Christian Unity: What Should We Apologise For? January 1999

What about the Inquisition?

Eamon Duffy

The Inquisition is a good example of the sort of religious persecution about which the Church needs to be repentant. Eamon duffy, who is Reader in Church History at Cambridge University and author of the best-selling Saints and Sinners: a history of the popes (Yale, 1997), describes the work of the Inquisition and concludes that any apology for it must acknowledge 'a collectieve and radical failure of vision and fidelity to the demands of the gospel.' The Inquisition is a manifestation of male misogyny, impunity and self-love, as well as fear of the unknown, writing dissertation conclusion describes this in detail.

The Inquisition was one of the best reasons the Victorians could think of to loathe and destrust the Catholic Church. Tennyson's rousing patriotic poem 'The Revenge, a Ballad of the Fleet' tells the story of the heroic stand against overwhelming odds by the Elizabethan sailor Sir Richard Grenville. Outnumbered by more than fifty ships to one, Grenville cannot flee, since, as he tells the English Admiral, he had:

"ninety men and more who are lying sick ashore
he will not abandon them:
to these Inquisition dogs and the devildoms of Spain.
The sick men are brought aboard:
And they blessed him in their pain that they were not left to Spain
To the thumbscrew and the stake for the glory of the Lord.

Modern Catholic sensibility too revolts against the idea of 'the thumbscrew and the stake' being employed 'for the glory of the Lord'. Yet for more than a millennium the Catholic Church thought it right to combat heresy and enforce orthodoxy and Catholic morality by the use of force, including the death penalty. Some such development was probably almost inevitable once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and as early as the fifth century St Augustine himself had justified the forcible conversion of Donatist schismatics by a strained and unnatural interpretation of the phrase 'compel them to come in' from the gospel parable of the wedding feast.

Forced conversions

Where Augustine led, others followed: forced conversions of whole populations were routine aspects of the Christianisation of Europe in the early Middle Ages. The Inquisition itself, however, took another seven centuries to appear. At the beginning of the twelfth century a frightening heresy was spreading throughout southern and western Europe. Known as 'Catharism' (from the Greek word for purity), it was a dualistic religion which denied the values of the material world, and it therefore seemed to undermine not only the whole sacramental system of the Church, but the fundamental institutions of Christian society, especially marriage. The normal episcopal machinery for searching out and restraining heresy was ineffective against Catharism, which recognised no diocesan boundaries, and whose teachers travelled freely through northern Spain, southern France, northern Italy, and even further afield. Starting with Innocent III, a series of popes set in place an international commission of inquiry with extensive powers of arrest and judgement.

This papal 'Inquisition', formally established in 1233, by Pope Gregory IX, was staffed by Dominican and Franciscan friars, and it came to be greatly feared. Inquisitors were answerable to the Pope alone: they could arrest suspects on the testimony of two witnesses (who remained anonymous), and from 1252 they had papal licence to use torture to extract information. A formidable body of case law was built up and formulated into Inquisitor's manuals, to consolidate the experience and the record-keeping of the Inquisitors. Suspects or witnesses were compelled to give evidence under threat of heavy penalties, and assisting a heretic became a grave crime, making lawyers reluctant to act as counsel for the defence in case suspicion fell on them. Suspects found guilty of heresy had ecclesiastical penances imposed on them, which might include the wearing of a badge of shame. Stubborn or relapsed heretics were 'relaxed' to the secular authorities, for execution as a danger to Christian society. The normal form of such execution, established by the Emperor Frederick II in Sicily, was burning alive.

Medieval Inquisition

The medieval Inquisition established itself through most of medieval Europe, from Scandinavia to southern Spain, though never, interestingly, in England. An attempt to introduce Inquisitors to this side of the Channel was made in 1309, as part of the campaign against the Knights Templar. The attempt foundered, because the English clergy and laity distrusted a legal trial by jury, that involved anonymous testimony, and required the use of sanctified violence against suspects. The two French Inquisitors sent against the Templars complained bitterly of the lack of qualified torturers in England, and returned, disgusted, to France.

Heresy was not the only target of the Inquisitors. Any offence against the faith might fall under the Inquisition's remit, and in the fifteenth century the most lurid of these offences was thought to be witchcraft. In December 1484 Pope Innocent VIII issued a disastrous Bull, Summis desiderantes, designed to further the witch-hunting activities of the Inquisition in Germany. In the Bull, Pope Innocent endorsed the grotesque idea that men and women formed sexual partnerships with demons, and took at face value the whole famut of contemporary superstition about witches. The Bull had been secured by the two leading anti-witch Inquisitors in Germany, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger: in its wake, they produced the most notorious of all Inquisitor's manuals, the Malleus malificarum (Hammer of the Witches), which was to play an enormous and vicious role in spreading belief in the existence of demonic witchcraft. In the process, it contributed to the deaths of countless thousands of harmless or eccentric women over the next three hundred years. In all, as many as 25,000 people most of them women, may have been burned as witches in Germany. By no means all or even most of these were tried by the Inquisition, but the official backing of Pope and Inquisition for witch beliefs certainly contributed to the credibility and spread of witch-hunting.


In Spain, the Inquisition took a very distinctive shape. Early medieval Spain had sheltered Christian, Muslim and Jewish populations in a remarkable religious coexistence. By the end of the Middle Ages that earlier pluralism, always fragile, had collapsed, the Muslim areas of the peninsula had been conquered, and the Spanish monarchy was intent on eliminating Judaism and Islam altogether. A key tool in this campaign was the Spanish Inquisition, established at the request of the Crown by the Pope Sixtus IV in 1478. The Spanish Inquisition was directly subject to the Spanish monarchy, not the papacy, and it was from the first an instrument of racial and ethnic cleansing, hunting out any hint that former Jews and Muslims were secretly practising their old faith: a dislike of pork or the habit of changing your underwear on Saturday might be taken as damning - and potentially fatal - evidence of this sort of relapse.

The Spanish Inquisition's enormous powers and strong-arm methods earned it a fearsome reputation, and when Europe split into Protestant and Catholic camps in the sixteenth century, the Spanish Inquisition in particular would come to be seen as the unacceptable face of militant Catholicism, torturing and burning Protestants, and keeping the Catholic population also in submission. The reputation would persist, and was to receive its greatest literary expression in the nineteenth century, long after the Inquisition itself had ceased to exist, in Dostoevsky's fable of the Grand Inquisitor, in The Brothers Karamazov. In that fable, Christ returns to earth in late medieval Spain, but is arrested and confronted by the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada, who rejects Christ because he will upset the Church's control over the minds and hearts of mankind, who would rather not think, suffer or hope for themselves: 'why have you come to disturb us?'

Roman Inquisition

Outside the Iberian peninsula, however, the medieval Inquisitions had declined to insignificance by the time of the Reformation. To remedy this decline and to meet the challenge of militant Protestantism, the Roman Inquisition was established in 1542 under Pope Paul III, to centralise the struggle against error in Europe and the wider world. Successive sixteenth-century popes strengthened it: a special curial congregation was established to oversee its work (the direct ancestor of the present Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), and another congregation was founded to control the censorship of books - the Congregation of the Index. By the sixteenth century, however, even Catholic states were wary of an international papal tribunal with powers which overrode local customs. Though the Roman Inquisition played a part in the struggle against the Reformation all over Catholic Europe, it was often carefully controlled by the secular power. In the devoutly Catholic state of Venice, for example, the Inquisitors always sat alongside secular magistrates appointed by the government, and proceedings against prominent citizens of the Republic were often hampered or aborted.

The Roman Inquisition, like its medieval predecessors, handed stubborn heretics over to the state to be burned, but the numbers involved were nothing like so large as those involved in the witch-trials - seventy-two Protestants burned for the whole of Italy in the second half of the sixteenth century, for example. The worst atrocities against Protestants were in fact often the work of Catholic secular governments rather than the Inquisition courts, like the burning of 273 men and women in England in a three-year period under Mary Tudor in the 1550's, a campaign in which the pace was set by the Crown and zealous local magistrates rather than by the Church, and in which the Inquisition was not involved at all.

By the late sixteenth century, indeed, the Roman Inquisition had largely turned its attention from the fight against heresy to the elimination of superstition and magic among the Catholic peasantry, and the use of the death penalty became extremely rare, except for moral offences like bestiality and buggery.

Moreover, Inquisitorial proceedings, drastic and deadly as they might be, were mostly operated by conscientious churchmen who followed strict procedural rules, and who were interested in establishing inner motivation rather than mere external facts. As a result, a trial for heresy or witchcraft in front of an Inquisitor might be an altogether safer procedure for the accused than any comparable trial for the same crimes in secular courts. Famously, the Inquisitor Salazar y Frias conducted an exhaustive inquiry into accusations of witchcraft during the Basque witch panic of 1610, isolating dozens of suspects, taking them one by one to the scene of the alleged Sabbats, and carefully comparing their stories. He concluded that the whole thing was a fantasy, and earned himself the name 'the witches' advocate' in the process. This degree of care was probable unique in the history of the Inquisition, but it was absolutely inconceivable in any secular court before the modern era.

The Roman Inquisition survived the age of Enlightenment. to stagger on into the early nineteenth century, when it was swept away with much else of the ancien régime in the wake of the French Revolution. By that time it had become a byword for bigotry, intolerance and cruelty, and a number of classic Inquisition trials, the burning of the philosopher Giordano Bruno in Rome in 1600, the silencing of Galileo, branded themselves into the imagination of secular and liberal Europe as the prime examples of the Church's hostility to liberty of thought, science, modernity.

Behind closed doors

That view of the Church was given some plausibility by the fact that the Congregation for the Inquisition, and of the Index, continued to exist even after their ability to invoke the aid of the secular police and the hangman had been abolished. Ecclesiastical delations for heresy continued to be secret, and the procedures for the censuring of theologians continued (and continue) to lack the openness, accountability, and fairness to the accused we now expect of secular trials. The mentality of the Inquisition persisted. Above all, it persisted in the Church's continuing assumption that error had no rights, that it was the duty of Christian states to foster Catholic teaching, and to suppress whatever was alien to that teaching. The nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Church continued where it could to operate within the coercive framework established by Augustine fifteen centuries before. Religious freedom was thought - and taught - to be one of the poisoned fruits of the Enlightenment, an aspect of the human rebellion against revealed truth which we call sin. Protestants in a Catholic state (like Spain) might indeed hope for toleration, as matter of pragmatism and realpolitik. But they could never expect freedom of religion and religious equality, for to concede that was to succumb to indifferentism, and to confirm the world in its errors.

All this was understandable enough, since many of the nineteenth-century states which prided themselves on maintaining freedom of religion, like the Kingdom of Italy itself, in fact actively persecuted, harassed or robbed the Church. But the age-old insistence of the Church on the obligation of Christian states to enforce and promote the Catholic religion was overturned by the Second Vatican Council's 1965 Declaration on Religious Liberty, which taught clearly and unequivocally that freedom of religious thought and practice was not a matter of pragmatic concession in an imperfect political world, but a fundamental human right, and an aspect of our human dignity and freedom as the children of God.

Problem of religious freedom

The Council's teaching was, for many in the Church, a bomb-shell which cast radical doubt on the Church's teaching authority itself. How could fifteen hundred years on consistent Catholic teaching and practice on religious freedom be so radically mistaken? Was St Augustine, was St Thomas, were the popes who had established the Inquisition and the Index, who had promulgated Bulls permitting torture and the use of force in the service of gospel truth, were these all in error? These were not remote questions: the Vatican had approved arrangements by which the modern Spanish state had disadvantaged its Protestant citizens. These were the realities of the reigns of Pius XI and Pius XII, and not the far-off days of Innocent III and Gregory IX. To some, like Archbishop Lefebvre, all this was an abomination. It must be the council which was in error, since in promulgating this new gospel of liberty it had broken with the constant teaching of a millennium and a half of Christian civilisation. For Lefebvre and his supporters the question of religious freedom loomed at least as large in their disillusion with the Church of Vatican II as the loss of the Tridentine Mass.

As the third millennium approaches, the present pope broods on these things. He himself played a large part in the formulation and acceptance of the Council's declaration on religious liberty: the demand for freedom of conscience was a precious resource for him in his confrontation with Polish communism. He recognises the history of persecution as a blot on the Church's past, descrediting her in the eyes of the world, and hindering her task of proclaiming the gospel of the dignity of redeemed humanity. He has already issued a statement accepting that the silencing of Galileo, though understandable in its own time, was an injustice. In his encyclical Tertio millennio adveniente, he called on the Church to enter the new millennium 'with a clear awareness of all that has happened to her during the last ten centuries', and 'encouraging her children to purify themselves through repentance, of past errors and instances of infidelity, inconsistency and slowness to act': he singled out the history of religious persecution as a prime example of this moral and religious failure. As the year 2000 approaches, the Jubilee themes of liberty to captives, the cancelling of debts, forgiveness and reconciliation make the sorrowful acknowledgement of this woeful history of religious oppression seem appropriate and necessary.

October symposium

At the end of October last year, therefore, the Vatican's Jubilee commission summoned an historical Symposium in the Vatican, to which the world's leading historians of the Inquisition were invited, in order to present a collective picture of the history and activities of the various Inquisitions from their first foundation to their dissolution in the nineteenth century. The object of this historical study (the results of which will be published in a massive scholarly collection devoted to the history of the Inquisition) was to provide the materials by which the Church might confront its own persecuting past, in a solemn act of 'purification of memory in penitence'. A specially constituted theological commission sat in on the historical sessions, and it was generally assumed tht their task would be to prepare a theological reflection on the Inquisition for the Pope, as the basis for an 'apology' like that published last year on the Shoah.

Not everybody saw the sense of such an apology. In an eloquent and devastating intervention from the floor, the Jewish historian Carlo Ginsburg suggested that any talk of asking pardon for the past was unreal, an evasion of responsibility: the dead could not forgive, and he would rather hear the church and the Pope say simply that they were ashamed of the past, without asking easy absolution. There were in any case some uncomfortable ambivalences at the Symposium. For a start, the theologians appeared to be working fairly strictly to the brief set out by the Pope in Tertio millennio adveniente. There, significantly, Pope John Paul speaks not of the need for the Church to repent its errors, but for the children of the Church to repent their sins and errors. There is more to this distinction than meets the eye: it seems to many of us that Roman theology has simply not yet found a way of acknowledging that the institutional church itself could err and sin. The main theological input to the symposium, by the distinguished French theologian J.M. Garrigues, suggested that the Church's doctrinal magisterium had been 'silent' on the question of religious liberty until 1965, and that the 'political Augustinianism' by which persecution had been justified during the preceding millennium and a half, mistaken and repugnant to the gospel as it was, left the Church's doctrinal authority untouched.

Few of the historians present found this argument convincing, and there was some unease that any subsequent papal statement might attempt to reproduce the unreal distinction it seeks to make. The establishment, elaboration and privileging of the Inquisition by successive popes, the promulgation of Bulls against heresy and witchcraft, the creation of the Index of prohibited books, the shaping of the Church's fundamental relation to the states of medieval and modern Europe, and the uniform practice of repression and censorship at the heart of the Church's own central government - all this surely constitutes more than 'silence', and can hardly be treated as the incidental activity of some of the Church's children. Here the Church itself is implicated, and here too is something like that structural sin which the pope has descerned in the world's political and economic structures, operating within the heart of the Church herself.

I do not know whether the Pope should apologise for the Inquisition: there were those at the Symposium who thought that any such apology would ring hollow while the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith operates on its present terms of reference, and theologians can still be delated anonymously to Rome, and silenced without a proper hearing. However that may be, it is certain that any such apology must confront and acknowledge in the sorry history of the Catholic Church's implication in religious violence, a collective and radical failure of vision and fidelity to the demands of the gospel, and not merely the individual sins and blindnesses of rather a lot of the church's children.

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