Nobody Expects a Defense of the Inquisition

by Jonah Goldberg

Mike — I have no desire to wade into the thick of your intramural discussion on Catholicism in America, never mind what you call Catholic fever swamps. But you write:

I share Zmirak’s basic principle, that “liberty, especially religious liberty, is a non-negotiable demand for any decent politics.” I also agree with him that “we ought to be deeply thankful for the heritage of the Enlightenment.” His justification for this last principle is “Catholicism minus the Enlightenment equals the Inquisition” — which sounds rather shocking on a first reading, but less so on careful consideration. Because after all, how many Catholics today defend the Inquisition, in a non-joking context? For the most part, it’s those who reject liberty and the Enlightenment, which is to say, only a very small coterie of fringe Catholic intellectuals.

I am open to correction on this, but I don’t think that is right. Of course, it depends what you mean by “defend” and “Inquisition.” Let’s start with the latter. There were many Inquisitions, as I note in my last book. There was an institution within the Church called the Inquisition, or the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition​ (official title was Suprema Congregatio sanctæ romanæ et universalis inquisitionis), now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But there were also various Inquisition movements as historians call them — the Medieval Inquisition, the Portuguese Inquisition, the Roman Inquisition, etc. There was the whole brouhaha with Galileo. Part of the problem is that “inquisition” was simply a word for investigation or inquiry and so its use metastasized across history.

Which brings me to the defend part. I don’t know of any historians who will defend the terrible things done under the umbrella of the Inquisition. But you will find a great many historians who will tell you that the Inquisition(s) were not nearly so terrible as the popular imagination or conventional wisdom would have it. In many instances, the Inquisition was a force of decency deployed against the barbarisms of the mob or the state or — quite often — both. During the witch panics, the Inquisition was more likely to stop a local lord and his mob from burning an alleged witch than it was to light a match. In the 16th century, areas under Church control were far less likely to burn witches than areas under secular or Protestant control.

National Review Online ran a great piece on the Inquisition(s) ten years ago by the wonderful historian Thomas Madden.

To understand the Inquisition we have to remember that the Middle Ages were, well, medieval. We should not expect people in the past to view the world and their place in it the way we do today. (You try living through the Black Death and see how it changes your attitude.) For people who lived during those times, religion was not something one did just at church. It was science, philosophy, politics, identity, and hope for salvation. It was not a personal preference but an abiding and universal truth. Heresy, then, struck at the heart of that truth. It doomed the heretic, endangered those near him, and tore apart the fabric of community.

The Inquisition was not born out of desire to crush diversity or oppress people; it was rather an attempt to stop unjust executions. Yes, you read that correctly. Heresy was a crime against the state. Roman law in the Code of Justinian made it a capital offense. Rulers, whose authority was believed to come from God, had no patience for heretics. Neither did common people, who saw them as dangerous outsiders who would bring down divine wrath. When someone was accused of heresy in the early Middle Ages, they were brought to the local lord for judgment, just as if they had stolen a pig or damaged shrubbery (really, it was a serious crime in England). Yet in contrast to those crimes, it was not so easy to discern whether the accused was really a heretic. For starters, one needed some basic theological training — something most medieval lords sorely lacked. The result is that uncounted thousands across Europe were executed by secular authorities without fair trials or a competent assessment of the validity of the charge.

The Catholic Church’s response to this problem was the Inquisition, first instituted by Pope Lucius III in 1184. It was born out of a need to provide fair trials for accused heretics using laws of evidence and presided over by knowledgeable judges. From the perspective of secular authorities, heretics were traitors to God and the king and therefore deserved death. From the perspective of the Church, however, heretics were lost sheep who had strayed from the flock. As shepherds, the pope and bishops had a duty to bring them back into the fold, just as the Good Shepherd had commanded them. So, while medieval secular leaders were trying to safeguard their kingdoms, the Church was trying to save souls. The Inquisition provided a means for heretics to escape death and return to the community.

And for those interested, here is Madden on the Spanish Inquisition.

Again, many terrible things were done by the medieval Church under the banner of the Inquisition. But very often many more terrible things were done by medieval Europeans away from that banner and on more than one occasion the terror stopped when the Inquisitors arrived.

One might argue that at least some of the principles valued by the inquisitors — the need for a fair trial, the deployment of reason to determine the facts, the recognition that every soul has value, the rejection of mob rule and arbitrary punishment — are in harmony with the Enlightenment rather than at war with it.