This is the fifth in a series of articles examining how inaccurate, warped versions of real historical events are misused in order to attack Christianity. These Faithless Fairy Tales may satisfy "once upon a time" appetites, but they don't represent the truth. These are some of the more common anti-religious historical myths thrown at Christians, debunked by means of the actual storylines.
With apologies to Monty Python, the phrase "nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition
" does not apply in apologetics. EEEEEEverybody expects it (sorry, again), because the typical skeptic is all but certain to bring it up sooner or later. It can be difficult to confront, only because the prevailing view is such an exaggeration. Yet for those who actually know the historical facts, trying to malign Christianity via the Inquisition is as ineffective as the three red-robed goofballs from the comedy sketch. Simply put, it was far less brutal, far more secular, and far less extensive than is commonly believed.
Caricatures of the Inquisition describe a colossal, church-led campaign to threaten and torture non-Christians until they converted, bringing terror and widespread death to Europe. Such a view is all sizzle, and no steak. It's simply not true. Yet, it's repeated so often that people take it for granted. Inherit The Wind
produced warped views of the Scopes Trial
. Movies such as Kingdom of Heaven
perpetuate distorted versions of the Crusades
. In the same way, stories like Poe's "The Pit and The Pendulum" and even comedy such as Mel Brooks' The History of the World, Part I
have nurtured flawed perceptions of the Inquisition. The real inquisition was far less dramatic, and had a primary purpose much more political than religious.
The Spanish Inquisition wasn't insignificant, nor justifiable, even though it was a mostly political exercise in a country where religion and politics were virtually identical. It can, however, be rescued from the myths of "millions" or even "tens of millions" of innocents horribly tortured in the name of religion. If that stymies your urge to wag a finger at an ideology routinely linked to wholesale mayhem, take heart. One can always direct that angst towards the common worldview of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, among others.
The Spanish Inquisition was requested and performed by the secular government of Spain, not directly by the Roman Catholic Church. In response to incidents of rebellion and unrest, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella obtained approval from Pope Sixtus IV to conduct an Inquisition in the mid-to-late 1400's. Because the crown was linked to the Catholic Church, their real target was potential seditionists, in the form of former Jews and Muslims, as well as Protestants. These quasi-church-led Inquisitions were actually not aimed at unbelievers, but at Catholics themselves, in an effort to combat heresies linked to political rebellion. Witch-hunts, attempts to force conversion, and so forth were actually perpetrated by secular courts, both before, during, and after the Inquisition. Over the centuries, the Spanish Inquisition evolved from a state-arranged effort to combat "social heresy" into a cloak-and-dagger secret service.
Just how independent was the Spanish Inquisition from the central control of Roman Catholicism? In 1482, Pope Sixtus IV officially protested
growing abuses of the Spanish Inquisitors as follows:
…in Aragon, Valencia, Mallorca and Catalonia the Inquisition has for some time been moved not by zeal for the faith and the salvation of souls, but by lust for wealth, and that many true and faithful Christians…without any legitimate proof have been thrust into secular prisons, tortured and condemned as lapsed heretics, deprived of their goods and property and handed over to the secular arm to be executed, to the peril of souls, setting a pernicious example, and causing disgust to many. – Pope Sixtus IV, April 18, 1482.
How did Ferdinand respond? By suggesting that the Papal letter was either a forgery, or the result of bribery by heretics:
Things have been told me, Holy Father which, if true, would seem to merit the greatest astonishment…To these rumors, however, we have given no credence because they seem to be things which would in no way have been conceded by Your Holiness, who have a duty to the Inquisition. But if by chance concessions have been made through the persistent and cunning persuasion of the said conversos, I intend never to let them take effect. Take care therefore not to let the matter go further, and to revoke any concessions and entrust us with care of this question. – Ferdinand, May 13, 1482
Incredibly, Sixtus IV actually backed down in the face of Ferdinand's veiled threat, and rescinded his first letter. He then appointed Tomas de Torquemada as Grand Inquisitor. This, contrary to popular myth
, actually made the Inquisition less aggressive and more just than it had been prior to his appointment. However, it also solidified the Spanish Inquisition under a single leader, answerable directly to the monarchs of Spain. Complaints by Bishops, priests, and laymen that the Inquisition was unjust, contrary to Christian ideals, and generally unfair persisted for its entire duration, even as those abuses waned. Those cries were generally ignored by the Spanish monarchy, and nothing substantial was done by Rome.
Viewing the Spanish Inquisition as an example of government co-opting religious resources in order to maintain power isn't quite so scandalous as a campaign of ecclesiastical terror, but it's much more historically accurate.
Understanding the entanglement between political and religious spheres helps to explain why an Inquisition was Spain's tool of choice. Amid the civil instability of the medieval period, the Catholic Church was one of the few institutions capable of enacting broad-based social order. Groups like the Cathars
taught beliefs which, objectively viewed, threatened destabilization of medieval society. A group discouraging childbearing, denouncing all forms of war and capital punishment, espousing strict vegetarianism, and dismissing the value of marriage might be called "progressive" in a stable, prosperous modern society. In an era lacking stability and prosperity, under a monarchic government, that same group would be seen as seditious, if not traitorous. To the medieval mind, Catharism was a type of social anarchism, and governments had self-defensive reasons for combating it.
Even modern countries such as the United States have passed anti-sedition laws, and taken action against those who broke them. But, as stated in my discussion of the Crusades, extreme examples of those laws clearly run counter to the basic principles of the USA — which is why they were eventually dissolved. One can condemn the method, but only with an understanding of what the motivations behind it were. Even more so than the Crusades, the Inquisition was a politically-motivated, politically-driven instrument.
That's not to say we should applaud a government which jails or kills those who disagree. Nor should we excuse a sect which passively allows itself to be leveraged for illegitimate purposes. But we don't need to perpetrate wildly exaggerated myths about the Inquisition, either. Claims that Inquisitors killed "millions of people" are historically absurd. Claims about "tens of millions of deaths" aren't just inaccurate, they're ridiculous. Such numbers exceed the populations of entire nations
in the Inquisition period! For instance, supportable historical evidence says about 100 women were executed for witchcraft by various Inquisitors, over a period of more than 500 years. Secular courts are estimated to have executed 50 times that many accused witches during the same time.
This cannot be excused, but it pales in comparison to the baseless "millions" or "tens of thousands" claims so often used. It's also not that surprising, considering that laws against witchcraft predate Christian missionaries in Europe. For the first few centuries of Christianity, theologians and politicians generally dismissed palpable witchcraft as a superstition, not a threat. Catholicism gradually revived a pagan-style apprehension of witchcraft, particularly in the 15th and 16th centuries. Even then, the Catholic Church actually banned the most famous manual for witch hunters, the Malleus Maleficarum
, which persisted anyway as a popular tool of secular witch hunters.
In its 400-year span, the Spanish Inquisition can be firmly blamed for the deaths of as few as 5 people per year, the great majority of those in the first few decades. Upper estimates run to about 5,000
— total, from start to finish. Extreme estimates are still less than 10,000 total, or about 25 per year. Let's be crystal clear: this is nothing to belittle, and just one is one too many. But the truth is, according to both popular opinion of the time, and historical records, the Inquisition was more lenient than the secular courts!
In some instances, the local populace, convinced Inquisitors were not being strict enough, dragged prisoners out of jails and enacted mob justice. It's not a stretch to say the connection to established religion actually made the Inquisition a less violent, more merciful approach to social control than parallel, more secular efforts were. In most regions under its influence, the Spanish Inquisition was hardly a juggernaut of terror.
Accusations of sadism and subterfuge are also historically inaccurate. In most cases, an Inquisition team would enter a town and spend around a month encouraging reaffirmation of orthodoxy. After this, those who refused to cooperate were excommunicated. False accusations were to be expected, though historians acknowledge the Inquisitors followed typical procedures of the era. Convicted heretics were usually assigned penance, which consisted of anything from written confessions, prayer and fasting, or brief imprisonment. More severe offenders, such as those who had become overtly subversive or violent, were imprisoned for longer periods. Some were executed due to particularly severe offenses. Many executions were performed in effigy, where a straw dummy was burnt, rather than the actual person.
Torture is often raised as the higher, more legitimate complaint about the Inquisition. Such methods were used, though — yet again — not as frequently
as in purely secular courts. Courts of that era often voiced a verbal threat of torture, called a territio verbalis
, which rarely led to physical torture. Actual bodily torture was, indeed, used in a small number of Inquisition cases. Attempts to justify this ring hollow, as they should.
It's clear the Bible offers neither incentive nor approval of torture. For this aspect of the Inquisition, Catholicism, and medieval Christendom, are rightly called on the carpet, with little or no excuse. We've noted the disconnect between Rome and the Spanish Inquisitors, but that disconnect also implies some complacency. When torture was used, it was outside of any acceptable Christian bounds. Logically, though, this means neither the Bible nor Christianity can be held liable for the Inquisition's use of torture. Conduct contrary to the fundamental teachings of Christ can't be blamed on Christ.
It's not unwarranted to place blame on the Catholic Church for the Inquisition itself, for apathy and weakness at the very least, and especially since most of it occurred once the Reformation was well under way. That being said, there are historical reasons to blame Reformers and early Protestantism for the existence of modern Inquisition myths! Some of the earliest exaggerated claims about Inquisitors came from Protestant writers during and after the Reformation, seeking to highlight abuses of Roman Catholicism. Those passed over time from propaganda, into pop culture, into assumed truth. In hindsight, one can see how badly that strategy boomeranged, proving once again that there is no good way, nor any good reason, to deal in exaggeration and falsehood. The ends don't justify the means.
In short, the Spanish Inquisition was un-Biblical, immoral, and primarily secular; a political tool borrowing religious infrastructure. It was not, however, the caricature of Hollywood, late night comedians, and ignorant internet atheists. It simply was not a gory, Bible-driven hurricane of torture and terror; the historical truth is almost mundane by comparison. The methods were typical of the culture, if not a throwback to pre-Christian approaches, and criticized by the public for lenience in comparison to secular courts. The ridiculous body counts and sadistic practices claimed by skeptics are absurd in light of historical data. Records of the time do not indicate widespread horror over the Inquisition, nor do they support the notion of it having primarily religious origins. Violence committed during the Inquisition cannot, and should not, be defended. But all that occurred ought to be put into proper context, and interpreted in a historically meaningful way.