How the Inquisition Saved Lives

"Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition," goes the popular Monty Python sketch. But everyone believes that the Inquisitions rate among the all-time worst sins of the Christian Church. An 800-page report issued by the Vatican in June 2004, however, suggests that conventional wisdom is wrong. "Recourse to torture and the death sentence were not as frequent as was long believed," said Agostino Borromeo, professor of church history at Sapienza University.

In fact, only about 1 percent of the 125,000 brought before the Spanish Inquisition were executed. But the unheard story, says St. Louis University's Thomas F. Madden, is that "the Inquisition was not born out of desire to crush diversity or oppress people; it was rather an attempt to stop unjust executions. It was the secular authorities that held heresy to be a capital offense, not the Church." The Inquisition "saved uncounted thousands of innocent (and not-so-innocent) people who would otherwise have been roasted by secular lords or mob rule." As the Inquisition "slipped out of papal hands and into those of kings," practices varied by region. This, coupled with attempts to stifle Protestantism, gave rise to the more popular view of the Inquisition.

"There is no doubt," says the report, that Inquisition procedures "were applied with excessive vigor and in some cases degenerated into real abuse." The report arose from John Paul II's desire to apologize for the abuses. "Before seeking pardon," he said, "it is necessary to have a precise knowledge of the facts. The image of the Inquisition represents almost the symbol … of scandal."

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