Nothing causes more heartburn for Catholics than when they are confronted by well meaning protestants about the Inquisition. The accusations by non-Catholic Christians goes something like this:
“The Catholic Church tried, convicted, tortured and killed millions of bible-believing protestants just like me in the middle ages, because they refused to convert to Catholicism and to bow down to the pope. And therefore this proves that the Catholic Church is evil and is not the one true church.”
Once this accusation is out there, the Catholic will usually look sheepish and mutter something about “that was a long time ago,” “We don’t do that anymore,” or else they just shutup and turn and walk away. But the accusation is 100% false, and is nothing more than 16th century propaganda that has been passed down through the ages as fact, with the purpose of trying to prove the worth of protestantism by tearing down the Catholic Church. This webpage will explore the facts and the fantasy of inquisition myths and lore.
The period in history known as “The Inquisition” was actually a series of European church/state trials in several countries. Most European countries in those days were like Israel in the Bible – The Church and State were NOT totally separated from each other, but were a kind of a marriage between the two. The Holy Roman Empire and many of its countries had Catholicism as its state religion, following in the footsteps of Constantine, who encouraged this practice. Catholicism was a unifying cultural faith for the communities in the different European Kingdoms. Quite a difference from today in the Unites States, with its Masonic “separation of Church and State,” a phrase nowhere to be found in the Declaration of Independence or the original Constitution, but which the Supreme Court “interpreted” for all of us as “the law of the land.” In Europe of those days, to violate Catholic practices was seen as unpatriotic as well as heretical. And to violate the Catholic faith was not seen as a private matter either, but one that affected the entire community. It is this setting that gave birth to the “Inquisition,” which sought to preserve faith and culture in the Kingdoms where they were threatened by those who only pretended to be Catholic, but who were in fact, Albigensians, Jews, or Muslims. The struggle for the Church was to use the force of the secular state to enforce its findings, at the same time preserving the true meaning of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In this, the Church was sometimes successful, sometimes not, as we shall see.
The inquisition process was set up by the Church in the 13th century, well before Luther’s 16th century heresies of “saved by faith alone” and “the bible alone.” The formal process was necessary because of the Albigensian Crusade (also known as the Cathars). The Albigensians were a movement out of France that preached that marriage was evil, but that fornication was OK. They believed that there were two gods – the mean old God of the Old Testament who killed everyone, and the nice God of the New Testament who came to save everyone. They preached that the material world was evil, and therefore suicide was great. In 1208 (supposedly the same year that Mary gave St. Dominic the Rosary), the Albigensians killed a papal representative in France, and Pope Innocent III reacted by instituting better preaching of Catholicism, education, and reforms. But mob rule broke out instead, and for 20 years there was back and forth skirmishes between local citizens, priests, bishops, armies, and the Albigensians. So in 1231, Pope Gregory, the same great Pope who gave us the accurate Gregorian calendar we still use today, initiated a series of canonical instructions which formalized the process of fighting the Albigensians, many of whom had gone underground to escape death by the army. These canonical instructions became the blueprint for the inquisition courts.
Inquisitions were local trials, usually with a papal representative, the bishop of the area, or maybe even a priest from a local religious order. These trials were never ongoing non-stop, but rather started and stopped many times. The purpose of the trial was to root out clandestine heretics who pretended to be Catholic, but who were secretly behind the scenes implementing heresy to destroy the Kingdom from within. This is similar to today, where many people believe that some leaders are closet muslims who only pretend to be Christian. The danger is that enemies of the state may be getting aid and comfort from the very people who are supposed to be protecting citizens from the enemies. The goal of the Church in these trials was the conversion of the apostate soul. If the person repented and converted, a simple confession with resultant penance was the judgment of the court. If he or she did not convert, then that person was handed over to the secular authorities for whatever punishment the state deemed necessary. In some cases, this involved torture and capital punishment if the person was deemed a threat to the state.
It’s important to note that the prevalent means of obtaining confessions in those days was torture. However, the priests were forbidden to participate in it, and the torture by the inquisition court was much less severe than that of the civil court. In fact, many citizens who weren’t accused of heresy, but rather of a civil crime like theft, would often blurt out heretical statements in their secular trial so that they could be tried instead by the much easier inquisition. Again, no torture today is justified, but in those days, it was the accepted means of obtaining confessions. Most of the crimes investigated by the inquisition consisted of things like fornication, adultery, not attending Mass, etc. And a LOT of the perps were clergy, which should please a lot of secular people today, who falsely believe that all priests are child molesters and should all be in jail.
So what about the millions of protestants and scientists being tortured and killed by the inquisition? Well, those are two lies – In the case of Galileo, he was tried by the inquisition for presenting the Copernican theory of heliocentricity (the earth revolves around the sun) as a fact before it was proven (it was proven centuries later, by the Catholic Church). And he began to lecture the Pope publicly about the true meaning of scripture, which was definitely outside the purview of a scientist. Galileo was never tortured, and was not killed by the inquisition, but was rather placed under house arrest, in a very nice comfy mansion. Regarding the “millions of protestants” killed under the inquisition, Spain, which led the majority of inquisitions in killing heretics, simply did not have that many protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries. And in fact, after Luther’s revolt in the 16th Century, thousands of Catholics and witches were killed by protestant authorities in Germany, in the protestant counter-inquisition. Henry VIII continued this tradition of killing Catholics who wouldn’t convert to protestantism as well, both in England, and later on, in Ireland, where the British Crown refused to even let the Mass be said! In America, the protestants in Salem had their own inquisition of clandestine witches, and executed them when found guilty. In 1834, the Spanish government officially ended the inquisition in Spain.
The big myth of the inquisition is that almost 100 million people were killed by the inquisition. But the few countries that carried out inquisitions – France, Italy, Spain – simply did not have that many people living there in those days. The best estimates of those who were killed range from a few thousand to ten thousand, over 5 centuries! Of course, today, we see all of this as being evil, through the lens of history in our Monday morning quarterback seats. But back then, it was the norm.
Summing up, the Church originally instituted the formal process known as the inquisition to quell the mob violence against the Albigensians, who preached that there was more than one god, that marriage was evil and fornication was good, that no formal government oaths should be taken, that all matter in this world (including the body) is evil, and that ritualistic suicide to escape this evil world is a wonderful thing. One can only imagine what would have happened if these guys would not have been fought against and destroyed by the Catholic Church!