Before approaching the history of the Inquisition, one must keep in mind two basic points: First, the Church has been entrusted by the Lord 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” (Matthew 28:20). Therefore, heresy– “the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith” (Catechism, #2089)– was seen as 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, had to “root out” any such heresy.
Second, remember that the Roman Catholic Church was the only Church in western Europe until Martin Luther started the Protestant movement in 1517. (The Orthodox Churches had separated in the year 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 their duty to protect their people from error. For example, King Peter of Aragon 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 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 in 1232, and became a general institution by 1233. The Dominicans were recruited by Conrad of Marburg, Germany to assist in the Inquisition. (Note however that St. Dominic died in 1221 and had no connection with the Inquisition, despite the claims of some misguided individuals.) Later, the Franciscans also were recruited to serve as inquisitors.
Usually, two inquisitors with equal power held directly from the Pope presided over the tribunal. At first, these inquisitors rode a circuit to hear cases of those accused as heretics. Shortly thereafter, permanent inquisitions were established with a territorial jurisdiction. For example, the Inquisition based at Paris held jurisdiction over all of France, until the 14th century when another one was held at Tours.
One must remember that one of the primary purposes of a formalized Inquisition was to insure justice and to eliminate unfounded charges or vigilante justice. The inquisitors even followed a guide, such as the Processus inquisitionis (1249) which outlined various acts and provided commentary about certain cases. Accordingly, an inquisitor could bring a charge against any individual who had been accused by someone or was suspected of heresy. The accused person would take an oath swearing to tell the truth and was confronted with the evidence. The accused, however, was neither informed of the identity of the witnesses nor allowed to confront them; this practice was adopted to protect the witnesses from reprisals from family or friends. On the other hand, the accused had to supply witnesses in his defense: Inquisitor Eymeric stated, “If the accused has public opinion against him, but nevertheless it cannot be proved that he has deserved his reputation as a heretic, he has only to produce witnesses who can testify to his condition and habitual residence, and who, from long knowledge can affirm that he is not heretical.” Nevertheless, the accused could appeal to the Pope prior to the final judgment, and many did.
Unfortunately with the revival of Roman law, the Inquisition sometimes used torture to gain a confession. However, remember that torture was used regularly in matters involving civil law. As a matter of fact, as early as the fourteenth century, papal intervention curbed the use of torture by the Inquisition. Bernardo Gui, one of the most famous inquisitors, commented that torture was deceiving and inefficacious because it forced the confession.
If the accused were found guilty of heresy, the inquisitor had to obtain the approval of the bishop and a council of qualified consultors, lay and cleric, known as the boni viri (“good men”) before pronouncing a sentence; this process allowed a second review of the case. Penalties for those judged as heretics but who recanted included scourging, making pilgrimages to various shrines, confiscation of property, or wearing a yellow fabric cross sewn on the front and back of one’s clothing. For serious cases, imprisonment, sometimes for life, was the sentence. However, life imprisonment was not the norm: For example, inquisitor Bernard de Caux condemned only 23 out of 207 guilty heretics to life imprisonment. Moreover, those who had made false accusations were required to wear two red tongues made of cloth sewn to their clothing.
If a condemned heretic was recalcitrant and refused to repent, then he would be turned over to the state. The state, according to civil law, could impose the death penalty for heresy, which usually meant burning at the stake. Note that the Church itself could not impose the death penalty and actually pleaded for mercy in these cases. Here too remember, capital punishment was not an unusual civil punishment, even for simple theft or counterfeiting. St. Thomas Aquinas stated, “It is more wicked to corrupt the faith on which depends the life of the soul than to debase the coinage which provides merely for temporal life; wherefore if coiners and other malefactors are justly doomed to death, much more may heretics be justly slain once they are convicted.”
However, the usage of the death penalty has been exaggerated. For example, Bernardo Gui during his long career (1307-1324) pronounced 930 sentences of which 139 were acquittals, 300 involved religious penances, and 42 resulted in the death sentence imposed by the state.
The Inquisition climaxed in the late 14th century. During the 1400s it continued to decline throughout most of Europe. By 1509, the Inquisition lost authority in France. It survived the longest in Spain and in its New World colonies, until being finally suppressed in 1834. The Holy Office, established in 1542, later took over the duties of investigating heresy and became a court of final appeal.
The Spanish Inquisition seems to hold the greatest notoriety. However, evidence shows that between 1540 and 1700, only 828 persons were executed, or one out of eight cases. 90% of the accused were never tortured. Throughout the entire Spanish Empire, between 1560 and 1614, only 2% of the cases brought before the Inquisition resulted in execution.
Is the Catholic Church alone guilty of an “inquisition”? Hardly. During the Protestant revolt, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and the English Tudors all used and condoned torture and capital punishment for heresy. For instance, John Calvin, during his rule of Geneva between 1546-64, had 58 executed for heresy or serious sin, 73 exiled, and 900 imprisoned out of a population of 20,000. In England during the reign of Elizabeth I (1559-1603), over 250 Catholics were executed, many first suffering horrible tortures; many were sentenced to being hung, drawn, and quartered (hung until unconscious, disemboweled, and then cut into four pieces) and priests had the added punishment of being emasculated. Moreover, in post-Reformation Europe, Britain executed over 30,000 as witches, and Germany, over 100,000.
We cannot deny the Inquisition, and we cannot white-wash it. However, we must know the facts and the historical context in which it existed. The Inquisition was not a “Catholic event,” and the methods used were the same employed by the law for civil offenses. We fortunately live in an age of toleration. Nevertheless, we must defend the truth, but as St. Augustine noted, through charitable and convincing instruction.