The Corner

Re: ‘Defending’ the ‘Inquisition’

Jonah, you are absolutely correct that it depends entirely on what one means by “defend” and “Inquisition.” The word “Inquisition” has come to mean “the oppressive enforcement of religious orthodoxy conducted by the various authorities, secular as well as ecclesiastical, of the medieval era.” As Professor Madden points out in that passage you quote, back in that era, the secular government, too, would punish people for religious Wrongthought. Think of what Mark Steyn had to put up with in Canada; extend that system throughout all of church, state, and society; and give the enforcers the right to kill the person who holds the politically/religiously incorrect view. That will give you the general idea.

So while the use of “Inquisition” is historically less than exact, it’s no more so than, e.g., “the out-of-control judiciary” one hears about in today’s rhetoric. Few of the people who use the latter phrase would think it applies to Justice Clarence Thomas, or to any particular judge out there who is interested only in the fair and impartial administration of justice. But it is nonetheless a helpful phrase, serving as shorthand for the specific behavior, within the judiciary, that the critics oppose.

My post was about a tiny handful of people today who do, in fact, believe in “the oppressive enforcement of religious orthodoxy” — in other words, “the Inquisition” used in an analogous way to the shorthand “out-of-control judiciary.” Just one anecdote from Zmirak:

At still another small Catholic college, one of the teachers whom I met at a conference spoke effusively of “loopholes” a scholar had purportedly found in Vatican II’s endorsement of religious freedom. It seems that Dignitatis Humanae only forbids the State from using physical force in matters of religion.  The Church, this young scholar explained, is not so constrained.  The Church may imprison any baptized person and punish him for heresy. “So that means the Pope has the right to throw any Lutheran in jail?”, I asked skeptically.  “I know, right?” he said, beaming a smile. “This is really exciting.”  In subsequent weeks he sent me “proof” that George W. Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks.

I’m sure very few scholars would defend the “Inquisition” in the sense in which this professor was speaking of it. (Incidentally, if that doesn’t qualify as “fever swamp” stuff, I’d hate to see what would.)

There has been a great deal of solid historical work done on the Inquisition in recent years, making possible a greater understanding of this phenomenon in the context of its time. Benzion Netanyahu, father of the current prime minister of Israel, wrote a massive book, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth-Century Spain, in which he challenged the conventional view that this Inquisition was founded in order to persecute Jews who had publicly converted to Christianity but still secretly practiced Judaism. Netanyahu wrote that the actual motive was not a desire to stamp out the secret practice of Judaism (the conversos, he argued, were by and large sincere in their conversion) but rather a deeper, racial anti-Semitism: In other words, the Inquisitors hated the Jews not because the latter were heretical (and thus inadequately Catholic), but simply because they were of Jewish racial descent. (Prime Minister Netanyahu recently gave a copy of this book to Pope Francis; as the Jewish Tablet website observes, the gift was a timely, as anti-Semitism is again on the rise in Europe.)

So it would be foolhardy to deny that the Inquisition(s) was/were indeed a complicated phenomenon. As, indeed, is humanity generally: Consider the fact that Thomas More was both a vigorous persecutor — and a heroic saint who was martyred by persecutors. The older I get, the more I realize Solzhenitsyn was right when he said that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

PS. The general public, and the secular arm of enforcement, in medieval times could indeed be even more brutal than the religious inquisitions in their persecutions — which reminds me of an old story. A poor rabbi had to deliver a eulogy for one of the most vicious scoundrels in his congregation — a mean old miser who hated the whole human race, including his own family; beat his dogs and horses severely; and never give a dime to the poor, the synagogue, or anybody else. What was the poor old rabbi to say? Finally, an inspiration came. He rose to the lectern, gestured at the deceased, and proclaimed: “His brother was even worse.”

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