There are a few popular notions about the Spanish Inquisition that are, quite frankly, incorrect. This tool to root out heresy is seen as a great evil and blight upon Church history, so let’s explore some of those popular notions.
The first mistaken understanding a lot of people have about the Spanish Inquisition is that it was the Catholic Inquisition. The Catholic inquisition was a method for trying people for crimes, not just heresy. When heresy was involved, the death penalty was seen as horrible. As St. John Chrysostom wrote, “To kill a heretic is to introduce upon earth an inexpiable crime”. This was because to kill a heretic removed the chance of repentance and therefore damned a soul — which is the exact opposite of the Church’s mission! The Roman Empire was harsher in treating heresy because the Empire was more concerned about unity than about the states of souls. If all heretics were executed, so much the better for the Empire to exercise control and so much worse for the Church because of the lost souls. As heretical Barbarians (both Arian and Pagan) took over state control, punishment for heretics ended. For a few hundred years it was unheard of, and then shortly after the turn of the first millennium it returned with the Catholic Inquisition. This was used to find Waldenses, Albigensians, Cathars, and Manicheans and bring them back into the fold of the Church. In large part, the brutality of the Albigensian Crusade is what caused Pope Innocent III to start using the Catholic Inquisition to find and correct heretical views. He was appalled at what happened to the Albigensians and didn’t want it to happen again.
The inquisition proceeded as follows: A tribunal of friars would enter a town, teach people why the heresy is bad to believe, and then people were summoned forward based upon tips or sometimes even entire towns were called forward to admit their heretical views. How seriously this view was held would determine punishment. Some of the guidelines for inquisitors are used by the FBI even today!
Humorously to the modern ear, on suspected Cathar said: “Lords, hear me, I am no heretic, for I have a wife and lie with her, and have children. And I eat flesh and lie and swear, and am a faithful Christian.” Cathars, being excessively scrupulous, wouldn’t have sex or lie. And due to their gnostic roots wouldn’t eat meat. His statement was sufficient to free him.
and it lets people know you aren’t a Cathar!
One inquisitor, Bernardo Gui, in 1246 sentenced 207 heretics. Of these, only 23 were imprisoned and 184 had to wear crosses. None of these were executed. Typical punishments involved fasting, pilgrimages, going to Mass, and so forth, not torture or death. From 1249 to 1257, only 230 people were sentenced and of these, only 21 to death. So during the Inquisitions peak years, only 3 people a year were sentenced to death. This is less than half the number of people Texas executes each year.
Visit Texas: Come see over twice the executions as the Medieval Inquisition!
Overall, the inquisition reduced the number of deaths due to heresy because the Church stepped in and the mob rule that previously was used to root out heretics was ended. Sometimes, not liking the light sentences handed out, the inquisitors themselves were killed by the mob, such as Peter of Verona or all the inquisitors of Toulouse. When some inquisitors when too far and were too harsh, like Robert the Bugre, the Bishop stepped in and sentenced the inquisitor to prison. Another inquisitor sentenced so many people to death that the town rose up and killed the inquisitor.
Two hundred years post the peak of the Inquisition the Spanish decided to renew the practice to unify their country. Pope Sixtus IV objected to numerous practices in this renewed Inquisition and King Ferdinand promptly excluded him and the Church from any control. The pope then arrested the Spanish Ambassador in protest! The inquisition in Spain even arrested such saints as Ignatius Layola and Teresa of Avila. The Archbishop of Toledo wrote a catechism which the council of Trent approved, and he was still sentenced to 8 years of prison for writing it!
Some modern Jewish (I mention this because Jewish people are unlikely to sugar coat their own oppression) historians suggest that the torture element was greatly exaggerated by protestants after their defeat by the Crown in 1560’s. There is little historical evidence torture was used in Spain, but there is evidence civil offenders would sometimes blaspheme to get into the cushy Inquisition prisons. In the entire Spanish Inquisition, modern scholars suggest only around three to four thousand died. Compare this with the enlightened men of reason who led the Reign of Terror’s over 40,000 deaths in France. Or the millions of deaths caused by Pol Pot. Or the millions of deaths caused by Mao and Stalin. As far as killings to unite a state are concerned, the Spanish Inquisition is the least of our worries.
The Spanish Inquisition wasn’t Catholic; and while it was worse than the Catholic Inquisition, it still wasn’t as bad as it has been made out to be. Sadly, that wouldn’t make as great a joke as below, so the misconception is likely to remain.