Saturday, August 21, 2010

What was the inquisition and did it really use torture?

Dear Rev. Know it all,

I took great umbrage at your suggestion that a heroic bishop who confronted papal tyranny should be subjected to the rack and thumbscrews. I would expect nothing less of a cave dweller like yourself.                                          

Mr. N. Leitend
Dear Mr. Leitend,

   I should always put a disclaimer in my remarks for the humor impaired. I didn’t really mean that we should return to threats of physical torture. We no longer starve and brutalize people for their own good, using frightening looking machines meant to stretch them and leave them aching in every bone of their body. We have health clubs for that.

What was the inquisition and did it really use torture?

   Heresy comes from the Greek word “haeresthai” meaning “to choose.”  Heresy is usually an overemphasis of one Christian teaching to the neglect of other teachings. The Catholic Church struggled against heresy from the first. Just read St. Irenaeus of Lyon’s “Against Heresies” (written around 180 AD). Local bishops always investigated reports of doctrinal error. Perfectly reasonable.

The problem arose when the state got involved. Rulers of nations, be they kings or presidents, rarely deal well with people who disagree with them.  The trouble started when Constantine the Roman emperor accepted Christianity. He’d had a conversion and wanted to favor Christianity. After all, one God, one Church, one emperor. It all fits together nicely. He soon realized that there were lots of different kinds of Christians, so he got bishops from all over the world together in a town called Nice and asked, “What do we believe?”   They came up with the Nicene Creed. (The process is really a bit more complicated, but why should I bore you?) The Roman emperors, who used to persecute people for being Christian, soon started to persecute people for not being Christian, or at least not the right kind of Christian. It has been a mess ever since.

    The inquisition had four major manifestations:  First there was the Medieval Inquisition (1184–1230s). Heretics might be imprisoned, but were rarely tortured or killed, and that only happened when some local politician decided to be helpful. Things changed when the Cathar heresy infested southern France. Cathars were a  gnostic sect.

Gnosticism is a belief that one is saved by secret knowledge. The Cathars believed that procreation was evil since matter was evil. The Church believes that marriage and family life are sacred. So the battle lines were drawn. In January 1208 the papal legate, Pierre de Castelnau was sent to meet Count Raymond VI of Toulouse, who supported the Cathars.  Castelnau excommunicated Raymond after a heated argument and Raymond had Castelnau ambushed and killed on his way back to Rome. It’s downhill from here. The pope asked the king of France to launch a Crusade against the Cathars, or Albigensians as they were also called, and the northern French aristocrats thought it would be a fine thing to take over the south. The pope sent St. Dominic to try to win the battle by prayer and preaching, but to the barons, swords seemed a more direct method.

    The Inquisition was established in 1229 to uproot the remaining Cathars. Enter St. Peter of Verona. He preached the Catholic faith so eloquently, criticizing both the heretics and the Catholics who professed faith, but didn’t live it. As a result of his preaching, many Cathars returned to the Church. This caused Cathars to eventually assassinate St. Peter.

 It was April 6, 1252, when two assassins ambushed Peter and killed him. Carino, the assassin, later repented and confessed his crime. He converted to Catholicism and became a  Dominican. Now he’s known as Blessed Carino of Balsamo. So much for the swift revenge of the Inquisition. The death of St. Peter prompted the pope to issue a papal bull (Just a note on the word “bull.” It comes from the Latin word “bulla” meaning “a seal.” Hence a papal bull is a letter sealed with the pope’s seal. It has nothing to do with the veracity of the contents or any other modern sense of the word “bull”) In 1252,“Ad exstirpanda” (Latin for “In Order to Root out a Few Things...”) was published. The bull argued that heretics are “murderers of souls,” they are “ be coerced — as are thieves and bandits — into confessing their errors.” People really believed that their souls were important. We moderns know better. We’ve sold ours at a good price. The bull limited the use of torture. It could not “...cause loss of life or limb, it could be used only once if the investigator deemed the evidence against the accused to be virtually certain.”  Thus ended the medieval Inquisition and 1000 years of mostly nonviolent persuasion.

   What most people think of as the Inquisition is more about the other three forms of the Inquisition: the Spanish, Portugese and Roman Inquisitions,. (the Spanish Inquisition 1478–1834, the Portuguese Inquisition 1536–1821, the Roman Inquisition 1542 – c. 1860)

King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile set up the Spanish Inquisition in 1478. In contrast to the previous inquisitions, it operated completely under royal authority, independently of the pope. In fact, the pope wanted to disband the Inquisition, but the Spanish government refused. In its three and a half century career, the Inquisition managed to execute between 2 and 4, 000 people, not the millions for which it is blamed.

“What!” I can hear you gasp, “Are you trying to say that it wasn’t that bad? Only 2,000 - 4,000 people? How barbaric!!!”  Yes! The public burning of thousands of people by the Spanish government or any government is barbaric, even at the leisurely rate of 5 or 10 a year. My point in all this is that ,yes, Catholic Christians have been complicit in the torture and deaths of thousands. The papacy tried to stop the madness, but politicians wouldn’t have it.

    In the Church, it finally ended 200 years ago. However, the United States is still doing it. The public burning of heretics was called an auto da fe, an act of faith. A public execution of the murderer of souls was thought to be edifying. So it is with the public burnings conducted by the American state. The most recent American victim of an auto da state was Paul Powell on March 18, 2010. He was burned alive not at the stake, but at in the electric chair, while solemn witnesses looked on. The surviving victims of his crime, who were present to witness his death by burning, forgave him. He apologized to them. Still, said the witnesses, it was better that he be executed, so that they could go on with their lives. Thus, it was better for the well being of society, just as the Inquisition claimed to be. Electrocution really is burning alive and it is preceded by months and years on death row, years of fear and psychological torture, sleepless nights and pointless days. If you don’t think of it as burning, listen to this account of the first judicial electrocution.

   “Men accustomed to every form of suffering grew faint as the awful spectacle unfolded before their eyes..... (the current) slowly, disintegrated the fibre and tissues of the body through which it passed...The heaving of a chest..., the foaming of the mouth, the bloody sweat, the writhing shoulders and all the other signs of life. Horrible as these were they were made infinitely more horrible by the premature removal of the electrodes and the subsequent replacing of them for not seconds but minutes, until the room was filled with the odor of burning flesh and strong men fell like logs upon the floor. And all this done in the name of science.” We have burned 4,458 people in the years between 1890-2002. That’s a brisk rate of about 50 a year. Torquemada could have learned a thing or two from the black robes who preside over the state religion of modern America. Can we judge a nation which Islam wanted to devour and a time when religious diversity was not an affordable luxury? The Church has learned her lesson. The state has not.

   Speaking of the black robed clergy of the state religion, a couple of Chicago judges are railing against the Catholic Church, saying that displays of pomp should be curtailed by pope and clergy in repentance for Catholic sins. According to a 2006 National Review Online column Dr. Charol Shakeshaft reported that 290,000 students in public schools had been victimized by those who in effect are employees of the state.  Four and a half million had been approached or harassed!!! Where is the outcry? Where is the press whose sole concern is the protection of children? How many more have been put at risk by the inaction of the government since then?

  I am deeply ashamed of the sins committed by Catholics, but perhaps it is a bit hypocritical of some who don black robes in the service of the state to criticize the papal vestments.

Rev. Know-it-all    


  1. I love your blog. This article reminds me of the Monty Python skit. NO One Expects the Spanish Inquisition!

    I was just up in Chicago Visiting my mother and sister, St Viator's parish.


  2. Not to mention that the Spanish Inquisition trod new ground (for the time) in protecting the rights of the accused...