The Inquisition – Noble Institution?


-by Pedro Berruguete, “Saint Dominic Presides over the Auto da Fe (Act of Faith), c. 1495.

Tolerance is NOT believing everything is true, nor equally true.  Only a fool would be that simple-minded.  Denial is not a river in Egypt.

The perpetual union, up until recently, of Church and State, is ancient, going all the way back to the god-king pharoahs of Egypt.  It is this union which led to heresy, pagan or Christian, being viewed as treason, as a crime, against the State, against society as a whole.

In The Real Story of the Inquisition, Steve Weidenkopf digs into the wealth of historical data to show that, far from being a cruel reign of terror, the Inquisition was actually a noble institution that:

  • Aimed principally at the repentance and reconciliation of wayward Catholics
  • Used well-regulated procedures and temperate punishments
  • Protected the accused from harsher treatment by the state
  • Fostered both religious and national unity

-by Steve Weidenkopf

“So let’s go through some of the myths of the Inquisition. These are some of the things that people automatically think of, these false scenarios that they have in their mind whenever they hear the word the Inquisition, and we’re going to refute those as we go along tonight.

  1.  All right, so the first myth of the Inquisition is that it was a tool used by the Church to control the minds of medieval people. All right, that’s one of the major myths.
  2. The second myth is that Inquisition destroyed religious and intellectual freedom and political liberty throughout Europe.
  3. The third myth is that it tortured and killed millions of people.

Invariably, you talk about the Inquisition with someone, one of these three or all three of these myths will be presented.  They’ll talk with you and they’ll say this, “Well, what about the torturing and the killing of millions and millions of people? How could the Church sanction that? What was going on there?” What was the reality of the Inquisition?

Well, the reality was there was never any single, all powerful, horrific tribunal that controlled the minds of medieval people. I’ll go through this in more detail and you’ll see there was never any kind of omniscient, omnipotent, powerful tribunal attacking everything and everyone and trying to limit political freedom and religious thought throughout Christendom.

Why the Inquisition – why was it started, why did it come about?

(Ed. after the fall of the western Roman Empire, there was no legal system in the western Mediterranean and European worlds.  The Church had survived, along with its judicial system, canon law.  It was to these courts the people turned for justice and adjudication of wrongs.  In some places, the Church was the ONLY form of established government and semblance of protector available, the bishop the only executive or leader to be had.  Exacting records were kept and these records are recently being compiled, analyzed, and studied in a modern way.)

Well, it was formed to combat popular and secular persecution of heretics. As we’ll see, the Inquisition actually was formed to help the Church talk to heretics and try to convert them and bring them back to the faith. There was a lot of secular persecution among either the regular people or among secular lords against heretics. They were not afforded any kind of system of justice. They weren’t afforded any opportunity to recant, and so the Church had to step in to actually prevent violence against heretics, originally.

And then also, the reality too is that the Inquisition was formed and what they desired was the conversion of heretics, not their death. It was actually seen as an inquisitor actually failed in his job if the heretic was remanded to the state and then executed. Because the job of the inquisitor was to illustrate to the heretic his heresy, his error and to bring him back into the Church – he or she. And so if you weren’t able to do that as an inquisitor and you had to remand the heretic over to the secular authorities and they killed the heretic, then you had failed, really, in your job. So it was not a good thing.

There’s really a two-fold purpose to the Inquisition. One was to save the souls, save souls, save the souls of the heretic. That was the primary reason for why the medieval inquisitors and later on the Inquisitions existed, was an act of charity by the Church to illustrate to those who had embraced heresy that look, you have turned from the authentic faith, you’ve turned from real faith, and now were going to explain the true faith to you and give you an opportunity to repent, to convert and come back to the faith. So it was conversion of souls, it was concern for souls, was really the major purpose.

And the second purpose was to protect the unity of the Church and society. Now this is, I think, one of the most difficult things for people in the modern world, especially Americans, to understand about this historical event of the Inquisition, of why this happened.

Because for us, we’ve grown up in a society where religious toleration is the norm, where if someone differs from us in religion, that’s okay. We, as Catholics, have an obligation to evangelize, we have an obligation to catechize. We have an obligation to dialogue with those of our faith, right, who are Christian but maybe not Catholic. We have an obligation to dialogue with those who are not of the Christian faith, I mean, Muslims and Jews, and what have you.

So we dialogue, but it’s not from the point of we all need to be one or united in our religious faith. That world view that we have was completely foreign to those who lived during this period of time. So to really understand the Inquisition, we have to go deeper into their mindset to understand their world view, which is very different from ours.

A good quote to kind of help illustrate that is from the historian Thomas Madden, he writes, “For medieval people, religion was not something one just did at Church; it was their science, their philosophy, their politics, their identity and their hope of a salvation. Heresy then, struck at the heart of that truth. It doomed the heretic, endangered those near him and tore apart the fabric of society.” (Ed. avoid Presentism)

So for medieval people, a heretic really was one who – and I’ll talk more about this later – was a threat, not only to themselves for the state of their soul, but also was a threat to the larger society and to the community and to Christendom as a whole. Again, something much different than how we see a religion and how we see the faith today. But it’s important for us, if we’re going to understand this, to understand that historical context. And a good way to understand this from is a quote from Cardinal Walter Brandmuller, who is the President Emeritus of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, and he writes this about how we have to try to understand events like the Inquisition. He says. “The Inquisition, such a historical phenomena can be fathomed only when we look at it within the framework of its historical context, and do not try to measure yesterday by today’s standards.” So another way to look at this is the Catholic historian Hilaire Belloc who wrote about we should avoid reading backwards into history. Meaning, taking how we view things, how we see things, how our society is structured and applying all of that to previous historical events. It’s really kind of passing judgment on those who lived before us, unfairly.  (Ed. for a more local example, judge, truly judge, your grandparents by today’s standards, today’s standards being the authentic, irrefutable Truth!!!!  “Boy, were they NUTS is the only conclusion you can come to!  Or, are we?  I trust you take the point.)

Now obviously there are certain things we can look at, analyze, judge and say this was wrong, this was right, obviously. But in order to do that, we must at least first have an authentic understanding of their world view and, again, of their historical context. What was it that they were living through? Why was this important to them? Answer those kinds of questions so that we have a better understanding of it. So before we get into some more details of refuting these myths that I mentioned to you earlier, let me take just a brief kind of timeline of this historical event of the Inquisition.

What was this event? What are we actually talking about here?

See Albigensianism

Why is Heresey bad?

  1. A threat to society and the Church, the body politic.

Well there’s many different reasons for why people in the Middle Ages believed that heresy was bad. One, was that for them heresy was a threat to their society and a threat to the Church. It was a threat to the unity that they all lived in terms of their faith. And that’s not to say that everybody was Catholic during this period of time. And you know there’s a heresy right here in the south of France, so obviously not. You also have Jews and Muslims and what not throughout Christendom, but for the most part we can say that Christendom in the medieval world was united, at least generally speaking, in the faith, in the Catholic faith.

2.  Disunity

So anything that came in to reject that or change that or set up a counter Church to that, was a threat, right, to the unity of the Church and the unity of society. And these people were very, very focused on being united. On having a united Church and a united faith. So heresy was something that obviously threatened that. And it wasn’t just a passive threat. In their minds it was an active threat. You know, the heretic seeks to change the beliefs of other people, seeks to change the belief of the community, seeks to get rid of even the Church. And that’s a threat, and that’s something that needs to be addressed.

3.  A threat to the soul.

Another reason why heresy is important is because it’s not only a threat to society and to the Church, but it’s also a threat to the soul. Not only the soul of the heretic, his soul or her soul is threatened by embracing this false teaching, but also they embrace that teaching, they teach others the false teaching, you know, they live lives that seemingly are virtuous and people then join their movement, then they’re taking other souls away from the faith as well. All right, and this was a significant issue for people in the Middle Ages.

For your soul to be threatened was a very significant endeavor, right. I mean it should be for us today too. We should not do anything that would place our soul in danger. So if it’s true for us, it was true for them as well. Embracing heresy placed your soul in danger and that was a significant theological issue and a pastoral issue as well.

4.  Invites violence.

Another reason why heresy is bad and was strenuously combated by people in the Middle Ages is because of the violence. Really when you look at the history of heresy throughout the whole of all Church history, you see that what follows a heresy is usually periods of active and pernicious violence. Because it destabilized – or it threatened to destabilize the community, so there was a reaction to that and usually it was a violent reaction.

Sometimes it was a violent reaction by secular authorities, other times there were groups of heretics that actually took up arms themselves. So this was a significant problem for all these different reasons. In the secular world, the secular view of things, secular rulers believe that heretics were revolting against their authority. The secular rulers were Catholic, they were aligned at least in part to the Church, and so to come along and be a heretic or preach something different threatened their authority.

So from the minds of a secular ruler, a heretic really was one who was committing treason. And so in their minds, heresy was a treasonous offense, it’s a capital crime, and that the punishment for capital crime in the secular world was death.

So the key thing to understand here about heresy in the Middle Ages is that heresy was not only a Church crime, but it was also a secular crime. That’s a very important distinction to keep in mind when we talk about the procedures and the death penalty and all these other things that come in later on and we talk about the Papal inquisitors and the Inquisition itself. Heresy is not only a church crime, but it’s also a secular crime in this time period. So that’s why it’s very, very significant.

Secular rulers have the goal of safeguarding their realm, as I mentioned to you earlier, they’re the police force, they’re the army, they’re all these things. A threat to their society, a threat to their authority is something that needs to be addressed, all right?

 Cura Animarum

For the Church, heresy is bad because again, it threatens the soul of the individuals, it threatens the soul of others in the communities, in the church, and so it must be addressed as well. The Church is primarily concerned with saving the souls of the heretic, whereas the secular world is more concerned with punishing the heretic. Another key distinction. Church is more concerned with saving the soul of the heretic, the secular realm is more concerned with punishing the heretic, okay. We’ll talk more about that as we go along.

Now, it was the duty of everyone in Christendom at this time to combat heresy, as I have mentioned. The Church really kind of looked initially towards secular rulers to do that. Some did that well, others didn’t. And in many cases failure to fight heresy was as bad or worse than actually embracing the heresy itself, all right. So this was the world view, this was the context in which these people lived.

 Papal Inquisitors

So with all that in mind, let’s look at these Papally appointed inquisitors, these Medieval inquisitors, that Pope Gregory IX established. Now it’s important to note that their jurisdiction, what they were appointed to do was to go and to seek out heresy, and to bring the heretic back into the bosom of the Church. And what is heresy, right? Heresy is a post-baptismal denial of the basic doctrine of the faith.

So an inquisitor is only concerned with those who have been baptized and who now are following some false teaching. Which means an inquisitor is not concerned with Jews, practicing Jews, not concerned with practicing Muslims. That’s one of the major myths of the Inquisition, is people think that the Inquisition or the Papal inquisitors were all out to get practicing Jews and Muslims and anybody who wasn’t a Christian. Completely not true. That’s historically false. They were only concerned and only had jurisdiction, they had legal jurisdiction only over those who were baptized who had fallen away from the faith. Very, very important.

Edict of Grace

So what they would do, is these inquisitors, these Medieval inquisitors would come into an area, they’d have their commission from the Pope, they’d go to these areas, they’d set up their shop, so to speak, and they would announce the fact that they are here. They would preach, they would preach the faith, they would preach the authentic faith and then they would issue what was known as a period of grace, or an edict of grace.

And this was in the medieval period of time it was anywhere from 15 to 40 days where you could come voluntarily confess to the inquisitors that you had embraced heresy or you had participated in a heretical act, and they would give you some form of penance. You say, “I’m sorry,” you repent; they would welcome you back into the Church and give you some form of penance. All right, that was during this period of grace. You could voluntarily confess.

After the period of grace, what was then done was the procedure was to open the accusations to anyone in the community. All right, so if you believe you saw Farmer Joe, your neighbor down the street, going into a meeting with known Cathari or know Albigensians, you could then go to the inquisitors and say, “Hey, I saw Farmer Joe going to this meeting with a whole bunch of other well-known Albigensians, you should probably investigate him.”

So it was opened up to accusations from others. They would gather evidence. If there was seemingly enough evidence to desire the inquisitors to actually go forth with a hearing, they would do so. A trial would commence, they’d be brought before the inquisitors. Everything that you said and everything that they asked you, all your responses were carefully written down.

That’s one of the interesting things of this – kind of ironic, really. When there’s so much misunderstanding about the Inquisition and these inquisitors, that there is so much, despite the fact that there was so much documentation from them. We have many, many, many written records, detailed written records, of what they actually did, what they said, what the punishment was, why they gave that punishment, all these things. Completely well, well recorded.

So everything was written down, and throughout the process the accused was given an opportunity to convert, to confess their heresy and to come back to the Church. Witnesses were called, could be or could not be called, asked, “Did you see Farmer Joe?” Going, “Yes, I saw.” “Well how do you know it was a,” you know, they go through the whole list. Then the accused also was allowed to call his own witnesses, right, to kind of verify his story. “I’m not an Albigensian, this is why, I have so-and-so who can vouch for me.” And so they would go on and on like this.

Again, the whole point of this, of these inquisitors, was to try to bring to an understanding of the accused that you have embraced heresy, this is a threat to your soul, and out of charity we want you to come back. We want you to renounce this heresy and to return to the church. And if you do so we’ll give you a penance.


Now, a lot of times when it comes up, as we mentioned earlier, in terms of the myths of the Inquisition is, what about torture? Right, we had this kind of vision, this narrative in our mind of, you know, torture was being used throughout these sessions and what not.

Now, it’s interesting when you look at the historical record, is that torture wasn’t authorized to be used by inquisitors until 1252. So 20 years from Gregory IX establishing these procedures, torture wasn’t allowed to be used. But 20 years in, finally it was allowed to be used.

Now, why was it allowed to be used, or why was it even part of the legal framework? Well, because that was – torture was used extensively in the secular courts of the day. So torture was something that was used to elicit confessions and even as a form of punishment in the secular world and so it was something then that the Church also then embraced. And we’ll talk more about torture, especially as we get along to the Spanish Inquisition.

Now, what’s interesting about torture in ecclesiastical courts is that it could be used or could not be used. It wasn’t something that had to be used, it was an option given to the inquisitors. Many of them did not like to use it at all. The most famous inquisitor, Bernard Gui, who wrote an actual manual on how to be an inquisitor, how to ask the certain question or what questions to ask different heretics, he recommended not using it. He said it wasn’t effective at all; it shouldn’t be used at all. And he didn’t use it much himself.

If the inquisitor elected to use torture, he had to follow a certain number of protocols and procedures. It was well regulated, it wasn’t just, okay, you’re gonna be taken in the back and do whatever I want to you. There were certain things that the inquisitor could and could not do.

What’s interesting is that the torture itself was never applied by a cleric. (Ed. clerics could not draw blood, even so much that when surgery was required in monasteries, laymen were brought into the monastery to do the surgery.)  So the inquisitor himself could not torture the accused. Instead the secular world, the secular arm was brought in and they applied the torture. So that’s one interesting point.

The torturer in ecclesiastical courts was always used to elicit a confession, was always used to derive the truth. It was never used as a form of punishment. Most people when they think of torture and the Inquisition they immediately think, oh they’re just, you know, punishing these people for believing something different. Not true. It was always used as a means to elicit a confession, never as a means solely for punishment.

Also, it was interesting; it was allowed to be used only once. If an inquisitor went to the torture route, he could only use it one time, that’s it. It wasn’t something that was repeated often, only one time.

And it was supposed to be used after every other method had already been tried. What’s also interesting is that if the accused confessed under torture, “Yes, I’m a heretic, yes, I believe these things,” then the torture was stopped and then they were given a day to rest and then the day after the torture the inquisitors would come to them and ask them to repeat their confession. Because it was believed and it was understood that confession under torture could be false, right. So you had to freely offer the confession again outside of torture just to be sure that it was authentic.


All right, so what could be some punishments for those who were brought before the inquisitors, they were tried, it was determined they were heretics; let’s say the ones who confessed and converted and came back to the faith, what kind of penances were they given?

Well, some could be fasting. One form of penance was fasting. You were ordered to fast for a certain number of days, for a certain period of time. And in some cases you had to wear a special clothing, like a yellow cross on your garment, again for a certain period time or for maybe a long period of time.

If you were wealthy, if you’re a wealthy individual, then you could be instructed to give money to build a church. You could be instructed to give alms for the poor. Or you could also be told that you needed to go on a pilgrimage, right, or go participate in a Crusade. Again, this is a period of time of great pilgrimages and great Crusades as well. So those were different forms of penances that people could be given for confession, “Yes, I’m a heretic,” and then being brought back to the faith.

Because, again, heresy, if you engage in heresy, right, that is ecclesiastical or a church crime, right, it is sinful if you’re baptized Christian, to kind of repudiate the teachings of the faith and believe in something false. And so if you confessed that, then there’s a penance given, right, so that you can reconcile yourself to God and to the Church.


Now, if you were obstinate in your heresy, if you refused the many opportunities provided to you by the inquisitors to recant, to confess, and just remained obstinate, “Yes, I believe this Albigensian heresy, I believe these teachings, I’m a Perfecti, I’m never going to change, I don’t believe you, it’s a false Church, it’s created by Satan,” all these things. Then eventually there comes a point in time during the course where the inquisitors said, “Well, we can no longer help you. We’ve tried; we’ve asked these questions, we’ve tried to show you the error of your ways. We’ve tried; we’ve given you multiple opportunities for a conversion. It’s not working, we can’t do anything.”

 Remanded to the custody of the State

So then what they would do is they would remand the heretic to the State. So they would say, “We can no longer help this individual, we give you over to the State.” And the State would then ascertain, okay, this person is guilty of heresy, and again as I mentioned to you earlier, remember that heresy was not only a church crime, but also a secular crime in this time period. And so if you were convicted in a secular court, or by the secular authorities of being a heretic, the punishment for that was death. It was a capital punishment.

So then the secular authorities would take the heretic and then execute them in some manner, usually by burning at the stake. So it’s a historical fact to say authentically that the Church never, ever, ever executed anyone for heresy. In fact, it was against Canon law for the death penalty to be used. The death penalty could not be used in Canon law at all.

So what happens is again, as I mentioned, they remanded the heretic to the State. Now did the Church know that by remanded the heretic to the State that he or she would be executed? Yes. They did know that. Because, again, heresy was a secular crime. So but the Church worked diligently, inquisitors did, to try to ensure that didn’t happen. I mentioned earlier that an inquisitor who had his accused heretic remanded to the State had failed in their job, right, because they did not confess, they did not come back to the Church.

 Quantitative analysis

So let’s look at some numbers. I mean, people think that millions upon millions of people, we have this vision in our heads, this false narrative, that millions of people were killed throughout Europe during this period of time by the Papal inquisitors and later by the Spanish Inquisition. What are some real authentic numbers? Well, in the south of France, over a 50-year period of time from 1227 to 1277, there were 5000 Cathari, or 5000 Albigensians who were executed by secular authorities. About 100 people a year. You do the math, right?

So it’s not to diminish their executions, but we need to know these historical facts to be able to combat what people are saying about what went on during this period of time. “There were millions of people,” it’s not millions of people. Several thousands. It doesn’t diminish their death, obviously, but again, we need to know the authentic numbers.

I mentioned to you Bernard Gui who was one of the most famous inquisitors of the time. He was the inquisitor of Toulouse in the south of France here for a 16-year period of time in the early part of the 14th Century. Over the course of his time as inquisitor of Toulouse, he passed 930 judgments against heretics, accused heretics. Of those 930, 42 were remanded to the State. Or about a little less than 5 percent.

So, historical record shows that overwhelmingly the vast majority of those who came before the Papal inquisitors, and we’ll see later the Spanish Inquisition, were not remanded to the State. They were not, they were penanced, the inquisitors were able to bring these people back to the faith and to the Church. And so it was a very – actually it was a very just and very humane way, really, to engage in this discussion of whether or not someone was a heretic. And we’ll talk more about that in just a minute.

The Spanish Inquisition