Protestants always vilified the Inquisition. The secular press perfected the art of outlandish exaggerations and distortions oozing malice against the Inquisition. The Novus Ordo wants Catholics to be embarrassed about it, to wish that it never happened1 and not to lift a finger to defend it. Yet the information to defend the Inquisition is available in Catholic sources such as Characters of the Inquisition (1940) by William T. Walsh, and in recent secular books under the label “historical revision of the Inquisition” such as The Spanish Inquisition: An Historical Revision (1997) by Henry Kamen. Here we briefly explain the Inquisition and rectify the gross exaggerations of previous centuries concerning some of the facts, for instance, the number of people executed and the use of torture.
The Inquisition was an extraordinary ecclesiastical tribunal for combating or suppressing heresy. The word inquisition merely means inquiry.
Why is heresy so important? A human being is a composite of body and soul. The body lives a few decades and then falls into dust. The soul, on the other hand, lives forever, either in perfect happiness in heaven, or in eternal perdition, which is the greatest misfortune imaginable. So the fate of the soul is much more important than the fate of the body. Since the Catholic religion is capable of leading one to heaven, and heresy will lead to eternal perdition, the Catholic faith must be protected from heresies, and heresies must be prevented from freely influencing Catholic people.
The Catholic Church has always combatted heresy, but for the first eleven hundred years of the history of the Church the battle was almost entirely spiritual. Merely holding heretical views means killing one’s own soul. It is its own punishment. For this, there was no temporal punishment, only a spiritual one called excommunication. The material equivalent of holding heretical views is suicide, which is its own punishment in the realm of matter.
But in the Middle Ages new heresies appeared, not only anti-Catholic, but also anti-social, anarchistic, and in the highest degree aggressive. Such heresy held by an individual threatened not only the salvation of that single individual, it threatened others, it threatened society. Such heretics would not be content with freedom to exercise their own faith, but were even intent on the destruction of Catholicism.
Promulgating or militantly spreading heresy means killing the souls of other people. The material equivalent of promulgating or militantly spreading heresy is mass murder, which was always punished with death. The response to these new and militant heresies was also new and as yet unprecedented; it often involved temporal punishment and it was called the Inquisition.
The Inquisition was a court of justice, administered usually by the Dominicans because they were the most competent theologians. They heard evidence, examined witnesses and passed sentence. So they operated much like a modern day court. The duties of the office of the inquisitor consisted, first, in examining whether any person was a heretic or not; and, then, in attempting to reconcile those convicted of heresy to the Church.2
The aim of the Inquisition was always the conversion of the heretic, not his extermination. There are examples of medieval inquisitors taking long periods of time to explain to an accused man exactly where his error lay, attempting to get him to reject it. The inquisitor was to bring back the lost sheep, and if he did not succeed in doing so he had failed his main objective. If the accused admitted his guilt, renounced his heresy and returned to the Church, forgiveness was granted and a penance was imposed. Finally, the inquisitor had to pronounce a sentence against the criminal. Prisoners to be executed were handed over to the State.
Possible sentences ranged from fines, making a pilgrimage, flogging, confiscation of property, and undergoing a period of imprisonment (in a prison, at home, in a monastery or hospital) all the way to life imprisonment and execution. The tribunal had its own prisons. Only obstinate heretics and the relapsed were turned over to the secular arm to be burned at the stake. The death penalty was pronounced on someone only when the public welfare demanded it.
It is usual to distinguish three major phases of the Inquisition (in most countries of Europe they never went into effect).
The Medieval (or French) Inquisition (1184–16th century) was mainly directed against the Albigensian attack in the south of France. The Spanish Inquisition (1479-1820). Unlike the other two Inquisitions, which were ecclesiastical, this one was the operation of the Spanish kings: making sure that Catholic Spain survive. The Roman Inquisition of the Congregation of the Holy Office (1542-1966). This Inquisition was the most benign of the three, initially directed against Protestantism in Italy.
When people were accused of heresy, they often came voluntarily before the Inquisition and asked to be cleared of the false charges. The vast majority of people who came before the Inquisition were cleared of the charges, including St. Teresa of Avila and St. Ignatius of Loyola. For those cleared, the Inquisition provided a shield against calumny.
For example, St. Ignatius of Loyola had to appear twice before the Spanish Inquisition. The first was occasioned by the somewhat unusual behavior of some noble ladies whom St. Ignatius had converted to the devout life. They had gone on a pilgrimage without means of support, to the surprise and annoyance of their relatives, who blamed St. Ignatius for it. The second was occasioned by the public preaching of St. Ignatius and his followers while as yet laymen and students, which offended the authorities at the University of Salamanca. The Spanish authorities had some reason for being suspicious of unlicensed lay preachers and self-appointed religious guides during the great revolt called the Reformation. Both brief imprisonments ended with acquittal.
The Inquisition used a legal system unfamiliar to the English-speaking world. English common law uses an adversarial system in which the judge is a neutral umpire between prosecution and defense. By contrast, in most continental legal systems, derived from Roman law (which was revived in the 11th century and strongly influenced the Inquisition) the judge actively participates in ferreting out the truth.
Torture was allowed by Roman law. The Church was reluctant to use torture, and used it only to extract a confession or obtain information, never as a form of punishment as used by secular courts. Torture was only used infrequently, as a last resort, and only when there was strong evidence that the defendant was lying. The consent of the local bishop was required for torture.
The rack or strappado were used. Later Torquemada introduced the “water cure” as a more humane alternative.3 Walsh thinks that torture under Torquemada was no worse than that used by American police in the 1930s (The Wanderer, February 15, 1996).
When torture was used, it could not last more than fifteen minutes and could never be used twice on the same person. Weak and old persons and pregnant women were not to be tortured. For torture to be used, a doctor had to be present, and at his command it had to be stopped. Efforts were made to make sure that an innocent man did not declare himself guilty. Any confession made following or during torture had to be freely repeated the next day without torture or it was considered invalid.
Since torture is often the only way to obtain certain information from prisoners, it does not go away; it is used even in our days by many countries, including the U.S.A.
In those days, burning at the stake was a common method of execution for serious crimes. Being burnt alive was the most serious punishment. But often the convict was strangled first, then the dead body was burned.
The Catholic Inquisition was not alone in burning heretics. Elizabeth I burned heretics, as did her successor James I, as did virtually every Protestant government in Europe until the middle of the 18th century. Michael Servetus was burned in Geneva in 1553 by order of Calvin. Burning was discontinued in Europe in the 18th century. Muslim countries still use it even today.
According to the estimate made by most responsible sources, the number of people executed was two to five percent of those convicted of heresy. “Bernard Gui, Inquisitor of Toulouse between 1307 and 1323, pronounced 930 sentences during this period, out of which 42 led to executions.”4 In the Spanish Inquisition, under the reign of Queen Isabel (1474-1504) 2,000 people were executed out of about 100,000 prisoners.5 “During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries fewer than three people a year were executed by the Inquisition in the whole of the Spanish monarchy from Sicily to Peru.”6
So the numbers were not in the millions, but only in the thousands.
“All the evils that the Inquisition sought to repress, and did in great measure repress, have returned to the modern world, grown great and ravening, to feed upon our children.”7
1 Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism (Ignatius Press, 1988), pp. 290, 295.
2 Diane Moczar, Seven Lies about Catholic History (TAN Books, 2010), p. 87.
3 William Thomas Walsh, Characters of the Inquisition (1940; reprint, TAN, n.d.), p. 169.
4 Ibid., p. 56.
5 Ibid, p. 174.
6 Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition: An Historical Revision (Weidenfield and Nicholson, 1997), p. 203.
7 Walsh, Characters of the Inquisition, p. 284.