Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

Rewriting the Inquisition - Roman Style

by Peter A. Kwasniewski


"History nearly always has two or three sides of a story to tell, all the more when it comes to the Middle Ages." In this enlightening article, Dr. Kwasniewski examines the Roman Inquisition through his critique of the lurid and misleading findings of the 1998 International Symposium "The Inquisition." While not denying the abuses and problems that existed within the Inquisition, Kwasniewski gives it some historical context to account for Church methods that might seem extreme to our modern eyes. As he explains, the Medieval Church knew well the massive civil disorders that could be caused by religious errors, and thus reacted in two ways: with earnest prayer and with a sharp sword.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


8 - 14

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, March 2005

I am all in favor of making apologies when wrongs have been committed. It is not just a very Christian thing to do; it is the core of the Gospel. We are sinners who deserve judgment and we ask the merciful Lord to forgive us. Jesus was sent into the world, "not to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through Him" (John 3:16). To prove the connection between Christianity, confession of sins, and forgiveness would be to copy out the New Testament. One should not have any problem, then, with prominent leaders of the Catholic Church, above all the Pope, making public apologies for past errors, mistakes, and yes, crimes. The Church is made up of sinners, and sinners do one thing best — they sin. The Church ought to be filled with repentant sinners, and penitents do one thing best — they repent. The more public and heartfelt the repentance, the better. In the ancient Church, serious sins were confessed publicly, and public penances were portioned out, the severity of which would make today's parishioners faint in the pews. There was no reason to be troubled by the Holy Father's remarkable mea (or nostra) culpa on the Day of Pardon, March 12, 2000, the First Sunday of Lent during the Jubilee Year. Or rather, there was every reason to be troubled in spirit and groan heavenwards for mercy when the Pope recalled the seemingly endless catalogue of sins committed by men and women over the centuries who were (and are) supposed to be "domestics of God and fellow citizens of the saints." He never once said the Church herself sinned; indeed, he insisted that the Church as the immaculate bride of Christ could never sin. He only ever said baptized Christians had sinned — men and women trying, more or less, to live the Gospel, and failing, more or less, to do so — and he begged forgiveness of God and of mankind for those lukewarm and errant faithful. And he did not spare himself or any member of the Church today. It was a heroic gesture of humility, contrition, magnanimity, of a pure and childlike love of God.1

The problem is when history begins to get rewritten to favor slandering the Church, to support the Hollywood image of a huge, dark behemoth stalking human history, dominating the Middle Ages with fear and trembling. Such a thing happened at the "International Symposium 'The Inquisition'," held in Rome in October 1998, which attracted considerable attention at the time, and will attract even more in the future, because its proceedings — all 783 pages' worth — have now been published. Is there anyone who has ever doubted that evils were committed during the Inquisition? No, not really, any more than people have doubted the evils committed by secular courts in every age and place. Yet no subject of history has been as routinely exaggerated, and as commonly brought forward by Protestants and atheists alike, for the discrediting and vilification of the Catholic Church, as "the Inquisition."2 The Proceedings of the Symposium bid fair to outdo all prior publications in the extent to which they pillory the Popes, cutlass the Cardinals, and disembowel the Dominicans, among others, for their unspeakable crimes against humanity. Here is a tasty morsel: "Because of the Roman Inquisition, Pius V has more legal murders staining his record than any other 16th century pope, including Paul IV and Sixtus V. Nevertheless, he has become the only one of this group to be canonized, while the other two remain bywords for bigoted ferocity" (Proceedings, p. 545). "That the wisest and saintliest among the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, through their personal authority, gave credence to this 'communal doctrine' [of torture and death] to the point of seeming to imbue it with a quasi-Magisterial authority, necessitates that the authentic Magisterium of the Church make honorable amends" (ibid., p. 767). All this is tediously tendentious. Pius V was in truth a mighty saint whose support of the Roman Inquisition can be easily defended. To speak of the deaths of convicted criminals, as Pius and others of his day understood them, as "legal murders" is lurid, journalistic prose. Moreover, to pit an "authentic Magisterium" of today against a "quasi-Magisterium" of the past reveals an almost childish understanding of how the Tradition of the Church works.

Now, let's take a realistic perspective on all of this. First of al, it isn't as if the Inquisition has never been studied by reputable, sober, and gifted historians. The disclosure of certain Vatican documents and the opening of hidden archives did not actually alter in any significant way the major historical facts that were already digested and reflected upon. Many fine books have been written, and most of them were able to show that the Inquisition was not as bad as authors who let their imaginations get carried away have pretended.3 In many places the Inquisition's court acted with considerably greater justice and leniency than its secular equivalents, which were habitually draconian and ruthless. The Inquisition introduced in many places for the first time a systematic procedure of evidence-gathering, a transparent juridical process, a requirement of eyewitness testimony subjected to cross-examination, and other features we have come to associate with democratic court justice.4 A set of clear and honest rules had to be followed so that Church authorities could monitor the system; for instance, careful transcripts of the juridical proceedings had to be kept and periodically submitted. These records constitute a goldmine for later researchers, given that practically nothing like them is to be found among the often arbitrary and secretive proceedings of secular courts. These and many similar features were utterly novel at the time. People who were found to be falsely accused were quickly released, and the punishments allotted to people convicted of heresy, blasphemy, or what have you, were in many instances less than what had been the customary prior to the establishment of the Inquisition. And it bears mentioning that with one lurid word, "torture," the revisionist historians heap together a whole range of medieval practices that include what we would call "trials" or "tests" or "pressure tactics" as well as, in a minority of cases, what can accurately be called physical torture.

While it does not justify church leaders having recourse to secular approaches, the universal severity of criminal justice throughout European history until modern times does tend to soften one's judgment on ecclesiastical courts. And only a fool could fail to see that the great modern empires which derisively repudiated the leadership of the Church in order to (as they proclaimed in their propaganda) emancipate and exalt Man for Man's Sake, outrageously violated human rights in ways that could never have entered the minds of all the Torquemadas and Savonarolas of Christendom put together. A historian brandishing the sword of historical judgment should find many reasons to exercise self-restraint, as well as other virtues of the discipline — a balanced perspective nourished by sources pro and contra, examination of one's own hidden motivations, the ability to be detached from one's own age and alert to its hypocrisies. Most historians seem to lack this restraint and all these virtues when it comes to bashing the Catholic Church, a fact that has often been noted, but evidently not often enough to have reached those who were involved in writing the papers of this Symposium.

Moreover, and this is perhaps the point most worth pondering, it seems bizarre that modern people are so dull to the social dangers of religious error. Anyone acquainted with medieval history is aware of the massive civil disorders caused by heretical bodies such as the Cathars, Albigensians, and Waldensians.5 The problems at hand were not, as modern newspaper-readers too readily imagine, mere differences of opinion quietly expressed in polite publications. They were dissensions that tore apart the fabric of society, undermined the family, the political order, individual sanity and responsibility. The Church, or better, Christendom with the Church's encouragement, was right to act swiftly and, when necessary, severely. Summarizing William Carroll's account, Fr. William Most brings before our eyes two typical medieval situations:

In France and Spain especially, the Cathar heretics were a danger not just to the Church, but to the state, and to all . . . The Cathars then were as dangerous as terrorists today, and brought fear, cruelty, bloodshed and war wherever they had sufficient numbers. In southern France it took the full-armed power of the King of France to overcome them . . . In 1242 the Cathars murdered ten of the Inquisitors.

As to the Spanish episode, the Turks in 1480 attacked the south Italian city of Otranto. 12,000 people were killed, the rest made slaves. The sacred book of Islam does call for killing all "infidels"; the Koran says: "When ye encounter unbelievers, strike off their heads until ye have made a great slaughter among them, and bind them in bonds" (cited from B. Palmer, Understanding the Islamic Explosion, Horizon Books, 1980, p. 36). The Turks killed every cleric in the city and sawed the archbishop in two. So Queen Isabel sent a fleet to Italy. In September of 1480, when it was clear the Turks might do the same to any coastal city, Isabel established the Inquisition. It dealt with the special problem of those who pretended to become Christian, but were not really converted, and might open the gates of the city to the Turks.6

Medieval Christendom reacted in two ways to such large-scale crises: with earnest prayer, and with a sharp sword. Not just with prayer, nor only with the sword; recourse was had to both, in due season. Contemporary churchmen condemn this "pragmatic" approach to problem-solving not so much because they have thought through the issues carefully, but because of the growing dominance of a type of idealism that deserves to be critically examined before it does irreparable harm. I refer to the attitude that "All that has every been necessary in Christianity is that we believe, pray, and suffer. Anything else beyond this is sinful." Rarely is it stated so bluntly, but it underlies a lot of what the prelates are saying. So: the Europeans should not have fought the Turks when they tried to break into Europe again and again. We should have let them just pour in, rape the women and pillage the towns, desecrate the sanctuary and burn down the church; in due course, erect their mosques. The "counter-attack" should have been simply Christian meekness, forgiveness, and preaching, where preaching was practicable. Or: we should have let the Manichaean heretics of southern France promote their views and hold their peculiar forms of worship, regardless of the harm it caused — the loss of faith (and loss of salvation) of thousands of souls. Freedom and rights for all. The popes of the nineteenth century were much more realistic: they saw that, in practice, this almost always ends up being freedom and rights for everybody but the Church, placing Catholics at a disadvantage. True, Christian realism becomes pagan self-assertion if detached from the idealism of charity and forgiveness; but these latter, for their part, become dreamy nonentities if they are not rooted in a daily, tightly-knit community and way of life. In modern times we have almost abandoned the worldly reality of Christian faith. We are all living in our heads and our faith seems to make no demands on the temporal order. What happened to the renewal of the face of the earth?

This leads us to a deeper aspect, too, once again easily forgotten in our days of widespread relativism, indifferentism, and "value-free" democracy. Serious religious error does not stay in the head; it burrows into the heart, and is circulated throughout the human bloodstream until it affects every word and work of man, tweaking, misguiding, perverting. It was with good reason that the Church once took pains to prevent the dissemination of heresy and other crimes against faith; it was with good reason that civil governments once took seriously their responsibility to the truth of the Gospel and to the protection of the rights of weaker members of society, the poor and uneducated who were not able, like the minority of educated clerics, to refute plausible and flattering errors. Societies are glued together by charity, and charity is nourished by truth — the truth about God, the truth about man. There is no more elementary lesson of Catholic social teaching, as can be seen in nearly every encyclical from Gregory XVI down to John Paul II. It therefore seems all the more ridiculous to me that the Inquisition should be called to task for attempting to rid certain areas of pernicious crimes against the Catholic faith — as if no sin could ever be committed in thought or desire, but only with sticks and stones. I think it was Chesterton who said that the children's rhyme "sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me" is exactly wrong, for it is what we name things that gives us power over them or them power over us. Which names are to be given to which things is the central question of intelligence. Is this or that belief true or false? Is this or that god true or false? From this vantage, it isn't sticks and stones that do the lasting damage to a person — it's error, vice, perversion. Church leaders should have the courage to say that St. Thomas Aquinas was right in holding this, that the general conclusions he derives from it are equally right (civil government does have a solemn obligation to promote moral virtue, including the practice of religion, among the citizenry, and to take vigorous though prudent steps to limit errors and vices that undermine the common good), and that his particular social recommendations, though no longer desirable to us for a variety of reasons, are not intrinsically immoral (e.g., that notorious heretics may be handed over by the Church to the secular power to be punished). Aquinas was given the gift to articulate an understanding of Christian wisdom that unites charity and justice, freedom and order, at their highest pitch. To pretend that his articulation is no longer valid would simply indicate weak knees in front of (explicit or implicit) threats from the petty tyrants of liberalism who run our modern Western governments. This would be truly shameful, when not so very long ago, popes and bishops and priests suffered unspeakably, in many cases to the point of martyrdom, precisely because they refused to compromise even a little with the poisonous tenets of the Enlightenment — naturalism and rationalism.

There is much else that might be said to caution people against yielding themselves to wailings and lamentations over the Inquisition, which has long been a favorite target of attack, and is likely ever to remain so. But my main conclusions are four. First, I recommend we not let ourselves be bullied into shame by conferences and symposiums that try to tell us how wicked we have been, and dazzle us with credentials, wads of footnotes, and official sanctions. History nearly always has two or three sides of a story to tell, all the more when it comes to the Middle Ages, an exceedingly complex period that contemporary authors frequently badly misunderstand and thus misrepresent. And the roots of this problem go very deep, all the way to the basic question of what the Christian faith alive in the Catholic Church is and is to be in the world — in other words, the social, cultural expression of the Mystical Body of Christ.

Second, there is no doubt that Christians, as individuals, have often failed to live the Gospel; we need only look into the mirror of our own lives, no scholarly degree required. Therefore it is not necessary to go to the opposite extreme and celebrate the Inquisition, or deny the veracity of some of the critiques presented. Nearly every critique has something worthwhile to teach us. What is necessary is humility and repentance in the face of proven sin, beginning in my own breast and extending outward to embrace the whole human race. This is what our Lord did in his flesh on the Cross, and he asks us to imitate him with co-redemptive sufferings (cf. Col. 1:24). Pondering human sin inside us and around us can only be spiritually fruitful if it leads to renewed faith in the Redeemer of mankind, renewed pleading for his forgiveness, renewed sorrow for having offended him, and renewed joy in his superabundant gift of life. As a matter of fact, looking at sin in any other way, to any other purpose, will distract, discourage, and ultimately destroy us. Fr. Paul Murray, O.P., has written insightfully about this point.

Perseus knows that he has to slay the evil Gorgon, Medusa, and he has to do it by cutting off her head. But he also knows that anyone who stares directly into the face of the evil Gorgon will at once be turned to stone. Perseus accepts as a gift from one of the gods a shining bronze shield . . . [and] instead of staring directly into the face of Medusa as he slays her, he looks only at the image of the Gorgon reflected in his shield . . . If out of pride our curiosity I allow myself to contemplate evil directly, without seeking refuge in God, if I contemplate it, day after day, week after week, either in the ordinary realm of the public media or in private gossip, gradually it will rob me of all my energy and hope. But if, when I have to confront evil, I have the humility to look at it only in the light of Christ my shield, then my energy and my hope will not be taken from me. . . . Learning to look directly at that mirror which is Christ my shield, learning to see the evil around me, and the evil within me, in the light of Christ, is the best way, in fact the only sure way, to prevent my heart from being hardened into stone by either fear or prejudice, despair or false judgment.7

Third, it is crucial for Catholics who seek a better understanding of Church history to acquaint themselves with an extraordinary legacy of Catholic historical writing from the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. Much of this writing is today forgotten, but rarely because it has been bettered, mostly for reasons of fashion, and, alas, not always for honest reasons. C.S. Lewis once urged modern people, for their own good, to read at least one great old book (and he meant notably old — an ancient Greek poet or philosopher, a Father of the Church, a monk or friar of the Middle Ages, that sort of author) for every five modern books. I would urge an additional principle: for every book that criticizes or attacks a Catholic figure, event, period, etc., try to find out the best book written from the opposite perspective. It may take a bit of searching, but with the help of well-read friends and the internet, it usually leads to something well worth the wait.8 An example: William Thomas Walsh's grand biography of Philip II of Spain, worth more than piles of other books on that ruler and his century, and corrective of countless anti-Catholic errors.9 The same author has written a fine book, Characters of the Inquisition,10 which again ought to be read by everyone with an interest in the subject, and especially those who wish to learn many eye-opening facts about inquisitors and heretics alike that they are not likely to find in the Symposium volume just published.

Fourth and finally, we should not allow to pass the countless opportunities our Lord is giving us every day to do our part for the restoration of Christian culture — and yes, of Christendom, which is no empty concept but was once a vibrant reality and can return among us if human freedom awakens from its secularist slumber to rejoice in the living God and worship on his holy mountain. Whether this happy reawakening will come in the years left before the Second Coming, no one can know but God, in whose hands are all times and seasons. Still, this much we can be certain of: our Lord has overcome the world, and shares his triumph with all who remain loyal to him. "Christendom" will rise from the dead at the sound of the last trumpet, when Christ the King returns to establish his kingdom forever, making the earth his footstool, the heavens his court, and our hearts his throne.

End Notes

1. And it was an act long prepared for by the soundest theologians: Charles Cardinal Journet and Jacques Maritain come to mind (cf. the former's Theology of the Church, trans. Victor Szczurek, O. Praem. [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004], 207-232; the latter's On the Church of Christ, trans. Joseph W. Evans [Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1973], 6-14, 40-44, et passim). In December 1999, to prepare for the Day of Pardon, the International Theological Commission prepared a document Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past, which also demonstrates the legitimacy and indeed necessity of an act such as the Pope's on the Day of Pardon. The Pope's homily and angelus of March 12, 2000, as well as the ITC document are available on the Vatican website.

2. As the Symposium volume itself acknowledges, while one may speak of "the Inquisition" in the singular for convenience, it is not really a single thing; there were several distinct inquisitions set up in various regions at different times for different purposes.

3. An excellent book with no axe to grind is Henry Kamen's The Spanish Inquisition — A Historical Revision (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998). Kamen's goal is to correct, with accurate evidence, the badly exaggerated stories of the Spanish Inquisition, and to put the whole in perspective. At a generous estimate, only 1% of the persons tried by the Inquisition were burnt at the stake. Most of the guilty were punished with a flogging and required spiritual exercises. A reviewer of this book, Samuel Nigro, made some interesting comparisons (Social Justice Review, March-April 1999). Moses had more people put to death in one day for worshiping the Golden Calf (see Ex. 32:27-28) than Torquemada and his companions during many decades. The number of Catholics who were murdered in Protestant countries far outnumbered all who were executed as a result of the Inquisition; for example, during her reign Elizabeth I was responsible for more executions on religious grounds (i.e., the martyrdom of Catholics) than the Spanish and Roman Inquisitions combined over a period of three centuries. Such observations do not necessarily justify anything; but they do tend to put things in perspective. Some might say that the Inquisition was worse than other political crimes just because it claimed to be a defense of the rights of God, who is above all interested in mercy and human dignity. I would reply that God Himself, according to the Bible, is responsible for starting and finishing many severer inquisitions, and that the Church claims to act with a divine authority that imitates not only God's perfection of mercy but also His perfection of justice.

4. As Fr. William Most writes: "Persons accused by the Inquisition were not allowed to know the accusers, to protect the accusers — this sort of thing happens in protection of witnesses in U.S. courts today. But the person arrested was to make a list of his personal enemies and none of their testimony would be used against him. What modern court allows such a thing?" ("Inquisition," available at

5. See Walter L. Wakefield and Austin P. Evans, Heresies of the High Middle Ages (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969).

6. See note 4 for the reference to Most, and note 9 for the reference to Carroll.

7. "Dominicans Drinking: A Neglected Image of the 'Holy Preaching'," Religious Life Review 41 (Sep./Oct. 2002): 272-83; here, 279-81.

8. For example, there are still many people who have not yet experienced the tremendous exhilaration of reading Hilaire Belloc's magnificent biographies of some of the most important men and women of European history. When you read a biography like one of his, you begin to appreciate the difference between a mere collector of facts, and a penetrating mind with an eye for the decisive detail (Belloc walked and studied with his own eyes every battle field he wrote about) as well as the vast sweep of the European drama (where, again, Belloc is nearly unrivaled).

9. Published by Sheed & Ward in 1937, reprinted by TAN Books in 1987. This book has some excellent pages on the Spanish Inquisition. A superb recent treatment may be found in Warren Carroll's A History of Christendom, vol. 3: The Glory of Christendom, 1100-1517 (Front Royal, Virg.: Christendom Press, 1993).

10. Published by P.J. Kenedy & Sons in 1940, reprinted by TAN Books in 1987. Another small book I can highly recommend is The Medieval Inquisition by Albert Clement Shannon, OSA (Washington, DC: Augustinian College Press, 1983). This study restricts itself to a narrower period, the High Middle Ages.

Peter A. Kwasniewski is Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy; Instructor in Music History and Theory at Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, WY.

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