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Holy Terror

The Black Bequest of the Inquisition

The head of the Inquisition is now pope. Will the Burning Time return?


Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as
when they do it from religious conviction.
- Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)
One poor bastard then
Another poor bastard now

THE LAST pontiff, Pope John Paul II, left a decidedly mixed legacy. While he deserves great credit for helping prevent the fall of the Soviet Union detonate into the kind of revolutionary bloodbath that history so often records with that profound of a change of government, even that is not without a dark side. For it can be argued that the policy's success against the atheistic regime in the West led to the employment of religious fanatics in Afghanistan, which ironically means that Pope John Paul's success in Poland led directly to al-Queda, Osama, and ultimately, September 11.

Also, John Paul II has been roundly criticized by his supporters like the late Malachi Martin for allowing the Roman Church to stagnate and ossify, even as the pope himself did. Indeed, not content with such actions like rewarding the disgraced prelate and clergy-abuse cover-up king of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law, he has also been accused of aiding in the cover-up by refusing to investigate the prominent head of the Legionaries of Christ.

Pope Sidious?Pope Benedict XVI, former head of the Inquisition.

In the latter years of his reign, the Holy Office of the Inquisition, now called the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, was headed by orthodoxy-czar Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. It once again became responsible for dealing with the worldwide clergy abuse scandal, for John Paul transferred all those cases involving desecrating the Eucharist or buggering altar boys back to its jurisdiction once again. It still ferrets out errant priests, but until the recent round of crises, its chief interests seemed to be seeking out the theologically treacherous ones. For those who threaten the faith have always been considered a graver menace than those who endanger the bodies of believers.

It will be very interesting to see whether the new pontiff will use his power to silence dissenters or oust abusers. Yet the signs are not good. It was reported that in 2001, then-Cardinal Ratzinger signed a letter sent to all bishops, asserting the Church's right to hold secret inquiries and keep the evidence confidential for 10 years after the victims reached adulthood under pain of excommunication. This continued the policy of secrecy confirmed by "good" Pope John XXIII in the secret instructions on Crimes of Solicitation.

Despite the hopeful spin in the press accompanying the start of his reign, the outlook remains grim under Benedict XVI.


Rectifying history

In any case, back in 1998, Pope John Paul II resolved to set the record straight on that most troublesome black mark on the Catholic Church's permanent record, the Inquisition. Thus, he summoned a group of 50 tame scholars, let them peek into the depths of the Vatican Secret Archives, and issue a report of nearly 800 pages.

In 2000, perhaps fearful of Christ returning unexpectedly or due to his own failing health, the pope went ahead and apologized for "errors committed in the service of the truth through recourse to non-evangelical methods." He even went so far as to "rehabilitate"Galileo, although fudging like a diocesan lawyer might not have been the best way to show his deep, sincere feelings.

Not surprisingly, the experts' learned verdict was that the poor Inquisition had been sadly misjudged. The report found, for example, that there had been trials of some 125,000 suspected heretics in Spain, only 1% (a mere 1,250) had been executed. And in Portugal, only 5.7% of the 13,000 tried had been condemned. It wasn't anywhere near as bad as everyone had always said; and anyway the Church didn't burn all those people, the State did. (AP, 6/15/04)

What a load of rubbish! The Inquisition was simply the most diabolical institution ever created by humanity, and the state was for the most part merely its tool. For the pope to demur on the depths of the Inquisition's evil is like the chancellor of Germany refusing to condemn the Holocaust. Both are great, unspeakably horrible spiritual scars on humanity's collective soul whose wickedness cannot be fully comprehended.

The Inquisition might arguably be considered an even worse evil than the Holocaust. Though the number of victims of the latter was higher, without the Inquisition's example of deliberate, bureaucratic oppression, the Holocaust would not have been so easily imaginable. Not just in its grandiose intent and direct tactics such as the use of spies and parish registers but even in the some of the most minor details. For instance, yellow tunics called sanbenitos that the Inquisition made some penitents publicly wear inspired the yellow stars of David that Jews were forced to don in the ghettoes, as well as the colored triangles that distinguished the various categories of inmates in the camps.

With the blessing of a Spanish inquisitor, familiars haul the condemned, garbed in paper miters and sanbenitos, into a "slow oven" to be roasted alive.

This shows that not only was the Inquisition a monstrous evil in and of itself, it has left a legacy of horror that is unmatched. All the repressive systems of whatever flavor that have ever been imposed on the suffering masses of the world have owed their inspiration to the Holy Office of the Inquisition.

The Nazi Gestapo and secret police everywhere, including the Soviets, Saddam and the Shah, CIA mind-control experiments, McCarthy's Red Scare, Mao's Red Guards, the Khmer Rouge, certain aspects of the War on Drugs and the shameful abuse and torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, and elsewhere, all utilized techniques pioneered by those most devoted servants of Holy Mother Church. The SS and the CIA have both undoubtedly studied the old manuals with care, and for good reason. The Inquisition perfected the use of all kinds of torture, psychological assaults and humiliation, secret proceedings, anonymous accusations, indefinite detentions, spies and informers, and the confiscation of property.


The mechanisms of repression

The Inquisition took several forms, chiefly papally-run in the medieval period, and much more an instrument of political oppression in its later Roman and Spanish incarnations. But in one guise or another, it terrorized large sections of Europe for well over half a millennium. Threatening rich and poor alike, cleric and lay; kings and bishops fell under its scrutiny equally as wandering clerics and errant knights. Mighty lords, even entire religious orders approved by the pope like the Knights Templar, could be summoned at any time and crushed without mercy for suspicions of which they would not be told. Nor could they resist.

Perhaps it was inevitable in a religion that placed such emphasis on the torture and execution suffered by its founder. Jesus, too, had been arrested by the religious authorities for heresy and then killed by the civil rulers for rebellion. For hundreds of years thereafter, Christianity had been ruthlessly oppressed by the Roman Empire. Many missionaries had died horribly converting the invading barbarians later as well. Finally, after a prolonged effort of centuries, the continent had been baptized into a common faith. Christianity began to remake Europe in its own image.

Was the Inquisition, then, some sort of revenge for the ages of persecution? Was it a form of psychological repetition of the trauma? Did the omnipresent depictions of the crucifixion used everywhere in the Latin Church, the constant emphasis on the betrayal and murder of Christ lead to some sort of psychological need to re-enact it repeatedly? Did the fear of hell make them create a real one on Earth? Like the thirst for red martyrdom in the early Church, or the recent biblical gore-fest, The Passion of the Christ, there is an unhealthy and morbid sadism somehow involved.

In any case, the Inquisition was an iron reign of terror like none ever before. It marked the triumph of papal politics but also the fatal weakness that was hidden at its very heart: the fact that the pope's power depended solely on the consent of the faithful.

The medieval Inquisition came into being by 1233, at the behest of Pope Gregory IX, the violent culmination of a long process of confronting heresy. Under his predecessor, the imperial Pope Innocent III, the papacy had recently attained a temporary supremacy of sorts over the German emperors and other secular powers who had often, in the pope's view, flirted with heresy by doing totally unacceptable things like choosing their own bishops. Innocent did his best to make sure that Rome would stay on top by creating the canonical and organizational groundwork for an international strike force of trusted agents that could go anywhere to drag anyone off to their secret detention centers where they could use any means necessary to extract the truth. (Sound familiar?)

Such extreme measures were needed, it was universally believed, because of the rise of heresy. As the Church became richer in the Middle Ages, corruption grew, and the old standards of piety and ascetic purity declined. Many reformers sought to reverse this by appealing past the intermediacy of the Church directly to the Gospel and its emphasis on the poor. Some even organized their followers into orders. A fortunate few, like Francis of Assisi, obtained a sympathetic hearing and approval. While some of his followers went on to become heretics when they denied the Church's right to property, others were co-opted by that same Church to serve as persecutors. Some would-be reformers, like Peter Waldo of Lyons, were less lucky or perhaps more opinionated, having read the Bible for themselves, and were duly condemned.

Old heresies like Manicheanism also resurfaced in new forms like Catharism and the Albigensians. These were even more world-denying than medieval Catholicism, which is no mean feat. The extreme asceticism of their clergy, the perfecti, contrasted poorly with the established and worldly Catholics, whom they saw as servants of a false creator god.

The Christian hierarchy saw this as an assault from without, blaming wandering minstrels and returning Crusaders, who may indeed have a hand in spreading it along with the Bogomils, Manichean missionaries from Bulgaria. It is from their alleged sexual practices that the word bugger is said to come.

The cardinals suspected, however, that there was an organization from outside Christendom behind it all. Indeed there may have been. Modern scholarship has found evidence that the claim that there was a "Cathar pope" directing operations before the Muslim invasion from what is now Bosnia may have been accurate. Thus, the Church realized it was in a struggle for the very soul of Europe, and was willing to do whatever it took to retain its control.


The worst crime

To be called a heretic in the Middle Ages was a deadly serious business. Due to the intertwining of Church and State, to be at odds with one was to deny the other also. Heresy, a crime of the soul, was treason, and treason, heresy. As St. Thomas Aquinas confidently wrote, "If forgers and malefactors are put to death by the secular power, there is much more reason for excommunicating and even putting to death one convicted of heresy."

Princes were thus often anxious to co-operate and prove their orthodoxy, if only to keep suspicion from themselves. For the Church said a heretic could not hold any office legitimately; indeed, his lands and property were legally forfeit to whatever good Christian could seize them.

The Inquisition got its bloody start during the long and vicious Albigensian Crusade, where southern France was devastated by a coalition of greedy lords from the north. There was a basic problem distinguishing devout Catholics from heretic Cathars, which inspired one crusader to say, "Slay them all, God will know his own," and act accordingly.

Heresy was a thought-crime, a subversive attitude against God's church, but hard to detect as it often masqueraded as holiness. Heretics craftily spoke in code and so had to be tricked into exposing themselves, hence the use of torture in interrogation, secret accusations, spies, and long-term surveillance.


Techniques of the theological thought police

The Inquisition became quite sophisticated in its approach. In the medieval form, when an area was deemed to be infested with heretics -- say, when there had been resistance displayed to the excessive donations, then a team of inquisitors would be sent in. Armed with authorizing documents from pope and prince, they would always travel in pairs. This not only allowed them to keep an eye on each other, but permit them as priests to absolve each other of any blood-spilling or other unpleasantness required in their work. Inquisitors could not only go after anyone, they could absolve anyone of any sin, sell the goods they confiscated, and got full indulgences for their pains, so they could not only enrich themselves in this life, but be assured of a well-earned paradise in the next.

Accompanied by the local lord's guards, a chief minion called a "familiar" and his stooges, and a secretary provided by the local bishop to officially record the proceedings, the inquisitors would parade into a town after it had been prepared by the vigorous preaching of the local clergy, who would of course, all be in attendance. There, at the chief church or cathedral, the inquisition would be proclaimed in a grand public spectacle. A "general sermon" would be read detailing the procedures and penalties, and all sinners were invited to come forward and confess their sins on the spot in order to be granted clemency.

Many, especially those who had seen an inquisition in action before, would promptly do so. For it was not just a crime to be a heretic, it was also a crime to be in any way favorable or merely impressed by their seeming holiness. "Fautors"or "listeners" were targeted as were the most hardcore members of a movement. To be called a fautor was an accusation quite enough to ruin one's life. And of course, any hesitation, resistance, or questioning could be seen as evidence of a dangerously bad attitude.

The penitents were of course required to inform on others in the community, as were the clergy, who were under even more suspicion. Innocent had proclaimed that the corruption of the people had stemmed from that of the clergy, after all. A panel of judges would be set up that might include local experts or representatives of the religious establishment along with the inquisitors, and they would quickly begin to debrief the clergy and penitents in secret.

Those unfortunates so named by their neighbors would soon be ambushed or hauled off in the middle of the night by the chief familiar and his crew. The very fact that the accused had not already confessed was in itself suspicious. They would not be told of what they were suspected, however; instead, they would be asked if they knew why they had been arrested. Even then, Catholic guilt was expected to work wonders.

In that unhappy situation, the accused had a few small chances of escaping unharmed. Claiming innocence was not usually one of them, unless they could quickly and accurately name their unknown accuser as an enemy. Such accusations were thrown out, one of the rare safeguards in the system. Otherwise, if the accused confessed to the right thing, it was a minor first offense and they cooperated fully (usually by squealing on others), they might obtain leniency. Usually, however, they were screwed, plain and simple, and often literally.

Inquisitors busily at their trade. Notice the secretary ready to record any confession that might gurgle past the drowning victim's lips.

Under "vehement suspicion" of heresy, victims could be held indefinitely at the whim of the inquisitor. Sometimes this stretched into decades. At any time, prisoners could be let out and brought back again for the same offense. There were no limits on the number of times they could be accused. Better food and conditions, even books on occasion, could be procurred from the familiars, who used this privilege to line their pockets. Property was frequently confiscated outright, providing fuel for further persecutions since the inquisitors were welcome to sell it off to finance their programs, just as in the War on Drugs today. Most legal protections for citizens that American citizens enjoyed until recently were ultimately a reaction to the methods used by the inquisitors. The Founding Fathers, suspicious of British tyranny, were even more jaundiced against popery and its pretensions.

Suspects of the Inquisition could be denied the sacraments, even a Christian burial. Years after their death, their bones could be dug up and burnt, for there was no statute of limitations on heresy. Even would-be saints were not immune. Armanno Porigilupo, for instance, an Italian Cathar who was caught, recanted, and led a saintly life thereafter, was hailed as a Catholic saint immediately after his death, a grand altar erected over his tomb and was soon said to have caused many miracles.

This quite outraged the local inquisitors. Through five inquests, nearly half a century, they argued until a papal commission decided in 1301 the blessed Armanno had indeed been a secret Cathar all along. His body was dug up and relics burned, the altar thrown down, and the inquisitor became the new bishop. As in this case, all too often the Inquisition was seen as political, a perception that grew strong in Rome and Spain. The bloodiest inquisitors such as St. Peter of Verona and Conrad of Marburg were not above wielding any political influence to achieve their gory and paranoid ends.

Worst of all that could befall one was to relapse into error after being once forgiven. For those, there could be no mercy for they were deemed irredeemably corrupt. It was usually the stake for them no matter what they pleaded.

If it came to torture, the options were as fertile as the fevered inquisitors' imaginations. The first stage of torture was the mere displaying of the instruments newly-forged just for the occasion to the prisoner; the second was heating them up in front of the poor wretch. Only then, in the "third degree," would they be actually applied to flesh. The questioning would be methodical but devious, and woe to any unfortunate soul about whose answers the secretary noted, "the inquisitor was not satisfied."

Torture would proceed in gradual stages, until the inquisitor either was contented or the accused had perished, though care was supposed to be taken to prevent the latter. As for theological questions, the safest answer was, "I believe whatsoever the holy inquisitor instructs me to believe." But even that was no guarantee. If the questioner detected any evasion or duplicity, he was required to be merciless for the sake of his victim's soul.


Punishment as propaganda

As the papal commission rightly points out, only a small proportion were actually burnt. Many lesser punishments involved imprisonment or fasting for years, publicly wearing garments, or placards, or symbols, such as huge wooden dice for gamblers.

Monasteries, which already served the medieval world as hospitals, hotels, libraries and research centers, took on the additional role of religious prison. "Houses of the strict observance" were particularly well-suited to locking up clerical criminals, but the presence of men with no vocation or desire to be there was inevitably corrupting. It actively contributed to the loss of esteem that monks suffered leading up to the Reformation.

Those who were executed or publicly punished in some way were done so in a closing spectacle even grander than the general sermon at the beginning. The Church did not take the blame for the death penalty; instead, it "relaxed" the victims into the tender mercies of the State, which would then conduct the actual immolation. But to claim the Church was therefore not responsible for the burnings is about as believable as that it was the low-ranking guards behind the photographed horrors in Iraq.

Inquisition in Portugal A Protestant view of a late 17th century auto da fe in Lisbon.
One must have gotten away: on the far pyre, a mannikin is burning in effigy.

The papal and Spanish "auto da fe" were important festive social occasions to demonstrate the full might of Catholic power as well as granting the condemned heretic a chance to show his or her mettle. Huge processions with much pomp and ceremony would be undertaken to the place of execution. If the heretic had escaped or was otherwise unavailable, a dummy would be burnt in his place.

The lucky ones were strangled before burning; those who were being used as a lesson, were not. Giordano Bruno, for instance, was burned alive in an iron mask that pierced his tongue so he couldn't scream, and his agonized breath made it whistle. Afterwards, the remains of such infamous heretics would be scattered in the nearest river to prevent them from becoming relics.

In time, the Inquisition inspired some to try using its techniques for social improvement. These gave mixed results in terms of punishing adultery, gambling, and drunkeness. However, the Inquisition was wildly successful in finding new sources of helpless victims when it finally turned its attention to witchcraft.

At first, the inquisitors were forbidden to go after sorcerers unless there was heresy involved. Only in the late fourteenth century when the theologians decided that any resort to magic involved worshipping the Devil and thus heresy that supposed practitioners of the occult became fair game. Before this, for instance, the learned doctors had believed that the witches' sabbats were entirely illusory. Once such dreadful things were accepted as real, the dangers they presented to Christians then had to be opposed -- a classic case of creating one's own enemy.

Yet, even there the Inquisition was not entirely successful. In Spain, for example, so many people came forward to confess to being witches that the authorities could not handle the crowds. They therefore reasoned that the people were deluded and there were no brujas in Catholic Spain, and thus the Spanish Inquisition busied themselves with crypto-Jews, Muslims, and Lutherans. (The False Memory Syndrome people would have been pleased.)

Though it helped eliminate the Albigensians and Cathars, the Inquisition ultimately failed in many respects. Proto-protestant Waldensians, followers of Peter Waldo, fled to the mountains and survived, as did the Hussites of Bohemia hundreds of years later. Finally, Martin Luther was able to narrowly avoid the clutches of the Inquisition through princely protection and public support mobilized by the new instrument of free communication that the Church could not control, the printing press. Ironically, that same invention had not long before spread the infamous inquisitorial handbook, The Hammer of the Witches, across Europe. In the mad times to follow, the Protestants would do their own share of witch burning inspired by its theories.


An inheritance of iniquity

The Inquisition left in its wake a vast legacy of profound evil. It refashioned the Catholic Church into an intellectual dictatorship, a religious police-state where the appearance of conformity remains all-important. To this day, secrecy still rules. And society has paid the price. Galileo, for example, learned well the lessons left by Bruno, wisely denied the evidence of his senses, and science has since languished in Italy. As a result, most of the great innovations of modern times and the material wealth they have produced have mainly come from Protestant dominions. With such enforced intellectual rigidity comes a stifling of creativity in fields other than science as well. Everything from theology to art is diminished and falsified.

The Inquisition did, of course, maintain the strictest control over publishing in the Catholic sphere. It judged which books could be published and which should be condemned. Hence the infamous Index of Forbidden Books and the imprimatur system, whereby a bishop would have to approve books for Catholics before they could be printed. Needless to say, the tyrants of the world have found this inspirational, too.

The operation of legal system by the Church, complete with dire punishments, outside and overriding secular jurisdiction, butressed the expectation that the Catholic Church took care of its own, good or bad. At one time, all it took was for an accused man to read the Latin from the parish Bible to prove he was an educated cleric and he would be turned over to the Church for judgment and discipline, which was usually less harsh. This is what the term "benefit of clergy" actually meant.

This attitude has been a major factor in the long cover-up of clergy sexual abuse. The Church was expected to judge its failed ministers and keep them away from the vulnerable laity. And thus there were "treatment centers" essentially monasteries with programs of prayer and meditation, like those of the Servants of the Paraclete who basically enabled clerical perpetrators to be recycled from one side of the continent to the other. This is a direct legacy of the Inquisition and the medieval church.

The terror that was the Inquisition forced everything unacceptable into the fetid underground it had created, both the sexual acting-out of priests as well as unacceptable theology, where such things were free to mingle and mutate. Its violence radicalized its victims, too, some of who incorporated torture and bloodletting in their own secret cults to order to learn to endure capture. Paradoxically, the Inquisition is therefore probably more responsible for the secret rings of criminal clerical perpetrators and Satanists, in and out of the Church, than anything else.

It could be expected the greatest harm done by the Inquisition is that it has permanently stained the Roman Catholic Church, discrediting it in the eyes of the world, forever causing its motives to be doubted by outsiders who remember. But that oddly enough, is not the case. The papacy, whose tool it was, should be held in utter contempt and horror. After all, was not the Inquisition the polar opposite of everything good that the Church claims to be?

Perhaps the awareness of what people can do to their fellow humans in the name of God is just too awful to contemplate for long. Given the reactions to the sickening pictures from Iraq, that may indeed be so.

In any event, the Inquisition itself endures. And now the former head of its modern incarnation has become the Supreme Pontiff. Time will tell if Pope Benedict XVI uses it to clear out the rot, or drive the few remaining Catholics not already bound in dogmatic chains from the temple. We may not have to wait long.


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