“The Inquisition. Let’s begin.”

… if we are not free in our conscience and our practice of religion, all other freedoms are fragile.

–A Statement on Religious Liberty – United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (April 2012)

The U S Council of Catholic Bishops just last week released its highly anticipated statement titled “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty” in response to what many have characterized as an attack on religious liberty by the Obama administration. I must agree, in principle, with the characterization of the Obama administration’s proposals. However, on another level, I find some of the statement’s language a bit troubling given the checkered history of the church on the very issue of religious liberty. Martin Luther and a host of others would point out that history tells a very different story.

That inconvenient story is the subject of Cullen Murphy’s book God’s Jury : The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; None edition (January 17, 2012).

Today, the Inquisition is the butt of jokes. Who can’t recall the famous Monty Python skit (“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”), or the Mel Brooks take off in “History of the World Part I” (“The Inquisition, let’s begin. The Inquisition, look out sin.”). Time has a way of softening our view of things, but there was nothing in the least funny about the Inquisition.

Author Cullen Murphy makes a good case in arguing that the Inquisition heralded a new and lasting bureaucratic approach to repression by government: in fact, it provided the “template” for such bureaucracies, from those of the French Revolution to those of the KGB and the CIA. The template, he points out, is still at work in places like Guantanamo where “enhanced interrogation” is permitted. The Inquisition used “enhanced interrogation” too; only it had another name for it: torture. Of course, you would expect the Church to be honest.

Note: Speaking of “other names;” the Inquisition has changed its name twice in the twentieth century (as I shall explain). To avoid confusion, I shall refer to it merely as “The Holy Office.”

I can appreciate the scholarship in Murphy’s book, because I did my Master’s thesis at Butler / Christian Theological Seminary on the philosophy underlying the Spanish Inquisition. I defended it: with a straight face no less. Got an A. And many of the same sources I used—particularly Henry Charles Lea—are referenced to in this book.

But Murphy goes a lot further. He traces the history of the institution through its three phases: the French inquisition, which started it all, which was waged against the Cathars in northern France; the Spanish Inquisition, which became an arm of the government to Ferdinand and Isabella to clean Jews and Moors out of Spain (and confiscate their property in the process); and the Roman Inquisition, launched later to fight the blight of Protestantism.

Here’s a great joke that Murphy tells, though I paraphrase it:  What’s the difference between a Dominican and a Jesuit? The Dominicans were assigned the task of dealing with Cathars. The Jesuits were assigned to put a stop to the Protestants. Have you ever seen a Cathar?

Murphy has spoken with famous victims like Hans Küng, who was banned from teaching by the Holy Office for his writings, and with priests who are charged with maintaining the archives of the Holy Office in Rome. Many of the records of the Holy Office have recently been made public (which was not the case when I penned my thesis in 1972). Not all, of course.

In Murphy’s history of the Inquisition some famous names come under scrutiny. Of the inquisitors, the most famous was the Spanish Inquisition’s Tomas Torquemada—played so memorably by Mel Brooks in his “History of the World Part I “(“You can’t Torquemada anything!”) Of the Holy Office’s victims, there was of course Galileo who contravened scripture with observations that corroborated Copernicus’ strange notion that the earth revolved around the sun—as opposed to the other way around. Galileo escaped one brush with the Holy Office, only to screw up later and spend the last years of his life under house arrest. To the papacy’s credit, the Church did finally apologize: in 1992. Of course, that was much to late for Galileo to be allowed out of his house. But the Church doesn’t mark time the same way most of us do, apparently.

Other names muddied by the Holy Office include the famous theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a paleontologist who found it hard to brook the idea of one pair of parents. He survived by swallowing his pride, although his writings—including The Phenomenon of Man, in my opinion one of the greatest works of theology to come out of the twentieth century—were anathema. Thank goodness for the printing press (the one thing that probably did more to weaken the stranglehold of the Inquisition).

Of course the Inquisition no longer exists. Well, almost. In 1904, the name was changed to “The Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office.” Then, in 1965 it became “The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF)”—which was for years headed up by Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI (who was nicknamed by his peers “the grand inquisitor”). As Shakespeare said, “a rose by any other name….” The Holy Office still holds sway over Catholic institutions of higher education, and will periodically ban someone from teaching theology if their ‘thinking’ does not mesh with Church doctrine. Of course, no one is burned at the stake these days, and books are no longer burned. But reputations and careers can still go up in flames. Apparently, the Church never warmed to Apple’s famous advertising slogan– “Think Different.” Even today thinking “different” can get you into trouble if you are subject to Rome.

I might also point out that in the recent Catholic Bishops’s statement on religious liberty, they refer to “religious liberty” as religious liberty “properly understood.” Ay, there’s the rub. Guess Galileo and the Cathars didn’t understand it “properly.”

This is a very readable book about an important aspect of history. It is not an anti-Catholic screed (Murphy is a Catholic, although I can’t but wonder whether his book is being discussed in the Vatican even as I write). It is rather a sobering look at the history of an institution that—like many other institutions since—was so certain of “Their Truth” that they could brook no other. Adherents of the Right, and of the Left, in modern-day America are becoming more and more this way and to such an extent that I worry for our future if either side gets an unbalanced upper hand.

The Inquisition was the first modern bureaucracy, one which—to use Murphy’s phrase—set the template for all bureaucracies to follow, from Hitler’s to that of the post-9/11 anti-terrorist policies of the Bush Administration. The middle ages had their dungeons; we have Guantanamo. The Catholic Church—which could never kill people directly—simply passed the responsibility on to the civil government to do the dirty work. We farm out prisoners to foreign countries to do our “enhanced interrogations.” Some good ideas never go away.

I can’t but think that after reading God’s Jury, you might find yourself in agreement with William Faulkner when he said, “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”

Rating (3/5)

Copyright Isaac Morris 2012

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