As members of a 2,000 year old church, we often find ourselves apologizing for mistakes of the past. For example, how often do we find ourselves apologizing for the Inquisition? Don’t worry, we want to say, we’re not like that anymore. We see the inquisitors as awkward uncles at family reunions; we distance ourselves from them. We accept the story told to us by those who do not always have the Church’s best interest in mind. When confronted with accusations about the Inquisition, we acquiesce. We do so out of fear, embarrassed because we do not know our own history. Yet fear flees in the light of truth. We as Catholics should examine the truth behind the Inquisition, and in doing so, come to appreciate what men of old did to preserve truth.
In order to do this, we need to get something straight. The Inquisition was not created in order to persecute heretics. Rather, it was meant to protect the rights of people accused of heresy. In the pre-modern era, heresy was seen as not just an offense against God, but as an act of treason against the state. For this reason, the state executed heretics, not the Church. The Church’s role was to carry out the investigation with the aim of protecting the innocent. This process of investigation was called the Inquisition.
The Inquisition was essentially a theological court. There were three main inquisitions: the Medieval Inquisition (against the Albigensian heresy), the Spanish Inquisition (formed in the late 1400s) and the Roman Inquisition (later the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith). We will focus on the Medieval and Spanish Inquisitions, the ones more readily associated with the term “Inquisition.”
Most anti-Inquisition writers have three major objections to the Inquisition: A) Inquisitors frequently tortured the accused to obtain false confessions; B) The Inquisition provided the opportunity for personal vendettas; C) The Inquisition was responsible for the death of millions of victims. Since all three attack the Church’s mark of Holiness, they must be addressed with charity and gravity.
Objection A: Torture was frequently used to elicit confessions
This first objection is perhaps the most widely held objection against the Inquisition. Movies, TV shows, and popular historical works suggest that the inquisitors tortured the accused to obtain false confessions, and then used these confessions to execute the prisoners. However, the historical record shows that this was not the case. Though torture was allowed during the Inquisition, it was rarely used. Strict rules accompanied the provision allowing torture. The torture could not threaten the accused’s life, nor could it leave a permanent mark (nor, according to some sources, cause the suspect to bleed). The inquisitors did not actually inflict the torture; civil authorities did, with the inquisitors there to make sure that the civil authorities did not harm the suspect. Once a suspect indicated his desire to confess, all tortures ceased. The confession was written down as the suspect gave it, and would be read back to him within twenty-four hours. If the suspect agreed to the confession, he signed it, and the trial ended. If he did not agree with the confession, or reverted and refused to recant his teachings, he could not be tortured again.
Torture was a last resort, when there was overwhelming evidence that an unconfessed suspect was guilty. An authentic confession was necessary for any verdict.
Objection B: The Inquisition was largely a tool for Personal Vendettas
Another claim that anti-Inquisition proponents make is that even if the tortures were few and far between, human corruption, being what it is, allowed the Inquisition to be a tool of revenge and personal vendettas. It makes sense that this would be the case, since we see such corruption in most human institutions. Examining the historical record, however, shows that not only was that not the case, but that the Inquisition procedures were established to avoid such abuses.
As inquisitors collected reports of local heresies, they also collected information about the heretics, including lists of the heretics’ enemies and other untrustworthy sources, usually provided by the accused. If any of those enemies testified against the accused, the evidence was dismissed as unreliable. Two reliable witnesses were required to proceed with the trial; lack of evidence dismissed many cases in these early stages. If the trial did proceed and the suspect was convicted of heresy, he had the right to appeal to the pope for a retrial. All of these provisions protected the suspect from abuse by inquisitors during the trial. If an inquisitor showed signs of abusing his position, he faced immediate dismissal. The Church did not tolerate such abuse.
Objection C: There were millions of victims of the Inquisition
Even if there were no other sinister motives, the high body count, millions of people, should be enough to warrant condemning the Inquisition. Reports of such high numbers are frequently tossed about in popular historical narratives. However, as with the previous two objections, the claims against the Inquisition are not based in history. Executions did occur, as noted above, by the civil authorities; however, they were shockingly rare, particularly in light of the number of executions performed for other reasons in Europe. Bernard Gui, the most famous grand inquisitor of the Medieval Inquisition, presided over 930 heresy cases during his seventeen years as grand inquisitor (1306-1323); of those 930 cases, only forty-two ended with executions, about 5% of his cases. Torquemada, the notorious grand inquisitor during the early Spanish Inquisition, had an even lower record: only 1% of the heretics were executed. The body count of the Inquisition is greatly, even slanderously, exaggerated.
Because we are living in a secular society, we often find people who try to undermine the Church. If someone tries to do this by invoking the dark specter of the Inquisition, we should approach with charity and understanding, while remaining ready to set the record straight so that, once shown the historical record, our listener might be open to the truths of Faith and come to the fullness of life in Christ. That is, after all, the ultimate goal of any sort of apologetics, and was also the ultimate goal of the Inquisition.