Can you tell me more about the Inquisition? Part 2

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: In the last “Straight Answers,” we discussed the history behind the Inquisition. We now turn to the actual process.

The purpose of a formalized Inquisition was to ensure justice and eliminate unfounded charges of heresy or vigilante justice. To ensure due process, the inquisitors followed a guide, Processus inquisitionis (1249), which specified the procedure, outlined various acts and provided commentary about certain cases. If a person was accused of heresy, he would be ordered to appear before the Inquisition. The accused would take an oath swearing to tell the truth. He was confronted with the evidence. 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.” Also, prior to final judgment, the accused had the right to appeal to the pope, and many did.

Was there torture involved in the process? With the revival of Roman law in the 13th century, torture was used regularly in civil law proceedings, and the practice was adopted by the Inquisition. However, the Inquisition could only administer torture once and only as a last resort to prompt admission of guilt when the weight of the evidence proved heresy. Also, the torture could not endanger life. As a matter of fact, as early as the 14th century, papal intervention curbed the use of torture by the Inquisition. Most inquisitors refrained from torture, relying on skillful interrogation. For example, Bernado Gui, one of the most famous inquisitors (and maligned by movies like “The Name of the Rose”), commented that torture was deceiving and ineffective because it forced the confession. Also note that torture was not simply a Catholic practice: Protestants used torture most gruesomely to eradicate Catholicism — just read the instructions of Elizabeth I to her “rack master” Topcliffe of the Tower of London.

If the accused were found guilty of heresy, the inquisitor had to obtain the approval of the local bishop and a council of qualified consultors — both lay and cleric — known as the boni viri (“good men”) before pronouncing sentence, thereby allowing a second review of the case.

Penalties for those who were found guilty but recanted including scourging, making a pilgrimage to a holy shrine, confiscation of property or wearing a cross of yellow fabric sewn on the front and back of one’s clothing. For serious cases, imprisonment, even for life, was imposed; however, life imprisonment was not the norm. Moreover, those who had made false accusations were required to wear two tongues made of red cloth sewn on their clothing.

If a condemned heretic was recalcitrant and refused to repent, 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 generally pleaded for mercy in these cases. Remember that capital punishment was not unusual and was imposed even for crimes like theft and counterfeiting.

In his answer to “Whether heretics ought to be tolerated?” (Summa Theologiae, II-II, 3, 11), St. Thomas Aquinas taught: “With regard to heretics, two points must be observed: one, on their own side, the other, on the side of the church. On their own side, there is the sin, whereby they deserve not only to be separated from the church by excommunication, but also to be severed from the world by death. For it is a much graver matter to corrupt the faith which quickens the soul than to forge money, which supports temporal life. Wherefore if forgers of money and other evil-doers are forthwith condemned to death by the secular authority, much more reason is there for heretics, as soon as they are convicted of heresy, to be not only excommunicated but even put to death. On the part of the church, however, there is mercy, which looks to the conversion of the wanderer, wherefore she condemns not at once, but after the first and second admonition, as the apostle directs: After that, if he is yet stubborn, the church no longer hoping for his conversion, looks to the salvation of others, by excommunicating him and separating him from the church, and furthermore, delivers him to the secular tribunal to be exterminated thereby from the world by death.”

The use of the death penalty also has been exaggerated. For example, Bernado Gui, during his long career as an Inquisitor (1307-1324) during the Albingensian heresy, pronounced hundreds of sentences of which 636 people were punished: 40 with death (executed by the state), 300 with imprisonment and the rest with lighter punishments. Jacque Fournier (the future Pope Benedict XII), also tried more than 930 suspected heretics yet never used torture and only passed 42 who were found guilty to the state for execution

The Inquisition climaxed in the late 13th century and then declined during the 1400s. It survived the longest in Spain and its New World colonies until being suppressed in 1834. The Holy Office (now the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) was established in 1542 and assumed the duties of investigating heresy.

The Spanish Inquisition continues to hold the greatest notoriety. However, evidence shows that between 1540 and 1700, only 828 persons were executed, about five per year. Torture was rarely used: For example, of the 7,000 who appeared before the Inquisition in Valencia, only 2 percent were tortured for at most fifteen minutes. Much of the English Protestant myth surrounding the Spanish Inquisition has been discredited researching the actual records, as shown in Henry Kamen’s The Spanish Inquisiton: A Historical Revision.

Is the Catholic Church alone guilty of an “inquisition?” Hardly. During the Protestant revolt, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and the English Tudors and Stuarts all used and condoned torture and capital punishment for heresy. For instance, John Calvin, during his rule of Geneva (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), more than 250 Catholics were executed, many first suffering horrible torture, even lasting for multiple sessions, as in the case of St. Edmund Campion. Many were sentenced to being hung, drawn and quartered (hung until unconscious, disemboweled and then cut into quarters), with priests having the added punishment of being emasculated. Moreover, in post-Reformation Europe, Protestant Britain executed more than 30,000 as witches and Protestant Germany, more than 100,000.

Therefore, the Inquisition tried to preserve the faith and promote justice by giving the accused due process. Admittedly, no legal system is perfect, and instances of injustice or cruelty occurred during the Inquisition. Nevertheless, the Inquisition’s procedures were more just than the regular civil courts at the time. Moreover, the motivation was to preserve the true faith and save souls.