A Kindler, Gentler Inquisition?

The modern image of the Inquisition is of a bloodthirsty, fanatical institution of repression that terrorized Europe. While there is no doubt that the Inquisition destroyed religious and intellectual freedom, recent work by historians such as Edward M. Peters and Henry Kamen, together with files recently made available by the Vatican, have led to a contemporary reassessment. In the early days of Christianity, the bishop of the Roman Church naturally gained power by association with the Roman emperor. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, this supreme bishop, or Pope, had religious authority over Catholics throughout Europe and also served as secular monarch of the Roman city-state known as the Papal States. As the papacy gained power, it struggled mightily with the monarchs of Europe to prevent them from making the learned, powerful churchmen part of their courts and secular administrations. The papacy triumphed in this struggle in 1077, with Pope Gregory VII forcing Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV to crawl through the snow at Canossa and beg forgiveness for appropriating the Church’s officials for his own court.


Who persecutes heresy?

The Church also struggled against the monarchs over the matter of heresy. Heresy was, in fact, a crime against the state, as monarchs of the time asserted the divine right of kings, claiming that God Himself had chosen them to rule their subjects. For a subject to challenge any aspect of Catholic doctrine was to challenge the prevailing notion of God, and by implication to challenge the monarch’s legitimacy.

Secular authorities had little legal training, yet they took it upon themselves to rule on matters of doctrine and to punish viciously subjects whom they deemed heretics. The persecution of heresy became a weapon of the state, and the Church increasingly risked losing control of its authority over Catholic doctrine.

In response to this, Gregory IX established the Inquisition in 1231. Each city-state had an Inquisition chapter, a delegation of Church authorities devoted their time to sniffing out Catholics who strayed from official doctrine.

Run by churchmen with theological and legal training, the Inquisition evolved medieval legal practice. While the Inquisition did not allow those accused of heresy to know the names of witnesses testifying against them, the Inquisition did allow the accused to name her known enemies and, on the basis of that, have testimony thrown out. Contrary to the popular images of the Inquistion, modern scholarship reveals that the Inquisition interested itself more in recovering those it considered lost sheep than it did in destroying them. If convicted heretics repented, they usually received relatively light sentences of prayer. Some historians estimate that the Inquisition saved thousands of lives by taking the prosecution of heresy out of the hands of the monarch.

Still, the accused rarely had recourse to favorable witnesses or legal advisors, who would have feared guilt by association. Convicted heretics who did not repent were excommunicated by the Inquisition then handed to the secular authorities for punishment, which could mean confiscation of property, torture, or burning at the stake.


The Spanish Inquisition

The terrifying image of the Inquisition in the modern imagination stems largely from a separate incarnation, the Spanish Inquisition. The Italian states were the possession of Spain during the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1551, King Ferdinand of Spain demonstrated his power over Rome by instituting exactly what Rome had fought against — an Inquisition run by a monarch. King Ferdinand planned to combat the seeds of Islam left behind by centuries of occupation by Muslims from North Africa. He also planned to discover Jews who had converted to Catholicism to avoid anti-Semitism.

The initial years of the Spanish Inquisition featured the auto-da-fe (act of faith), huge public ceremonies where fanatical clergy excommunicated convicted heretics, after which the secular authorities burned the excommunicated at the stake. Thousands of Jews, Muslims, and Catholics perished this way.


The Roman Inquisition

In order to combat Spain’s influence and prevent the takeover of local Inquisitions by city-state monarchs, Pope Paul III established in 1542 the Congregation of the Holy Office, an oversight body based in Rome that reinvigorated the Inquisition under firm papal control. Known as the Roman Inquisition, it focused primarily on academic and intellectual heresy — like that committed by Galileo — rather than on straying citizens, and became a means for the Church to police its own clergy. Few cases ended in capital punishment unless they directly contradicted basic doctrines such as the Virgin birth or the full divinity of Christ. And, as Cardinal Firenzuola mentions late in Two Men of Florence play, torture was not something that this Inquisition undertook lightly.

– Scott Horstein

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