Horrors! The Inquisition

Last night a friend and I teamed up to give a presentation on the Inquisition to the Catholic ministry at our city’s university. The students told of their embarrassment when peers expressed dismay at the mention of Catholicism–that unenlightened relic famous forthe Inquisition and persecution of Galileo. torquemada.jpgAbout sixty college students sat transfixed when told that the myth of the Inquisition had been debunked repeatedly in this century. Reputable ( and non-Catholic) historians combed voluminous records and the verdict is that the infamous Spanish Inquisition was vastly and deliberately mis-characterized. For political reasons, of course.
It began shortly after a Protestant defeat at the Battle of Muhlberg. A scurrilous pamphlet was circulated that described unspeakable acts committed by Spain’s “hooded fiends.”But, by the numbers it is a very different history: In 350 years 3000-5000 people were remanded by Church tribunals to the state and disciplined by the Spanish government for charges of heresy that were–at that time–crimes against the state. Some paid huge fines, some left Spain, some were executed.Contrast that to the 72,000 Catholics executed in just the years of Henry VIII’s reign. Thousands more died under his daughter, Elizabeth I. Protestant Germany executed 100,000 “witches.” (See the BBC special The Myth of the Inquisition, 1994.)
The simplest reason that Americans understand the Inquisition as a Catholic horror is that we speak English. The books available in English (Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum!) about this period of history were written more as justification for England’s defection to Protestantism and as a political defense of England while at war with Spain.But the “Black Legend,” the myth of the Inquisition dies a slow death–again for political reasons. It is just too juicy of a legend to use against Catholicism that modern atheists want to cast as punitive and controlling.
Those who seek to empty the Church of her moral authority care little for truth. (Da Vinci Code redux )A few students raised questions that clearly had been worrisome:”But doesn’t the Inquisition show that religion is dangerous; We can judge that barbarous time in the light of modern understanding–that too much zeal is fanaticism, and that sort of religion leads to burning people at the stake?””Judge them in light of our modern advanced civilization, you mean?

The following reply brought stunned expressions of revelation.

“Well, suppose instead we were to resurrect them and have them judge us, our millions of dead in gas chambers and gulags, millions deliberately starved by Stalin, and the untold millions aborted–not by religious zeal, but by modern ideologies?”


6 Responses

  1. Excellent article! Wonderful blog!

  2. I really doubt those numbers for Henry and Elizabeth. What is the source? Also, does it distinguish between people executed for attempting to overthrow the Tudor government? Finally, you don’t say whether or not you believe that killing people for their beliefs is something the state ought to do or not. What is your opinion?

  3. Q:”But doesn’t the Inquisition show that religion is dangerous; We can judge that barbarous time in the light of modern understanding–that too much zeal is fanaticism, and that sort of religion leads to burning people at the stake?””

    A: No, for two reasons. First, all the major attrocities (especially the ones that killed more than the inquisitions) had a different simularity: that saw their victims as less than human as if they did not matter.
    For example, see the Jews, Pols, Africans, native-americans etc.

    Second, the alternative is equally dangerous. To institute a zealous regime comitted to stamping out zealotry is a contradiction in itself. View the person who says, “I have no dogmas except that there are no such thing as dogmas.”

  4. Thanks Elena Maria! I enjoy your blog immensely.

    Karen, the numbers are eyebrow lifting.

    A good general source is the BBC special “The Myth of the Inquisition” (1994)

    Raphael Holinshed (D. 1580) wrote the contemporary account of Henry in Holinshed’s Chronicles–he put the number of executions in Henry’s 35 year reign at 72,000. Not all were Catholics–many were Protestants, especially Lutherans, since Henry’s new church was not at first understood to be Protestant but rather the English Catholic church. He also guillotined or hung every single living member of the of the Plantagenet family. Some historians give even higher counts for executions and martyrs.

    St. Thomas More wrote of 4000 English Catholics executed just in one small town. We can readily see that if such numbers were executed in one town, how many other tows and cities suffered similar fates?

    According to historian James Hitchcock of St. Louis University: “Elizabeth I burned heretics, as did her successor James I, as did virtually every Protestant government in Europe until the middle of the seventeenth century.”

    American historian William T. Walsh writes: “In Britain, 30,000 went to the stake for
    witchcraft; in Protestant Germany, the figure was 100,000” [Isabella of Spain, p. 275]

    Good sources:
    Edward Peters, Inquisition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989); Henry Kamen, Inquisition and Society in Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985); G. Henningsen, J. Tedeschi, and J. Amiel, eds., The Inquisition in Early Modern Europe: Studies on Sources and Methods (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1986).

    As for those executed of attempting to overthrow the Tudor government, surely there were many–but most of the executions, including boiling alive, were labeled as treason where treason was defined as refusing to acknowledge Henry VIII was the “pope of England”.

    As to my own thoughts on the morality of the state executing people for their belief, in no manner can we apply capital punishment to a belief–only to an action.

    If you mean do I support capital punishment, the answer is a very narrow and qualified yes–

    The Church teaches that the state retains the right to employ capital executions under very specific circumstances. These circumstances are rare in the USA.

    Finally, on the matter of inquisition in principle, we have scripture as a guide. Moses was instructed by God to hold inquisitions and for heresy, a capital offense. “Slay the heretic” was the command, for evil must be put away. (Cf. Deut. 17)

    Of course, Christians must be people of mercy. Still, the greatest mercy is TRUTH. Heresy means “another choice” or “to choose differently”.

    Those whose heresies endanger the common good (muslim fathers who slit teen daughter’s throats? Burn wives and then claim it is part of their sharia law? ) These “heresies” cannot be granted freedom–that is, the freedom to spread such heretical acts.

  5. “He also guillotined or hung every single living member of the of the Plantagenet family”

    First, I would imagine Dr. Guillotin would be amazed a British King used his invention over two centuries before it existed. This sort of egregious error makes credibility in other claims more doubtful.

    Second, I believe you are perhaps confusing Henry with his father, Henry VII, who surely did his best to eliminate all the possible Plantagenet heirs after defeating Richard Plantagenet at Bosworth. It may be true that Henry VIII completed the task, but his dad had done most of the work.

    Thhird, both Holinsshed and the sainted Thomas More were as notoriious in exaggeration of numbers as most of their peers; Holinshed’s version of late medieval battles, for example, gave impossibly huge numbers to armies. And since London itself had a population of less than 200,000 in More’s day, I doubt many “small towns” had 40,000 martyrs to Catholicism.

    I do very much agree with your main point–the myth of the Spanish Inquisition is absurd and does indeed come from conscious British propaganda.

  6. Donald 169– oh dear, yes, a rash description on my part–Henry VIII *beheaded* them, and I used ” guillotined,” — rather like saying “xeroxed” when it was a mere mimeograph since the THE Xerox machine was still some years into the future –nonetheless, Henry resorted to the primitive “beheading” – a mistake in terms, not in fact of deaths.

    Yes, he completed the “work” his father demonstrated so aptly.

    As for numbers, well, I’ll not say you made an “egregious” error, only that you misread the post.

    St. Thomas More reported four thousand (4000) martyrs, not the forty thousand (40, 000) you thought you saw.

    Thanks for your comment Donald, and I’ll mind my terms more closely!

    Keep the faith!

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