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.
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.
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.