Matt Swaim and I will be discussing the "Inquisition" this morning on the Son Rise Morning Show in our Church History Apologetics series--right after the 6:45 a.m. Central time news headlines with Anna Mitchell (7:45 a.m. Eastern).
Since nobody expects it, we will focus on the Spanish Inquisition, although the term "Inquisition" could refer to various secular government efforts to eliminate religious heresy in various countries. England had an inquisition against the Lollards, for example. In southern France, the Albigensians were the threat to unity.
Herbert Butterfield helps us acknowledge the situation when he notes that the late medieval era into the sixteenth century was “a time when any serious error concerning divine things as almost universally regarded as blasphemy,” and that “state and the secular rulers could not imagine that religious non-conformity might be consistent with public order.”
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.
As I posted last year, however, after finding a BBC video about the Spanish Inquisition, I realized there was even more to the story:
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.