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The holy Catholic Church, in the present day, is being continuously persecuted by the anti-Catholic sects due to the existence of the holy Inquisition. However, this is fully misundertood by those who solely aimed bringing the Church into the pit of destruction. But what is really the truth behind the Inquisition?

From the Middle Ages into the 17th century, the law in most of the European countries stated that the worst offense which could be committed was that which threatened the unity and security of the holy Catholic Church, and most importantly, the salvation of souls. Regardless of the century, inquisitions were ecclesiastical investigations conducted either directly by the Church through the local bishop and his designates or under the sponsorship of papal-appointed legates; or by the secular authorities with the support of the Church. Its goal was to obtain a confession and reconciliation with the Church from those who were accused of heresy or of participating in activities contrary to Church’s Code of Canon Law. There were two kinds of Inquisition — the Medieval Inquisition (1233-18th century) and the Spanish Inquisition (1480-1834) — both were better distinguished, one from the other, by the nature of the enemies that they had to combat: the Cathari and the Marranos.

First, it is to emphasize that the Church did not establish the Inquisition for the purpose of punishing, executing, or murdering heretics and apostates but to show them God’s mercy by giving them chance of repentance and re-admission into communion once more. The Bible itself records instances where God commanded that formal, legal inquiries—that is, inquisitions—be carried out to expose secret believers in false religions. In the Old Testament, God said: “If there is found among you, within any of your towns which the Lord your God gives you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, in transgressing his covenant, and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden, and it is told you and you hear of it; then you shall inquire diligently [note that phrase: “inquire diligently”], and if it is true and certain that such an abominable thing has been done in Israel, then you shall bring forth to your gates that man or woman who has done this evil thing, and you shall stone that man or woman to death with stones” (Deuteronomy 17:2-5).

It is clear that there were some Israelites who posed as believers in and keepers of the covenant with Yahweh, while inwardly they did not believe and secretly practiced false religions, and even tried to spread them (cf. Deuteronomy 13:6-11). To protect the kingdom from such hidden heresy, these secret practitioners of false religions had to be rooted out and expelled from the community. This directive from the Lord applied even to whole cities that turned away from the true religion (Deuteronomy 13:12-18). Like Israel, medieval Europe was a society of Christian kingdoms that were formally consecrated to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is therefore quite understandable that these Catholics would read their Bibles and conclude that for the good of their Christian society they, like the Israelites before them, “must purge the evil from the midst of you” (Deuteronomy 13:5, 17:7, 12). St. Paul repeats this principle in 1 Corinthians 5:13. Nonetheless, how did all these begun?

The medieval Inquisition began in 1184 when Pope Lucius III sent a list of heresies to Europe’s bishops and commanded them to take an active role in determining whether those accused of heresy were, in fact, guilty. Rather than relying on secular courts, local lords, or just mobs, bishops were to see to it that accused heretics in their dioceses were examined by knowledgeable churchmen using Roman laws of evidence. In other words, they were to “inquire” — thus, the term “inquisition.”

Most people accused of heresy by the medieval Inquisition were either acquitted or their sentence suspended. Those found guilty of grave error were allowed to confess their sin, do penance and be reconciled to the Church. Despite the popular myth, the Church did not burn heretics. Unrepentant or obstinate heretics were excommunicated and turned over to the secular authorities. It was them (secular authorities) that held heresy to be a capital offense with severe or violent penalty inclusing death. The very fact is that the medieval Inquisition saved uncounted thousands of innocent (and even not-so-innocent) people who would otherwise have been burned by the civil govenments. How about the Spanish Inquisition?

Due to the increase of antisemitic attitudes in all over Europe during the late 13th century and throughout the 14th century; in which the most severe was the anti-Jewish violent riots that broke out in Spain in 1391, the Jews were forced to accept Christianity and were called “conversos”. The news about the alledged existence of marranos or Jewish converts who secretly practiced Judaism had convinced the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella that the matter should at least be investigated. As a response to their request of establishing an inquisition, Pope Sixtus IV granted a bull permitting the monarchs to select and appoint two or three priests over forty years of age to act as inquisitors. As such, the king still had the complete authority over the tribunal. In this early stage of the Spanish Inquisition, Old Christians and Jews used the tribunals as a weapon against their converso enemies. But there were no Jews or Old Christians being tortured or killed in this Inquisition because they were not the subjects of the investigation. The Spanish inquisition only dealt with the marranos and nobody else. However due to the expansion of the secular-controlled Inquisition anywhere in Spain, the abuse and hysteria levels reached new heights. Pope Sixtus IV attempted to put a stop to it. On April 18, 1482, he wrote to the bishops of Spain:

“In Aragon, Valencia, Mallorca, and Catalonia the Inquisition has for some time been moved not by zeal for the faith and the salvation of souls but by lust for wealth. Many true and faithful Christians, on the testimony of enemies, rivals, slaves, and other lower and even less proper persons, have without any legitimate proof been thrust into secular prisons, tortured and condemned as relapsed heretics, deprived of their goods and property and handed over to the secular arm to be executed, to the peril of souls, setting a pernicious example, and causing disgust to many.”

The pope ordered the bishops to take a direct role in all future tribunals. They were to ensure that the Church’s well-established norms of justice were respected. Remember that in all Inquisitions, the Inquisitor should not render his judgment alone; for he would assisted by some assessors selected from the local clergy. In addition, the bishop would audit the sentences and the accused could appeal to the pope. The accused could defend himself and even had recourse to a lawyer, however he could not always listen to the testimony of his accusers for the purpose of their security. But things were different in an Inquisitions run by the Spanish crown.

When he heard of the letter, King Ferdinand was outraged. He wrote to Pope Sixtus, openly suggesting that the pope had been bribed with converso gold:

“Things have been told me, Holy Father, which, if true, would seem to merit the greatest astonishment . . . To these rumors, however, we have given no credence because they seem to be things which would in no way have been conceded by Your Holiness who has a duty to the Inquisition. But if by chance concessions have been made through the persistent and cunning persuasion of the conversos, I intend never to let them take effect. Take care therefore not to let the matter go further, and to revoke any concessions and entrust us with the care of this question.”

That was the end of the Pope’s role in the Spanish Inquisition. Sixtus’s successor, Pope Innocent VIII, also wrote twice to the king asking for greater compassion, mercy, and leniency for the conversos — but to no avail. Though the appointment of the Tomas de Torquemada, the first Spanish Grand Inquisitor, was confirmed by the Pope, he still acted in accordance to the direction of the Spanish monarch. He himself was a Jewish convert and the truly converted Jews were the biggest enemies of the marranos. The historian Henry Kamen notes that the principal anti-Judaic polemicists were themselves ex-Jews. It was they who clamored for a tribunal of the Inquisition to distinguish between the false Jewish Christian converts and the sincere new Christians. To this effect, the Spanish Inquisition had no lasting papal support but it was a more government’s interest for national stabilization.

Did the Church apply torture?

The use of torture as a means of proof is shocking to the modern mentality, but it was already an advancement in relation to the “ordeal” — the trial by fire, or of water or of the sword, which was the common usage up to the year 1000. One must not forget that questioning under torture was, at that time, employed much more frequently in criminal proceedings. Additionally, the Grand Inquisitor, St. John Capistran, forbade the usage of torture in inquisitorial proceedings in the 15th century, more than 300 years before King Louis XVI did the same for the criminal tribunals of France (although the Spanish Inquisition had re-established the use of it in the interim). Its use was first authorized by Pope Innocent IV through his bull Ad extirpanda (which was issued in the wake of the murder of the papal inquisitor of Lombardy, St. Peter of Verona, who was killed by a conspiracy of Cathar sympathizers) in 1252 — not as a mode of punishment, but as a means of discovering truth. It was not to be used to threaten life or cause loss of limb, was to applied only if the accused was uncertain and seemed already convicted by many weighty proofs, and after all other options had been used. When it was used, it was not to be used more than once, and for no more than 15 minutes. For an accused to be submitted to the torture, he had to be being prosecuted for a very grave crime, and the tribunal had to already have serious presumptions of his guilt. The local bishop had to give his agreement, which protected the accused from the abusive zeal of an occasional disreputable inquisitor. The instructions also stipulated the presence of a representative of the bishop and a doctor during the torture session for the prohibition of putting in danger of death and of mutilating, and the obligation of the doctor to render medical care immediately afterwards. The sick, the aged and pregnant women were exempted from questioning under torture. Unfortunately, torture was cruelly used under the pressure of secular authority like Frederick II, for instance, who abused the Inquisition to persecute his personal enemies. 

Nevertheless, the Church did not invent the practice of torture, but just regulated and codified these existing civil, judicial practices to soften the punitive harshness of the secular powers, and correct the abuses of individual inquisitors who were arbitrary and cruel.

What about the dark dungeons and chambers?

The Spanish Inquisition had jails but they were neither especially dark nor dungeon-like. Indeed, as far as prisons go, they were widely considered to be the best in Europe. There were even instances of criminals in Spain purposely blaspheming so as to be transferred to the Inquisition’s prisons.

Did the Church also hunt witches?

While Christianity clearly created the framework for the Witch Hunts, no single “Church” was to blame, and many secular governments hunted witches for essentially non-religious reasons. Though in 1484, Pope Innocent VIII, in his bull Summis desiderantes, let the Inquisition pursue witches, it was only to find out the truth on the existence of witchcraft but not to kill them. The secular powers were the ones which sent them to death either by burning them alive at stake or by other means.

Did the Church burn millions of people at stake during the Inquisition?

The number of heretics burned by the Inquisition has been greatly exaggerated. Juan Antonio Llorente is the originator of these imaginary numbers. Llorente was an apostate priest who put himself in the service of the Napoleonic occupation of Spain. After having calumniated the Inquisition, he destroyed the archives which would have been able to contradict him. Several historians still put forth inflated numbers based on anticlerical imagination. However, numbers of this order have been rejected since 1900 by Ernest Schafer and Alfonso Junco. Henceforth honest historians are in agreement in saying that the number of victims of the Spanish Inquisition was much less than is generally believed. Jean Dumont speaks of about 400 executions during the 24 years of the reign of Isabella the Catholic. That’s few indeed in comparison to the tens of millions killed by the Communists in Russia, China, and elsewhere.

But despite that fact, remember that the Catholic Church did not burn them. The secular authorities did. The anti-Catholic writing about the Inquisition rely on books by Henry C. Lea (1825–1909) and G. G. Coulton (1858–1947). Though they got most of the facts right but the problem is that they did not weigh facts well, because they harbored fierce animosity toward the Church—animosity that had little to do with the Inquisition itself. One book popular with Protestants claimed that 95 million people died under the Inquisition. But the Inquisitions did not exist in Northern Europe, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, or England, rather being confined mainly to southern France, Italy, Spain, and a few parts of the Holy Roman Empire. The Inquisition could not have killed that many people because those parts of Europe did not have yet that high number of population.

On the other hand, the Protestants must bear in mind that it was them who applied severe torture and made high number of deaths during their anti-Catholic persecution. The first Protestants tried to root out and punish those they regarded as heretics. Martin Luther and John Calvin both endorsed the right of the state to protect society by purging false religion. In fact, Calvin not only banished from Geneva those who did not share his views, he permitted and in some cases ordered others to be executed for “heresy” (e.g. Jacques Gouet, tortured and beheaded in 1547; and Michael Servetus, burned at the stake in 1553). In England and Ireland, Reformers engaged in their own ruthless inquisitions and executions. Conservative estimates indicate that thousands of English and Irish Catholics were put to death—many by being hanged, drawn, and quartered—for practicing the Catholic faith and refusing to become Protestant. An even greater number were forced to flee to the Continent for their safety. Sir Thomas More’s own letters makes mention of the death of 4,000 Catholics just in the minor port town of Chelsea. How much more in the entire Europe and other countries worlwide?

If the Church did not kill the heretics, why would the secular authorities do it?

It is simply because, during the medieval period, the law of the Church was also the law of the State. Henceforth, heresy, at that time, was considered one of the highest crimes againts God and the king. Thus, heretics, if found guilty in the Inquisition, would endure the highest punishment from the State, id est death penalty. The Church, nevertheless, only did the excommunication but the State did the ecclesiastically unsupported execution.

THE TRUE history of the Inquisition does not correspond at all with the black legend spread by the enemies of the Church. Remember, No account of foolishness, misguided zeal, or cruelty by Catholics can undo the divine foundation of the Church — that the holy Catholic Church is one way to salvation. With all due deference to those who love to see the Church disparage itself, Catholics have nothing to be ashamed of in the past work of this holy tribunal.


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