The Inquisition

The Albigensian wars were over, but the Albigensian Heresy still counted many secret adherents. For the detection and punishment of these heretics the Council of Toulouse (1229) established a special ecclesiastical tribunal known as the Inquisition (Lat. inquisitio, an inquiry). But neither the bishops who met at Toulouse, nor Pope Innocent III, nor St. Dominic, as has sometimes been incorrectly stated, were the founders of the Inquisition. The name was perhaps new, but the thing itself was old. The Inquisition of 1229 was but one step in a process, the beginnings of which can be traced back to Apostolic times. In order to form a correct estimate of the much-maligned Inquisition it will be profitable to outline the stages of this process. We shall then see how it came about that the Church, which was for centuries opposed to bloodshed, in the end permitted and even commanded the secular princes to inflict the death penalty on obstinate Heretics.

  1. St. Paul "delivered up to Satan Hymeneus and Alexander, that they might learn not to blaspheme" (1 Tim. 1, 20). This penalty was called excommunication, and was the only one inflicted on heretics during the first three centuries. The earlier fathers of the Church, especially Origen, St. Cyprian, and Lactantius, expressly reject the idea of any other punishment.
  2. The pagan emperors of Rome exercised absolute authority over their subjects even in matters of religion; every emperor was also summus pontifex, high priest. Hence, when the emperors became Christians they constituted themselves protectors of the Church and often interfered in religious matters. Arian emperors persecuted the Catholics, and Catholic emperors repressed the Arians. Valentinian I and Theodosius the Great enacted laws against heresies: Heretics were subjected to exile, their possessions were confiscated, they were disqualified from inheriting property.
  3. In 382 the death penalty was decreed against certain Heretics (Encratites) whose doctrines were regarded as dangerous to the State. Later on, the same penalty was applied to the Manichaeans and the Donatists. Only one bishop, St. Optatus of Mileve, approved of this violent repression of the Donatists. St. Augustine, after much hesitation, would admit only scourging, fines, or exile. When the Spanish heretic Priscillian was put to death by order of the Emperor Maximus (385), this act was strongly condemned by St. Ambrose and St. Martin of Tours. St. John Chrysostom called the killing of a heretic an "inexpiable crime," but he did think that heretics should be deprived of liberty of speech, and that heretical assemblies should be dissolved.
  4. Under the later Greek Emperors, the Church and the Empire were regarded as one institution, and the ecclesiastical canons and the political laws were entered on the same statute books, so that it was often difficult to distinguish one from the other.
  5. During the early Middle Ages, from the sixth to the end of the tenth century, we hear little of heretics and their punishment. Scourging and incarceration, the punishments to which recalcitrant monks were subjected by their Rule, were also applied to heretics, such as Aldebert and Clement in the time of St. Boniface, and the monk Gottschalk in the ninth century.
  6. In the eleventh century we find the first examples of death by fire as a punishment for heresy in the West; in the East the Emperor Justinian had decreed this penalty against the Manichaeans. The pagan Germans had burned at the stake those found guilty of sorcery or witchcraft. The common people looked upon heretics such as the Cathari as worse than sorcerers, and insisted on their being delivered to the flames. In 1022 thirteen Cathari were burnt at Orleans by order of King Robert of France. After this there were numerous cases of the execution of heretics, either by burning or hanging, in England, France, Germany, and Italy.
  7. Till the beginning of the thirteenth century the Church had no part in these executions. The people and the civil magistrates were alone responsible for them. The mob frequently took the law into its own hands, broke open the prisons and "lynched" the heretics. It was the mob who, infuriated at seeing him tear down and set fire to crosses, burnt the heresiarch Peter de Bruys in 1140. We hear of only one bishop in the eleventh century who affirmed the necessity for the punishment of heretics by the secular arm. Bishop Wazo of Liege expressly condemned capital punishment and recommended resort to peaceful conversion. St. Bernard demanded excommunication, imprisonment or exile, if persuasion and refutation proved fruitless, but flatly disapproved of the death penalty. Fides suadenda est, non imponenda, "Faith is to be produced by persuasion, not imposed by force," was his motto.

    In the Acts of the Councils of the eleventh and twelfth centuries which treat of the combating of heresy there is never even a suggestion of capital punishment. Neither did any secular law before 1197 demand the death penalty for heresy. But there were not wanting canonists who, basing their opinion on the Roman Law, the study of which was then much in vogue, declared that impenitent heretics may, and even should, be punished by death.

  8. Peter II of Aragon was the first ruler to decree death by fire against heretics found in his kingdom after a given time (1197). During the Albigensian crisis Pope Innocent III exhorted the secular rulers to proceed against the Cathari. He calls heresy high treason against God and puts it on a par with high treason against temporal rulers, which was punishable with death. Still in all his legislation and in the Acts of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), which organized the method of procedure against heretics, the death penalty is never mentioned. For punishment Innocent had in mind the confiscation of property, banishment, and exclusion, from burial in consecrated ground, not death. He was the first of the Popes, however, to rely extensively upon the secular arm in the repression of heresy and was therefore the first to discover, as one of his biographers remarks, how difficult it is to call back the hounds of violence once they are unleashed.
  9. When the Emperor Frederick II, who was anything but an ardent Catholic, in 1224 decreed death by fire against obstinate heretics in Lombardy, Gregory IX sanctioned the imperial legislation, but reserved to the organs of the Church the right to decide the all- important question as to who was to be considered an obstinate heretic and consequently to be delivered to the secular arm for punishment. Thus the two authorities, the temporal and the spiritual, after they had worked separately for a long, time, united their efforts to stamp out the anti-Christian, anti-social and anarchistic heresies which had for over two hundred years troubled the peace of Christendom and menaced the foundations of Church and State.

Until the year 1231 the duty of detecting and repressing heresy had devolved upon the bishops. In I231 Pope Gregory IX appointed a number of Papal Inquisitors (Inquisitores haereticae pravitatis), mostly Dominicans and Franciscans, for the various countries of Europe. The inquisition was thus regularly established; but in the course of time more or less important changes were made in its mode of procedure. Pope Gregory IX was opposed to torture, but Innocent IV approved its use for the discovery of heresy, and Urban IV confirmed this usage, which like the death penalty for heresy, had its origin in the Roman Law. Although intended for the whole of Christendom it was only in the Latin countries that the Papal Inquisition was permanently active.

The Inquisitors at first traveled from place to place. "On arriving in a district they addressed its inhabitants, called upon them to confess if they were heretics, or to denounce those whom they knew to be heretics. A 'time of grace' was opened, during which those who freely confessed were dispensed from all penalties, or only given a secret and very light penance; while those whose heresy had been openly manifested were exempted from the penalties of death and perpetual imprisonment. But this time could not exceed one month. After that began the inquisition properly so called." Denunciations were received, the accused brought before the inquisitors, the witnesses examined. The sentences were solemnly pronounced on a Sunday, in a church or public place. This was known as the sermo generalis (in Spain Auto-da-fe - "act of faith"). Those who had confessed were reconciled and various penances imposed, such as fasting, prayers, pilgrimages, public scourging; the obstinate heretics and the renegades were for the last time called upon to submit, to confess, and to abjure. If they consented, they were condemned to perpetual imprisonment; if they did not consent, they were handed over to the secular arm, which was equivalent to sentence of death by fire. The number of those delivered over to the secular power has been grossly exaggerated. Even H. C. Lea in his History of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages - a bitter Protestant account - admits that comparatively few people suffered at the stake in the Middle Ages, probably not more than three or four per cent of those convicted of heresy.

The Spanish Inquisition, and the Inquisition in Venice and other countries, must not be identified with the ecclesiastical Inquisition. They were mixed tribunals, with the civil element predominating, and their excesses cannot be charged to the Church. The Spanish Inquisition, established in 1481 by Ferdinand and Isabella, was intended primarily for the Mohammedan converts to Catholicism, in the old Arab kingdoms, who were suspected of wishing to return to their old religion, and for disguised Jews, many of whom had succeeded in becoming priests and even bishops. The tribunal, once established, also directed its activity against murder, immorality, smuggling, usury, and other offenses. The king appointed the Grand Inquisitor and the other officials, and also signed the decrees; and the penalties were inflicted in his name. Pope Sixtus IV approved the Spanish Inquisition, because he was under the impression that an ecclesiastical Inquisition was to be established; when the true state of the case was brought to his knowledge, it was too late; all that he and his successors could do was to protest against its excesses. The Spanish kings made extensive use of the powers of the Inquisition against obnoxious prelates and nobles who were not subject to the jurisdiction of other tribunals. On one occasion the Pope had great difficulty in rescuing Cardinal Caranza, Primate of Toledo, from the hands of the Inquisitors.

The Protestant Reformation did nothing to change the traditional views in regard to the persecution of heretics. In Protestant as well as in Catholic countries heretics were imprisoned, tortured, and put to death by fire or otherwise. It was not until 1677 that the death penalty against heretics was removed from the statute books in England. Philip of Spain considered heresy to be no less dangerous to the state than Elizabeth of England considered Catholicism to be; and Philip's prisons, were no more unsavory and noisome than the English prisons of the time. Luther, Melanchton, Calvin, and Theodore of Beza explicitly approved of capital punishment for obstinate heretics. Calvin even wrote a special work in defense of the principle that "Heretics are to be coerced by the sword," after he had burned Michael Servetus at the stake.

We shall not attempt to defend the Inquisition. We cannot approve of the extreme measures adopted, not only on account of their cruelty, but because they undoubtedly led to hypocrisy and the simulation of orthodoxy. Some writers blame the fundamentally unchristian Roman Law, which was revived in the eleventh century, for the Inquisition with all its by-products. "The persecuting era of the Inquisition," writes Father Bede Jarrett, O.P., in his History of Europe, "coincided with the recovery of Roman Law and was an inevitable consequence of it." This is perhaps too sweeping an assertion; it explains only one phase of the Inquisition. Father Bernard Duhr, S.J., has put his finger on the deeper motives behind the institution.

"In the last analysis," he says, "the introduction and aggravation of the Inquisition was mainly influenced by two ideas, or, more correctly, the exaggeration of these two ideas. The Middle Ages by the power of the Faith accomplished great things in all spheres of social life and art, produced saints, and erected architectural instruments before which we bow our head in awe and admiration. But this growing faith concealed a danger which not all the men of that time were able to escape: I mean the danger of overdoing a good thing. This tendency to exaggerate led to fanaticism, which deadens the brain and petrifies the heart that loves the faith above everything, but does not glow with charity, having lost sight of the Apostle's dictum: If I had faith strong enough to transfer mountains, without love I should be nothing. Those who were thus affected loudly demanded the stake: many laymen even outdid the clergy, and so the Inquisition found open doors. Closely connected with the exaggerated enthusiasm for the faith was the overemphasis given to another idea, namely, that to the clergy belonged superiority and leadership in all domains of social, nay, even political life. Though the underlying idea was perfectly correct, when exaggerated it was bound to divert the ecclesiastical authorities from their own proper sphere and to urge them to adopt material measures which were not essential to their spiritual mission" (Fortnightly Review, Nov. 1929, p. 279).

What an Inquisitor Should Be

One of the most important sources of our knowledge in regard to the functioning of the Inquisition is the Practica Inquisitionis Haereticae Pravitatis, a practical manual or directory for Inquisitors, drawn up in the first quarter of the fourteenth century by Bernard Gui, a Dominican Friar, who exercised inquisitorial functions in various parts of Europe from 1307 to 1324. In the fourth part of his Manual, which consists in a "short and useful instruction" concerning the power of the inquisitors, their excellence, etc., he draws the following portrait of what an inquisitor should be, and what he himself, and no doubt many other inquisitors, tried to be:

"He, the Inquisitor, ought to be diligent and fervent in his zeal for religious truth, the salvation of souls, and the extirpation of heresy. In presence of difficulties and reverses he ought to remain calm, and never give way to anger or indignation. He ought to be fearless, facing danger up till death; but while not flinching in the presence of peril, he ought not to hasten it by unreflecting boldness. He must be insensible to the prayers and advances of those who endeavor to persuade him; nevertheless he must not harden his heart to the point of refusing delays or relaxations of punishment, according to circumstances and places. . . . In doubtful matters he must be circumspect, and not give easy credence to what seems only likely and often is not true, for often that which seems unlikely ends by being true. He must listen, discuss, and examine with all zeal, in order patiently to attain to the light. Let that love of truth and mercy, which ought always to dwell in the heart of a judge, shine on his countenance, so that his decisions may never seem to be dictated by envy or by cruelty." (See Jean Guiraud, The Mediaeval Inquisition, p. 75.)

The above excerpt is from Church History by Fr. John Laux, M.A. published by Tan Books and Publishers, Inc. Rockford, Illinois 61105