August 3, 2008

"No one expects the Spanish Inquisition"

A reader wrote to me, concerning yesterday's post:

....This quote mentions, "the medieval Albigensians and Cathari" and says, "Gnosticism can't handle the Incarnation". Since the Inquisition killed and tortured them and burned their books, it's my understanding we only know what they thought and practiced through what the Inquisitors said about them.

I'm not a Catholic (or a virulent anticlerical). To me, the Inquisition seems evil and an enormous contamination of the Christian teachings and I've never seen that explained away successfully. Maybe in a future post you might touch on that a little. Maybe I've got the facts wrong, or maybe there's some positive take on it I've missed...

Neither the Cathari nor the Inquisitions are things I have deep knowlege about. But hey, that never stopped me, a few thoughts...

I've learned some things about the inquisitions just from dabbling in history. (There were various inquisitions; they were local institutions, not an arm of the Church as a whole.) I think it is pretty safe to say that they were not nearly as bad as the grim legends make them out to be. They have mostly been portrayed by Protestants or by "Enlightenment" historians who had a big big ax to grind against the Church. (Rather like Leftists today have an ax to grind against the USA, and turned the fairly minor abuse of abu Ghraib into the worst thing ever, while ignoring real torture happening all around the world.) The savage torturing and murdering of Catholics by the Tudors and Stuarts gets little mention in history books, while everybody has shivered with horror about those dreadful dungeons of the Inquisition.

The methods and ethics of the inquisitors were the same as were used in all judicial processes of their time. It's not like the civil courts back then were any less oppressive. Probably just the opposite. I have read that the Spanish Inquisition was in fact quite scrupulous and just by the standards of its age. And that over several centuries of operation it only killed about 3,000 people--that's not exactly mass slaughter. Also, anyone convicted of a first offense could recant and go free. (But if you were caught in heresy again you were toast.) That's rather better than what you could expect from the average medieval king and his justices.

And it was done for what they considered a very good reason---heresy could lead people to eternal damnation, and could spread rapidly if not stopped. Torquemada would have said that it is WE who are cruel and unjust in allowing people to imperil their souls with false doctrine! I don't agree with the usefulness of his tactics, but the logic is perfectly correct. If I could save your soul from the fires of Hell by a bit of brutality, then I as a Christian would be obligated to do so! As it happens the Church teaches that this won't work, so I can focus my energies elsewhere, like torturing people with blogposts.

My wife Charlene is currently reading a book about the Cathars, The Perfect Heresy. She says we actually know quite a lot about them, because the inquisitors kept careful records, including transcripts of testimony. We don't, however, know for sure where Catharism came from. There was a very interesting book a few years ago, Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error, which revealed a extraordinary amount of detail about everyday life in a medieval French village---because the whole village had been hauled in and interrogated about their religious practices, and the bulky transcript then sat in the Vatican for 600 years until a historian mined it.

The Perfect Heresy looks like an informative book, though marred, to my casual perusal, by the assumption of the author that orthodox Christian faith is something people did back in the Middle Ages, and which no modern person would take seriously....

"Albigensian" (from the city of Albi) and "Cathars" were names invented by their enemies, by the way. They called themselves "good Christians."


Posted by John Weidner at August 3, 2008 10:33 PM
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