The Spanish Inquisition and Christianity

by J.P. Holding

spanishinqThe Spanish Inquisition is a popular topic among Skeptics who pair it with the Crusades as an example of how Christianity has ruined Western culture. Is this an overplayed issue, or a serious problem for the Christian faith?

The truth lies in between and is more a case of people being people rather than Christians being Christians. Our primary sources for this essay are the collected essays in The Inquisition edited by Brenda Stalcup and Henry Kamen’s The Spanish Inquisition [K], an excellent myth-buster for this subject.

Where was the Inquisition?

Despite the common attribution, Spain was but one place where an Inquisition occurred, and the roots of it are actually in activities in France. It eventually spread all over Western Europe in a multitude of forms and for a multitude of purposes, then gradually died out, lasting at the latest until 1808 in Spain. It did not touch the British Isles, except briefly [60], or Scandinavia. Because the Spanish variation does get the most attention, we will keep a special focus on that and use Kamen’s work as a guide.

Why was there an Inquisition?

Stalcup [13] asks the honest question, "How could the leaders of the church reconcile the terror and destruction wrought by the Inquisition with the doctrine of mercy taught by Christ?" The answer she gives is a familiar one — one we have also seen given in answer to such questions as, "Why would a God of love order the Canaanites exterminated?" or "Why does Proverbs teach corporal punishment?"

Eventually different forms of the Inquisition grew up in different places for different reasons. But in terms of why and started, the simple answer is that the Inquisition was seen as an instrument of social survival.

Stalcup notes that the Catholic Church (CC) in the so-called Dark Ages "was the one stable institution that provided leadership and order" and quotes historian Bernard Hamilton as saying that "as the sole vehicle of a more civilized tradition in a barbarous world" the CC "became involved in social and political activities which formed no part of its essential mission, but which it alone was qualified to discharge." [14]

With the exception of a few Jews and Muslims, all people in Western Europe depended on the CC for meaning and survival. Any undermining of this social construct was a threat to the physical, mental, and spiritual well-being of the whole. Kamen likewise says of the Spanish variation, "It fulfilled a role…that no other institution fulfilled." [K82]

In this light, enter Catharism — a heresy from the east that taught a spiritual dualism (which made Satan the creator of the material world, and in a reversal of Mormonism, argued that Satan made man, and that God pitied man and gave him a soul [40]), poverty, vegetarianism, honesty, and abstention.

Not a bad mix of principles at the end, but they also managed to accused the CC of that day of abuses, to the point of calling the CC a tool of Satan [16] "designed to trick Christians into thinking that they had obtained salvation." The Cathars also refused to swear oaths of loyalty, "a stance that had the potential to undermine the authority of both the Catholic Church and the secular government."

By now the average Skeptic is saying, "Why didn’t they just leave the Cathars alone?" If the Cathars had left things alone themselves, that may indeed have been the result. But their work was the moral equivalent in that day not of merely protest, but of laying bombs under the Capitol building.

As in OT cases we have no perception of how seriously Cathar actions undermined the social order and threatened to cut the links of the chain of survival, as well as (from that view) security in eternal life. The society of this time did not yet have the leisure to allow such powerful dissent and yet still be able to survive. The Inquisition’s actions would be excessive today because we have the leisure to tolerate dissent with no threat to our survival — not as yet, at any rate. As European society progressed, there indeed came to be less threat of heretics undermining corporate survival, so naturally the Inquisition process died out.

As time passed and as the Cathars disappeared, the Inquisition spread to other countries and acquired other targets, including, in Spain, Jews and Muslims who had professed to convert, but secretly had not (the former in some cases being denounced by other Jews — K18 — and being targeted not for religious reasons per se, but for social reasons — K61). In Germany it targeted a sect called the Waldenses, and pantheists [58].

Beyond this point we will delve no further into the Inquisition’s many manifestations outside of Spain, as it becomes complex enough to write entire books; it is enough to know that the roots of the Inquisition were not as simple as the Skeptics would care to paint it…


Spanish Inquisition and Christianity

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