Nobody expects (what really happened during) the Spanish Inquisition!

Nobody expects (what really happened during) the Spanish Inquisition!

I’m not a historian, nor an historian, but I do know there is more to the Inquisition than is popularly believed. My first brush with the truth about the Inquisition came from a discussion I had with my old Acton boss, Fr. Robert Sirico. Knowing nothing about what actually happened, I tossed out the idea that the Church has bad things in its past like the Inquisition. Fr. Robert calmly described that there were excesses, but that the principle was to pursue what the name implies: an inquiry. Specifically, the Church wanted to inquire whether people adhered to heretical ideas. That didn’t seem too controversial to me at the time; it would seem obvious that any organization would want to know whether its members subscribed to ideas that completely undermined the spirit and beliefs of the organization. So, I was on my way to uncovering the truth behind what Everyone Knows about the Inquisition.

This showed up in flickr’s Creative Commons search, posted by Alejandra Gamgeek from Gallifrey. Sue her.

Catholic Answers’ director of marketing Jon Sorensen blogged recently about a BBC documentary that attempts to fairly analyze what is known about the Spanish Inquisition. The summarized facts about the Spanish Inquisition that he mentions seem supportive of the Inquisition in general. From Alan Shreck’s The Compact History of the Catholic Church:

Because of wealth and corruption in the Church, certain groups such as the Cathars and Waldensians were drawing many people away from the Catholic Church in Europe and teaching them to deny the humanity of Christ, to reject the sacraments, and to deny the spiritual authority of priests and of the Church. In response to this, the Catholic Church established, in the twelfth century, a legal procedure and tribunal to question those who were suspected of holding false, or heretical, teaching. This legal proceeding and tribunal was known as the Inquisition (p. 50, 1st ed).

Unfortunately, the intermingling of Church and state led governments to engage in prosecutions and punishments. Many of the barbaric acts associated with the Inquisition were acts of the state, not the Church. In fact, supposed heretics and even people already in prison for other crimes, desired their trials before Church tribunals because of its reputation for leniency compared to state courts.

Note the absence of clerical garb. “People burned as heretics.jpg” at wikimedia commons.

As Karl Keating points out in a chapter on the Inquisition in his Catholicism and Fundamentalism, and as Sorensen mentions, the number of deaths attributable to the Inquisition is much lower than is commonly believed. Certainly, the punishment for heresy should never be the death penalty, and I’m not suggesting that the Inquisition was a high point for the Church. It just wasn’t as low as most people think.

In addition to the Sorensen post, Catholic Answers has a few pages devoted to different aspects of the Inquisition: here, here, and here. As with everything, the pursuit of truth on this issue is paramount: Catholics should recognize that it was worse than just making sure we all had our library cards, and non-Catholics should recognize that it wasn’t a bloodbath with popes and bishops inflicting torture on “free thinkers.”

Perhaps more important than determining if the person next to you is violating some aspect of the faith and morals of the Church, we should determine if we ourselves are doing the same. The point of ridding society and ourselves of heresy is to be joined more closely to Christ. Believing the lies of the Cathars or contraception is harmful to our souls; let’s let truth and the Truth be our guide.


  1. First, love the Python reference and the “a historian, or an historian” bit. I started my “Senior Seminar” presentation (our pathetic equivalent of a theses at Seton Hall) with that sounds clip.
    Second, have you read Isabel of Spain by the late Dr. Carroll of Christendom College? Excellent information about the reality of the Spanish Inquisition.

  2. Thanks for this piece. But why do you say “certainly, the punishment for heresy should never be the death penalty”? Surely there are good reasons, especially in a Catholic state, for heretics to be put to death. It’s the duty of the leaders of the state to uphold the good order of the state, to order all things within the state to the common good, and to punish fittingly those who attack the common good or disrupt the good order of the state. In a state that is officially Catholic, all things are supposed to be ordered in accord with the Faith. But heresy, in such a state, would destroy the very basis of the state, and of public order, and would be directly antithetical to the common good of that state; indeed, heresy would be among the worst possible attacks on the common good in a state, since the heresy could lead to the overthrow of that order. Most Catholic thinkers have thought that the death penalty is merited in cases that gravely undermine the common good: it’s necessary to safeguard future public order, to show the gravity of such undermining, and because such attacks in and of themselves disrupt the divinely instituted order of creation, and so their perpetrators merit removal. So the death penalty would seem to be justified in teh case of heresy.

    Furthermore, the Church thinks this is the case too: Pope Leo X, in his 1520 bull Exsurge domine, condemns 41 propositions of Martin Luther as heretical, scandalous, or false, the 33rd of which is “That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit” (Denzinger 1483).

    It’s true that there were flagrant abuses in the implementation of the Inquisition. But to think that there was a problem per se with execution of heretics seems wrong to me. What do you think?

  3. We also should be careful not to impose our modern moral standards on those of the 15th century. It doesn’t work that way.

  4. Sorry, not buying it. Killing someone because they have the wrong ideas is evil. I fail to see how someone believing that Jesus wasn’t God is deserving of capital punishment, then or now.
    If it wasn’t wrong then to execute heretics, is it wrong today? The Vatican is about as close to a “Catholic state” as we have; do they execute heretics?
    I would hope that the Church would consider it beneath her to become “a state that is officially Catholic.”

    • Heretics weren’t executed because had the wrong ideas, but because they spread those ideas to others, which jeopardized the salvation of others, and threatened to undermine the foundations of the state and social order. Like murder, sedition, and adultery, heresy threatens a Catholic state in the most fundamental way possible. If the death penalty is not justified there, it’s hard to see how it could be justified for any crime. But nearly every Catholic theologian and pope until the last 50 years has held that the death penalty is justified sometimes; indeed, the Waldensees, in the 13th century, were required to affirm that the death penalty is legitimate in the Profession of Faith that they had to swear in order to be reconciled to the Church.

      We don’t seem to have many officially Catholic states anymore. It seems that it would be wrong for a pluarlistic or secular state to execute heretics, since heresy does not strike at the foundation of these societies, since they are not built on the Catholic faith. But the death penalty for other forms of sedition and treason, and other attacks on human life, in these states is surely justified still. The Holy See doesn’t have the death penalty anymore (since the 1960’s), but that’s a prudential decision on their part, not an affirmation of the absolute wrongness of the death penalty.

      Many states have been officially Catholic, and the Church has always supported them, and has affirmed many times that states ought to be officially Catholic; consider e.g. Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors, Pius XI’s Quas primas, the various concordats signed throughout the 18th and 19th century, etc. Why would the Church think that this is beneath her? All things are to be brought under the dominion of Christ.

      I don’t see how your position can be maintained without contradicting a doctrinal (rather than disciplinary or prudential) teaching of the Church (the condemnation of Leo X), and without denying the terrible and public evil of heresy. Heresy merits damnation, so surely it merits death, which is a lesser evil than damnation.

  5. Apply the just war theory to executing heretics. It doesn’t stick. Two of the requirements for just war propose serious question regarding the practice.

    1) the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated;

    2)all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

    Neither of these requirements are satisfied in the burning of heretics. Furthermore, killing only seems to be allowed in Catholic teaching when in the case of legitimate defense, and the intent can never be to kill someone, but to stop them even if that means dealing a mortal blow. The intent is to stop the person who would otherwise take your own life or the life of another, not to kill them. Burning at the stake is intending to kill someone who is not actually intending to kill anybody.

    It doesn’t jibe.

  6. I don’t think war and capital punishment are analogous cases, so I don’t think you can apply just war theory in the case of capital punishment. War involves one sovereign state, one perfect society, involved violently with another sovereign state, another perfect society. Neither is subordinate to the other, and neither is under the jurisdiction or authority of the other. So war isn’t a punishment, but a defense against external aggression. But capital punishment involves a sovereign state punishing one of its members; it is a perfect society punishing a part of that society for threatening the existence of that society. On the teaching of Doctors of the Church e.g. Augustine, Thomas, and popes e.g. Leo XIII, Pius IX, (and, under a straightforward reading, St. Paul) individuals are subordinate to the state, and are under the proper jurisdiction and authority of the state. So capital punishment is a punishment and deals with an affair internal to the state, while war meets neither of those conditions. So there are issues of justice that arise between two sovereign states that don’t arise with a state dealing with internal threats; hence the need for a just war theory.

    But, even if just war theory were applied to the capital punishment of heretics, it seems to me that the latter does meet these conditions; at least, I’d need to see some strong argument to be convinced otherwise. The evil of the destruction of the Catholic basis of social order is a far greater evil than the death of any one person (the former deals with the destruction of a perfect society; the latter deals with the destruction of the part of a perfect society, which is ordered toward the good that society as part of its natural end), so killing the heretic does not produce greater evils than the evil to be eliminated. And Catholic states only kill heretics who are obstinate in their determination to continue to spread their heresy, so by the time one has recourse to capital punishment, one has surely exhausted all other practical options to stop this evil.

    I’m not sure where you’re getting this idea that the Church doesn’t allow direct killing by the state. Certainly many prominent theologians have thought that states may kill in punishment (e.g. Augustine, Aquinas, Suarez, Alphonsus Ligouri), and a straightforward reading of Romans 13:5 seems to allow it, and the Church has said in the Profession of Faith mandated for the Waldensians (Denzinger 425-426) and in the Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent that states can kill as punishment, and for a long time, the Vatican executed people, including non-murderers like thieves and heretics. Certainly, we should be cautionary about using this punishment. But there’s nothing in the Catholic tradition to indicate that legitimate authorities can’t kill: the evil involved is an evil of punishment, which even God can do, not an evil of fault or sin.