The Inquisition and Messy Church History

This is the latest in a series on the Messy Reality of Post-Constantinian Church History. Part One is here. Part 2a is about the Late Antique targets for the regularisation of official orthodoxy; Part 2b is about the mediaeval targets. Part 3 is about the orthodox targets of official Christianity. I also wrote an excursus on the Synod of Whitby in 664.

In any discussion of the true church going ‘underground’ after Constantine, or of a ‘Great Apostasy’, after which the official organisms of Orthodox Catholic Christianity persecuted true believers, the Inquisition must feature. The Inquisition must feature because it always (always) features in discussions of how wicked Christianity or Roman Catholicism or (at least) the Church in the Middle Ages was/is.*

The number one crime with which people charge the Inquisition is, of course, all those poor souls they burned at the stake.

And here’s the fun fact about the Inquisition: They never burned anyone at the stake.

Of course, we must admit that they handed people over to the secular authorities. And they burned the heretics at the stake. But the Inquisition? Nope. Not a one.

Mind you, they were at least accessories to burning people at the stake. Or were they?

Well, yes, they were, okay. But that’s not their main job. Their main job was not to go into your local village or town and say, ‘Bring out your heretics,’ set up a kangaroo court, and then hand the loveable wretches over to the secular authorities for the required burning.

Their job was to go into your local village or town and ask if anyone nearby was being heretical. And then they’d interview them, and, if they were good at their job, either get the loveable wretches  to recant or proclaim them orthodox.

And here many people will say, ‘Ah, but look at the Catholic standards of orthodoxy! Have you ever seen The Catechism of the Catholic Church?’ But that’s not the standard they were holding people up to. According to a mediaevalist (with a real, live PhD) I know, who’s not a believer and so has no dog in this fight, the standard of orthodoxy was … well … the Creed. You know, this one.

Mostly, Inquisitors tried to get suspected heretics away from the stake.

In fact, places where we know people were oft getting burnt for heresy it is the eager activity of the local ruler (e.g. Richard II of England) not the Inquisitors that is the deciding factor.

Immediately, I hear the concerns. The church through her interaction with the powerful is still corrupted. Christianity can no longer be free and pure when the fear of the King keeps people in step. While I certainly disagree with putting people to death for heresy, I still believe in the Church policing the boundaries of belief. And she exercised her power to save people from those Kings.

This is really all I wanted to say about the Inquisition. Sorry I didn’t bring up the Spanish.

Next: My general thoughts about the relationship between the Church and secular authority down the ages.

*Then quickly the Crusades will be pulled in and the not mediaeval at all witch trials.

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