Fr. W. Devivier, SJ
Edited by Bishop S.G. Messmer, DD, DCL
Bishop of Green Bay, Wisc.
Imprimatur, 1903


Certain Accusations Against the Church: Part 2



This is the great accusation made against the Church by her enemies: the word Inquisition is cast in her face as sentence of condemnation from which there is no appeal.

It is well to remark, first, that, with the exception of a few who are ignorantly deceived or misled, hatred of the Inquisition is confounded with hatred of the Church.

We know the style of argument used by the enemies of this institution in their romances and plays. Their object is to make a vivid impression on the imagination and excite the feelings by a touching picture or a clever dramatic rendering. They take good care not to say that the tortures at which they make us assist, though so contrary to our present customs, were nevertheless conformable in every respect to the penal code of past centuries and to the customs of all the tribunals of those times.
[Emphasis added.]
With them, the moment that blood flows, that fires are kindled, the cause is judged, and the tribunal is wrong. They. do not reason, they declaim; they do not try to convince minds, but to excite the passions.

This is not the proper method of history: it should be animated by no passion but love of truth. "The first law," says Leo XIII in a letter in which he strongly recommends historical studies, "is to advance nothing that is false and to shrink from no truth."

Above all things, we must carefully distinguish between the ecclesiastical Inquisition and the Spanish Inquisition. [1]

a. Inquisition means, generally, to search for heretics in order to prevent the spread of their tenets, or to convert them. In this sense the Inquisition dates from the beginning of the Church. It has ever been the bounden duty of popes and bishops to resist heresy, and to prevent its propagation, either by gentle, persuasive measures or by means of chastisements.

b. Nevertheless, by the Inquisition is generally understood a court of justice, both civil and ecclesiastic, called the Holy Office, established to take cognizance of the crime of heresy, and to punish the guilty. This special tribunal dates only from the beginning of the thirteenth century, when it was established by Innocent III to repress the heresy of the Waldenses and the Albigenses. [2] These sectaries, reproducing the heresy of the Manichreans, spread the spirit of rebellion with their errors, and, resorting to arms, threatened both Church and State. After vain efforts to bring them back to their common duty by instruction and moral suasion, the two powers menaced united against the common enemy; it was the duty of the ecclesiastical power to establish, that is to verify, the crime, and of the civil power to administer the punishment. The end of this ecclesiastical Inquisition always was to preserve Catholic nations from the poison of heresy, and States from revolt, which was the usual consequence of heresy. The office of Inquisitor was usually confided to legates or delegates, among whom shone in the first rank the sons of St. Dominic, but only from the year 1223, that is, twelve years after the death of St. Dominic, which fact, however, does not save the Saint from being frequently transformed into a Grand Inquisitor.

This Inquisition, born in the bosom of the mother Church of all churches and successively introduced into all parts of the Christian world, is certainly the work of the Roman pontiffs, who have never regretted its establishment.

c. Quite different was the Spanish Inquisition founded by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1481 to protect with the Christian faith the nationality of Spain against the machinations of the Jews and the Moors. [3] In this tribunal also we find two distinct jurisdictions, one of which is exercised by the Church and the other by the civil power. But here the civil power had such a preponderating influence that a number of historians, though inimical to Catholicism, regard the Spanish Inquisition as more political than religious.

Nevertheless we do not pretend to disclaim for the Church all responsibility in the Spanish Inquisition. We acknowledge that Sixtus IV approved the first thought of the Inquisition in Spain and sanctioned its fundamental statutes. It was from the Holy See that the ecclesiastical inquisitors received their jurisdiction and all their powers. The king, however, received from the Pope the privilege of naming the inquisitors.

OBJECT OF THE DISCUSSION.----All discussion on the subject of the Inquisition may be reduced to the two following questions, very distinct one from the other.

First Question.----Was the institution of this tribunal lawful in principle and moral right?

Second Question.----Do the proceedings of the Inquisition as known to us through history merit the condemnation with which our enemies would brand them, and can they be made a charge against the Church?

Let us not forget that in all this discussion there is no question of unbelievers, pagans or Jews, over which the Church has no jurisdiction, but only of Christians, that is, of those whom the regeneration of Baptism made amenable to the laws of the Church. The first, says St. Thomas, certainly should not be forced to obey the Church; the others, on the contrary, should: contra veto, alteri sunt cogendi.


A. ON THE PART OF THE CHURCH.----There can be no doubt of this in the mind of a Catholic. Popes and councils, Saints and doctors, Scripture and Tradition proclaim that the Church has the right, and that it is also her duty, to watch over the purity of the faith, and to inflict penalties, even corporal penalties, on her children who wander from the faith and become a stone of stumbling to their brethren. [4] This undeniable right, which flows from the powers which Jesus Christ has conferred upon her, the Church has always exercised; she has always considered the crimes of heresy, of apostasy, and of sacrilege as deserving of punishment as outrages upon the honor, the property, or the life of a fellow being. This doctrine and this conduct of the Church are perfectly reasonable and lawful. In fact it is the right and duty of every society to provide for the salvation of its members and to watch over its own preservation. Without this right it could not exist. The Church, a perfect society, provided by her Divine Founder with all that is necessary for her preservation and her propagation, possesses this right then, and can, in consequence, make laws and punish those of her subjects who do not observe them. If they are recalcitrant and contumacious, devios et contumaces, according to the expression of Benedict XIV, the Church, like a tender but firm mother, exercises her right, and fulfills her duty by correcting them, in order that chastisement may bring them back to the right path, and prevent others from being led away by their pernicious example. She acts in this respect like the father of a family who takes wise and efficacious measures to correct his children and to preserve his home from anything of a nature to disturb its peace and happiness. Her course is analogous to that of the governments of the present day when they adopt vigorous precautions to prevent the entrance of pestilence, cholera, or any epidemic whatever, or when they establish a corps of special agents to seek out malefactors, conspirators, assassins, and hand them over to the vengeance of the law, and prevent the execution of their nefarious designs.

The Inquisition was in religious society what parental discipline is in the family, what health boards, police boards, medical corps, and tribunals of justice are in civil society, that is, a means of conservation for itself and of preservation for its members.

B. ON THE PART OF THE STATE.----When we wish to judge the lawfulness of an institution we must transport ourselves to the time when it was established. It is well known that at the period of the Inquisition European society was profoundly Christian; the people were as universally convinced of the truth of Catholic dogma as we, in our modern societies, can be of the truth of the principles of the natural law; hence revolt against God was justly regarded as no less treasonable than revolt against the king.

Rulers and people, accepting Catholic faith as the only true and Divine religion, considered its preservation of paramount importance to all natural advantages. The legislation of the various countries of Europe was founded upon an intimate union of Church and State. Consequently every overt act of disobedience to the laws of religion was punishable by the civil law. Human law cannot, of course, enter the secret domain of conscience, accessible only to God; it cannot prescribe interior acts or punish violations which are not exterior.

Under such circumstances nothing could be more natural than the establishment of tribunals the office of which was to discover, by lawful and honest means, exterior violations of the religious law, to discern between obstinate heretics and those who were only misled for a time, to punish the real criminals and proclaim the innocence of others. Such tribunals were as lawful as the tribunals of the present day established to judge offences against the State, or the person, reputation, or property of citizens.

It was because they were penetrated with these truths that Theodosius the Great, Justinian, Charlemagne, Otho the Great, Louis IX, and all civilized rulers and nations considered it no violation of liberty to punish heresy or apostasy.

CONCLUSION.----In a society formed according to the principles and based upon the legislation we have described, no one could reasonably deny that the Church acted in all wisdom in establishing in concert with the civil power, to which she referred the chastisement of culprits, a tribunal for discerning the real criminal with greater guarantees of justice, and taking cognizance of an offence regarded as one of the gravest against both the social and the religious order.

If there are those who have any difficulty in accepting this conclusion, it is because we live in an atmosphere steeped in error. The enemies of the Church, to favor the propagation of evil and for their own safety, never cease to hold up every attempt to repress impiety and heresy, as an outrage upon what they falsely call the sacred rights of conscience.

It is nevertheless incontestable that no one has the right to do evil, that no one has, or can have, as it is claimed at the present day, a natural and imprescriptible right to think, to write, and to propagate whatever he pleases. Created by God and dependent upon Him for all things, man has no right to outrage and blaspheme the Author of his existence. Made a child of the Church by Baptism, he has no right to revolt against his Mother. Member of a society, he has no right to break down the foundations upon which this society rests. Endowed with free-will to do good meritoriously, he has no right to abuse this faculty by corrupting his brethren and leading them to evil.

It is no less incontestable that there are errors which are criminal. Yes, there are perversions of reason which cannot practically be distinguished from moral perversions. Man is obliged, above all things, to cling to truth, and to preserve his intelligence from error; this is evident, since to will it is necessary to know, and to will righteously we must know the truth. If there were no rule for thought, there could be none for actions. What would then become of morals and of society? Among culpable errors, sins of incredulity, heresy, and apostasy rank first. In fact there is no outrage upon the honor, the life, the property of man, a simple creature, which ranks in enormity with those monstrous crimes which directly attack the Creator Himself. To refuse obstinately to believe in the revelation of God, when adequately known and demonstrated, is a crime of treason against the Divine Majesty, for it is, in a measure, denying the infinite truth of God. Now at the time and in the countries where the Inquisition reigned it was easy for all to have a complete moral certainty (proportioned to the condition and development of each mind) of the divinity of the Christian religion, and of the Catholic Church. [5]


We have just proved that the Inquisition was lawful in principle; that in the times and in the countries where it was established it was lawful to adopt rigorous measures against the propagation of religious errors. But is there nothing censurable in the way in which this right was exercised, was it not exercised with cruelty? This is the question to be examined at present. We shall reply to it with the aid of a few remarks.

FIRST REMARK.----Let us observe, first of all, that this question is by no means as important as the first. It would, in fact, be absurd to hold the Church responsible for abuses of which the judges in the Inquisition may have been guilty. Just as a man can be reasonably held responsible only for the effects and results of his personal actions, in like manner a social body can be charged only with what is the result of its existence, of its social action, or, in other words, of its constituent principles, of its laws, and the regular exercise of authority. Would it be just to attribute to civil laws or to military regulations abuses of authority connected with these laws and regulations, but condemned by them? Now the abuses with which the Inquisition is charged are far from being the fruit of the principles of Catholicism: they are even opposed to its spirit, and were in fact severely condemned by the sovereign Pontiffs each time they were brought to their knowledge.

SECOND REMARK.----We must also bear in mind that the judges charged to pronounce penal sentence for the crime of heresy were civil judges; the ecclesiastical authority confined itself to establishing the crime. The severe, the terrible punishments, particularly the capital, were administered by the government, of whom an account should be required when there is occasion for censure. We have seen, moreover, that a Christian and Catholic State, in lending the Church the assistance of the secular arm, was only fulfilling a duty: protecting the imprescriptible rights of truth and removing all that endangered the capital interests of society.

Moreover, the clemency which played so important a role in the sentences of the Inquisition is the work of the Church, which had no part in the punishments except to repress them, to mitigate them, or to recommend the culprits to the indulgence of the judge. [6] Hence the reputation for mildness which the ecclesiastical tribunals enjoyed. It was this reputation for clemency which induced the Templars at the time of their celebrated trial to ask expressly to be judged by the ecclesiastical Inquisition; they knew, historians tell us, that if they went before such judges they would not be sentenced to capital punishment. But Philip le Bel, whose mind was already made up, and who knew the inevitable consequence of recourse to this tribunal, shut himself up with his state council and summarily condemned the Templars to death. [7]

Moreover, if the spirit of the Church is a spirit of mildness we must expect to see it especially manifested at Rome. Hence we find Clement IV reproaching St. Louis himself with the excessive severity of the laws which the great monarch had made against blasphemers, and earnestly begging him in his bull of 1208 to mitigate them. And in our own day nowhere are Jews better treated than in Rome, so much so that it has passed into a proverb that the city of the popes is the paradise of the Jews. In Germany, where there was a number of ecclesiastical sovereigns, a similar proverb existed: "It is good to live under the Cross." "Never," says Joseph de Maistre, "was there in these peaceful governments any question of capital punishment or persecution of the enemies of the reigning powers."

THIRD REMARK.----It is a mark of strange historical ignorance or singular audacity in calumny to represent cruel sufferings and instruments of torture as belonging distinctly and exclusively to the Inquisition. Yet we find this stated constantly in anti-religious books and journals. Such punishments were in fact universal. It could be easily proved that the tribunals of the Inquisition were generally much more just and much less severe toward the accused than all the civil tribunals of the period. [8] Hefele, even accepting the data of the partial historian Llorente, furnishes such proof in regard to the Spanish Inquisition, the most decried of all. [9] If we would form an idea of the character of the civil tribunals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we ought to read the learned memoir of M. Poullet, professor in the University of Louvain: Histoire du droit penal dans le duche de Brabant, etc. Here is a passage from it: "The greatest diversity, uncertainty, and arbitrariness reigned in all the proceedings. The accused was deprived of the precious guarantee of a public trial; the judge could, if he chose, refuse counsel to the defendant, nor was the latter allowed to be present during the examination of witnesses."
[Emphasis added.]
The same writer, speaking of the penalties, says: "The general system breathed only intimidation and public vengeance. The penalty of death was frequently accompanied with a series of revolting cruelties, the judges endeavoring to graduate capital punishment according to the various degrees of guilt in the delinquent. Below capital punishment there were only corporal punishments, frequently irreparable, always degrading. Nothing was done to reform the criminal or to inspire him with better sentiments before returning him to social life. Detention was used only as a punishment and for slight offences. It had no place in the penal system, properly speaking, and was never inflicted when the judge had to repress a really grave violation or offence."

What is said here of the criminal laws of Brabant applies to the rest of Europe. It was a time when counterfeiters were burned alive, when those who used false weights and measures were scourged with rods or condemned to death; burglary led to the gallows; those convicted a second time of theft were also punished with death. To form an idea of the excessive severity of the civil tribunals of that period it is sufficient to read the Caroline Penal Code of Charles V, which governed the German empire until the last century.

FOURTH REMARK.----The use of torture is made an accusation against the Inquisition. Who does not know that torture was used in all the tribunals of Europe as a means of discovering the truth?

There is a curious incident relative to this in the memoir of M. Poullet. He says that in 1765 and 1766 the Belgian Council were consulted by Charles de Lorraine concerning certain reforms to be made in the Criminal Code, notably the eventual abolition of torture. The whole Council voted for preserving it, and on being consulted again, a few years later, maintained their first opinion.

Let us observe also that the Inquisition abandoned the use of torture before the other tribunals of Europe. "It is certain," says Llorentel "that the Inquisition had long ceased to use torture." Moreover, contrary to the custom of all civil tribunals, it never permitted torture to be used a second time during the same trial, and it required that a physician be present to determine the moment when the life of a criminal was in danger.

FIFTH REMARK.----In regard to the Spanish Inquisition in particular, we have no difficulty in recognizing that there were abuses. How could it be otherwise when here, as elsewhere, men were judges? At the same time it is important to bear in mind that:

a. The tribunal was more an institution of the State than of the Church, and its members followed, not the instructions of the popes, but the prescriptions of temporal princes. As to the abuses with which it may be lawfully charged, the Church was the first to condemn them. The popes protested against excessive severity, and they even went so far as to grant those condemned by the royal tribunal the right of appealing to a special ecclesiastical judge. Later, finding that the royal judges did not respect this right of appeal, the sovereign Pontiff granted all condemned the right to claim the interference of the Holy See. Spanish inquisitors were even excommunicated despite the wrath of princes.

In a word, the Church used every influence in her power to induce rulers and judges to imitate the example of her gentleness and moderation. Therefore nothing is more unjust and unreasonable than to hold the Papacy or the Church responsible for excesses committed by the Spanish tribunals. [Emphasis added.]

b. It has been proved that the cruelties attributed to the Spanish Inquisition have been exaggerated beyond measure and with signal bad faith. Llorente himself, though so hostile to the Church, acknowledges that the dungeons of the Inquisition were dry, high-vaulted apartments, palaces in fact, compared with the prisons of the other tribunals of Europe; and that no prisoner of the Inquisition ever wore chains or an iron collar. M. Bourgoing, ambassador to Spain, does not hesitate to say, in his Tableau de l'Espagne moderne: "I acknowledge, in justice to truth, that the Inquisition might be cited at the present day as a model of equity."

c. But there is nothing which inspires the ill-instructed with greater horror than the thought of the autos da f
é. They are usually represented as horrible scenes: a huge caldron large enough to burn a multitude of victims, surrounded by a crowd of fanatics, among whom figure prominently the implacable judges of the Holy Office, contemplating with fierce joy a spectacle worthy of cannibals.

The truth is an auto da f
é, that is, an act of faith, did not consist in burning or putting to death, but in acquitting persons falsely accused, or reconciled with the Church. In fact this tribunal, like the tribunal of penance, absolved the repentant. Only obstinate heretics, as well as those whose offences were partly of a civil character, were handed over to the secular arm. After this absolution the auto da fé was finished and the ecclesiastical judge withdrew.

d. It is frequently alleged that the number of victims immolated in a brief period by the Spanish Inquisition may be estimated by hundreds of thousands; now a list furnished by this same Llorente estimates the number of victims during the three hundred and thirty-one years of the Inquisition at about thirty-five thousand, and this list includes criminals of various categories, who were also amenable to these tribunals; for example, smugglers, magicians or sorcerers, usurers; and even then the list is manifestly exaggerated; for if Llorente is to be believed, in regard to the autos da f
é of Toledo of February 12th, May 1st, and December 10th, 1486, the number of victims was respectively seven hundred, nine hundred, and seven hundred and fifty, but in reality there was not in this number a single victim: it is a list of criminals, not of executions. [10]

Comparing the much-decried severity of the Spanish Inquisition with the cruelty of Elizabeth of England, William Cobbett, a Protestant author, affirms that this sanguinary queen put more persons to death in one year than the Inquisition did during the whole period of its existence. Moreover, we have seen that the intolerance of Protestants toward Catholics was everywhere much more violent than that of Catholics toward heretics; the Lutheran princes tore their subjects from the Church by a bloody persecution. And yet it is only against the Catholic Church that the charge of persecution is made.

SIXTH REMARK.----It is just to judge the tree by its fruit, and to meet the charges against the Inquisition with the salutary results it produced. It cannot be disputed that it was owing in a great measure to this institution that many of the countries of Europe preserved the faith intact during centuries, and were preserved particularly from the baneful invasion of intolerant and sanguinary Protestantism.

Spain, particularly, owes the Inquisition a large debt of gratitude for the preservation of unity of faith, and for preserving the country from the civil wars which devastated so many other countries. Even Voltaire, the great enemy of the Inquisition as well as of the Church, says: "In Spain during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there were none of those bloody revolutions, those conspiracies, and those cruel punishments which were witnessed in the other courts of Europe.  . . . Kings were not assassinated as in France, and did not perish by the hand of the executioner as in England." "Look," says Joseph de Maistre, "at the Thirty Years' War enkindled by the arguments of Luther, the unheard-of excesses of the Anabaptists and the Peasants; the civil wars of France, England, and Flanders; the massacre of St. Bartholomew, the massacre of Merindol and of Gevennes; the assassination of Mary Stuart, Henry III, Henry IV, Charles I, Prince of Orange, etc. The blood shed by the reformers would float a vessel. The Inquisition, at most, shed only the blood of these murderers. They need not tell us, therefore, that the Inquisition produced this abuse and that abuse; for that is not the question, but rather whether, during the last three centuries, Spain, in virtue of the Inquisition, did not enjoy more peace and happiness than the other countries of Europe."

"The Inquisition has been reproached," says the same writer, "with its darkening influence on the human mind, but the finest period of Spanish literature was the reign of Philip II.  . . . It is vain to reiterate that genius is chained when forbidden to attack national dogmas; error can never be established by force of repetition." [11]

SEVENTH REMARK.----W e would make a final remark to calm the vain terrors which certain men like to excite. Though the Church, as we have seen, has an incontestable right to punish heretics, though she used this right when she judged it fitting, yet she is not obliged to use it always, she must even renounce the exercise of it when it becomes impossible or injurious. Thus the Church has in reality long since abandoned it, and the Inquisition remains only as a historical memory and a bugbear in the service of ignorance and impiety. Those who affect to tremble at the recollection of it have no reason to fear. The secular arm is not suspended by the Church above their heads. Would to Heaven Catholics were equally secure from the blows of a secular arm of scant tolerance!


1. Hefele, Life of Card. Ximenes; Parsons, Lies, p.121 fT.; Studies, II., ch. 31; Balmes, ch. 36, 37. See Maistre; Dwenger; Hergenrother, Catholic Church, etc., vol. ii., Essay 17; Spalding, J. M., Miscell., Essay 11; Lacordaire, The Order of St. Dominic, ch. 6; Sidney Smith, S.J. (C. T. S. xix); A. C. Q. i. 254, xii. 691, xiii. 385 (on H. Lea's deceiving book), xxv. 531 ff.; M. xlix. 82, lxxiv. 375; D. R. Old Ser. xxviii. 421, New Ser. viii. 53, ix. 163, Apr. 1894, p. 309 (Albigenses); C. C. S. L. ii. p. 7; also references on p. 442.
2. See Melia's work on the Waldenses; also Parsons, Studies, II., ch.25, 27; I.E.R., Nov. '94.

3. On the persecution of the Jews in Spain see C. W. liv. 360, Iv. 649; 851, lviii. 49; see ib. Dec. 1899, "The Popes and the Jews."
4. In the light of Catholic dogma it is always a crime in an adult Catholic "to wander from the faith." The Church teaches (a) that faith is an imperative duty of man towards God, as without faith it is impossible to please God; (b) that this faith is a supernatural gift of God which man, once he has received it, cannot lose except by his own free will; (c) that she herself is the divinely appointed and infallible teacher of revealed truth, which is the proper object of Divine faith; (d) that there cannot possibly be any reason whatever of denying this faith once professed; (e) that consequently to wander from the Catholic faith is a most grievous sin against God and against His holy Church.
From this it follows evidently that the Catholic Church alone can consistenly claim the right of punishing apostasy from her faith, and that no State can consistently put heresy on its criminal code unless it professes the Catholic faith.---EDITOR.
5. See also, on Tolerance, references p. 442.
6. Hefele, Life of Ximenes, ch. 18. ,
7. Parsons, Studies, II., ch. 35, n,. R., Oct. 95, p. 329.
8. The enemies of the Inquisition rely chiefly upon the testimony of Llorente. To be convinced of the little reliance to be placed on this writer it is sufficient to know that he destroyed the original documents upon which he claimed to have based his work, hoping thus to render it impossible to control or confute his assertions. See Stone, A Brief for the Spanish Inquisition; Balmes, p. 456.
9. See Hefele's Life of Cardinal Ximenes, which contains much that interesting in regard to the Inquisition of Spain.
10. Let us add a word in comparison with what was taking place at the same time in Protestant countries. At Nuremberg, one of the most enlightened cities of Germany, of the 50,000 souls who formed the judiciary district, 356 perished on the scaffold in forty years (1577-1617). To keep pace with this the Spanish Inquisition would have had to execute 56,960 persons in the same period of time. At Nordlingen, which counted 6000 inhabitants, 35 sorcerers were burned in four years (1590-1594). If the Inquisition had exercised the same rigor, it would have burned during the same lapse of time 46,500 sorcerers, that is, 11,000 more than the total number of those who, condemned for all kinds of crimes, received capital punishment during the whole time of its existence. This was the alleged exceptional rigor of the Spanish Inquisition. On the famous trials for Witchcraft see Hergenrother; Ch. and St., ii., Essay 16, p. 2; D. R. xxx. 331; Birkhauser, Ch. Hist., pp.473, 722, note; Parsons, vi. 534; Spalding, M. J., Miscell., I., ch. 20; M., July 1902; U. B., July 1896, p. 361; A.C.Q., July 1902.
11. Robinson, W. C., Philip II and his Vindication.