Reviewing a book called Inquisition: The Reign of Fear by Toby Green, Quentin de la Bedoyere warns against apologetic attempts to rationalize the Spanish Inquisition. He was the science editor of the Catholic Herald, and the son of Michael, who edited the newspaper from 1934 to 1962.
The review was titled “Inquisition apologists are missing the point.” It appeared (this version has been slightly trimmed) in the issue of 20 July 2007. For more articles from the archives, read here.
Unlike the Papal Inquisition of the 13th century and the Roman Inquisition of the 16th, the Spanish Inquisition was effectively wrested from more benign papal control and became a matter of local church and state. Despite protests from Rome it continued on its own way — with converted Jews and Moors, or their descendants, as the initial main enemy, to be supplemented later by those with Lutheran tendencies, sexual deviants and others suspected of heterodoxy.
In a society where the sacred and secular were virtually coterminous, it is hard to distinguish predominance. My reading, and I think Green would agree, is that it was initially at least a political exercise in creating a powerful and united Spanish nation through extirpating the relics of foreign, and potentially dangerous, elements which had formerly been dominant. The enthusiastic support of the Church provided the rationale and did the bulk of the work.
Modem apologists have argued that the number of executions, at least after the early years, were few (particularly in comparison with the slaughter of witches). that torture was commonly used elsewhere, that anonymous accusations were thought to be necessary to protect witnesses, that the inquisitorial courts tended towards mercy to such a degree that criminals would blaspheme in order to be tried by the Inquisition rather than by the secular courts. that the inquisitors were children of their time.
But all this seems to be beside the point, unless showing that others were worse than you constitutes a defence. For the Church of God, with the gospels in its hand and the Holy Spirit at its shoulder, it doesn’t.
The Spanish Inquisition became fundamentally corrupt. It bred a web of officials who abused their power with impunity. It created a widespread climate of fear and suspicion. It developed a network of intelligence through inducing the accused to make allegations against their contacts, their friends and their families.
If any attempts were made to restrain its enormities, the reformer, even one of standing, might quickly find himself next on the list of accused. Its tortures could be so extreme that even the brave were induced to provide whatever information, true or false, the persecutors required. And in the end it executed no one.
For that was conveniently done by the state — a point which the modem Catechism still finds it necessary to make. Which made the loudest noise — the crackling of the flames or the washing of the hands?1 recall that Lady Macbeth had much the same problem.
In the Inquisition we have, mutatis mutandis, the apparatus of the police state. The excusing ideology is not the Aryan ascendancy nor Marxist inevitability but the preservation of the truth — or the power of the Church which, in Spain, was synonymous. Petty officials “drest in a little brief authority”, thought-police, spies, voluntary and involuntary informants, barriers to outside information through censorship, torture, lengthy incarceration without trial and an atmosphere of suspicion and fear.
The root fault
This Inquisition waxed and waned but it lasted for 300 years. It is some consolation that many Spanish Catholics opposed it, and some of the Spanish states refused it. But the root fault lies in human nature with its innate tendency to do evil under the satisfying banner of good.
It remains with us today, and so we still seek scapegoats it is virtuous to hate. Two of them, the Jews and the Muslims, are the same targets for western society that the Inquisition chose.
The betrayal of the Gospel by the Spanish Church, and there are plenty of other examples in history, remains a stain — and a stick with which our opponents are entitled to beat us. Corruptio optimi pessima — the corruption of the best is the worst.
It is significant that in a recent American poll the percentage of Catholics willing to accept the possible need for torture was significantly higher than the general population. We have not learnt our lesson yet.
Toby Green’s book is a salutary but uncomfortable reminder that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, as Lord Acton wrote of the Renaissance popes.
But the pain of reading might be offered up as a tittle penance for the sins of our forefathers. Or perhaps our own.
Photo credit: Drawing of the Spanish Inquisition at work from circa 1520 (Three Lions/Getty Images).