Inquisitive About the Inquisition

Author: Father William Saunders


Father William Saunders

Following is the first of a two-part series on the Inquisition.

Every now and then, I have heard people bring up the Inquisition and use it to slam against the Church. What are the facts about the Inquisition?—A reader in Woodbridge

Before approaching the history of the Inquisition, one must keep in mind two basic points: First, the Church has been entrusted by the Lord to preserve the deposit of faith and to hand on the authentic faith to later generations. At the ascension, Christ said to the Apostles, "Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:20). Therefore, heresy—"the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith" (Catechism, No. 2089)—was seen as a particularly grave sin. Not only was a heretic's soul in jeopardy, but also his false teaching jeopardized the souls of others. The Church, as the guardian of souls, had to "root out" any such heresy.

Second, remember that the Roman Catholic Church was the only Church in western Europe until Martin Luther started the Protestant movement in 1517. (The Orthodox Churches had separated in the year 1054, but that schism involved parts of eastern Europe and the Middle East). Since there was one Church, oftentimes Church and state worked together. Also, kings generally saw themselves as guardians of the faith and believed it their duty to protect their people from error. For example, King Peter of Aragon stated, "The enemies of the Cross of Christ and violators of the Christian law are likewise our enemies and the enemies of our kingdom, and ought therefore to be dealt with as such."

With this in mind, we can turn to the Inquisition. In his bull Excommunicamus, Pope Gregory IX formally instituted the Inquisition in 1231 as a means of repressing heresy, particularly that of the Albigensians. Prior to this time, similar mechanisms had existed. For instance, St. Augustine (d. 430) upheld the right of the state to punish the Donatist heretics for their own benefit as well as for protecting the faithful, although he also maintained that charitable and convincing instruction should be used before any corporal punishment (short of execution). The Inquisition was first established in Germany, extended to Spain in 1232, and became a general institution be 1233. The Dominicans were recruited by Conrad of Marburg, Germany to assist in the Inquisition. (Note however that St. Dominic died in 1221 and had no connection with the Inquisition, despite the claims of some misguided individuals). Later, the Fransiscans also were recruited to serve as inquisitors.

Usually, two inquisitors with equal power held directly from the pope presided over the tribunal. At first, these inquisitors rode a circuit to hear cases of those accused as heretics. Shortly thereafter, permanent inquisitions were established with a territorial jurisdiction. For example, the Inquisition based at Paris held jurisdiction over all of France until the 14th century, when another one was held at Tours.

One must remember that one of the primary purposes of a formalized Inquisition was to insure justice and to eliminate unfounded charges or vigilante justice. The inquisitors even followed a guide, such as the Processus inquisitionis (1249) which outlined various acts and provided commentary about certain cases. Accordingly, an inquisitor could bring a charge against any individual who had been accused by someone or was suspected of heresy. The accused person would take an oath swearing to tell the truth and was confronted with the evidence. The accused, however, was neither informed of the identity of the witnesses nor allowed to confront them; this practice was adopted to protect the witnesses from reprisals from family or friends.

On the other hand, the accused had to supply witnesses in his defense. Inquisitor Eymeric stated, "If the accused has public opinion against him, but nevertheless it cannot be proven that he has deserved his reputation as a heretic, he has only to produce witnesses who can testify to his condition and habitual residence, and who, from long knowledge can affirm that he is not heretical."

Nevertheless, the accused could appeal to the pope prior to the final judgment, and many did.

Unfortunately with the revival of Roman law, the Inquisition sometimes used torture to gain a confession. However, remember that torture was used regularly in matters involving civil law. As a matter of fact, as early as the fourteenth century, papal intervention curbed the use of torture by the Inquisition. Bernardo Gui, one of the most famous inquisitors, commented that torture was deceiving and inefficacious because it forced the confession.

Next week, we will continue this story and examine the punishment rendered for the guilty person and address whether the practice of "inquisition" was isolated to the Catholic Church alone.

Fr. Saunders is president of Notre Dame Institute and associate pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.

This article appeared in the February 9, 1995 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald." Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information, call 1-800-377-0511 or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.