Works in Progress - Winter 2012

Touch of Evil

By Cullen Murphy | March 21, 2013


While researching his new book, God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World, Cullen Murphy visited formerly secret Vatican archives, delved into Third Reich file cabinets, and traveled to Cuba to see the detention camp at Guantánamo. He returned home with new insights about inquisitions, but also with still-unanswered questions about their very nature and our human and institutional need for them. We asked him to list a few. Murphy is the editor-at-large of Vanity Fair, the author of Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America, and a member of the editorial board of the Scholar.


1. Intolerance, hatred, and suspicion of “the other,” often based on religious and ethnic differences, had always existed, and had often led to persecution and violence. Within the Roman Catholic Church itself, disagreements over doctrine had been fierce and sometimes bloody since ancient times. But it was not until the 13th century that a formal inquisitorial system—with its own methods of interrogation, its special tribunals, and its ritual burnings at the stake—came into existence, gradually becoming institutionalized and surviving in one place or another for many centuries. Why did the Inquisition arise precisely when it did?


2. The 12th and 13th centuries saw an apparent upsurge in heresy, which the Inquisition sought to counter. Many factors lay behind this upsurge: the corruption of the Church, economic stresses of various kinds, the role of charismatic preachers, a pervasive sense of injustice. Individuals, as one historian notes, were also showing “feelings of alienation” and “expanded curiosity about the human condition.” That said, some scholars argue, the Inquisition may have had the effect of inflating heresy’s prevalence. Newly rigid definitions of orthodoxy left many of the faithful beyond the pale. Incentives to confess to something, and thereby avoid harsh penalties, were powerful, and contributed to padding the numbers. To what extent did the Inquisition help create the problem it was established to solve?


3. The Inquisition’s jurisdiction technically extended only to those within the Church, or to those who once had been. The Spanish Inquisition relentlessly pursued conversos accused of “Judaizing”—that is, Jews who had converted to Christianity, or whose ancestors had, often under duress, and who were suspected of reverting to their traditional faith. Taken at face value, Inquisition records support the Judaizing charge—they represent the official version of the story. Prominent modern historians believe the charge was exaggerated, if not false—and that enmity toward conversos was never about “religion” but about antagonism toward Jews as a people. Was Judaizing in fact widespread in Spain and elsewhere, or was the accusation mainly a pretext for ethnic hatred?


4. Trustworthy statistics regarding almost every aspect of the Inquisition are hard to come by. In recent years, scholars have gotten a more reliable handle on the number of people put to death—probably in the tens of thousands (about two percent of those who came before an Inquisition tribunal for any reason), rather than the figure of a million or more that once was bandied about. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain, in 1492, was a cataclysmic event, but its dimension remains in dispute. The number of Jews in Spain at the time, their percentage of the population, the number who were conversos—coming up with numbers amounts to educated guesswork. And so too, therefore, does the answer to this basic question: How many Jews were expelled from Spain?


5. The Inquisition is well known for conducting interrogations and holding tribunals. It was also involved in censorship of various kinds, as Galileo could attest. The famous Index of Forbidden Books was created by the Roman Inquisition in the mid-16th century (and not abolished until 1966). In Spain, Portugal, Italy, and elsewhere, agents of the Church sought to intercept banned books at ports and border crossings. They searched through private libraries, blotting out offensive sentences and pictures, and destroying many works in their entirety. In Italy, vernacular Bibles disappeared, and so did anything by Erasmus. Over the centuries, how effective were the censorship efforts, and to what degree did they hamper the intellectual development of southern Europe?


6. Torture was employed as part of the inquisitorial process, usually to extract a confession but also to obtain the names of other persons of interest. In the context of the times, the Church behaved no worse than secular governments did, and probably (scholars agree) behaved somewhat better. In theory, limits were placed on torture—the Church regulated when it could be used, and by whom, and how often, and with what degree of severity. But the limits could be stretched. For instance, if a second session of torture was banned, it could go forward by being defined as a “continuance” of the first session. When it comes to the Inquisition’s use of torture, how widely did theory and practice diverge? Did the use of torture always lead eventually to a slippery slope? The Inquisition aside, should we in the 21st century be asking that question of ourselves?

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