't care about anything but freedom.

Posted by: oj at November 27, 2004 6:01 PM


I agree with you completely--that is what America and even points north are all about. But I did wonder why you specified "religous beliefs" instead of just "beliefs".

Chris' point is a good one--whether secular or religious, there will arise ideas that threaten the commonweal, and they won't always be content to reside solely in the privacy of homes and private thoughts, or respect the ballot box. I think Harry's applauding of your enlightened tolerance is hilarious given his oft-stated views on Islam. But forgive me if I suspected that your scepticism leads you to consider all religions as equally temporary, silly and wrong, and that therefore you defend them all equally with verve in a way you would never do with secular heresies, some of which you might well see as genuinely dangerous and worthy of oppression.

Posted by: Peter B at November 27, 2004 6:11 PM

Quare, how is it that the "Inquisition" is associated with the persecution of Jews? I had thought the Christian Inquisition had jurisdiction over Christians only.

Posted by: Lou Gots at November 27, 2004 10:15 PM

It is when thoughts turn into action that they can become dangerous. OJ would lock up the white supremacist who does no more than publish his screed on the internet. He has a lot in common with the university politically correct multicultural language police that he so often bewails.

There is a difference between philosophies that are anti-social, and those that are just different from the norm without meaning to pose any threat. Jews living in a Christian country are the latter. There is reason to protect society from forces that would overturn its basis for existence, such as communism attempts to do with our system of free enterprise and private property. You just draw the line when the neighborhood communist goes beyond speaking his mind to organizing the overthrow of the government.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at November 28, 2004 12:41 AM


Not lock them up, allow society to treat them roughly, rather than protecting their hate.

Posted by: oj at November 28, 2004 10:57 AM

Society does treat them roughly. I'm all for social ostracism, if it is earned.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at November 28, 2004 1:48 PM

Everyone is, so long as they get to determine "earned" by themself.

Posted by: oj at November 28, 2004 1:50 PM

Peter, pay attention. I've said, many times, that only a fraction of Muslims are making incessant war on infidels.

Where I part company with many is in assessing what fraction. I think it's most of them.

Surely you do not contend that no Muslims are making war against infidels in the name of religion?

The inert can be left well enough alone.

Just to take Klansmen as an example, we do not in this country persecute them for thinking racist thoughts.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at November 28, 2004 7:38 PM


Wow, that gets the doublespeak award for the week.

Posted by: oj at November 28, 2004 7:47 PM

Why? You think there is a difference between Islam and Islamicism.

I make a different distinction, based on behaviors; but otherwise no different from what you do.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at November 30, 2004 2:30 AM

Yes, there are a billion Muslims and a few thousand Islamicists, fewer every day.

Posted by: oj at November 30, 2004 8:47 AM

"Everyone is, so long as they get to determine "earned" by themself."

As opposed to who? You? Robert Kraynak?

I trust the collective wisdom of the crowd to make a better determination of what to ostracise more than I would trust any one man.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at November 30, 2004 3:24 PM

There is no "opposed."

Posted by: oj at November 30, 2004 3:37 PM