June 16, 2004


Inquisition wasn't quite as bad as people think, says Pope (Bruce Johnston, The Telegraph, June 16th, 2004)

The Vatican sought to play down the terrors of the Inquisition yesterday, claiming that far fewer people were tortured and executed for heresy than was popularly believed.

The reassessment by Church historians was seized on by the Pope to qualify the apology he made for the Inquisition during the Church's millennium celebrations.

The research emerged from a conference of scholars convened in 1998 to help the Pope assess the impact of the Inquisition, which often used brutal methods to suppress alleged witchcraft and doctrinal unorthodoxy.

Church officials said that statistics and other data demolished myths about the Inquisition, including that torture and executions were commonly used.

"For the first time we studied the Inquisition in its entirety, from its beginnings to the 19th century," said Agostino Borromeo, a professor of history of Catholic and other Christian confessions at Rome's Sapienza University. Prof Borromeo said that while there were some 125,000 trials of suspected heretics in Spain, research found that about one per cent of the defendants were executed, far fewer than commonly believed. Many of the burnings at the stake were carried out by civil rather than religious tribunals.

Yesterday, the Pope reiterated his mea culpa but stressed that actions which had "disfigured the face of the Church" had to be viewed in their historical context.

My, won’t this leave our secular friends a-spluttering.

But why is the Vatican behaving like second-rate researchers from an obscure university trying to get some publicity for their research? Although this is completely accurate, are we really supposed to believe this is the first time Rome has studied the Inquisition or tried to figure out how many victims there were? Or has this more to do with second-guessing the flurry of rash apologies we have been treated to of late?

Posted by Peter Burnet at June 16, 2004 6:01 AM

Actually, it could be both.

Posted by: Chris at June 16, 2004 7:01 AM

And it certainly worked wonders for the nascent Dutch nation state and the Ottoman empire, among others....

Posted by: Barry Meislin at June 16, 2004 8:52 AM

"Many of the burnings at the stake were carried out by civil rather than religious tribunals."

It is my understanding that many of these were convicted by the religious tribunals, and delivered to the civil authorities for punishment. I suspect that it didn't make much difference to the victims who lighted the woodpile.

Posted by: Henry IX at June 16, 2004 10:30 AM

Henry IX:

That's a good example of a distinction without a difference.

What did Spain's King Phillip II say? Something to the effect of "I don't care how many thousands are put to the torch, so long as we are hunting heretics" perhaps?

And one would think that expelling all the Jews would count for something.

Posted by: at June 16, 2004 11:49 AM

The Spanish Inquisition was run by the Spanish crown, not the Papacy.

The reason the Papacy began the Inquisition was that civil authorities were already trying and executing people for heresy. Heresy was a civil crime because failure to comply with communal norms disrupted the bonds that tied society together and thus threatened the survival of the community. This was in league with past views on religion and society in pagan times (In the Roman Emperor, Emperor worship served the same function.) And later secular/atheist regimes in Jacobin France and Stalinist Russia essentially did the same thing.

The Inquisition was an attempt to limit the power of temporal powers into Church business and curb their abuses (the Church rightly said that the civil authorities were not competent as the Church in determining what was heresy.) This doesn't excuse any crimes actually committed, but it does change the often vitriolic anti-Catholic bias of the popular imagination of the Inquisition. Every history of the Middle Ages or Medieval Church that I read seem to constantly revise the # of deaths downward as time goes by.

The Inquisition and other similar institutions is not so much a mark on the Catholic Church as a mark on humanity in general.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at June 16, 2004 12:11 PM

Speaking as a second-rate researcher from an obscure university, I resent the picture you've painted of my honorable profession.

Posted by: H. D. Miller at June 16, 2004 1:40 PM

Peter, this apology leaves me splutterless, as did the Church's admission that they were wrong when they questioned the Copernican model of the Solar System. Shouldn't it be the dyed in the wool anti-hereticians and witch hunters like OJ who splutter to hear that the one true mediator for God on Earth has admitted to error?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at June 16, 2004 2:45 PM


It is, which may be why the Vatican is stepping back. All the spluttering from those anti-hereticians and witch hunters like Orrin is leading them back to basics. Just ask Harry.

Posted by: Peter B at June 16, 2004 3:15 PM

Sheesh. ALL executions were handled by the civil arm. After the clerics reduced their victims to crippled wrecks, they turned them over to the civil arm for execution of judgment, always with a commendation to consider exercising mercy.

Mercy was often on their lips, never in their hearts.

For the Church to continue to describe these events as "trials" just proves the Church has not yet admitted what its crime and sin was.

The number of dead -- dwarfed by the number committed for life to the dungeons of the Holy Office -- or the number of cripples that the Church did not bother to burn is not the issue, though maybe it's an issue.

The problem is not that the Church made a mistake. Everybody makes mistakes.

The crime was that the supposed moral guiders of a continent made a mistake and persisted in it for centuries.

Even if we accept Orrin's view about the necessity of having an Inquisition (or Chris's mistaken view of its origin), no moral person can possibly accept the framework in which it was pursued.

To take just one of quite a few outrageous practices of the Holy Office, all heirs or family of a condemned heretic were dispossessed, without any "trial." (This was, in many perhaps most cases, a death sentence.)

Orrin, a fan of eternal punishment via Original Sin, might not find something wrongheaded about that, but Chris, a lawyer, might be expected to.

Again, the enormity of the crime did not relate to the magnitude of the error (though it was huge) but to the persistence in error.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at June 16, 2004 8:01 PM