This piece by Michael Parenti was originally published at Third World Traveler.
Those who celebrate Christianity’s contributions to Western civilization might want to remind themselves of one of the church’s most appalling gifts to human tyranny, the Inquisition, a heresy hunt ordained by the papacy that wreaked misery upon Europe from the early thirteenth century until well into the eighteenth. Endowed with nearly limitless authority, shrouded in secrecy, and freed from all accountability, the inquisitors indulged in unfettered butchery and rapacity, taking lives and confiscating property, growing rich in the process, treating the accused as having no rights, and treating everyone, from the meanest to the highest, as potentially suspect.
The victim’s guilt was assumed in advance and confession was to be extracted by guile or ordeal. One’s regular church attendance and generous oblations, one’s verbal professions of strict devotion to orthodox doctrine, one’s willingness to subscribe to whatever was demanded by the tribune—all were as naught. For the accused might still be nursing a secret heresy. The Inquisition had to uncover the impossible: the unspoken thoughts in a person’s head. But luckily, the task was made easier by the procedure itself. The victim need not be proven guilty; suspicion alone was enough to bring on the fatal judgment. The inquiry almost always ended in execution or, less frequently, life incarceration in a dark dungeon.
Along with its judges, the Inquisition had its armed retainers, extortionists, spies, and of course, torturers and executioners. Henry Charles Lea writes that, except among the Visigoths, torture had been “unknown among the barbarians who founded the commonwealths of Europe, and their system of jurisprudence had grown up free from its contamination.” Not until the thirteenth century did it begin to be employed “sparingly and hesitatingly” in judicial proceedings, after which it rapidly won its way into the Inquisition, administered at first only by secular authorities—on command from the Inquisitional tribune. In 1252, church canons prohibited ecclesiastics from being present when torture was administered, perhaps an implicit admission that the procedure was morally tainted. Yet within a few years, inquisitors and their servitors were absolving each other of “irregularities” under the papal bull so that they might directly supervise torture sessions.
Those who confessed were burned as admitted heretics. Those who withstood all pain and mutilation and did not confess were burned as unrepentent heretics. Heresy itself retained a conveniently vague and elastic meaning. Prisoners who confessed under torture were tortured again to gain information about other evil-doers among their own family and friends, then tortured again if they subsequently recanted any of the coerced testimony—after which they were burned at the stake. Witnesses too were sometimes tortured in order to extract properly damning testimony. Anyone who showed sympathy or support for the accused, who dared to question the relentlessly self-confirming process, was doomed to meet the same fate.
In 1484 German princes were reluctant to give the Roman Inquisition entry into Germany. The Inquisition loomed as a rival authority, one inclined to go into business for itself, condemning not only the poor but some of the rich and well born and expropriating their estates. But the grave anxiety occasioned by peasant insurrections made the princes more tractable. The Inquisition opportunely arrived upon the scene, in Jules Michelet’s words, “to terrorize the country and break down rebellious spirits, burning as Sorcerers today the very men who would likely enough tomorrow have been insurgents,” channeling popular restiveness away from the ruling interests and against witches and demons.
Some historians actually have apologetic words for the Inquisition. Ignoring all evidence to the contrary, Carlton Hayes and his associates claim that the Inquisition’s most frequent penalty was a mere fine and confiscation of property, with imprisonment reserved only for the “more severe cases.” And some suspects were required to undertake expensive pilgrimages, or “wear distinctive markings on their clothes.” Hayes makes no mention of torture, and claims that the death penalty was applied only to the “relatively few” who refused to recant their heresy or who relapsed after recantation. The inquisitors, it seems, did not burn heretics but conscientiously strove to save their immortal souls through conversion.
A different summation of the Inquisition is offered by Lea, who has done the monumental study of this subject: “Fanatic zeal, arbitrary cruelty, and insatiable cupidity … it was a system which might well seem the invention of demons.” In fact, it was the invention of the Christian church of that day. A religion is not something entirely apart from the crimes committed in its name. The church’s war against heresy began in the first generation of its existence and continued without stint for more than sixteen hundred years. Centuries of Christianity’s meanspirited, violent propagation of a monopoly faith created the fertile soil upon which the Inquisition took root and flourished.
Michael Parenti is an internationally known award-winning author and lecturer. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Yale University. He has taught at a number of colleges and universities, in the United States and abroad. Some of his writings have been translated into Arabic, Azeri, Bangla, Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Swedish and Turkish.
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