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Monday, February 14, 2011

What about the Inquisition?

“Love the Lord with all your heart, and with all your soul,
and with all your MIND”--Matt 22:37

What about the Inquisition?  Often, in a discussion on religion all that's needed is for someone to say "Well, you Catholics had the Inquisition", and that seems to be enough to put the Catholic down for the count.  How does a Catholic respond to this?  

The usual response is either an awkward silence (or a snicker from you menfolk fans of Monty Python or Mel Brooks; these apparently humorous sketches of "The Inquisition" are puzzling to us womenfolk.  Maybe my sense of humor is not sophisticated enough--I dunno.)

But, back to the question.
  This is indeed an objection that is often posed to Catholics:  how could the Catholic Church, which proclaims it cannot teach error in the areas of faith and morals, be part of this infamous period of history in which the "Church killed millions"?

While even one death "at the hands of the CC" is troubling and ought not be dismissed, one ought to be quite suspicious of the wild figures that have been thrown about regarding the number of deaths. 

Case in point:  a few years ago I received an email
advertisement from a Catholic friend.  As an aside, the advertisement said, "It is estimated that close to 9 million women died during the Inquisition." 

This is absurd.  9 million deaths in medieval Europe would have depopulated Europe. 

Some facts: 
  • There were a few different Inquisitions. 
  • The most notorious was the Spanish Inquisition.
  •  Most historians agree that the number of deaths totaled no more than a few thousand, over several centuries. 
  • Protestants also had Inquisitions in order to extinguish Catholic "heretics".
  • There was no formal "Inquisition", run by the Vatican.  Rather, there were local "ecclesial investigations" managed by local officials.
  • While these local church officials conducted the trials, the punishment was left to the secular officials.
That sinners exist in the Church, that the authority of the Church has used poor judgment, that sometimes over-zealous Catholics misunderstand the teachings of Christ--these should be acknowledged.  No one can deny that the Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.  As Pope JPII professed, "Men of the church, in the name of faith and morals, have sometimes used methods not in keeping with the Gospels in the solemn duty of defending truth."

What Catholics in authority erroneously did was to wrongly destroy heretics when it was attempting to rightly destroy heresy.

This does not change the fact that the Catholic Church is the church established by Christ to proclaim the Truth of God's revelation.

What the Church proclaims (its orthodoxy--literally, "right teaching") should not be confused with how some of its members act (its orthopraxy--literally "right practice").  That is, the Church did not ever teach that it was good to burn dissenters at the stake.  That was never part of its orthodoxy.  That Catholics did this (its orthopraxy) is a testament to the fact that the church is comprised of sinners.  And when Catholics become enmeshed with the cultural norms and ethics of society (rather than being cleaved to Christ), sin abounds in the Church.

"The crucial thing for Catholics, once they have obtained some appreciation of the history of the Inquisition, is to explain how such an institution could have been associated with a divinely established Church and why it is not proper to conclude, from the existence of the Inquisition, that the Catholic Church is not the Church of Christ. This is the real point at issue, and this is where any discussion should focus.

To that end, it is helpful to point out that it is easy to see how those who led the Inquisitions could think their actions were justified. The Bible itself records instances where God commanded that formal, legal inquiries—that is, inquisitions—be carried out to expose secret believers in false religions. In Deuteronomy 17:2–5 God said: "If there is found among you, within any of your towns which the Lord your God gives you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, in transgressing his covenant, and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden, and it is told you and you hear of it; then you shall inquire diligently [note that phrase: "inquire diligently"], and if it is true and certain that such an abominable thing has been done in Israel, then you shall bring forth to your gates that man or woman who has done this evil thing, and you shall stone that man or woman to death with stones."

So as such, Catholics in the church sin. Even the pope.  Every day.  But it remains true that the Holy Spirit has protected the Catholic Church (the Magisterium) from ever teaching error. 

"Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect" - 1 Peter 3:15

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