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The Spanish Inquisition: Debunking the Legends

Spanish Inquisition

The Catholic Church is often the victim of the same kinds of urban legends that surround the Titanic or Aspartame. Whether it is the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, chained church Bibles, or Galileo, people are being led to believe falsehood and making bad decisions based on those falsehoods. Given the gravity of the decisions being made, any intelligent person deserves to have the facts.

If there is a hierarchy to urban legends that skeptics use to try to discredit the Catholic Church, the Spanish Inquisition is probably at the top. It’s an easy one, because most people think they know enough about it to not ask questions, and the knee-jerk reaction to the images brought to mind of thousands being tortured or killed for their beliefs are usually all one needs to make the point: the Church is untrustworthy at best, and genuinely evil at worst.

However, it turns out most of what people think they know about the inquisition is simply not true. The urban legends surrounding the Spanish Inquisition span from Reformation-era England to modern-day Fundamentalism, and are unfortunately so widespread that even many Christians believe them. To put it up front: yes, there were abuses done in the name of the Church—some committed by members of the Church. The urban legends concern the nature and extent of the abuses, as well as who was responsible for them. Although the evils present during various phases of the Inquisition were very real, should not be defended, and have been admitted by the Church, many historical misunderstandings and falsehoods based in anti-Spanish or anti-Catholic propaganda remain to this day.

Quick Summary

 
Modern historical research has uncovered facts that dismantle many of these centuries-old falsehoods. Here are some quick corrections concerning popular misunderstandings:

  • The Inquisition was originally welcomed to bring order to Europe because states saw an attack on the state’s faith as an attack on the state as well.
  • The Inquisition technically had jurisdiction only over those professing to be Christians.
  • The courts of the Inquisition were extremely fair compared to their secular counterparts at the time.
  • The Inquisition was responsible for less than 100 witch-hunt deaths, and was the first judicial body to denounce the trials in Europe.
  • Though torture was commonly used in all the courts of Europe at the time, the Inquisition used torture very infrequently.
  • During the 350 years of the Spanish Inquisition, between 3,000-5,000 people were sentenced to death (about 1 per month).
  • The Church executed no one.

What was the Spanish Inquisition?

 
In order to understand the urban legend status of the Spanish Inquisition, one must first understand the Inquisition in general. Existing in various parts of Europe as early as the 12th Century, the inquisition was part of the judicial system of the Church which dealt with heresy. The Bible records instances where God commanded that formal inquiries were to be carried out to discover believers in false religions (e.g., Deuteronomy 17:2–5; 13:5, 17:7, 12; cf. 1 Corinthians 5:13), and this idea was put into practice in the time when the Church and state were much more closely associated than they are today. Although, as part of the Church, the Inquisition was concerned only with its own members, loyalty to the Church assumed loyalty to the State and vice versa. This may seem unfair or oppressive, but it is how things were back then.

The original Inquisition of the 12th Century concerned the Catharists who blended Gnosticism with Manichaeism and believed in two gods. Their beliefs led to potentially civilization-destroying social consequences. Catharists refused to take oaths, which back then meant opposing government authority. Marriage was considered sinful while secret fornication was permitted. Even suicide was encouraged. These were not faithful bands of “Bible Christians” or a hidden “remnant” of true believers trying to avoid the evil institutional Church. Eventually Europe was so endangered by this group heresy that the Inquisition seemed to be a political necessity.

By the late Middle Ages, the subjects of Portugal and Spain were often Muslim or Jewish, and the re-conquering of those lands created a clash between these subjects and the Crown as well as the Church. King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile thus established the Spanish Inquisition in 1478 to weed out any remaining traitor-heretics (mostly focusing on converted Jews). Unlike the historical Inquisition of the Church, this Inquisition was essentially controlled by the secular government (even when staffed by clergy). It thus operated largely outside the control of the Church. In fact, when abuses were reported, Pope Innocent VIII complained to no avail.

Facts and Fictions

 
Two major factors make a fair evaluation of the Spanish Inquisition difficult today. The first is that most of what we think we know about it is simply not true. The second is that we judge the realities of the Spanish Inquisition according to modern Western sentiments. Most of European life in the period covered by the Inquisition would be judged barbaric by this standard, and, ironically, the Inquisition was actually rather progressive compared to the rest of the world at the time. Here are some specific examples:

Fairness in Trials

 
Although the days of having court-appointed lawyers and access to one’s accusers were a long way off, at one time the Spanish Inquisition was widely hailed as the best run, most humane court in Europe. There are records of people committing blasphemy in secular courts so they could have their case would fall under the Inquisition’s jurisdiction. Further, the Inquisition was the first to pronounce Europe’s witch hunt a delusion and prohibited anyone from being tried or burnt for witchcraft (the number of witches killed by the inquisition was less than 100 out of over 125,000 trials).

When the Inquisition found someone guilty of heresy, most of the sentences were not unfair—many simply required the performance of some penitential good works. Heretics were unrepentant threats to the state—not confused, simple folk (in fact, the Inquisition had little impact on the vast majority of people because it simply did not exist in many rural areas). Finally, while verdicts of guilty or not-guilty fell to the inquisitors, the use of violent punishments was up to the secular authorities.

Use of Torture

 
Most of the torture and executions attributed to the Church during the various inquisitions didn’t occur at all, and historians now concede that Inquisition torture chambers never existed. Torture was indeed used during some Inquisition trials (hardly uncommon for the court system of the time). The Inquisition, though, had strict rules regarding its use that put it far ahead of its time.

Torture was unauthorized until 20 years after the Inquisition began. It was first authorized by Pope Innocent IV in 1252—not as a mode of punishment, but as a means of discovering truth. It was not to be used to threaten life or cause loss of limb, was to applied only if the accused was uncertain and seemed already convicted by many weighty proofs, and after all other options had been used. When it was used it was not to be used more than once, and for no more than 15 minutes. Unfortunately these rules were sometimes circumvented by creative readings of the rule book. Torture was most cruelly used under the pressure of secular authority (Frederick II, for instance, abused the Inquisition to persecute his personal enemies). So, while torture was used in some cases, the idea of continent-spanning torture and death caused by the Church is simply not the case.

There were no rapes, feet burning, creative torture chambers, iron maidens, etc., and reports show that between 98%-99% of all Inquisition trials did not involve torture at all. Compared to secular courts that decreed the death penalty for damaging shrubs in England, or disembowelment for sheep-stealing in France, the Inquisition was actually far more conservative than the secular Europe of the day.

Death Toll

 
No one knows exactly how many people perished because of the Inquisition, but it is thought to be  between 3,000 and 5,000 people during the 350 years of its existence. Some writers quote figures so wildly impossible it is amazing they have any purchase at all (I’ve seen numbers nearing 95 million—more than the entire population of the countries the Inquisition was held in!).

In 1998, Pope John Paul II stated that “The Inquisition belongs to a tormented phase in the history of the Church, which...Christians [should] examine in a spirit of sincerity and open-mindedness...[I]t is necessary to know the facts exactly and to recognize the deficiencies in regard to evangelical exigencies in the cases where it is so.”

Six years later, a symposium commissioned to study the Inquisition released its findings: the total number of accused heretics put to death during the Spanish Inquisition comprised 0.1 percent of the more than 40,000 who were tried. In some cases the Inquisition saved heretics from secular authorities.

Historical vs. Urban Legend Sources

 
If all this is true, then where did the misunderstandings come from? Political attacks on Spain (which was being equated with the Inquisition) and Protestant propagandists (identifying themselves with the heretical “martyrs” of ages past), resulted in the publication of falsehoods that were distributed via the new printing press throughout Europe. People like William of Orange and Montanus basically set the stage for historical thinking on the Inquisition for centuries to come—the so-called “Black Legend” of Inquisition terror. Further, activists, politicians, and even artists turned the Inquisition into a symbol of religious intolerance during the Enlightenment age which followed the Protestant revolution.

In recent years, however, the Vatican opened up its secret archives for historical investigation. Inquisition records that were made by and for the Inquisition were allowed to be researched for the first time in history. Since then, the above facts have been generally discoverable in modern history books (whether Catholic or not). Corrected Inquisition history can be found in sources such as Inquisition by Edward Peters and The Spanish Inquisition: An Historical Revision by Henry Kamen. Comparative secular documentaries include The Myth of the Spanish Inquisition (BBC) and the more sensationalistic The Spanish Inquisition (History Channel).

Conclusion: What Does this Say About the Church?

 
When looking at the facts of the Inquisition, and placing those facts in their proper historical context, the picture we discover is far less terrible than is been believed. Even so, there were certainly abuses committed in the name of Christianity during the Inquisition. The question is, did the Church encourage theses abuses? The Church is most aware of her own failings and that she contains all sorts of sinners. She even knows some of them manage to work their way into positions of authority (Acts 20:29; Matt. 7:15).

But what matters for the Church, and what it should be judged by, is what it actually teaches. It would be absurd to criticize the Church for something done against what it advocates. Just as we don't judge the efficacy of a medicine by those who refuse to take it, so we should judge the Church only by her actual teachings and official actions.
 
 
Originally posted at Soul Device. Used with author's permission.
(Image credit: Paris Ankara)

Doug Beaumont

Written by

Doug Beaumont is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Theology at North-West University. He acquired a B.A. in Psychology from California State University and a M.A. in Apologetics with Philosophy from Southern Evangelical Seminary. In addition to contributing to many books and academic journals, he's the author of The Message Behind the Movie: How to Engage With a Film Without Disengaging Your Faith. Follow Doug through his blog at Soul Device.

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  • Andre Boillot

    I think it's always good to go back and correct distortions of history. However,
    if I may, some quibbles.

    The Church executed no one.

    Finally, while verdicts of guilty or not-guilty fell to the
    inquisitors, the use of violent punishments was up to the secular
    authorities.

    Weren't the "secular authorities" basing their penalties for
    conviction of heresy on Church teachings (at the very least, scripture)? Did
    the Church oppose these punishments for those it convicted, or attempt to
    correct any possible misunderstanding of teaching or scripture? If no, then I
    think what we have here is a distinction without a difference.

    [Torture] was first authorized by Pope Innocent IV in 1252—not as a mode of punishment, but as a means of discovering truth.

    Again, surely - especially from the point of view of the tortured - a
    distinction without a difference.

    Eventually Europe was so endangered by this group heresy that
    the Inquisition seemed to be a political necessity.

    I see, the Inquisition saved Europe.

    During the 350 years of the Spanish Inquisition, between
    3,000-5,000 people were sentenced to death (about 1 per month).

    Since this is an article about correcting distortions, the above strikes me as
    oddly lacking in context.

    Some context, taken from Kamen, a source for this very article:

    "The Inquisition was extremely active between 1480 and 1530. Different
    sources give different estimates of the number of trials and executions in this
    period; Henry Kamen estimates about 2,000 executed, based on the documentation
    of the autos-da-fé, the great majority being conversos of Jewish origin."

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Inquisition

    For the mathly challenged, that's ~40-66% of the executions in a 50 year span
    (about 3.33 per month). For comparison, in almost 200 years of Texas proudly
    leading the way in state-conducted executions (well, in the US anyways),
    they've managed *only* 1,260 killings (about .50 per month).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lists_of_people_executed_in_Texas

    EDIT: Formatting

  • josh

    "But what matters for the Church, and what it should be judged by, is what it actually teaches."

    Look at what I say, not what I do has never been a very compelling excuse. By the same logic, communist states can't possibly bear any blame for persecution of religious people because that was never the official policy.

    Anyhow, the Church of the time actually taught that torture and death and imprisonments were suitable methods for enforcing religious conformity. (And the Inquisition was hardly limited to Spain, nor was punishment of heretics carried out only under the offices of the Inquisitions.)

    It's worth bearing in mind the general barbarities of the time of course, and there is no need for grossly exaggerated numbers. All of this just goes to show that the Catholic Church is a human institution, occasionally better and occasionally worse than its contemporaries. But what has dragged it, protesting, into the modern age isn't its internal teachings but the movements of society at large.

  • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

    I would have to check his sources and any opposing views before accepting the claims made here, but even if we were to accept them, I can't help paraphrasing Stephen Fry.

    As an atheist it is often suggested that any moral system I apply is ultimately subjective and leads to moral relativism that can justify anything, like torture for example. However, when atheists point out that the Catholic Church engaged in a systematic process that often used torture to further its ends, the response is "well that's what everyone else was doing at the time" and here "we weren't quite as bad as the "secular" government." (I hardly think anyone could describe medieval Spanish Monarchy as "secular", but I digress).

    What I wonder is, where was the insight based on objective morality that recognizes torture as wrong in ANY circumstances. The actually secular governments of the world got there, including the atheist Soviets in the 20th century. Where was the church's speaking out against it 1500 years after receiving the word of Jesus? If you aren't doing that, then what are you for?!

    • Marie Van Gompel Alsbergas

      "In fact, when abuses were reported, Pope Innocent VIII complained to no avail." The modern impression is that the Roman Church was a lot more powerful that it actually was. The illusion of power came from kings riding at the head of armies, claiming that they were doing it for the Church. If Ferdinand and Isabella had thought the Church had so much power, would they really have abandoned their daughter Katarina when Henry VIII divorced her?

      • Abe Rosenzweig

        Well, they were kind of dead at the time...

      • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

        This Pope Innocent the VIII?

        "Desiring with supreme ardor...
        that the catholic faith in our days everywhere grow and flourish as much
        as possible, and that all heretical depravity be put far from the
        territories of the faithful, we freely declare and anew decree this by
        which our pious desire may be fulfilled... It has recently come to our
        ears... that in some parts of upper Germany... many persons of both
        sexes, heedless of their own salvation and forsaking the catholic faith ,
        give themselves over to devils male and female... We therefore,
        desiring, as is our duty, to remove all impediments by which in any way
        the said inquisitors are hindered in the exercise of their office... do
        hereby decree, by virtue of our apostolic authority, that it shall be
        permitted to the said inquisitors in these regions to exercise their
        office of inquisition and to proceed to the correction, imprisonment,
        and punishment of the aforesaid persons for their said offences and
        crimes..." http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Summis_desiderantes

        Where are the Papal Bulls against torture? Why did we need to wait
        until centuries later for secular governments to outlaw it? If the
        Church wasn't there to steer us towards a good moral direction, but
        instead seems to participate, condone and encourage torture what is it
        for?

      • DannyGetchell

        The illusion of power came from kings riding at the head of armies, claiming that they were doing it for the Church.

        Where in the historical record do we see the Church's opposition to this action, its clear declaration that those kings were not its representatives??

        • M Colins

          Really? What armies did the Church have to oppose these actions? What penalty could a cleric possibly levy on one who already believes he holds his crown by divine right?

      • Andre Boillot

        "The illusion of power came from kings riding at the head of armies, claiming that they were doing it for the Church."

        ...after being asked/instructed to...by the Church

      • Paul Boillot

        Divine Right of Kings?
        Holy Roman Empire?
        Crusades?
        Excommunications?
        Heretic burnings?
        Banning books/english/science?

        Maybe the problem isn't that our impression of the power of the Catholic Church is overblown, maybe the problem is that it's uncomfortable to admit the true extent to which your Church has been a worldly and political power, and the lengths to which it went in maintaining that power.

    • M Colins

      I hope Mr Fry is consistent in his condemnation as his own nation happily and gruesomely practiced torture and grisly execution for hundreds of years, and was in fact still hanging petty thieves until well into the 18th century.

      So many commenters here have brushed aside the notion of historical context as unimportant, but fail to realize that in certain ways are taking to task a system that was far less brutal and far more fair than what existed a virtually of all Europe during the whole of the Inquisition's existence. So until you want to condemn all European history (which is bloody indeed) why would your preferred target be the one which was provably most humane?

      It is impossible in fact it is silly to attempt to project a contemporary sensibility back onto times so far behind us. It makes you guilty of condemning people for not acting in a way consistent with ideas which were even followed up until recently. It of course doesnt help that the history itself has become a complete fabrication of people who have axes to grind for the Church.

      • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

        I'm not asking anyone to apply contemporary norms or morality to contemporary society. I'm asking you to apply objective Christian morality to it.

        Fry's point is that we atheists are criticized for having a malleable, subjective morality that changes with the times. Whereas Christians believe their morality is grounded in an absolutely objective standard which is God's own nature.

        Secular people who hold to moral relativism might refer to the fact that those were brutal days where torture was common as an excuse as to why there was no grass roots movement to stop it.

        But surely the Catholic Church should have know it was obviously wrong and against Gods nature to torture people to death for exercising religious freedom. To the contrary, rather than martyr themselves in opposition, they ordered approved and participated what we all agree today was an obviously immoral process of torture and oppression and silencing of dissidents.

        Fry's comment and mine is that if the church is not for speaking out against such obvious immorality, then what is it for?

        • M Colins

          The Inquisition was actually a far more fair and merciful court than any contemporary court of the day. Absent this fact, you seem to be criticizing the Church for only being 4x times as good rather than 5x. You cannot characterize "objective Christian morality" defined by your contemporary view. You are introducing a standard which didnt exist.

          • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

            Whether or not such a standard existed is precisely the point. It is the Christians who accuse atheists of failing to have a complete and effective moral system because we lack an absolute perfect moral standard. We are the ones who get to claim that in those days it wasn't that bad. But isn't Jesus' morality this absolute perfect standard. Are you saying Catholics didn't have this back then?

          • M Colins

            You are taking a Protestant view of Christianity which is that Scripture explicitly and clearly reveals the perfection of God and that it is and has been possible to know in completeness God's will and how to ensure salvation. A + B = Salvation yay! In the 2000 years of the Church we have had Scripture, but we have also had the great theologians and philosophers to help us better understand God's plan over the years. Scripture was initially an oral tradition, it was the apostles preaching to the new converts.This teaching and learning continues today.

            At the time of the Inquisition the Church believed certain things which we now understand were in error. But evenso, it resulted a tribunal which was eminently more fair and merciful than all the other justice systems in Europe, which incidentally we mainly Christian as well.

            So again to single out the Catholic Church as brutal by todays standards, ignore that by contemporary standards, including Protestant Christian standards it was actually ridiculously merciful. And yes, in another 100 more years the Catholic Church might have a different understanding of things we view today.

            For you to ask about Jesus morality presupposes that you as a 15th century Christian would somehow have known better.

          • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

            So the Catholic insight into morality, after well over a thousand years of thinking about it and worshipping Jesus, was unable to realize that burning heretics to death and torturing out confessions was incredibly immoral?

            If what you are telling me that the full force of Catholic moral thinking gets you slightly better than without it and can still be wrong, and often it, fine.

            The answer to Fry's question is "the church is not for advising on moral matters." I don't know how I got that impression.

          • M Colins

            Apparently no part of Christianity and most faiths in that time period thought differently. St Thomas More burned 5 heretics as part of his duties as Chancellor. It was a practice not unknown in that age.

            Remember too that man had an entirely different notion of the danger of evil back then and what had to be done about it.

            Again your belief that now certain things are self evident bears not at all on what men (not just the Church) thought 600 years ago. But your criticism still befuddles as you direct it at the body that was closest to today in its mercy. You could spend years cataloging the barbarity of European men and their civil courts in those times but you choose to scorn most the one organization that was already moving substantially towards proper enlightenment.

          • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

            You are missing the point. I am not saying torture being wrong is self evident, I am not saying there is some moral standard we all have that God placed in our heart. It is the religious who say this.

            I am saying that if what the religious say is true about morality, you would expect the one true church to have some insight then, into what it now says is evidently wrong. Instead it was as bad as anyone else.

            Again, if you are not saying that the church has any special insight into morality, that is fine.

          • M Colins

            I contend that even a special insight into morality must be viewed in its historical context. Revelation is a process. By your standard someone may look at your perfectly moral conduct today in 200 years and heap scorn upon you for your failure to live according to the standard commonly understood in this future time period.

          • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

            The only standard I am holding them to is the one they claim is God's. They got it desperately wrong then and have forfeited any claim to special moral knowledge.

            I agree compared to medievil torturing, the crusades, medievil justice, sure they were not that bad.

          • M Colins

            The Catholic Church is not Gnostic. They do not claim a "special knowledge" nor do they claim to have the unique ability to divine God's plan. They are perfectly willing to explain through their great theologians like St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, More, Fr John Neumann, and all the Papal encyclicals that have been written how they arrive at their conclusions about God's plan. There is no special moral insight to lose.

          • David Nickol

            But the Catholic Church claims to be able to make infallible pronouncements regarding morals (and faith). Certainly it does require "special knowledge" of some kind to be able to make infallible moral statements. I personally can make "infallible" mathematical pronouncements—for example, the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. However, I personally do not need to be infallible to make mathematical statements that can be proven to be certainties. If moral statements were demonstrable in the same way that mathematical statements are, the Church would not need to declare itself infallible. It would simply have to prove that the moral statements it made were true.

          • M Colins

            David, the doctrine of papal infallibility is very misunderstood by both non Catholics and Catholics alike. First of all, the Church is not infallible in a general and all encompassing way as you seem to suggest, the Pope can be but he is not infallible every time he speaks. The teaching, which was first elucidated at Vatican I states that in order to pronounce a teaching as inerrant, the Pope must first declare he is speaking "ex cathedra" (from the chair (of Peter)). Only then are his teaching on that particular topic to be taken by Catholics as infallible. and part of Revelation, something which Catholics (and most Christians) consider wholly inerrant. Infallibility essentially means that one cannot be in full communion with the Catholic church if they reject a teaching that was spoken in this way. Since Vatican I which I believe was 1878, Popes have only spoken so 3 times and they were within months of the teaching. They all had to do with the nature of the Virgin Mary. Historians have examined Papal teachings and found that retrospectively Popes have spoken in this way on 7 previous times. So every 200 years or so on average, Popes have clarified Catholic teaching with ex cathedra pronouncements. The Church sees our understanding of Gods will and plan as an ongoing process. Which is why burning heretics 500 years ago may have been thought acceptable while it is known now not to be. However self evident that being wrong may seem here in 2014, it was not in the 1500s.

            Your point is not destroyed however it is diluted quite a bit. Again Revelation is something revealed for all to see and understand, I dont think that specifically qualifies as "special knowledge.

          • Michael Murray

            David, the doctrine of papal infallibility is very misunderstood by both non Catholics and Catholics alike.

            While I agree this might be true in general if you read David's posts (click on his avatar and scroll back through his Disqus listing) you will see he is very knowledgeable about Catholicism. I am sure he understands what papal infallibility is all about. His statement is also correct. However rarely they do it the Church does claim to be able to speak infallibly.

          • M Colins

            Its clear he does not (at least on this aspect of the Catholic faith) because Papal infallibility is almost never invoked and certainly not in the last 100 years, where his characterization is that the entire Catholic Church is claiming infallibility frequently.

          • Max Driffill

            I"m sorry, hold up. If the church's moral convictions are no better than any other convention of its day then why on earth should we ever be persuaded of its claims to have some basis to instruct the rest of us in what is moral? I grow extremely weary of this constant deflection. When unbelievers point out how horribly Christians behaved historically we consistently meet "you have to consider the historical context." This would be utterly reasonable if not for the fact that we continue to hear about the supreme moral superiority believers in Christ are supposed to have.

            I"m also going to need to see some evidence that the Inquisitional courts were any more merciful than non-inquisitional courts.

          • Michael Murray

            So the current Church's moral positions might be found to be wrong in the future ? I'm pleased to hear that. There is hope yet. Perhaps one day the Vatican will do something about helping catch child abusers instead of ducking and dodging like this

            http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-07-05/vatican-wont-give-all-child-abuse-documents-royal-commission/5574192

        • Max Driffill

          Very nicely put.

  • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

    Wikipedia uses some different terminology, the author here seems to be apologizing for is the Medievil Inquisition, which was both the Papal and Episcopal. This was replaced by the Spanish Inquisition, officially the Tribunal of the " Holy Office of the Inquisition" which was "under the control of the Spanish monarchy using local clergy." Doesn't sound particularly secular to me.

  • Casey Braden

    I find several parts of this article troubling. The first and most obvious objection I have is, even if the extent of the inquisition was actually less than is commonly believed, that doesn't lessen our ability to criticize the actions of the church at the time. I also think that when any organization makes claims of moral authority, it is absolutely absurd to say that we can judge that organization by its actions.

    I find the author's comments about the Cathars most troubling, as well. He states:

    "Their beliefs led to potentially civilization-destroying social consequences. Catharists refused to take oaths, which back then meant opposing government authority. Marriage was considered sinful while secret fornication was permitted. Even suicide was encouraged. These were not faithful bands of “Bible Christians” or a hidden “remnant” of true believers trying to avoid the evil institutional Church. Eventually Europe was so endangered by this group heresy that the Inquisition seemed to be a political necessity."

    Whoa. Is the claim here that the church was justified in slaughtering the Cathars by the thousands, including the elderly, women, and children? Because they wouldn't take oaths, didn't get married, and had sex outside of marriage? I don't see how any of these things could be "potentially civilization-destroying, and I think that to claim as much is being dishonest. Regardless, it doesn't make slaughtering innocents okay.

    And finally, I find it interesting that the author claims that it is difficult to make a fair evaluation of the morality of the inquisition today, since "we judge the realities of the Spanish Inquisition according to modern Western sentiments." This sounds suspiciously close to advocating for moral relativism, especially coming from a Catholic.

    • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

      "I find several parts of this article troubling. The first and most obvious objection I have is, even if the extent of the inquisition was actually less than is commonly believed, that doesn't lessen our ability to criticize the actions of the church at the time."

      Sure it does. We would criticize an institution far less for embezzling $5 than $5 million. So why not here?

      "I also think that when any organization makes claims of moral authority, it is absolutely absurd to say that we can judge that organization by its actions."

      This displays a deep confusion about what the Church is, and how it teaches. It doesn't say, "Listen to us because all our members are perfect!" Instead, the Church say, "Listen to us because these teachings come from God!" The fact that many individuals don't live up to those teachings is not surprising, nor does it alter the origin of the Church's teachings.

      Also, I want to make sure we're clear on the distinction between the Church's actions and the actions of individual Catholics. Do you understand that difference?

      "Whoa. Is the claim here that the church was justified in slaughtering the Cathars by the thousands, including the elderly, women, and children?"

      No, this is not the claim, and nobody has defended this. You've simply constructed a straw man. And like those many myth-makers Doug confronted, in his article, you've also inflated the statistics. I'm not aware Cathars were killed "by the thousands", nor that Catharist women and children were murdered b the Church. Perhaps you can back-up this suggestion with evidence?

      "Regardless, it doesn't make slaughtering innocents okay."

      This follows the same baseless straw man as above. Please show me where, in Doug's article or elsewhere, the Church has officially condoned the slaughter of innocents.

      "And finally, I find it interesting that the author claims that it is difficult to make a fair evaluation of the morality of the inquisition today, since "we judge the realities of the Spanish Inquisition according to modern Western sentiments." This sounds suspiciously close to advocating for moral relativism, especially coming from a Catholic."

      This is not moral relativism. It's simply contextualization, which is necessary to make any moral judgement.

      For example, consider the death penalty. According to Catholic teaching, the death penalty *can* be moral if there is no other way to prevent an unjust aggressor from harming the community. So if you were a pioneer settler in Western America in the mid-nineteenth century, and you didn't have a well-developed prison system, the death penalty might be justifiable as the only way to prevent further harm. But as Pope John Paul II noted, that threat is virtually non-existent in the modern, developed world. We can put someone in prison for life and prevent them from committing any more harm. Thus in almost all circumstances today, the death penalty is immoral.

      So, when deciding whether the death penalty would have been immoral back in nineteenth-century California, we can't judge the situation according to our modern sentiments and standards. We have to consider the context first. Doing so allows us to both say "the morality of the death penalty depends on context" and "we reject moral relativism."

      • Andre Boillot

        Brandon,

        "Please show me where, in Doug's article or elsewhere, the Church has officially condoned the slaughter of innocents."

        Perhaps there's an issue here with what constitutes an 'innocent'. Surely, we agree that the Church condoned the execution of those convicted of heresy?

        • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

          "Surely, we agree that the Church condoned the execution of those convicted of heresy?"

          Surely we do. And this was a mistake which I, and Church leaders, have profusely admitted and apologized for.

          But do you see the distinction? The Church condoned the execution of people they (and the state) thought were guilty of sedition (via heresy). That's wholly different that what you accused them of, condoning the slaughter of innocents.

          • Octavo

            Are you saying that the Church never slaughtered the innocent because heretics don't count as innocent?

            ~Jesse Webster

          • Andre Boillot

            Brandon,

            "But do you see the distinction? The Church condoned the execution of people they (and the state) thought were guilty of sedition (via heresy). That's wholly different that what you accused them of, condoning the slaughter of innocents."

            First of all, "slaughter of innocents" was Casey's charge. Second, as others have pointed out (the Albigensian Crusade), many innocents were killed - unless you believe that children can be guilty of sedition/heresy. Third, that the Church didn't view these people as innocent is a distinction that hardly lessens its culpability. Fourth, if I'm not mistaken, most of those victims of the Spanish Inquisition were 'conversos' - whose crime was to keep practicing their native faith in private, despite their forced public conversion.

          • Max Driffill

            Andre B. Weren't the Jews, as a whole, considered guilty of deicide?
            It wasn't until the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) that the Catholic Church decided to modify the traditional belief in collective Jewish guilt.

          • mriehm

            And that Christian view was ... so absurd! If God incarnated himself as a man in order to suffer and die and take the world's sins upon Himself, shouldn't Christians have thanked Jews, rather than demonizing them, for helping to fulfill the destiny?

          • Tony Jokin

            Brandon,

            The Church was not "wrong" or "mistaken" to execute or jail heretics. What on earth are you saying?

            Please read the Catholic Encyclopedia on Heresy

            http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07256b.htm

            Specifically the section on "Intolerance and Cruelty". To quote part of it (you can read the rest)

            "The Church's legislation on heresy and heretics is often reproached with cruelty and intolerance. Intolerant it is: in fact its raison d'être is intolerance of doctrines subversive of the faith. But such intolerance is essential to all that is, or moves, or lives, for tolerance of destructive elements within the organism amounts to suicide."

          • Max Driffill

            I don't care if they thought the people were guilty. They convicted them of fake crimes, and for which many admitted under torture. It was an inhuman way to treat other humans and the Church condoned these hugely immoral acts despite the fact it's leaders tell us it has greater moral authority than the average citizen. Was the church wrong to participate in the brutal torture and murder of heretics or wasn't it? If you admit it wasn't you admit the Church is no more capable a moral body than any body with which it is contemporaneous. If you agree that it was right, then you marginalize yourself as a barbarian, who would convict people of thought crime.

            What shocks me in this face of this sad history, is that we are still told on this site that we need religious, specifically Catholic faith to be moral. Clergy continue to use faith to arrogate the authority to tell everyone else what to do with their lives. One might think that with this history of moral error, and of cover-up and continued scandal, champions of Catholicism might approach the discussion of morality with a bit more humility.

      • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

        Brandon, do you not think it is reasonable to expect the Catholic Church to, in communicating the teachings of God, to have something to say about torture and its use? And shouldn't we expect its position to be that torture is never acceptable?

        Would you not agree that as an organization whose morality is derived from a perfect and objective source, that the prohibition against torture should have been obvious as it is today?

        Instead we find that to the contrary, it condoned and participated in torture. I'm not so sure of what Catholicism says about torture, we have millions worshipping under a god being tortured to death, we have a history of self abuse, canonization of people who tortured themselves. What's the deal?

        • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

          Brian, thanks for the comment. I detect a lot of confusion here. Perhaps I can respond to each of your questions one by one.

          "Do you not think it is reasonable to expect the Catholic Church to, in communicating the teachings of God, to have something to say about torture and its use?"

          I do. And the Church has definitively condemned torture as intrinsically evil. That said, the Church has always maintained a progressive understanding of God's revelation. This means that the first-century Church did not understand God's moral character as well as we do twenty centuries later. There's a development there--not a contradiction, but a development.

          "Would you not agree that as an organization whose morality is derived from a perfect and objective source, that the prohibition against torture should have been obvious as it is today?"

          No, I would not. We must make the distinction between moral ontology--what *is* objectively right and wrong--and moral epistemology--how and whether we *know* those objective moral facts.

          "Instead we find that to the contrary, it condoned and participated in torture."

          Perhaps you've found that, but I haven't. Can you show me where the Church, as an institution, officially participated in torture?

          "I'm not so sure of what Catholicism says about torture..."

          Thank you for admitting your uncertainty. It's a sign of your humility and honesty. This will help clarify the Church's position for you: http://bvogt.us/1hETfJP

          "We have millions worshiping under a god being tortured to death..."

          Assuming you're referring to Jesus, this is a very poignant observation. Christianity hinges on a God who suffers torture at the hands of men, not one who inflicts it on them.

          "We have a history of self abuse, canonization of people who tortured themselves...."

          This is somewhat of a red herring, which we can save for another time, but what you're referring to--commonly known in the Church as "taking the discipline"--is distinguishable from torture because, among other reasons, it is a freely-chosen act performed on oneself. It is not punishment or suffering imposed by others.

          • Andre Boillot

            Brandon,

            "Can you show me where the Church, as an institution, officially participated in torture?"

            I'm not sure what you mean with your phrasing here. Are you saying that no Church officials ever participated in torture? That the Church never proscribed that torture be used? What do you mean by 'officially'?

          • http://briangreenadams.wordpress.com/ Brian Green Adams

            I can indeed show you where the the Catholic Church as an institution officially participated in torture. In this very article the author notes that Pope Innocent the IV authorized its use 1252.

      • Casey Braden

        Murdering people is a bit different than embezzling money. But my point was EVEN if the church was responsible for the deaths of a fraction of those we once thought, we can still criticize them for the deaths they were responsible for. Which is still many, as with the Cathars. I most certainly did not create a straw-man here. I was referencing the Albigensian Crusade, initiated by Pope Innocent III. In just one incident in this Crusade in the city of Bezierss, the entire population of the city was slaughtered, with estimates being somewhere between 7,000 and 20,000 dead. Papal legate Arnaud-Amaury, who commanded the attack, wrote to Innocent III, telling him "Today your Holiness, twenty thousand heretics were put to the sword, regardless of rank, age, or sex." So, as I said before, even if the total number of those killed in the inquisition and related events is less than originally thought, I can still criticize church sanctioned murder where it occurred. As a former Catholic, I understand your position that the Church's teachings are different than the Church's actions. However, right or wrong, the actions of a Church that claims the authority to teach faith and morals affect the willingness of people to listen.

        I also understand how the circumstances of any particular scenario affect the morality of that scenario. However, that was not what the author was saying. His comment was that we are unable to judge "the realities of the Spanish Inquisition according to modern Western sentiments." Morality is the same today as it was in the past. And while our understanding of morality may have improved, we can still look back and say "that was wrong." So, the morality of your death penalty example (and the specific context you presented) would be the same in the past as today, correct?

      • DannyGetchell

        when deciding whether the death penalty would have been immoral back in nineteenth-century........We have to consider the context first.

        Brandon, please expand upon the "context" of the Albigensian Crusade. What harm was being wreaked upon their neighbors by the Cathari, harm for which death was considered an appropriate punishment? We aren't talking about Billy the Kid here.

  • Vasco Gama

    I am a Catholic (not a good one, however) and I feel some repulse (and shame) by the evil deeds made by members of the Church along these last two millennia. In this I am in deep agreement with many atheists that point and bring those atrocious acts to our mind. And in fact I guess that pretending that it was not so
    bad as claimed brings little comfort.

    The thing is a little worst for a devout Catholic as our faith requires the acceptance of a few dogmas, which in general are not problematic and one accepts them quite easily. However there is one that from time to time I find some difficulty to deal with as it states that “The Church founded by Christ is holy.” It is clearly
    a very difficult thing to accept, as we know that the Church is composed by
    ordinary men and women that are not saints (in spite of a very
    restrict minority is found to be saint), that, for some reason show to
    have a strong will (and calling) to serve the Church to carry the burden
    of the apostles of bringing God to the layman, but apart from that, they
    are quite normal people, sharing the same imperfections as you and me

    In the beginning of the XXI century, things are quite different and we possess a sharp critical view that is only possible with the time that separates us from these unfortunate times. In the comfort of our existence we know that those things that seemed so natural and trivial for people from the past, in reality are true horrors not to be repeated. However being a Catholic I am aware that I must be charitable
    with others, and as I must accept the dogma of the holiness of the Church, I
    finish by accepting that probably the course of events that actually occurred
    was the best way.

    Trying to validate my view I happen to compared those unfortunate (miserable) events to others that took place outside the Christianity also in the past, such as in the Islamic world, or in the far East, such as China or India. I can even look to the most recent atheistic regimes (in the XX century, less than one hundred years ago) such as the communist (URSS, China, Korea, Cuba), where an attempt to devoid society from “religious superstition” was firmly followed. At this point usually I rest myself and recognize that it is not so difficult after all to accept that dogma.

    In spite of my acceptance of the dogma, in my view the Church must ask for forgiveness of its mistakes and wrongdoings (until they are actually forgiven).

  • DannyGetchell

    Even so, there were certainly abuses committed in the name of Christianity during the Inquisition. The question is, did the Church encourage theses (sic) abuses?

    Respectfully, no. The question is, did the church, or any of its leaders, discourage them?

    Citations of some contemporary bishops, cardinals, or popes who spoke out loud and clear against those abuses would go a long way in my mind to establish the church's claim to moral authority.

  • DannyGetchell

    Can't say I agree with your article, but love your choice of a header picture. Were psuedonyms allowed here I would certainly go for "Cardinal Fang".

    • http://www.brandonvogt.com/ Brandon Vogt

      Thanks, Danny! If that's the only thing we agree on, I'd still be a happy man.

  • DannyGetchell

    It appears that this discussion has wound down to an end.

    A shame, really. Not only the lead article, but many of the posts, are such classic examples of the no true Scotsman fallacy that I'm considering editing the Wikipedia entry on same to point here.

  • thursday

    I realize the discussion here seems to have come to an end but just a few thoughts. Sin is a problem. Sin always begets more sin. It is like a cancer. We all know that the treatment for cancer, while often life saving, does, collateral damage. We live in a world full of sin. The Church while instituted by God is full of sinners. This makes us an easy target for criticism and that is as it should be I suppose.

    This article argues for historical perspective. Historical perspective is necessary to understand our past. Decisions were made by men in authority in a time very different from our own. This is not about moral relativity but the difficulty we all have in morally complex and difficult situations. When is it justified to do something that you would otherwise see as wrong. Is the church's survival, not as a power, but as the bride of Christ so vital that even violence can be used to defend her. Was the heresy of the time so threatening to truth that the heresy had to be stopped by any means necessary? How do we stand against evil? Is there a time when we must fight against it? These are the legitimate moral questions the Church had to grapple with. Now mix in a time when the lines between politics and religion were blurred and you have a recipe for abuse of power and abuse of religion.

    In no way does a reasoned and factual look at those conditions condone wrong doing. It is clear that the teaching of Christ and the Church stands in stark contrast to those acts that offend all of us, that is the take away here, that is the purpose of the Church and that is the evidence of her influence and divine nature.

  • Connie Criscitello

    It makes me shudder to think you had the task of writing to try and make the cruelty of the Inquisition seem less severe. My stomach twists in knots when I see the cruelties that have plagued human kind throughout history. Being an empath, I become physically ill when I read or hear about the atrocities that humans have always done to one and other. I have always been a very spiritual person and I do believe in Jesus and pray to the Holy Spirit, but I believe the bible is evil and has perpetuated torture and wars even still today. Read the history of how the King James bible came about and you will see that it is a work of man, not of God.