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.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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6 Responses

  1. Rodak says:

    “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.”

    That might be the excuse for an inquisition directed against Christian heretics, but it doesn’t work as the justification for an inquisition directed against Jews (or other non-Christians) who pose no threat to Church doctrine, or to the Church as a social institution. We need to look for other motives there.
    On the other hand, where Christian heretics are the target, one must be able to decide how much of the inquisitorial impulse was based in a sincere concern over the state of the heretics’ souls, and how much was actually just a defense of the Church as a corporate entity and institution.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      It also helps to remember that back in the day there wasn’t a wall separating church and state. Heresy and alternative faith systems posed a threat to social cohesion. These threats to social order didn’t justify the inquisitorial methods used, of course, but they do help explain them.

  2. Rodak says:

    They make the historical incidence of Inquisitions understandable, historically. But how they are justifiable by any interpretation of the teachings of Jesus Christ (so that they are justiable acts for churchmen, as opposed to the agents of royalty), is not quite so readily understandable. If the lack of a firewall between Church and State results in the Church behaving like a State, then I would say that one has grounds for a Reformation of the Church.

  3. Rodak says:

    You won’t get any argument from me there. The issue is one being able to act as a real reformer within the Church without getting yourself excommunicated (or worse.) The Church tends to just hang new drapes, so to speak, when the whole house needs to be replastered and repainted and the flooring replaced.
    The problem with the Church, as I see it, is that is has gotten WAY too complicated. Jesus wasn’t complicated. His sayings were hard; but they were very simple. A child could understand them. And I personally believe that we have received everything we need to know, directly from Jesus, in order to seek perfection. If we believe the Holy Spirit to be responsible for the composition and preservation of the sacred scriptures, then we must also believe that they are complete.
    You say things like this to most Catholics and they start talking about the Koran. There’s some alterity for you. They look at the Bible and see the Enemy. They do.

  4. As an author of historical fiction based on the Sephardim (Spanish Jews) in Spain and the effect that the Inquisition has on one of their progeny, I discovered that the heinous acts of the Inquisition can not be summed up with words like intolerance hatred and suspicion. For to do so would eliminate Hitler’s use of those “Pure Blood Laws,” in his “Final Solution.” Furthermore, to only sight the Jews as those who suffered and died requires one to use blinders when it comes to any that where considered different or deviant.

    I decry exclusions more today than I might have a decade ago. For having listened to many addresses by those who pledged to unify but now seem to want to divide our nation it has become apparent to me that we Americans can learn a lot about what not to do if we study Spain before and after the Inquisition. Before, though nearly bankrupt, they were a force to be reckoned with. Afterward they never were able to restore their position as a world power.

    It is important to note, that at the inception of Spain the country was already poor. The crowns solution, which they hoped would provide a job for everyone was to tell those that were not Catholic to leave. When the nobles and clergy heard of this they petitioned the king because the country could not function without the Jews because the church forbade their parishioner to handle money.

    You can purchase the first novel of the six-book Casa Saga, Casa de Naomi: The House of Blessing at