Why the Inquisition?

There have been three different Inquisitions through the course of the Church's history. These Inquisitions occurred during an age when Church and State were so closely related that to betray either was to betray both. Since the Church was recognised as the official religion of the European kingdoms and since uniformity of religious belief created stability in the State, anyone who disrupted this relationship by introducing false beliefs was looked upon as a traitor. So, heresy was not just a religious error at the time of the Inquisitions; it was treason (Pluth and Koch, p. 180). This paper will mainly focus on the most well-known of the Inquisitions (ie that which occurred in Spain beginning in the late 1400s), however, all basic points will apply to all three Inquisitions of the Church.


In 1480, the Muslim Turks were utterly defeated (against odds in their favour of 35 to 1) and correspondingly humiliated by the Knights of St John on Rhodes. The Turks avenged this defeat by storming and capturing 22,000 people in the Southern Italian city of Otranto. 12,000 were killed, many after refusing offers to spare their lives if they converted to Islam; the rest were sold into slavery. The Turks killed every cleric in the city and sawed the Archbishop of Otranto in two. Queen Isabel of Spain immediately sent a Castillian fleet to re-take Otranto (which they did) but the whole horrible episode was a flare-lit warning that the Turks could now descend upon any city on the shores of the Mediterranean and do the same again. Six weeks later, the Spanish Inquisition was established.


There is overwhelming evidence that tens of thousands of false conversos (ie people who did not believe in the Christianity they professed) were actually secretly living by the teachings of their former religion. Many had risen high in Spanish society. Every false converso (mostly Muslim or Jewish) was a potential traitor " a person capable of opening the gates of Spain's coastal cities to the likes of the Turkish mass killers of Otranto. A monarch as good and as honest as Queen Isabel of Spain regarded the Inquisition as an indispensable tool that was used to weed out people who were obvious threats to the national security of a country that was in the process of ridding itself of Muslim control. It was not until 1492 that Spain, after a re-conquest lasting 770 years, finally took the last remaining Muslim-held Spanish city of Granada from the Islamic invaders. Neither Isabel, nor any other devout Catholic Spaniard, wanted to risk a re-conquest by the Moors (Carroll, W, Vol 3, p.606 - 610).


Whilst it is true that the Church allowed torture and burning at the stake, (eg Pope Gregory IX was opposed to torture but Innocent IV approved of its use for the discovery of heresy and Urban IV confirmed this usage) the number of those delivered over to the secular power for such punishments has been grossly exaggerated. The Church has never commended the use of torture or burning at the stake in an infallible statement. Official Church permission for such practices falls into the category of Church discipline, not doctrine. Both these forms of punishment were common evils of the age, against which almost no-one even protested. The Inquisition was a Church court because only the Church has the authority to decide who is or is not a Christian; therefore the Inquisition did not carry out the death penalty on its own authority because the Church condemns no-one to death. The Inquisition turned those it found most guilty over to the State (the secular arm) for the punishment it reserved for heretics and traitors. Every government in Europe at the time punished both treason and heresy by a very painful death. However unjustified it may be today, the Church still upholds the death penalty in principle.


- More human beings (innocent babies) are 'legally' killed by abortion now every week in the world, than in all the Inquisitions ever (Sheehan, p. 214).

- It was only those unrepentant to the end who were burnt alive. Mostly, execution took place by hanging or beheading before burning at the stake (Tedeschi, p. 124).

- The Church is scarcely ever credited with the relatively good care she took regarding conditions in Inquisition prisons (Vacandard, p. 137).

- The Inquisition avoided far more deaths than it caused. For example, the witchcraft hysteria that swept through Europe following the Protestant Revolution did not spill into Spain because of the general quality of the Inquisition courts (Carroll, A, p. 211).

- The Inquisition, though not perfect, was a more just court than most. Often, people charged with regular crimes would pretend to be heretics so that they could be transferred to the custody of the Inquisition where they were better treated (Carroll).

- Torture was not a regular practice. It was normally only occasionally inflicted in precisely determined cases and only after certain strict procedures had been followed.

The Spanish Inquisition rarely used torture at all (Haliczer). However, the Church today regrets the use of any torture in bygone days (CCC 2298).

- A large majority of those questioned by the Inquisition were completely cleared " including St Ignatius of Loyola and St Teresa of Avila (Carroll, W. p. 608).

- The two worst totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century were presided over by men (Hitler and Stalin) who bitterly hated Christianity. Between them they took at least thirty million lives. The grand total of deaths from all the Inquisitions is hardly measurable by comparison (Carroll, W. p. 609).

- Torquemada is the one name most synonymous with the abuses and excesses of the Inquisition. However, the opposite is true. Torquemada eliminated the initial abuses of the Inquisition in Castile in 1483. His Inquisitorial tribunals were generally very fair. He would have known how to deal early with types such as Hitler and Stalin.

- In comparison to other contemporary courts and tribunals in Europe, the Spanish Inquisition acted with considerable restraint in inflicting the death penalty (Peters).

- According to Prof. Henry Kamen, an English Jew, of the Barcelona Higher Council for Scientific Research, historians now studying all the files of the Spanish Inquisition have produced findings demolishing its previous bad image (Sheehan, p. 215)

- Far more people died of the death penalty in other European countries during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. [For example, in Protestant England, execution was the penalty for damaging a shrub in a public garden.] Less than 3% of those interrogated by the Spanish Inquisition were actually put to death. (Sheehan, p. 215)

After the Protestant Reformation of 1517, the Protestants attacked Spain (the most powerful Catholic nation of that time) via the printing press, with a continuous stream of crude anti-Catholic invective. The Inquisition provided a ready focus for their false and exaggerated propaganda and the lies have persisted to the present day. Whilst it was by no means perfect, the Inquisition established an order in the society in which it operated that won the support of the vast majority of honest law-abiding citizens.

* Please note that this text should be read in the context of the whole work and in recognition of the appropriate paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church highlighted in the index.