The Spanish Inquisition

Faithless Fairy Tales Part 4

By Jeff Laird

Faithless Fairy Tales:
Part 1: Galileo
Part 2: The Scopes Trial
Part 3: The Crusades
Part 4: The Spanish Inquisition

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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.

Continue to Page Two

Image: Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition

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Published 8-13-2014