Thursday, August 28, 2014

The BBC Exposes the Myth of the Spanish Inquisition

Last year in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, I wrote about the Spanish Inquisition:

The Monty Python cohort may have said, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition,” but Catholics can expect it to be brought up regularly. This exaggerated version emphasizes all the depths of the Black Legend of Spain: the tyranny of the popes and the Catholic Church, torture, and the multitude of victims writhing in agony, burned alive during the auto-da-fe. The quick facts to present in response to an attack on the Church concerning the Spanish Inquisition are these:
  • The government wanted the Spanish Inquisition, not the Church; the State was in charge.
  • Successive popes, like Pope Sixtus IV and Innocent VIII complained to Spain about the conduct of the Inquisition.
  • The Church never tortured anyone—Spanish officials may have, but no Inquisitorial friar or monk ever tortured someone accused of heresy.
  • The Church did not burn anyone to death; in fact, of the approximately 2,000 condemned to death by the State, very few were actually executed—they were usually burned in effigy, having fled the country.
  •  Those condemned were not burned alive at the stake during the auto-da-fe.
Those are the facts to present, but the deeper issue is that in medieval and early modern (Renaissance and Reformation) eras in Europe, heresy was a serious matter for the State. Queen Elizabeth I in England wanted all her subjects to be members of the Church of England, and King Philip II of Spain wanted all his subjects to be Catholics. To them, it was a measure of unity and loyalty in their realms. We look back and think, how could the government be so concerned about what doctrine their subjects believed, what religion they practiced? Governments today around the world are just as concerned about the religious practice of their citizens. Even the United States, which has enshrined religious liberty in our Bill of Rights, is facing a crisis of religious freedom and the rights of conscience.

After watching the 1994 episode from the BBC's Timewatch series linked above, I realized I told only part of the story, because I was defending the Church from attack, not the Spanish Inquisition itself. The BBC's examination of the myth of the Spanish Inquisition is balanced and exact in citing the facts about the history of that effort to suppress heresy, using for what at that time was new information gained from the opening of the archives of the office of the Inquisition. There is discussion of the propaganda of the Black Legend from print media to fiction to even opera (Verdi's Don Carlo). The most disturbing aspect of this propaganda, which did come from enemies of the Catholic Church and the Spanish Empire--many of whom were Protestant, we must admit--is how it contrasts with the horrible record of witch burning in Europe, mostly in Protestant countries. The BBC notes that around 3,000 were sentenced to death during the Spanish Inquisition, but that 150,000 were burned alive as witches--while the Spanish Inquisition rejected the so-called "evidence" of a woman being a witch. Yet even our era accepts the imagery of Spanish cruelty while ignoring northern European horrors. 

The documentary points out that the Spanish Inquisition courts were so well known for their relative fairness that prisoners accused in other civil courts would pretend to be heretics just to switch. The Inquisition courts did allow for proving the negative--that the accused was not a heretic--while other civil courts in that era supposed the guilt of the accused just because he had been accused. Think of the 17th century victims of the false Popish Plot in England. Their efforts to prove themselves not guilty were frustrated by the assumption by the court that they were guilty of conspiracy and treason because they were Catholics. Whatever evidence they offered to prove for example that they could not have been where Titus Oates said they were because they had witnesses who could testify they were somewhere else--it would be rejected because the witnesses were Catholic and thus part of the conspiracy.

It's a long video (about 45 minutes) but well worth watching. Oh, and just like I did above, the program starts with Monty Python, torturing a woman on the comfy chair and poking her with pillows! The end is charming too as a happy chorus proclaims English superiority to all other peoples and nations!

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