The Corner

The Pope vs. the Inquisition; and John Locke vs. Mr. T

Last weekend, Jonah and I discussed the various meanings of the word “inquisition.” I just learned through an Italian media report that Pope Francis had the Inquisition on his mind at around the same time. In a homily last Friday, he said: “The Gospel cannot be proclaimed with inquisitorial beatings of condemnation.” 

This use of “inquisitorial” is a perfect example of the most common understanding of the word, as referring to any violent (or otherwise cruelly heavy-handed) enforcement of religious orthodoxy. The pope is a Jesuit, and thus an educated man; he would know that any number of officials of the various inquisitions were actually rather decent fellows. But the common-or-garden understanding of the word “inquisitorial” is purely pejorative, limited to the bad conduct of miscreant inquisitors, and not intended to cast aspersions on the innocent.  

Actually the English translation of what the pope said is a little inexact, and in an unintentionally humorous way. The Italian original is: “Il Vangelo non si annuncia con bastonate inquisitorie.” Literally translated, that is: “The Gospel should not be proclaimed with inquisitorial beatings.” The English translation added the words “of condemnation.” Which makes me smile — because aren’t all beatings “beatings of condemnation”? Can we imagine what a “beating of approval” would look like? It reminds me of John Locke’s delightful argument against those who said that the right to rebel against a king exists, but that the rebellion must also have reverence for the king’s person. Wrote Locke, in his Second Treatise of Civil Government: “He that can reconcile blows and reverence, may, for aught I know, desire for his pains, a civil, respectful cudgeling where-ever he can meet with it.”

But then, three centuries after Locke, Mr. T felt the need to specify what kind of beating he was going to give Rocky Balboa, proclaiming: “I’m going to crucify him — real bad.” By adding the phrase “real bad,” Mr. T was trying to distinguish the crucifixion he was going to inflict on Rocky from all the more civil and respectful crucifixions that have taken place over the years. . . .