Thursday 13 April 2006

The Inquisition

Does no one expect the Spanish Inquisition? I certainly do, and I am never disappointed.

The same people who regard The Life of Brian as the last word on Jesus declare their general intellectual dependence on Monty Python's Flying Circus by bring up the Spanish Inquisition in relation to the Catholic Church, and especially in relation to the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "formerly known as the Inquistion".

The CDF was in fact the Roman, not the Spanish, Inquisition; but neither ever claimed or exercised any jurisdiction over non-Catholics. The Roman Inquisition granted the accused rights far in excess of those prevalent at the time, such as the right to legal representation (paid for by the Inquisition if necessary), a right not formerly recognised in England until 1836. Only people whose activities were a threat to the State (a tiny percentage) were ever handed over to it for execution or anything else, a severity far less than that of the Protestant governments of the time.

And what of the infamous Spanish Inquisition? It was staffed by clerics, but it was established, and they served, strictly at the pleasure of the Spanish Crown (perhaps it is difficult for people used to the Church of England to understand this distinction?), which had it approved on false pretences by Pope Sixtus IV. He was a repeated but unsuccessful opponent of its severity, an opposition, moreover, which has to be seen in the light of the below in order to appreciate it fully. From 1558, it imprisoned the Spanish Primate, Archbishop Caranza of Toledo, for eight years, despite repeated Papal attempts to secure his release. Furthermore, the Spanish Inquisition enjoyed popular as well as royal, but not Papal, support.

As a civil body, the Spanish Inquisition has to be compared to other civil bodies of the time; and it actually compares rather well, using torture in only two per cent of cases (and then for no longer than fifteen minutes), with only one per cent experiencing torture more than once. Of 49,092 cases between 1550 and 1700, fully 1,485 (not even three per cent) ended with the death sentence, and only 776 were actually put to death by this agency, not of the Church, but of the State. On average during that century and a half, the Spanish Inquisition executed five people per year. And yet the Popes considered it unacceptably severe even in that day and age, when the English were executing anyone who damaged a shrub in a public garden, the Germans were gouging out the eyes of those who returned from banishment, and the French were disembowelling sheep-stealers.

The Spanish Inquisition dismissed anyone who broke its clearly set out Instructiones, and people before the secular courts in Barcelona would sometimes blaspheme in order to be sent to one of the much more humane prisons maintained by the Inquisition.

All of the above may be verified from the works of serious scholars such as Professor Henry Kamen (an English Jew) of the Barcelona Higher Council for Scientific Research and Professor Stephen Haliczer of the Northern University of Illinois. Who is to be believed? Scholars such as they? Or Monty Python's Flying Circus?

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