Conspiracies and Catholicism: The Inquisition

Bouncing off of last month’s week’s mention that the Spanish Inquisition didn’t burn witches, I decided I’d talk about what “The Inquisition” is and what they did.

Mandatory reference:

“I didn’t expect some kind of Spanish Inquisition!”

No-one expects The Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is surprise, fear and surprise; two chief weapons, fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency! Er, among our chief weapons are: fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, and near fanatical devotion to the Pope! Oh, [language removed, you’ve been warned, in case you’re not familiar with Monty Python], I’ll come in again…”

Frequently, “The Inquisition” is used as a synonym for The Spanish Inquisition. This is rather inaccurate for a number of reasons, chief among them being that you could easily argue that The Inquisition is still around, and had nothing to do with the Spanish Inquisition– which actually predates The Inquisition.

The Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition (my super secret source: the Vatican’s own website, in English!) was founded in 1542; renamed the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office in 1908 and renamed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in ’65. If you’re reading this because you’re a fan of conspiracy theories, you might already be familiar with part of this particular theory, because one of the former head of the Congregation is a little bit famous due to what he did after leaving the Congregation– Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Quoting from the Vatican link, the job description is pretty impressive– the duty proper to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is to promote and safeguard the doctrine on the faith and morals throughout the Catholic world: for this reason everything which in any way touches such matter falls within its competence; describing what they actually do, it says they spread sound doctrine and defend those points of Christian tradition which seem in danger because of new and unacceptable doctrines. It’s a little less impressive (or scary) sounding when you remember that the biggest headlines the Congregation has gotten in my lifetime were because they responded to a letter about Harry Potter to say who the authoress should contact, and then only because their head became Pope and there was some misunderstanding about what was said.

(Note: “congregation” here uses a specialized meaning that you could replace with “committee” and not lose the general understanding of what’s meant; I don’t know about my readers, but the only place I hear the word outside of Church titles it means something like “preacher’s audience.”)

The first recognized Inquisition started in 1184, and was focused on Catharism.
From’s Great Heresies tract:

Catharism was a complicated mix of non-Christian religions reworked with Christian terminology. The Cathars had many different sects; they had in common a teaching that the world was created by an evil deity (so matter was evil) and we must worship the good deity instead.

The biggest sub-group was the Albigensians, which you may have heard in association with “the Albigensiancrusade“. (You can probably guess next month’s topic.) Sadly, heresies were nothing new. From the very start there were people taking this or that aspect of the Truth and using it to say what they wanted said, and there had been investigations and punishments in response. Probably even more common were random people just saying false things because they could, in one of the root traditions of the barracks lawyer. Unfortunately, humans being what we are, this sometimes turned out quite poorly. Therefore, to prevent the innocent being punished and the guilty excused, in 1231 the first steps (appointing the Dominicans to investigate and judge if heresies were being spread, rather than local courts…or mobs) were taken to make it so the Church controlled the process entirely. Think of it as one of the early attempts to start to separate Church and State.

It didn’t work.

One example of the failure of the Church to have the control needed to prevent abuse of the accusation of heresy is the Spanish Inquisition.

Yes, the most famous Inquisition is a failure– to have complete control of the abused process.

The conversos had ancestors who were Jews– one Bishop famously added “Mary, mother of God and my blood relative” to the Hail Mary– and they did very well, which led to the traditional anti-Semitism being aimed at them with claims of still being secretly practicing Jews. Somehow, what started out as an envious slander has been taken up as truth and the primary meaning when one reads about conversos, in spite of a lack of evidence of such from the time.

I’m going to quote from a much more in depth article on the Spanish Inquisition, from Crisis Magazine; The Truth About the Spanish Inquisition.

In this early stage of the Spanish Inquisition, Old Christians and Jews used the tribunals as a weapon against their converso enemies. Since the Inquisition’s sole purpose was to investigate conversos, the Old Christians had nothing to fear from it. Their fidelity to the Catholic faith was not under investigation (although it was far from pure). As for the Jews, they were immune to the Inquisition. Remember, the purpose of an inquisition was to find and correct the lost sheep of Christ’s flock. It had no jurisdiction over other flocks.

In the early, rapidly expanding years, there was plenty of abuse and confusion. Most accused conversos were acquitted, but not all. Well-publicized burnings — often because of blatantly false testimony — justifiably frightened other conversos. Those with enemies often fled town before they could be denounced.

And here comes the critical failure of the system: the Pope ordered the Bishops to take over investigations and respect the rights of the accused, and the King basically said “no”. As it happens, this was about the same time as the “convert or leave” order to the (observant) Jews in Spain, and many did convert, with a predictable result on the claims of “secret Jews.”

I have no idea if the rumors are true that the Jews were expelled because the Crown needed the money, nor do I know if the claims that a lot of accusing parties owed the conversos money are true. I cannot find evidence either way. I’ve tried to include every related link from a good source that I could find  for your consideration.

Conspiracies and Catholicism is a series of posts about things like albino assassin monks, hidden Bible books, pagan Santas and secret councils— popular culture related to Catholicism, sometimes in unexpected ways. If you have a suggestion for a future article, please leave a message in the comments or email me at my pen name using gmail’s free service. Prior posts available here.

© 2014. Foxfier. All rights reserved.


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