How To Handle An Inquisition About The Inquisition

by Controversial Subjects, God & Mystery of Evil, History of the Church

Have you been questioned about the Inquisition? Maybe it’s time we Catholics prepare ourselves to dismantle false premises, rather than being caught on the back foot.

One of the wonderful things about being Catholic is all the weird, random, and sometimes jagged questions people ask you about your faith. It might send you to odd topics, though. When you want to talk about the beauty, say, of adoration or Mass, someone might deny you that pleasure, wanting instead to inquire about a topic that isn’t a fundamental aspect of Catholicism but, rather, some perceived flaw out of left field.

Take, for instance, the Inquisition. What do you as a Catholic have to say about that?

In response, you might suddenly point to something in the sky to distract them while you duck and run the other way because you fear a torturous interrogation may commence.

In his address to an International Symposium on the Inquisition (October 31, 1998), John Paul II did not shy away from this topic. The Inquisition, he said, is “a theme which is certainly not easy, but of undoubted interest for our time…The topic you have dwelt on, as you can easily see, calls for careful discernment and considerable knowledge of history. The indispensable contribution of historians will certainly be a help to theologians in making a more accurate evaluation of this phenomenon which, precisely because of its complexity, must be analyzed in a scrupulously objective way.”

The objectivity part is what may seem the most difficult when personally asked on the basis of you being Catholic. You shouldn’t pretend to be an expert on history if you’re not. Even if the person approaching you is an expert, you don’t have to doubt your faith because of what they may bring up on the Inquisition.

Just like any other historical event people pit against the Church, these things don’t mean that our faith itself is wrong, just that Catholics can be and have been wrong. Our love of Christ gives us the strength to converse with others, even if just to admit you don’t have all the answers. Find peace in your faith, despite the turmoil of the topic, and remember that many Catholics aren’t afraid of talking about it. As you will see, there are multiple Catholic sources quoted in this article, which is relieving in lieu of the immense amount of anti-Catholic history accounts.

Let’s talk about the Inquisition!

When was it?

There were multiple inquisitions (Medieval Inquisition in the twelfth century; Roman Inquisitions in the sixteenth century) throughout history, the most infamous being the Spanish Inquisition (late fifteenth century).

Centuries have passed. No one alive today was tortured in these Inquisition or an Inquisitor, but many people bear the history as if they had. People (and maybe even you) want to question the Church and its people for answers until they are satisfied—much like the Inquisitors, except without physical torture devices.

What was it?

Remember the controversy over water-boarding? Or any other countless times groups of people were criticized for their treatment of others? It’s certainly not morally upstanding to torture another person, but my point is that the Inquisition is more a by-product of the culture, not the religion.

Robert P. Lockwood points this out in his article “Secrets of the Spanish Inquisition Revealed” for Catholic Answers: “While we look back at this with obvious repulsion, the simple fact is that torture was commonplace in all judicial systems throughout Western Europe.”  It doesn’t make it right, but it helps bring things into perspective: Humans in general can be very flawed, not just Catholics and certainly not because of their Catholic faith.

When someone brings up the Inquisition, ask them what he or she thinks of it. You might hear anger or frustration in a person’s tone. It’s understandable. Torture is clearly contradicting Jesus’ well-known “Love your neighbor” command.

Thomas Bokenkother reminds us, “The New Testament certainly contains no basis for a theory of persecution, but after the conversion of Constantine, the Roman Emperors began the policy of using force against heretics—sometimes even the death penalty” (A Concise History of the Catholic Church, 131).

“Inquisition” usually refers to a questioning to uproot and correct a heresy (see Catholic Encyclopedia). Oftentimes the image brings to mind horrible torture devices. Popular culture often sets scenes reflecting the general view—gruesome torture led by Catholic monks who maniacally wanted to destroy non-Catholics or convert them through pain.

The Church doesn’t teach conversion by threat or pain. We are called to practice love of others, even when engaged in a conversation about a topic oftentimes described as embarrassing. Some sources talk about the Inquisitions as if the Church is the worst villain in the world; some are incredibly dismissive as if there was barely torture at all. I recommend you read for yourself, especially primary sources.

Remember that the Inquisition was to gain confessions of those accused of heresy and not every suspect was tortured. Indeed, non-Catholics were mostly left alone. Most of the time you’ll have to explain what the Inquisition was not, and it was not a plan to convert people to Christianity through torture. It does not somehow disprove the Catholic faith

Who was involved?

“Though not a part of its history of which the Church is proud, the Spanish Inquisition is hardly the ‘black legend’ that still grips the popular imagination,” Lockwood writes. The Black Legend specifically refers to the propaganda used against Spain, especially in the New World, by the primarily Catholic country’s enemies. People who dislike any group of people will believe the most terrible lies more quickly than they will believe a less-incriminating truth or an apology.

The Catholic Church being the only church at the time, its members worked closely with the secular governments who often saw themselves as defenders and protectors of the faith. In civil law, torture was not uncommon for guilty confessions, but the pain often convinced innocent people to plead guilty just to stop the torture.

Those suspected of heresy weren’t directly thrown into a pit of torture; there were trials with opportunity to have witnesses in their favor brought forth. These included non-Catholics and Catholics, even of high stature in the Church.

Bokenkother points out, “Intolerance and repression, we might add, were not confined to the Catholics; Protestants also used similar coercive methods against dissenters” (247). Protestants would later have inquisitions against others, such as Catholics. Thousands of Catholics were put to death for refusing to convert to Protestant faith, such as St. Thomas More.

Once again this puts this issue into perspective. Those who think that the Inquisition somehow disproves Catholicism are misled.

It’s also good, as a Catholic, to hear historians point out such as this from Bokenkother: “Though few accounts of its members were the fanatics and sadists found in lurid anticlerical accounts of the Inquisition, still the system offers a disconcerting commentary on medieval standards of justice” (132).

Don’t start torturing your companion (or let yourself be tortured), but be prepared with charity and facts.

When researching the Inquisition, keep in mind the danger of two extremes in sources: those Catholics who are incredibly defensive and “have glossed over incontrovertible facts and tried to white-wash the Inquisition” and those who have “harbored fierce animosity toward the Church—animosity that had little to do with the Inquisition itself” (See Catholic Answer’s “The Inquisition”).

It’s difficult not to be defensive when you feel attacked, but find peace in knowing that despite history’s harshness and people’s resentment God still has the Catholic Church in His Hands. Otherwise, how else would the Church survive everything that’s happened throughout history?

More Catholic Resources On The Inquisition

The Holy Bible

Catechism of the Catholic Church

A Concise History of the Catholic Church by Thomas Bokenkother

“The Inquisition” from Catholic Answers

“Secrets of the Spanish Inquisition” from Catholic Answers

Catholic Encyclopedia

Visit a primary source library, such as Notre Dame’s “Inquisitio: Manuscript and print sources for the study of the inquisition history”:

Address of the Holy Father Pope John Paul II to an International Symposium on the Inquisition (October 31, 1998)

For more sources: See St. Peter’s List “4 Sources to Understand and Even Defend the Catholic Inquisitions”:

Or EWTN’s resources here

If all else fails, remember you will never have every answer, but you do have Jesus—the ultimate answer to all life’s questions.

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