Can you tell me more about the Inquisition? Part I

Q: In light of the President’s recent remarks at the Prayer Breakfast referencing ISIS to the Crusades as if the beheadings, burnings, etc. throughout the ages had already happened in the “name of Jesus,” I would like to know a little history of the Crusades/Inquisition. — A reader in Woodstock

A: Recall, the last issue of “Straight Answers” addressed the topic of the Crusades. This week, we turn to the topic of the Inquisition. Here I need to repeat the same admonition: Too many people only have a knowledge of the Inquisition through a superficial and selective presentation of events as presented on the History Channel or by the politically correct intelligentsia. During the “Enlightenment,” individuals, oftentimes who were either heretics or atheists, like Voltaire, crafted a presentation of the Inquisition to discredit the Catholic Church. The Inquisition itself became known as “the Black Legend.” Three resources which provide a fair and true presentation on the Inquisition are: Warren Carroll’s A History of Christendom, Diane Moczar’s Seven Lies About Catholic History and Edward Peters’ Inquisition.

Before approaching the history of the Inquisition, one must keep in mind two basic points: First, the Lord entrusted the church to preserve the deposit of faith and to hand on the authentic faith to later generations. At the Ascension, Christ said to the apostles, “Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you” (Mt 28:20). Therefore, heresy — “the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2089) — was considered a particularly grave sin. Not only was a heretic’s soul in jeopardy, but also his false teaching jeopardized the souls of others. The church, as the guardian of souls, has the duty to identify and “root out” any such heresy and thereby to protect the innocent faithful. While a heretic cannot be forced to recant error, he must not corrupt the faith of the innocent faithful with his errors.

Jesus Himself knew the gravity of this sin: He said, “It would be better for anyone who leads astray one of these little ones who believes in Me, to be drowned by a millstone around his neck, in the depth of the sea. What terrible things will come on the world through scandal. … Woe to the man through whom scandal comes.” (Mt 18:6-7). He also spoke of fraternal correction: If someone sins, first confront him privately; if he refuses to repent, summon two or three witnesses. If he still refuses, refer it to the church; “if he ignores even the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector,” i.e. excommunicate him (cf. Mt 18:15-18). Heresy is not just a personal sin, but a great scandal that endangers the whole church. For good reason, the church — as attested to by St. Paul and the early church fathers — has excommunicated those who endanger the faith of the innocent, but with the ultimate hope that the severe punishment will move the guilty person to repentance and reconciliation.

Second, remember that the Catholic Church was the only church in Western Europe until Martin Luther sparked the Protestant movement in 1517. (The Orthodox churches had separated in 1054, but that schism involved parts of Eastern Europe and the Middle East.) Since there was one church, oftentimes church and state worked together. Also, kings generally saw themselves as guardians of the faith and believed it was their duty to protect their people from error. For example, King Peter II of Aragon in 1197 stated, “The enemies of the cross of Christ and violators of the Christian law are likewise our enemies and the enemies of our kingdom and ought therefore to be dealt with as such.”

With this in mind, we can now turn to the Inquisition. In his bull “Excommunicamus,” Pope Gregory IX formally instituted the Inquisition in 1231 as a means of repressing heresy, particularly that of the Albigensians. Prior to this time, similar mechanisms had existed. For instance, St. Augustine (d. 430) upheld the right of the state to punish the Donatist heretics for their own benefit as well as for protecting the faithful, although he also maintained that charitable and convincing instruction should be used before any corporal punishment (short of execution). The Inquisition was first established in Germany, extended to Spain, and became a general institution by 1223. The Dominicans were recruited by Conrad of Marburg, Germany to assist in the Inquisition. (Note, however, that St. Dominic, who died in 1221, had no connection with Inquisition.) Later the Franciscans also were recruited.

In the next issue, “Straight Answers” will address the judicial process of the Inquisition.