The INQUISITION & the Church
Responding to Anti-Catholicism on the Internet

Many anti-Catholics on the Internet speak of the Inquisition as if it just happened last Tuesday. They stereotype the Catholic Church as an inherently oppressive and perverse institution. These Fundamentalist and/or church-cults, having no history of their own, nevertheless, attack various elements in the long history of Catholicism, assaulting "Christianity" itself. Distorting the truth, they become the very thing they seek to ridicule.

Anti-Catholic Bigots on This Issue are the NEW NAZIS.

A wonderful booklet on this issue, and the main source for this page, was published back in 1950, The Truth About the Inquisition by John A. O'Brien and published by The Paulist Press. He writes:

In their efforts to discredit religion and disparage the Church, Nazi propagandists resurrected long buried incidents of the Inquisition and decked them out in lurid and gruesome colors and paraded them before the people. We recall standing before a book store window on Maria-Hilfenstrasse in Vienna in July, 1939, when the Nazi propaganda was in high gear, and seeing the bloodcurdling display of posters and pictures of imaginary scenes from the Inquisition. "See thee," Goebels was saying, "that is what will happen to you if we do not rescue you from the Church." (O'Brien, p. 5)

Well, there it is. The similarity goes much deeper, however. Kindred to these masters in hate, the anti-Catholic bigot makes a scapegoat of the Church, twisting the facts and the truth to their advantage, and even resorting to the BIG LIE. Name the issue, we see it repeated.

5 Facts Needed to Understand the Medieval Situation.

Dr. O'Brien delineates five areas where moderns misunderstand medieval Christendom (pp. 7-8):

  • The Church is a society, perfect and sovereign, with legislative, judicial and executive powers, charged with the supreme task of disseminating in all its purity the body of divinely revealed religious truth.
  • Faith was considered by the people of the Middle Ages (and of today as well) as a gift of God, more precious than all the treasures of the earth. The faith had come down to them in its original integrity because their ancestors had suffered persecution and death rather than modify it or deny it. It was their duty to safeguard its purity so there would be no departure from the teachings of Christ and His Apostles; since it was the key that would open to them the gates of Heaven, no earthly treasure could compensate them for its loss; hence orthodoxy was to be maintained at all costs.
  • There existed a moral, spiritual and juridical unity of medieval society wherein Church and State constituted a closely knit polity. Theocratic in structure, the State could not be indifferent about the spiritual welfare of its subjects without being guilty of treason to its supreme Lord and Sovereign-- Almighty God. The spiritual authority was inseparably intertwined with the secular in much the same way as the soul is united with the body: the modern concept of these two authorities operating in separate water-tight compartments would have shocked the medieval mind much as a schizophrenic personality dismays the modern.
  • There was a severity of the penal code of those days, in which the use of torture and the stake was common. Counterfeiters were burnt alive; those who gave false weights and measures were scourged or condemned to death; burglars were led to the scaffold; thieves convicted of a relapse were put to death. The whole penal code bristled with vengeance for those who transgressed its laws; even as late as the reign of Henry VIII and of Elizabeth persons were being drawn, disemboweled and quartered; others were being boiled to death. Still more revolting was the torture of the wheel, on which the victim was left with broken bones and limbs to die a lingering death of excruciating pain. John Calvin experienced no scruples in having his theological opponent, Michael Servetus, burned to death. The penalties inflicted by the Inquisition were simply those in current use in their day.
  • The modern concept of the secular state, neutral toward all religions and guaranteeing to their adherents equal rights and freedom of conscience and of worship, would have shocked the medieval mind. Few people realize how comparatively recent is the development such as we have in the United States. To view the thought and action of the people of the Middle Ages against the background of today is to misunderstand and misjudge them entirely. It would be like viewing the covered wagon in which the early settlers in America trekked to the West against the background of the airplane travel of today.

First Three Centuries: Pro-Life Stance, Even Toward Heretics.

Repudiating the punishment of stoning as dictated for defilers of faith in the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 13:6-9 and 17:1-6, the Apostles and their more immediate successors adopted an entirely pro-life stance:

  • SAINT PAUL - (Utilizing a spirit punishment) "By rejecting conscience, certain persons have made shipwreck of their faith, among them Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme" (1 Timothy 1:19-20). (Cutting heretics off from the Church) "As for a man who is factious, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is perverted and sinful; he is self-condemned" (Titus 3:10-11).
  • LACTANTIUS - (Along with Origen, he repudiated the very notion of the death penalty for heresy) "Religion, being a matter of the will, it cannot be forced on anyone; in this matter it is better to employ words than blows. Of what use is cruelty? What has the rack to do with piety? Surely there is no connection between truth and violence, between justice and cruelty . . . It is true that nothing is so important as religion and one must defend it at any cost. It is true that it must be protected, but by dying for it, not by killing others; by long-suffering, not by violence; by faith, not by crime. If you attempt to defend religion with bloodshed and torture, what you do is not defense, but desecration and insult. For nothing is so intrinsically a matter of free will as religion" (De Divinis Institutionibus, 5:10).
  • TERTULLIAN - (Derived from natural law, religious affiliation is a matter of free will and not compulsion) "However, it is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man's religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion-- to which free-will and not force should lead us-- the sacrificial victims even being required of a willing mind" (Ad. Scapulam, chap. 2).

Christianity is Made Legal: The State Intervenes.

It is here that the problems start. The emperor legitimized Christianity with the Edict of Toleration in 325 AD. Almost immediately, the emperors, viewing themselves as the divinely established guardians of the temporal and material affairs of the Church, they also intruded into spiritual matters. Eventually the Catholic Church and the Christian faith would become the religion of the empire. As such, it would be seen as the GLUE of the empire. Such a mind set quickly led to aggressive measures in stamping out heresy. 

  • When the emperors entered into league with the Arian bishops, they persecuted orthodox prelates, imprisoning and sending them into exile.
  • St. Hilary of Poitiers vainly protested the use of force in his region, contending that the severe Old Testament sanctions were replaced by the gentle laws of Christ (Liber Contra Auxentium, IV).
  • Successors to Constantine issued many penal edicts against heretics, 68 in 57 years, which resulted in either exile or death.
  • In 407 AD, a law against the Donatists deemed them traitors to the crown.
  • St. Augustine of Hippo, repudiated such use of force (against the Manicheans) and sought to win the heretics by preaching and dialogue.
  • The emperor Maximus ordered that Priscillian, bishop of Avila, found guilty of heresy and sorcery, be put to death in 385 AD in accordance to the appeal of the Spanish bishops. St. Martin of Tours, St. Ambrose, and St. Leo strenuously reprimanded the Spanish bishops for doing such a reprehensible thing.
  • St. John Chrysostom thought that a heretic should be deprived of liberty of speech and that their assemblies should be dissolved, but proclaimed that "to put a heretic to death would be to introduce upon earth an inexpiable crime" (Homilies, 46: 1). Dr. O'Brien writes about this wonderful saint: He declares that God forbids their execution, even as He forbids us to uproot the cockle, but He does not forbid us to repel them, to deprive them of freedom of speech or to prohibit their meetings" (O'Brien, p. 13).
  • In 1022 AD, King Robert had thirteen Carthari heretics executed at Orleans "because he feared for the safety of the kingdom and the salvation of souls." After 1022 AD, Mob action increased against heretics. The populace was taking the law into their own hands and putting heretics to death. Such lawlessness could not be tolerated by the civil society or the Church. The mobs had even stormed the prisons.
  • Waso, the Bishop of Liege urged against using force upon the Carthari, arguing much as St. John Chrysostom had seven centuries earlier.
  • The bishops during this period were virtually unanimous against appealing to the secular arm for the punishment of heretics, and all of them rejected the death penalty.
  • Peter Cantor, the most learned man of this age, expressed the prevailing sentiment within the Church leadership: "Whether they be convicted of error, or freely confess their guilt, Catharists are not to be put to death, at least not when they refrain from armed assaults upon the Church. For although the Apostle said, 'A man that is a heretic after the third admonition, avoid,' he certainly did not say, 'Kill him.' Throw them into prison, if you will, but do not put them to death'" (De investigatione Antichrist 3:42).
  • St. Bernard put down the law, in direct opposition to the mobs, "Fides suadenda, non imponenda." Men are to be won to the Faith, not by violence, but by persuasion. He censured the princes, arguing that "the obstinate were to be excommunicated and if necessary, kept in confinement for the safety of others" (O'Brien, p. 15).
  • The views of Peter Cantor and St. Bernard were ratified by a whole series of synods during that time: Rheims (1049) under Leo IX, Tolouse (1119) under Callistus II, and the Lateran Council of 1139.
  • The infrequent execution of heretics during this period must be considered the arbitrary action of secular rulers and the fanatical mob violence. They were not the result of Church law or authority.

Albigensian Heresy: Church & State Forced To Be More Severe.

It is here that there is a radical shift in the Church's dealing with heretics toward more serious penal measures. It is here that anti-Catholic bigots treat church history in the same piece-meal way they regard the bible. Matters are taken out of context and real threats are made light of or cast in the pallor of the Protestant/Catholic debate. Let us look at things honestly.

Dr. O'Brien succinctly tells us what happened:

In the second half of the twelfth century, however, the Albigensian or Catharan heresy spread through Europe in an alarming fashion; it menaced not only the Church's existence but also the very foundations of Christian society and orderly government. In answer to this grave menace there grew up in Germany, France and Spain a kind of prescriptive law which visited heresy with death at the stake, a form of capital punishment common at that time. Against that action of the Christian state to defend itself the Church did not protest; indeed, she felt called upon to sanction the severe penalties of the secular authority and to co-operate with the state in their enforcement, for her very existence was likewise threatened" (O'Brien, pp. 16-17).

Who were the Albigensians? How did this heresy threaten both the Church and State?

  • They called themselves "Catharii," (Pure), found sexual relations repugnant and rejected marriage as abominable.
  • They professed to be practicing primitive Christianity itself.*
  • They held for a two-fold principle of creation, one good and the other, evil.
  • Matter was evil and the spirit was good.
  • All existence was in conflict between these two principles.
  • Since all matter was evil, they denied the incarnation (that Christ assumed a human body).
  • Regarding Christ as the highest angel, they denied both his humanity and divinity.
  • They denied that he could endure injury; thus, there was no Crucifixion or Resurrection.
  • The entire narration of his Passion and Death was brushed aside as illusion.
  • They denied the "real presence" in the Eucharist and the sacrifice of the Mass.*
  • Although sinless, the Virgin Mary had a celestial body like Christ, and only appeared to be a woman.
  • Dr. O'Brien writes: "They professed hatred and contempt for the Church, branding her the Scarlet Woman of the Apocalypse, 'drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus'; the pope was Antichrist. The sacraments were childish impostures and transubstantiation was a mad blasphemy. Particularly vehement were those heretics in their denunciation of all forms of symbolism and of the veneration of relics and especially of the Cross" (O'Brien, p. 18).*
  • Usurpation of Church structure and sacraments: "They had bishops as rulers and their members were divided into the 'perfected,' the 'consoled' and the 'believers.' The believers were obliged to prostrate themselves before the perfected and to venerate them in an obsequious manner. They made one sacrament out of baptism, confirmation, penance and the Eucharist, which they called the consolamentum. Those who died without receiving the consolamentum would pass either to eternal punishment or into the body of an animal; since the latter might be the dwelling-place of a human soul, they refused under all circumstances to take animal life" (O'Brien, p. 18).
  • Usurpation of the rights of the state: "The putting to death of a human being, for any crime whatsoever, was considered wrong; and according to the Summa Contra Hereticos, 'all the Catharan sects taught that the public prosecution of crime was unjust and no one had the right to administer justice'" (O'Brien, p. 18).
  • As an attack upon society's most basic component, the family, they contended that sex was evil at its core. Procreation was condemned as a Satanic enterprise wherein the pregnant female was possessed by a demon. If she died while pregnant or giving birth, she was eternally damned.
  • Marriage was dismissed as a perpetually sinful state, worse than fornication, adultery, incest, and sodomy. The reasoning here was that married couples felt no shame or remorse. Also, there was the possibility of progeny. Abortion was reckoned as something to be highly recommended.
  • The last sacrament or consolamentum could only be given those who renounced sexual relations; indeed, afterwards there were severe penalties of fasting for a man who merely touched a woman.
  • The Albigensians repudiated the oath of fealty which represented the bonding foundation of feudal society and refused all taxes.
  • Critically ill members were given the consolamentum and then urged to make their salvation certain by the endura, no less than suicide. Often it translated into murder. If they agreed, they were asked if they were a martyr or a confessor. Martyrs were suffocated with a pillow while confessors died of thirst and starvation. The so-called Perfect would often hang around to make sure the person was made to die, and it should be mentioned that opportunists sometimes exploited these situations for profit. Toward the middle of the thirteenth century, they cruelly subjected small children to the endura.

*PLEASE NOTE that the three points highlighted in this list are teachings shared with many, if not most anti-Catholic fundamentalists.

A. L. Maycock, in his work The Inquisition, states that the ENDURA was responsible for more deaths in Languedoc than the stake or the Inquisition! (p. 42). E. Vacandard in his work by the same title, reports, "Everyone who reads the acts of the tribunals of the Inquisition of Toulouse and Carcassone must admit that the endura, voluntary or forced, put to death more victims than the stake or the Inquisition" (p. 72). Even many non-Catholic historians admit, that orthodoxy in faith and civilization itself was at peril. The Albigensians were revolting, not only against the Church and the state, but against man' mastery over nature.


Dr. O'Brien tells us the following:

During the first three decades of the thirteenth century the Inquisition, as an institution, was not yet in existence. Up to 1224 there was no imperial law ordering, or pre-supposing as legal, the burning of heretics. The rescript for Lombardy of 1224 is the first law in which death by fire is expressly stipulated as the unqualified punishment.

There is no evidence that Pope Honorius III had any hand in drafting that ordinance; the burning of heretics in Germany was no longer rare and the ancient Roman Law that punished high treason with death, and Manicheism in particular with the stake, was not unknown to the emperor, Frederick II. The imperial rescripts of 1220 and 1224 were adopted into ecclesiastical criminal law in 1231 and were soon applied at Rome. It was then the Inquisition of the Middle Ages came into being. It was probable, as Lea conjectures, that Gregory had no intention of establishing a permanent tribunal but was simply taking measures to meet an emergency" (O'Brien, p. 24).

The institution of the Inquisition headed off the growing encroachment of Frederick II into Church affairs. It would also give the Church some hand in controlling situations where there was a history of abuse and incompetence. Special and permanent judges were appointed to deal in the Pope's name with offenses against faith. Established rules of canonical conduct with set penalties were to be followed. The rule of law was to be imposed upon the madness of the mob. The task of this Inquisition was not simply to hold secret interrogations and then to make charges; nor were they fanatics to implement torture, something which would not be allowed for many decades; nor were they to render wholesale sanctions, imprisonment, the confiscation of assets, or to impose the stake-- they were simply papal judges who were commissioned to seek out heretics and to reconcile them, if possible; or to pronounce the usual spiritual penalties if stubborn, and deliver them over to the secular power.

Gregory IX turned to the Franciscans and the Dominicans to supply theologically competent and holy men for this role. They worked closely with the bishops and had to submit their findings to them for approbation. Many times the popes warned them against being overzealous and severe. Innocent IV in 1254 renewed the prohibition against perpetual incarceration or death at the stake without consent of the bishops. Boniface VIII and Clement V declared all judgments without episcopal approval to be null and void.

The inquisitor would preach a solemn sermon of faith. Assisted by the local faithful of varying status, those suspected of heresy would be summoned. The would be required to promise total obedience to the commands of the Church; otherwise, they would stand prosecution under the given statutes. Dr. O'Brien lists these features of the inquisitorial procedure (pp. 27-28):

. . . the time of grace, the denunciation of suspects, the trial, the imposing of sentence upon repentant heretics and the abandonment of the recalcitrant ones to the secular arm. During the time of grace all who freely confessed and abandoned their errors were either dispensed from all penalties or were given only a secret and very light penance; those whose heresy had been openly manifested were exempted from the penalties of perpetual imprisonment and death. This time should not, however, exceed one month; after that began the Inquisition. When the heresy was considered to be stamped out, the inquisitors moved on to another locality.

The use of an advisory board of laymen and priests were often used to insure a fair and impartial verdict. A council of other standing judges assisted, too. Unfortunately, and it must be admitted, many of the safeguards for the protection of the rights of the accused, which we cherish today, had not yet evolved.

What About Torture?

Yes, it is true. While the accused was not imprisoned during the inquiry period, if he refused to confess his guilt and his accomplices, sometimes the authorities resorted to torture. It was not classified as a form of punishment, merely a means of eliciting the truth. "It was not of ecclesiastical origin and was long forbidden in the ecclesiastical courts" (p. 29). It was first sanctioned by Innocent IV in his Bull Ad exstirpanda of May 15, 1252. The torture was not, however, to cause the loss of a limb or to imperil life. It could be applied only once, and not even then unless the accused seemed dubious in his statements and the weight of evidence leaning heavy toward conviction. All other means had to be exhausted first. Dr. O'Brien writes:

If this papal legislation had been followed in practice, many of the abuses which have justly aroused such resentment against the Inquisition would have been avoided. In the beginning, torture was considered so odious and so contrary to the spirit of the Gospels that clerics were forbidden to be present under pain of irregularity.

Using many different instruments of torture, the rule about resorting to it only once was circumvented. While the severity of torture has often been exaggerated, it must be admitted that there were cases of terrible excess. Such was often the case when civil authorities leaned on Church officials for results. Using his seal for the faith as an excuse, Frederick II abused the Inquisition and the rack to eradicate his personal enemies. "St. Joan of Arc was sent to the stake as a heretic and a recalcitrant largely because her judges were tools of English policy. Moreover, the excesses of the Spanish Inquisition, . . .were chiefly traceable to the influence of the secular arm" (O'Brien, p. 31).

Most Inquisition penalties were mild and intended to assist the person to grow spiritually. Good works were required, like church visitation, a religious pilgrimage, the offering of a candle or Mass vessel, the participation in a crusade, fines, mortification of the flesh, etc. The worst punishments were incarceration or excommunication from the Church. If the Church felt that she could not appropriately punish the misdeeds, she would hand them over to the secular authorities. Imprisonment could be severe, but the vast majority lived a rather monastic life with a communal form of life-- taking meals with others, living with their spouses, and enjoying freedom of movement within the set buildings and grounds. Catholic friends were even allowed to visit them and to bring them food, wine, and clothing from outside. As for the more severe imprisonment, it often took the form of solitary confinement and chains. The popes were eventually able to do much to improve the conditions for this latter group. The chains were removed, friends and outside food was permitted, etc. The Papacy, so often blamed for the Inquisition, showed itself as a influence to make the situation more humane.

We Owe a Debt to the Inquisition.

Very few people, when we look at the numbers, suffered the extreme penalty of death. This changes the complection of the Inquisition from that surmised by popular culture and hailed by anti-Catholics. Dr. O'Brien astutely observes:

Hence it is evident that the Inquisition marks a substantial advance in the administration of justice and therefore in the general civilization of mankind; it substituted court procedure for mob action and lynch law. Far from being a failure, the Inquisition succeeded in its gigantic task of stemming the Albigensian heresy which like a black plague was devastating Christendom. In spite of its shortcomings not only Christianity but also human civilization owe no small debt to the work of the Inquisition (p. 34).

Things Get Out of Hand: The Spanish Inquisition.

Here the legacy of the Inquisition becomes a real mess. After a 780 year conflict with the Moors, Ferdinand and Isabella defeated the Saracens and in 1501 ordered them either to convert or to leave. Their Catholic faith and nationalism were focused into one reality. When many of the Moors apostatized or tainted Christianity with Moslem practices, the situation was ripe for the Inquisition. The Spanish people saw this as a means to cement their national identity. This also set the stage for terrible abuse. The Inquisition was established in 1480, but along royalist lines and not according to the Medieval form. Pope Sixtus IV became so concerned that he arrested the Spanish ambassador. Ferdinand retaliated in kind. Rome relented.

The Inquisition in Spain ignored Rome's protests, and did not hesitate to initiate proceedings against bishops and archbishops. Intimate with the crown, it even declared decisions of the Roman Congregation of the Index only to be valid if countersigned by Madrid's Holy Office. It even attacked Carranza, Archbishop of Toledo, placing his book on the Catechism of Trent, on the Spanish Index-- even though it had Rome's approval! It was only after Carranza had suffered eight years of imprisonment and a threat to excommunicate the monarch that he was released and sent to Rome. The Spanish Inquisition twice imprisoned St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. St. Theresa of Avila was denounced and one of her works, Concepts pf Divine Love, was placed on the Index. Fortunately, she was rescued by the personal influence of Philip II. Unfortunately, the state often unjustly manipulated and interfered with the Spanish Inquisition. Some would thus contend that it was a political and not an ecclesiastical institution. Others would insist that the Church was too involved here to be entirely absolved. Dr. O'Brien writes: "The Church must, therefore, bear her share of responsibility for the proceedings of this tribunal, so many of whose actions were marked by cruelty and savagery. They have left black stains on the pages of history and their somber shadow falls upon both crown and papacy and shows their occupants were the children of their day" (O'Brien, p. 41).

The Holy Father has the gift of infallibility regarding faith and morals (given certain parameters); however, he has no guarantee of perfection in the mechanics of running a government or insuring the absolute justice of earthly courts. Further, he is not impeccable; a point most important when we recall the abuses which result from sin and the poor decisions which are derived from human weakness. Further, his is a moral authority. As history shows, often this was not enough to move others to listen to him in acting with mercy and compassion. We can only hope that there has been a real development in our consciousness of religious liberty, the freedom of one's conscience, and the Gospel of Life.

Protestants Have Killed Many More Catholics!

  • Calvin sought to persecute heretics (particularly Roman Catholics) so as to keep Protestant believers in the lands divided by the Reformation faithful to his new teachings. He viciously persecuted the Spaniard, Michael Servetus, having him burnt alive on October 27, 1553. As early as 1545, Calvin had written, "If he [Servetus] comes to Geneva, I will never allow him to depart alive." He kept his promise.
  • Melancthon, one of the more mild reformers and the editor for Luther's many works and teachings, would write to Bullinger, "I am astonished that some persons denounce the severity that was so justly used in that case."
  • Theodore of Beza wrote: "What crime can be greater or more heinous than heresy, which sets at nought the word of God and all ecclesiastic discipline? Christian magistrates, do your duty to God [speaking in Calvin's Geneva of 1554], who has put the sword into your hands for the honor of His majesty; strike valiantly these monsters in the guise of men." He went on to characterize those who demanded freedom of conscience "worse than the tyranny of the pope. It is better to have a tyrant, no matter how cruel he may be, than to let everyone do as he pleases."
  • Martin Luther also fanned the flames of intolerance, "Whoever teaches otherwise than I teach, condemns God, and must remain a child of hell."
  • King Henry VIII of England, who took upon himself the role of grand royal inquisitor, took the lives of some 72,000 Catholics, many who were cruelly tortured.
  • Queen Elizabeth, proved herself the former's daughter by putting to death more people in one year than the Inquisition had done in 331 years!

Yes, there is more than enough blame to go around. Maybe it is time for respect and dialogue and if need be, the charitable anathema, instead of mockery and half-truths?