The Inquisition Impulse
Drawing from contemporary scholarship, historian Cullen Murphy argues that the Inquisition should be understood as a harbinger of modernity rather than as a relic of the medieval world:
Here’s the central question: why did the Inquisition come into being when it did? Intolerance, hatred and suspicion of one group by another had always existed. Throughout history, these realities had led to persecution and violence. But the ability to sustain a persecution – to give it staying power by giving it an institutional life – did not appear until the Middle Ages. Until then, the tools to stoke and manage those embers of hatred did not exist. Once the tools do exist, inquisitions become a fact of life. They are not confined to religion; they are political as well. The targets can be large or small. An inquisition impulse can quietly take root in the very systems of government and civil society that order our lives.
The tools are these: there needs to be a system of law, and the means to administer it with a certain amount of uniformity. Techniques must be developed for conducting interrogations and extracting information. Procedures must exist for record-keeping, and for retrieving information after records have been compiled and stored. An administrative mechanism – a bureaucracy – is required, along with a cadre of trained people to staff it. There must be an ability to send messages across significant distances, and also an ability to restrict the communications of others – in a word, censorship.
The Inquisition was built on all of these capabilities. The new universities brought order to canon law, defining heresy with precision and therefore defining who was “inside” and who was “outside”. The Church bureaucracy became professional; papal chanceries turned out perhaps 300 letters in 1200 and 50,000 a century later. Inquisitors learned how to organise their documents and make them searchable; a person’s testimony to one tribunal could be known to another tribunal decades later. Interrogation manuals, like the famous Practica written by Bernard Gui, were drawn up to instruct inquisitors on how to question the accused – the tricks to use, the psychology to employ. The resemblance to the modern manuals for military personnel and intelligence operatives is hard to miss. As a supplement to interrogation, torture became systematic – subject to rules, perhaps, but rules that proved elastic, as they always do.
An inquisition impulse makes some sense for an institution like the Catholic Church, which has in its mind the responsibilities of proclaiming religious truth and defending the deposit of faith against error, distortion, and confusion. Given that it sees heresy as spiritually dangerous and even ruinous, and not merely as a harmless mistake, it’s to be expected that its religious authorities would come down hard on theologians, among others, whose public statements conflict with official church teaching. This impulse need not imply hatred or a mad disregard for human dignity.
Of course, inquisition has historically implied these things, as the murdered and otherwise harmed could testify if they still had voice. Morally speaking, the Catholic Church has improved its inquisitorial methods, and yet nowadays proponents of the national security state, including Catholics, advocate the use of torture and other horrid inquisitorial tools. Any institution that operates under an inquisition impulse will have to guard against devolving into a morally monstrous operation. Any inquisition, under whatever name, should be regarded with healthy suspicion.