The Inquisition: "By Way of Fire"

In response to the request of their Catholic majesties, Isabella and Ferdinand, for the Inquisition to come to Spain, Pope Sixtus IV ordered that heretics be rooted out “ by way of fire .” So began the most famous Inquisition, the Spanish Inquisition, in AD 1478, and its way was the way of all the inquisitions. The first Inquisition had been against the Cathars (or Albigensians) of southern France, following the terrible crusade (holy war) against the Cathars called by Pope Innocent III in 1208, which was not “successfully” concluded until 1229.
The King and nobles of France were promised full and complete indulgence (forgiveness of sins) to help the Pope destroy the Cathars. The brutal and barbaric nature of that war shocks the conscience even to this day. Further, the Pope's strategy of holding out the confiscated lands of the heretics as bounty had a terrible effect. The crusade attracted the worst elements of northern France, and the result was horror.

In 1209 Arnold Amaury exulted to the Pope that the capture of Beziers had been “miraculous” and that the crusaders had killed 15,000, “showing mercy neither to order, nor age nor sex.” Prisoners were mutilated, blinded, dragged at the hooves of horses and used for target practice. Such outrages provoked despairing resistance and prolonged the conflict. It was a watershed in Christian history. 1

Yet even this was not enough to deal with this obstinate heresy, whose last known member would not be burned at the stake until 1321. The subjection of men's minds and hearts by force would take more than even the horrors of war. Another subtler, more evil tool was required.
However subtle were its methods, the effect of the Inquisition on the entire fabric of medieval society was anything but subtle. It was like a battering ram, overturning both law and justice at their foundations in order to assail men in the privacy of their minds and the sanctity of their beliefs:

Convictions of thought crimes being difficult to secure, the Inquisition used procedures banned in other courts, and so contravened town charters, written and customary laws, and virtually every aspect of established jurisprudence. The names of hostile witnesses were withheld, anonymous informers were used, the accusations of personal enemies were allowed, the accused were denied the right of defense, or of defending counsel; and there was no appeal... The prosecution could use the evidence of criminals, heretics, children and accomplices, usually forbidden in other courts. 2

The Spanish Inquisition

Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain at first resisted those calling for the Inquisition to finally come to Spain. Isabella's confessor, the infamous Tomás de Torquemada, finally found a way to persuade Ferdinand. It was money. A deal in Spain's favor would be cut with the Pope, yielding to the crown all lands and property seized from heretics in Spain. When Ferdinand added his voice to the others clamoring for the Inquisition, Isabella finally yielded. And so did the Pope.
Spain had already forced both Jews and Moors to convert or perish, 3 so the Inquisition there was devoted above all to punishing these “converts” for any lapses in their newfound “faith.” Hunts were made for any habits indicating loyalty to their old faiths, including whether smoke rose from someone's chimney on the Sabbath, for the Mosaic Law required that no fires be kindled on that day.
In a lesson taken straight from the pagan Roman Empire, the Inquisition hired informers (called “familiars”) whose job it was to spy on the people. So pervasive was the scrutiny that in 1538 a man wrote:

Nobody in this life is without his policeman... Bit by bit many rich people leave the country... in order not to live all their lives in fear and trembling... for continued fear is a worse death than the sudden demise. 4

The Inquisition presumed the guilt of everyone arrested. As if in proof of this, nearly everyone was found guilty. Torture was the standard method to acquire the “evidence” needed for conviction. The shock lingers to the present that those who proclaimed belief in the Son of God tortured and murdered tens of thousands, while imprisoning, maiming, and impoverishing hundreds of thousands more.
The detailed records show that in nearly every guilty plea the defendants said, under torture, exactly what the inquisitors wanted them to say. Yet even the secular courts of Europe knew that confessions exacted under torture, even under the threat of torture, were unreliable and hence were no indication of guilt. Their judges were more righteous and just than the priests.
The Spanish Inquisition “raised the dead” in a grim sort of way - by unearthing the bodies of dead heretics in order to put them on trial, convict, and “punish” them. This procession of dead bodies through the streets was one of the most ghastly sights of the infamous auto-da-f é rituals.

What a strange spectacle, found in no other court in the civilized world, is the spectacle of a vengeance which reaches into the grave to exhaust its fury... against a person whose soul has passed beyond the inquisitor's reach. 5

One can only ponder in shocked disbelief the minds that would place corpses on trial, as though the soul and spirit of the person were still present.

Responsibility

Apologists for the Catholic Church now try to absolve themselves of the actual killing and burning of heretics, but Innocent III had been very clear from the beginning of his rule:

We give you a strict command that, by whatever means you can, you destroy all these heresies and expel from your diocese all who are polluted with them. You shall exercise the rigor of the ecclesiastical power against them and all those who have made themselves suspected by associating with them. They may not appeal from your judgments, and if necessary, you may cause the princes and people to suppress them with the sword. 6

It was the popes themselves, functioning as the Vicar of Christ, who were the authorities behind the Inquisitions. They were greater than the kings of the earth. All those murders down through history were commanded and carried out by the authority of the Pope. Their motto was, “It is better for a hundred innocent people to die than for one heretic to go free.” This horrendous doctrine was maintained through pope after pope. Although Pope John Paul II apologized recently for the guilt of “the sons of the church” in the horrors of history, he was careful to uphold the innocence and purity of the Church and the papacy. But that Church is no more innocent than Innocent III, stained with the blood of many martyrs.

  • 1. Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity, Atheneum, 1976, p. 252. The city resisted rather than yield up 220 of her citizens deemed to be heretics. The common bond of decency was more important to them.
  • 2. Johnson, p. 253-254
  • 3. It is true they were sometimes given the option of exile, which hundreds of thousands took, usually leaving their possessions behind.
  • 4. Quoted in Henry Kamen, Inquisition and Society in Spain in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985, p. 164
  • 5. John O'Brian, The Inquisition, New York: Macmillan, 1973, p. 21
  • 6. On Heresy: Letter to the Archbishob of Auch, 1198 (Medieval Sourcebook, Innocent III: Letters on Papal Policies)

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