“The Inquisition was a good thing.”
That is the sentence with which I usually open my lecture on The Inquisition(s) in my medieval history class. The sentence is intended to shock my students and to get them to lean in to the topic. Do I really believe that The Inquisition was a good thing? Well, let me explain . . .
We almost always discuss The Inquisition as a whole but there was not a single all-encompassing Inquisition; there were many inquisitions. The four major inquisitions are generally categorized as (1) the Medieval Inquisition [1184–1230s], (2) the Spanish Inquisition [1478–1834], (3) the Portuguese Inquisition [1536–1821], and (4) the Roman Inquisition [1542 – c. 1860]. However, even this breakdown is far too general and does not adequately represent the great diversity of approach during 600 years of the Catholic church’s inquiry into heresy.
When I tell my students that The Inquisition was a good thing, I hasten to explain that The Inquisition must be vehemently condemned. Anonymous accusations, terror, cruelty, torture and death are not something of which we approve. My opening statement is intended to get my medieval history students to look past the blood stained garments to see the men and women involved. Who were they? How did this begin? Why?
During much of the medieval period less than 1% of the European populace could read. In this environment heresy was everywhere. In a world in which church and state had been fused, civil rulers believed that orthodoxy was much more than an issue of personal salvation or an in-house theological controversy; they believed that orthodoxy was an issue of state (national) security. Civil rulers were convinced that they were obligated to preserve social order by ferreting out theological error and dispatching it. However, most civil rulers were in no manner qualified to examine those accused of heresy and to determine whether or not they were genuine heretics. Most civil rulers were clueless when it came to matters of faith and doctrine, so how were they to render judgment on the theology of others? Civil rulers, recognizing their own ignorance, often took what they considered to be the safest approach; to avoid the risk of setting free a heretic they simply executed everyone who was accused. Others opted for a more discriminating approach; they resorted to trial by ordeal. In trial by ordeal a person was subjected to some kind of horrendous experience and then innocence or guilt was determined based upon the outcome. For instance, an accused individual might be forced to use his bare hand to grab a pebble from the bottom of a pot of boiling water after which his innocence or guilt was determined by how well his skin healed. Other individuals were forced to walk across red-hot plowshares or to carry a red-hot iron to see if they came through it without being burned, or to be submerged in water to see if they would be drowned.
Inquisition was birthed out of this historical setting. Innocent people were being executed because a personal enemy accused them of heresy and the civil ruler did not have the wisdom to be able to properly examine them and establish the truth. Innocent people were suffering horribly when forced to endure trial by ordeal. Inquisition was initiated as a humane alternative to the violence and cruelty being suffered by the accused. If the civil ruler was not adequate for the task of inquiring into the theology of the accused then who was? Theologians. Inquisition allowed those who were more theologically informed to inquire into the theology of the accused and to determine if they really were heretical in their beliefs. Many of those who actually were heretical in belief had strayed simply because they didn’t know any better. A good inquisitor could show the errant person his mistake, teach him the truth, and send him on his way. It was all very humane compared to the alternatives that were in vogue.
So, in some very minimal way, when very strictly limited and defined, it is probably true that “The Inquisition was a good thing.”
Lest I be misunderstood, let me say once again that I completely, utterly, vehemently condemn the inquisitions in almost all of their many manifestations. Even though some such inquiries were initially good intentioned, I am fundamentally opposed to an understanding of the church-state relationship in which such investigations would even take place. But, I will continue to use this opening line for my lecture because it facilitates two things, it forces my students to examine the historical development of the inquisitions, and it also shows how something that is initiated for the purpose of preserving life and defending truth can very quickly devolve into something of unspeakable horror. A warning for us today.
“Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scriptures or by plain and clear reasons and arguments, I can and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.” (Martin Luther before the Diet of Worms)