Critics of the Inquisition normally claim the Inquisition was an intolerant, unmerciful organization.  In light of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy called by Pope Francis, it might help to address how the Inquisition expressed mercy rather than suppressing it.

We must first recall two essential truths of mercy.  First, mercy is essentially tied to love.  One cannot show mercy without love, and one cannot express love if one despises mercy.  Secondly, mercy is not the same as acquiescing, or giving in to whatever someone else wants.  One who shows mercy does not ignore the wrong someone else has done; rather, the merciful takes what was wrong with his brother and sets it aright.  Correction cannot happen if we pretend there was never a problem.

It may sound shocking (dangerously so), but the Inquisition’s purpose was to spread Christ to those sinners in most desperate need of God’s mercy.  It did this by following the Spiritual Works of Mercy.  In examining the Inquisition in this light, we no longer see an institution of injustice, but rather one overflowing with Christian charity.


I. Instruct the Ignorant

When the Inquisition entered a town, the first thing the inquisitors did was preach the Gospel, the famous tempus gratiae (“time of grace”).  They were there to root out and extinguish heresies.  Since a heresy festers in ignorance, the inquisitors hoped that they might bring heretics back to the Faith by teaching the truths of the Faith to those who might be poorly catechized.  In this regard, they were similar to priests who lead parish missions.  The most successful inquisitions ended soon after this stage, when, like Nineveh for the prophet Jonah, the entire town reaffirmed their belief in God.


II. Counsel the Doubtful

Essential to the inquisitor’s mission was counseling.  Like any priests, these traveling spiritual directors helped the faithful determine God’s will in their lives.  Sometimes counsel was more mundane, as in when a simple peasant sought advice for one issue or another.  Sometimes the counsel was drastic, even lifesaving, as when the inquisitor urged a suspected heretic to repent and return to Christ’s love.  The whole purpose of the auto de fe ceremony during the Spanish Inquisition was to offer one last chance, one last bit of advice, to obstinate heretics.  By preaching about the Church’s teaching, usually some aspect of the Faith doubted by the heretics, the inquisitor opened previously closed channels of grace so that the heretics might change their beliefs and, in doing so, transform their lives.


III. Admonish the Sinner

While all priests admonish sinners whenever they hear confessions or preach repentance from the pulpit, the inquisitors admonished sinners on a grander scale.  Heresy is a very public sin. In the Middle Ages, heretics like the Manichaeans often preached against the relationships that sustained medieval society.  It was against this particular heresy that the Medieval Inquisition fought.  The earlier mentioned tempus gratiae served as a warning, an admonishment, to heretics.  Throughout the examination and trial of a suspected heretic, the reality of the sin was ever before the suspect.  The urging of the inquisitor that the heretic, if he was a heretic, confess sooner rather than later to his sin is not one of sadism, but one of love.  Just as a teacher stresses that a student should learn the proper way to complete a lesson, so the inquisitor stressed the necessity of confessing sins.


IV. & V. Bear Wrongs Patiently and Forgive Offenses Willingly 

These two works of mercy are intrinsically linked, since a man who bears wrongs patiently will likewise forgive willingly.  A classic example of an inquisitor who bore wrongs and forgave willingly, like Christ Himself, was St. Peter of Verona, one of the earliest inquisitors.  He bore slanderous accusations at the hands of other Dominicans with patience and trust in Christ.  During his time as inquisitor, he stressed forgiveness for repentant heretics, offering lighter penances than some other inquisitors.  He was a forceful preacher who won for the Church many converts from Manichaeism; because of this, Peter faced great insults and persecutions from leaders in the heretical cults, and would eventually be martyred by assassins hired by the heretics.  Today we often think it the highest attribute of mercy to forgive others; St. Peter of Verona demonstrated that virtue was essential when working with the Inquisition.


VI. Comfort the Afflicted

There is no way, a critic of the Inquisition might say, that inquisitors comforted the afflicted; they were more likely the cause of the affliction.  However, the Inquisition defended the rights of those accused more fervently than a civil court at the same time, perhaps even more so than courts do today.  The accusation of heresy was a strong one, potentially ruining the reputation of the suspect, and false accusations from townsfolk took up much of the Inquisition’s time.  In order to comfort the accused, the Inquisition rejected any accusations from a suspect’s enemies or from disreputable sources.  Two witnesses were needed, and more often than not court cases were thrown out due to lack of evidence.  The falsely accused knew that justice would come from the Inquisition.


VII. Pray for the Living and the Dead

Prayer infused the life of the inquisitor.  These were, after all, clerics tasked with saving souls and society.  Each step in the inquisitorial process involved some sort of prayer for those involved.  If the Inquisition failed in its task (meaning a heretic was turned over to the secular authorities and then executed), then prayers were offered for the souls of the deceased.  The reason for these prayers?  So that those alive might be united with Christ after death, and that God might have mercy on those who had died.

Throughout every age of the Church, the People of God have sought to bring God’s mercy to a world where true mercy is despised.  The Inquisition, like all works of the Church, answered Christ’s call to “Love one another” in mercy.  The medieval inquisitors understood that mercy is not giving in to those who are unrepentant, that mercy is only effective if it brings the receiver closer to God, the Fount of true mercy.  This year, let us be inspired by the Inquisition to embrace the Spiritual Works of Mercy, becoming Christ to all those in our lives.

Editor’s Note: To see Part I of Mr. Matthew Rose’s series on the Inquisition, see here.

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  • Kevin S

    I’ve read both of your postings here on the inquisition. Your intention to bring clarity to the historical record is a good intention. It is something that one should always applaud; however, you also include strands of editorializing in your posts. That can lead to an interpretation by a reader of the presence of a sort of propagandizing and defensiveness on your part. It is important that we remain clear on the historical facts (which you’ve excellently done) while also acknowledging that methodologies such as torture (even 15 minutes in duration) do not embody mercy, do not embody the message and teaching of our Lord. Contextualizing it and rationalizing it based on the cultural/societal norms of the time does not change the fact that it is counter to our Lord’s teachings. You are a powerful writer and it is clear you have a passion and love for our Church. This can easily turn into a zeal that leads to us-and-them views and scapegoating. Think of what the child sex abuse scandal has revealed with regard to a passion and love for the Church that went astray and led to so much pain and horror. In the end it is a dangerous path we tread when we say that 15 minutes of torture or 1% of executions are acceptable, particularly from a Catholic Christian perspective. They are not acceptable. They are not means nor expressions of mercy as instructed by our Lord.

    • Matthew Rose

      Thank you for your comment and compliments. I do try to write well, and I do not want to allow my love for the Church to blind me to reality.

      I feel like, at some point, I should write an article about problems during the Inquisition (not as bad as people say, but there were definitely some, as with any human institution).

      The comparison to the child abuse scandal is an interesting one (especially since the abuse scandal has joined the Inquisition on lists of “top reasons why you shouldn’t be Catholic”). I would assume that no one now nor in the future would say that the way priest abusers acted was out of mercy. The abusers themselves would never make such a claim. Popes would reject such a claim. All rightly so.

      The torture permitted in the trials of the Inquisition were the darkest part of the whole story, at least in my opinion. It was a holdover from the pagan Roman court system, and there was a reason why for the first few decades that the Inquisition existed, torture was not allowed. It was also not trusted. Confessions given under torture were not accepted; if a heretic confessed under torture, but repudiated his confession the next day, the confession was deemed invalid, but the torture could not continue. All of these regulations speak to the great reluctance of the inquisitors to use torture.

      Can torture be truly justified? I would say no. I looked over the section on torture in my first article. I wasn’t trying to excuse the use of torture in the Inquisition; rather I was pointing out that the common story of bloodthirsty monks is wrong. I did not intend for it to be a wholesale exoneration of abuse.

      The Church’s human members are not protected from committing injustices, being wrong, committing sins, etc. Bringing up how limited the use of torture was during the Inquisition does more accurately portray the story that, too often, is sensationalized. I think that is an important act of justice, to teach others the reality of the historical record. At the same time, we are Catholics. We are obliged to teach the truth. The truth is that torture was not used as often as anti-Catholics report. But it was used, and looking back, we can say it shouldn’t have been used, nor should we justify torture today by saying “well, they did it during the Middle Ages.”

      As far as executions go, the Church has always taught that there is a responsibility of secular authorities to defend their realms (see Catechism paragraph 2267). The Inquisition handled with the spiritual. They wanted to rectify the soul of the sinner, to bring him back to God. The secular authorities handled with the laws of the land, the political issues. The heretics dealt with during the Medieval Inquisition were dangerous to society, as they advocated the overthrow of the feudalistic system which undergirded the medieval world, and also taught a dangerous theology that culminated in a ritual suicide via starvation. Their political rebellion usually meant that they were traitors not simply because they taught beliefs against the Church, but rather because they sought to overthrow society. They would be executed as enemies of the state, justly under Church law.

      I know this does not answer your question completely. I would like to work on a fuller exploration of the topic. In other words, I’ll get back to you. I do hope this helps some.

  • Charles Shunk

    This article should be required reading in every RCIA class.

    • Matthew Rose

      Aww. Thank you. I don’t know if it’s that good.

  • Michael Boes

    Where to start…. how about here. What right did the inquisitors have to sentence heretics to death and in what way is torture and death merciful? Do you believe the Vatican should be implementing this cowboy justice today?

    Do you know who follows this exact pattern of “mercy” today? ISIS. This literally sounds like ISIS. Strike fear into society, force them to repent (which is entirely terrible on its own account), public trial for a sin (how would you like to see that today? Can we put you on trial?), torture, and public execution. If you believe that the Church acting as a terrorist organization was merciful..,. God help you.

    • Matthew Rose


      First, I would point you to the first article in this series (linked at the end of this article). I deal to some extent to some of the points you make (and refer, in one of the comments, to the work by Kamen mentioned by Wim below).

      Second, let’s look at your point about the right of the Inquisition to sentence. Essentially, the Inquisition was a court; in this case it dealt with ecclesiastical crimes, rather than the typical crimes you see in a typical court today, or even at that time. As with any court, they only function under the proper authority. In Medieval Europe, the Church had such authority. Your point comparing the Inquisition to a sort of “cowboy justice” is exactly what the Inquisition was not. It was not set up as a tool for vigilantes; rather, it was a process so that there was an orderly process to cases involving theological crimes.

      I would say that there is a difference between ISIS and the Inquisition. The thrust of ISIS, as it plows through the world, is to destroy what stands, to erase the memory of the past and others who stand in their way. The Inquisition was set up to preserve the truth, to ensure that orthodoxy prevailed against those who sought to destroy the faith of Europe. If anyone in the story of the Inquisition matches ISIS in brutality, it would be the Albigensian heretics who, like too many heretics in the Church’s history, sought to overthrow the existing Church.

      Finally, I’ll return to your first point. Remember, the Inquisition did not have the right to torture or execute anyone. All an inquisitor could do was turn the accused/guilty party over to the secular government, and even then they made sure that the secular government respected the suspect.

      • Mike Boes

        The Church may not have directly tortured but to hand a criminal over to the state is exactly what the Jews did by turning over Christ to the Romans to be crucified. The Church remains responsible for any punishment to these heretics. The Inquisition may have been organized, and I will read the historians you suggested, but how can you possibly view the act of forcibly correcting the beliefs of those not aligned with the Church as an act of mercy?! The inquisition is a perfect symbol of why Church and State should be separated. And the mindset of correcting heretics by force and not love… this is the exact mindset that Christ stood opposed to.

        And no, it isn’t merciful to blackmail someone into correcting their views. Ever.

    • Wim

      You have a view on the inquisition that is a vestige of the English and Dutch anti-Spanish propaganda from the 16th and 17th century. Modern historical research is rectifying a lot of those misconceptions. At the same time where the inquisition limited torture to 15 minutes maximum, and never applied more than twice (which was already rare), you could get the dead penalty in England for breaking off a branch of a bush in a public park. From our perspective 15 minutes is still 15 minutes too many, but you fail to see the improvements they instituted. Or what about this: the fact that Italy and Spain had so to speak no or very view witch burnings, was due to the strong presence of the inquisition in those two countries, which did not believe in that popular view of witches and demanded instead rational proof. Other countries, both Catholic and protestant, without that tempering influence of the inquisition, had thousands of men and women burned in the 17th century. I could go on, but the gist is clear: there is a lot more about the Inquisition than you seem to know or acknowledge. May I suggest Henry Kamen as a modern historian who has done extensive study on this topic?

  • Dakota

    This article is a great aid. Thank you! Where can I learn more aboutv the truth of this time?

    • Matthew Rose

      I would recommend Warren H. Carroll’s History of Christendom series, especially the second and third volumes. He draws from a lot of sources, so at the very least read through the Bibliography at the end of each volume.

  • Christopher Weitzel

    A great resource on the Inquisitions from a Catholic point of view is The Real Story of the Inquisition by historian Steve Weidenkopf and according to his study, what you are saying is 100% accurate.

    • Matthew Rose

      Thank you Chris! I actually studied under Weidenkopf while working on my graduate degree. His work is really good.

      In addition to the CD set you mentioned, he also did one on the Crusades and the Protestant Revolution. He also wrote a book about the Crusades, entitled The Glory of the Crusades.