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.

12 08 2015
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  • Tricia

    Another great resource is The Real Story of the Inquisition by historian Steve Weidenkopf. Also Dr. Thomas Madden addresses these issues in a chapter or two of his Crusades book, but googling it I also found his book "Heaven or Heresy: A History of the Inquisition." He's the head of the History dept at St. Louis University.

  • bicepeak

    An excellent resource is "Characters of the Inquisition" by Thomas Walsh. You will find the sources there.

  • Daryl K. Sauerwald

    How long dose mankind need to apologize for an apple someone else ate. That was more the 2000 yeas ago.

    • Hi Daryl,

      Are you referring to Original Sin in your question? I was a little unsure, since the article examines the Medieval and Spanish Inquisition, rather than the nature and reason for Salvation.

  • wineinthewater

    I think a very important point is an expansion on B. It wasn't just a matter of the Inquisitions being generally free of personal vendettas, it is that they existed in part to remedy that problem. Because heresy was a capital crime, it was not uncommon for people to use accusations of heresy to settle scores or to try to outmaneuver political or business adversaries. The inquisition was actually a remedy for these problems, enforcing much higher standards on heresy proceedings in order to protect the accused from being railroaded.

    This is one of the reason that the Protestant heresy trial had a much higher body count despite being of significantly shorter duration. The controls on those proceedings were haphazard and could range from laughable to superb.

    And finally, we should not forget why the myth of the Inquisition exists. It should not surprise us that it exists the most forcefully in cultures dominated by Protestantism. Much of the Inquisition lie is just another manifest of the Confessions of Maria Monk, it is an attempt to discredit the Church and Catholicism.

  • Michael

    Could you provide original source references for the claims made. I'm not trying to be hostile nor disagree with the claims but would love to have solid primary sources. Please email them to me if you can. Thank you.

    • Matthew Rose

      Unfortunately, I don't know of any primary ones off hand; I've got a suspicion that a lot of them aren't available in English, at least not cheaply, and I am no scholar in Medieval languages, and my Latin isn't the best.

      That said, I know a lot of the books I mentioned below in a comment, particularly Kamen's and Peter's books, drew from available primary sources (see their endnotes and Bibliographies).

      • Colleen E.

        You'll get some good "ammunition" from the works of William Thomas Walsh. His book about Philip II of Spain has a sizeable section on the Inquisition, and it comes up in the other books as well. He cites original Spanish sources frequently, so you may be able to look those up as you feel necessary. I still want to get my hands on his "Characters of the Reformation." He has a great style.

  • Richard A

    Well, the problem is that "it" didn't really happen. That is, what Mel Brooks depicts didn't really happen. We allow for "artistic license" but really only those of us who know the true history are free to do this. Perhaps if we lived in a more educated era I'd have a different view of this, but we live in a time where many of our fellow citizens get their news from 'The Daily Show' and their history from movies. Which puts the onus on satirists not to be satirical and on directors not to embellish.

    Jeffrey Hart years ago wrote an article for "National Review" magazine providing a short discussion of the history of translating the Bible into vernacular languages. In the course of discussing why someone could be executed for translating the Bible into a modern language, he makes the arresting observation that this is what happens when a society thinks men's souls are as important as nuclear secrets. Do we believe that?
    We should note this: as Catholics, we are free to dispute whether some crimes ought to be capital, but not that some crimes are in fact capital. At the time when enemies of the Church were calling Her wicked for executing heretics, children could be hanged for stealing pigs. Even though it was the secular government, not the Church, that did the executing.

  • M.J.

    It is as uncomfortable as it is hilarious to watch, but the Broadway-esque musical schtick, "The Inquisition" by Mel Brooks reminds us that a.) it really happened, b.) it was wrong, and c.) it should never happen again. I had to supervise a student teacher on the high school level yesterday who was so uninformed about this subject that he told his students "...the church used to do this all the time," very matter-of-factly as if it were a common practice. All the time? In the next breath, he told the kids the only thing he knew about Michaelangelo: "He was the LeBron James of art at the time." Sigh. Why does the truth either get twisted out of shape or completely disappear when it comes to history?

  • fabcny

    Quelle bizarre! It's funny how history gets written to suit the audience. Thanks for the eye opener! I'm going to read that book by Peters.

  • Dr Alex. Theodossiadis

    Our Lord's message "love one another......." was violated every time someone was persecuted for "heresy" by the Inquisition. Our Lord told us that he did not come to earth to condemn anyone but to save, he offered mercy and love; the Inquisition did not defend our Lord's Divine message, it did not offer Mercy or Love, it only undermined the Christian message of love and forgiveness. Our Lord did say that if someone strays then try to persuade them to follow the right path but not more than twice, if there is no response then have nothing to do with that person, persecution, torture and executions are not recommended anywhere in the Gospel of our Lord.
    There is a parallel between the early origins of the Inquisition and the Liverpool Pathway, both having good intentions at the outset but subsequently abused by the works of men.
    I will encourage Matthew Rose to reflect on the messages by Pope Francis now in the Year of Mercy.
    Let us all pray for the souls of all Inquisitors and their victims.

    • Matthew Rose

      Good Doctor,

      My latest article on this website examines the Inquisition in light of the Year of Mercy (and, to be honest, inspired by your question).

      If you are so inclined, check it out here: http://thosecatholicmen.com/articles/the-mercy-of-the-inquisition/

    • Dr. Seuss

      There was a counter-reformation.
      Made the papers across the nation.
      This stuff all happened long ago.
      Read up on this. I told you so.
      The Inquisition is dead and gone.
      We live, we learn. It's time to move on.

  • Nick from Detroit

    To Matthew Rose:
    Somehow, I posted my question to you as a reply to someone else. Sorry about that.
    I was interested in whether, or not, you were planning on publishing that 12 page paper on this website, in the future? God Bless!

    • Matthew B. Rose

      No, I wasn't planning on it (too long). I might publish it, or larger portions of it, on my website: www.quidquidestest@wordpress.com at some point.

      Glad you liked the article!

  • JC

    Great article. I am happy to see you provided us with some of the source materials so we can study the issue further.
    Will you be doing an article on the Roman Inquisition, which I surmise has become the Congregation of the Doctrine on the Faith?

    • Matthew B. Rose

      I hadn't planned on writing one, but I might one day. Yes, the Roman Inquisition would later become the Holy Office, which later became the CDF.

  • Ed

    In fact more "enemies of state" have been "executed" during the most recent presidential administration by drone strike than during the couple of centuries of the Spanish Inquisition. The "enemies of state" of the Spanish Inquisition at least had the benefit of a trial.

  • Joanne Kemmerer

    Congratulations for writing a succinct article on a topic which has been so distorted by the enemies of Christ. I am a retired history teacher who was blessed to be able to teach in a traditional Catholic school. Our pastor provided William Walsh's "Characters of the Inquisition" for our hs students when we did that era in European history. Thank you for your writing!

  • Louis Camargo

    The term called to the handing over of the heretics after the conviction of the Church to the State for final execution is Brachium Saeculare (Secular Arm).

  • TeaPot562

    In Spain, ruled by Muslims for more than seven centuries but were finally ousted circa 1490 by Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, the civil authorities were quite concerned that some Muslims still living in now reunited Christian Spain would try to overthrow that monarchy and reestablish Islam as the state religion. Most of the Inquisition efforts in Span in the 1500s were intended to detect such efforts on the part of non-Christians who had pretended to convert to Christianity, but really meant to replace the Christian monarchy.
    The civil government concerns controlled the efforts of the Inquisition in Spain.
    TeaPot562

  • Virginia Daley

    What references can we give to defend the Church on these points?

  • Sal Miceli

    Thank you for this wonderful information. Is very powerful and small talk around the water cooler. However, 42 executions in 17 years, although only 5%, is incredibly high. I'm not sure of the state of Texas has ever had an average of 2.3 executions per year over 17 years.

    • Colleen E.

      If you think that number is high, consider how many things people could be executed for in that same time period. Also, especially in England, horrible mutilations and tortures were inflicted for what would today be considered minor crimes. Also, you're dealing with a society (at least in Spain) that had an unusually high number of quasi-forced converts who then secretly went back to their old practices and then started plotting to overthrow the state. I hope this doesn't sound racist, but these were Muslims in an era when people carried swords freely. Human life was cheap compared to preserving peace and preventing another Muslim conquest of the country.

    • Matthew B. Rose

      The executions in the US are actually quite high in comparison to the Inquisition. According to deathpenaltyinfo.org, in the last 17 years (1999 through 12/9/15) there were 922 executions in the US. In the last 17 years, Texas has executed 367 people. That's 21.6 people a year. (based on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lists_of_people_executed_in_Texas)

  • Matthew Rose

    Hi Everyone,

    Thank you for the questions! I see that most of them deal with the sources/references used for this article. The downside of writing short articles like this is that you don't have the room to list all of the sources used, nor do you have time to comment in depth about the historiographical merits of each source. I wrote a 12 page paper on the Inquisition in graduate school which dealt with these issues in greater depth, complete with about two dozen footnotes.

    That said, below are some of the sources I used for my paper and this article. I've also included some sources which, though I didn't use (they may have come out after I wrote the paper), might be helpful for the average reader. They aren't in alphabetical order or anything like that.

    Walsh, William Thomas. Characters of the Inquisition. Rockford, Il.: TAN Books, 1987. - Looks at people involved in the Inquisition starting with Moses in the Old Testament.

    Vidmar, John. The Catholic Church Through the Ages. New York: Paulist Press, 2005. - One volume summary of Church History. There's a more recent edition out of this one.

    Belloc, Hilaire. The Great Heresies. Rockford, Il.: TAN Books, 1991.

    Carroll, Warren H. A History of Christendom, Vol. III, The Glory of Christendom. Front Royal: Christendom Press, 1993. - Third of six volumes of Church History. Also check out his Isabel of Spain: The Catholic Queen for more on the Spanish Inquisition. Even more also, I drew from an article of Carroll's entitled "The Inquisition" from the book Reasons for Hope put out in the early 80s by Christendom Press.

    Catholic Answers. “The Inquisition” (2004). Available at http://www.catholic.com/library/Inquisition.asp.

    Hughes, Philip. A History of the Church. Vol. II. The Church in the World the Church Created London, Sheed and Ward, 1979. - Good look of the Inquisition in the historical context.

    Peters, Edward. Inquisition. New York: The Free Press, 1988. - One of the best books on the subject.

    Schwartz, Michael. The Persistent Prejudice: Anti-Catholicism in America. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Inc., 1984.

    Shannon, Albert C. The Medieval Inquisition. Collegeville, MI: The Liturgical Press, 1991.

    Also, there was a lecture done by Christopher Check with the Institute of Catholic Culture (available here: http://www.instituteofcatholicculture.org/the-true-story-of-the-inquisition). It also includes a reading list.

    Finally, there is a lecture by Professor Steve Weidenkopf through Catholic Answers: http://shop.catholic.com/the-real-story-of-the-inquisition-set.html

    I hope this starts satisfying your hunger for more information about the Inquisition.

    God bless,

    Matthew B. Rose

    • Bryan

      One more article for people to use as a reference:
      http://www.cuf.org/2004/04/inquisition-in-the-catholic-church/

      It comes from Catholics United for the Faith, and has a few more sources for additional reading at the bottom.

  • Clare

    Well done! I learned so much from this article! Thank you very much!

  • sonny

    Dear every one, this is a definitive reference on the this subject: THE SPANISH INQUISITION by Henry Kamen. Amazon has it.

  • David

    A good book on the subject is Inquisition by Edward Peters (Free Press 1988). http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/799973763

  • Sharon Smith

    A very interesting and informative article however for apologetical purposes it would carry more weight is sources were referenced.

  • Jerry Rhino

    More people died in the NY twin towers than everyone executed in all the Inquisitions.

  • Kim

    You talk about citing the historical record to show others how distorted and false the claims about the Inquisition are. Would you mind giving us some references that are dependable? It can be quite difficult to determine what resources are trustworthy and which are not when a topic is not one's usual area of study. Thanks!

  • Mark M

    Please list your sources of information. I do not question the veracity of your statements but would like to know the sources so that I might be able to tell those who question me.
    Thank you!

  • Ned

    Mr. Matthew Rose,

    Thank you for this insight, it's refreshing to hear this side of it. Can you tell me where read/learned this so I can look into it more?

    God bless,
    Ned Zerwic

  • Allen

    Very good article. Do you have any references or books that I could use for this information.

  • Sharon

    This is wonderfully written - I can't wait to share this article! This year, I've become immersed in some Medieval and Modern Inquisition scholars. This article does a great job of presenting concrete and abstract facts without overwhelming the reader. Albert Shannon's book, "The Medieval Inquisition," does a particularly good job of explaining how the Medieval Inquisition revolutionized legal and judicial procedures. We can thank the Medieval Inquisition for the fact that we rely on evidence and testimonies rather than ordeals and duels 🙂

    • Matthew B. Rose

      I think it was in Shannon's book that I read something about how our modern investigative tactics taught in police and FBI academies stem from the methods developed by the Medieval Inquisitions.

  • elizabeth

    While I don't doubt your facts, having sources for your information would be helpful.

  • Stefan

    Hi Mr. Rose,

    Would you be able to post your references? I find the information in the article fascinating and would like to do further research myself.

    Best,
    Stefan

  • Steve

    But shouldn't the Church have been protecting the heretics against capital punishment? It seems as if the Inquisition process gave tacit endorsement to the civil authorities' belief that heretics should be killed. Is there any record of the Church speaking up against this? As it is, I don't see the act of being present for the Inquisition to protect the innocent as necessarily that heroic an act. True heroism would have involved protecting the heretics from capital punishment.

    • Colleen E.

      It's been a while since I read it, but I believe William Thomas Walsh presented evidence that open Protestants/Jews/Muslims were not persecuted or executed. It was the ones who were pretending to be Catholic and subverting others that were punished.

    • Miles

      I don't think the author presented anything about the heroism of the Inquistors in this article; he merely was distinguishing between the roles of the civil authority and the Church authority in this piece of the Inquisition's tale. The distinction is that the State carried out the execution, not the Church herself. This fact is often left unsaid, giving the temporal sovereignties of the day a "free pass" if you will.

      I could be wrong of course, wouldn't be the first time.

    • Nick from Detroit

      Mr. Rose,
      Do you intend to publish your 12 page paper on this site, anytime in the future?
      God Bless!

    • Nick

      To Steve:
      No, the Church wouldn't have spoke against executing them because heresy was a capital offense. Capital punishment is not intrinsically evil. The state had, and still does, the right to put people to death for the protection of society. God Bless!

  • Spencer Hargadon

    Mr. Rose,
    I enjoyed this piece. It is apparent that you have done an extensive amount of research. Could you make your sources and citations available? I've only made use of Dr. Kamen's text on the Spanish Inquisition thus far and would like to have other resources at my disposal. Thanks!

  • Cliff

    Excellent information. It would be great if you could include references, especially for the grand inquisitors. Info for further study would be great as well.

  • Carol

    This is great. It's clear, concise and short enough to carry around with me in case I'm in a situation where I need to answer questions or accusations. However, it needs one thing to be really influential in changing minds or opinions (or even prejudices); sources. Can you add some?

  • Vanessa

    During the dark ages and reformation were you forced into being a Catholic? Or did you have the freedom to not be Christian?

    • Matthew B. Rose

      Well, it depends on what you mean by forced. Forced conversions/baptisms were rare. There were some done by some kings who didn't quite get the whole "freely coming to Christ" type thing. One the other hand, no one can force someone to change their interior convictions. That was the danger faced by the Spanish Inquisition. There were people who claimed to have become Christian, but were really still practicing their previous faiths. At a time when the Ottoman Turks had attacked the city of Otranto in Italy, killing anyone who wouldn't become Muslim, people in Europe feared an internal revolution by those who claimed to be Christian, but were not. This was why, to answer some of the other questions on this article, there was an expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain. It was a practical response to a larger, global problem.

      But it was not part of the Spanish Inquisition.

      I mentioned below the dangers of the Manichean heresy. Part of their teaching was to deny the authority of the secular government. In that case, to be a member of that heresy was to be in rebellion against the government. The society of Christendom centered around the interaction of people following Christ. Public sinners, like corrupt officials, could be held accountable because they violated the laws of the Church. When Christendom started to fracture, so did an entire way of life.

  • Alex

    I would love to see the sources on this article. Last year I was having a discussion with a religion and history major over the inquisition where I claimed it was not as bad as the stigma against it and he told me how ridiculous it was based on how much he had studied it and could assure me things were as bad as they were.

  • Harold

    "Shedding light" on an issue does not mean white-washing it. The Prince of Peace might take exception to torturing and executing even one heretic. By saying things like "only 1%" you minimize the scale. The Spanish Inquisition consisted of, I believe, more than 20 tribunals all over the country. In addition to presiding over a huge expansion of tribunals, Tomas de Torquemada also expelled 200,000 Jews from Spain in 1492. Is that torture or execution? Maybe not, but it undoubtedly disrupted and/or ruined the lives and livelihoods of those people.

    • Colleen E.

      I would recommend you to a dauntingly thick but easy to read book called "Philip II" by William Thomas Walsh. It has a thorough section on the Inquisition citing original contemporary sources and gives you a good understanding of the precarious political situation at the time. Were Muslims persecuted/suspected/imprisoned/expelled/executed in the wake of 9/11 because there was a real danger of attack? Look at what happened in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan due to the thread of radical Muslim infiltration and stealth attacks. Then imagine that all of that was going on in the US in your neighborhood - would you feel that there was a need to do something to prevent a crisis?

    • Matthew B. Rose

      I do hold that there is something to the smallness of the torture and executions. The members of the execution were hesitant to use torture not just because tortured criminals could lie to stop the torture, and by manipulating the system get out of jail free, so to speak. They were hesitant because they knew that even a heretic is like the prodigal son, running away from the love of Christ.

      Remember, Christ never said Pilate had no authority to execute him; he said he would not have any authority to do so if such authority didn't come from God.

      The executions performed by the secular arm were allowed by the Inquisition, and by the Church more broadly, partially because of the ferocious nature of the Manichean heresy. They were medieval Gnostics. In addition to denying the goodness of the body, they also denied the right of political authority to govern; the entire Manichean heresy was a movement of traitors. Hence the executions.

      We need to keep in mind the historical context.

      The inquisitors were not perfect, just as none of us are perfect. We are called to perfection in Christ, but it does take time to reach there.

    • Nick from Detroit

      Harold,
      How is it "whitewashing" when Mr. Rose gave the facts? Also, most of the Jews in Spain left voluntarily, following the Moslems who were expelled.

  • Tony Powers

    Great article, but one question- citations?

  • Sarah

    I don't mean to be a complete nerd, but is there anyway that you could cite some sources that you've used? I'd like to see where you're getting some of this information. 🙂