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The Inquisition

The Inquisition goes down in history as one of the most horrible crime against humanity. To begin the story of the Inquisition, we must begin at the beginning, with the Albigensian heresy.

The Albigenses, also called Cathari ("Pure Ones"), was a heretical Christian sect which had a large following in southern France, mainly in the regions of Toulouse and Languedoc, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Their name is taken from a city in Southern France called Albi. They rejected all church sacraments and believed that matter is intrinsically evil (a la the Gnostics). Jesus, they taught was an angel with a phantom body; he did not really suffer on the cross. The importance they attached to Jesus was to his teachings not his death and resurrection. Unusual for a Christian sect, the Albigenses were strictly pacifist and non-violent. They were also tolerant of other beliefs. [1]

The Albigenses were condemned by Church councils starting from 1165. At first Pope Innocent III (1160-1216) sent in the Dominican monks to try to convince the Albigenses, by public debate, of the error of their ways. But they were unsuccessful and the region remain firmly under the Albigensian heresy. With both the condemnation of the council and the public debates of the Dominicans unsuccessful, the pope decided to play his trump card: the sword. In 1209 Pope Innocent III initiated the campaign known as the Albigensian crusade. Like the crusades against the Muslims the pope offered indulgences to all its participants. This brought about twenty thousand eager Christians, knights and peasants, from all over Europe.

The Albigensian crusade was to outdo all the atrocities of the past: for the first time a pope was sanctioning a holy war against other Christians. The crusaders attacked all the towns where the heresy was strong. An example of the senseless slaughter that took place can be taken from the storming of the city of Bezeirs. The papal appointee Arnald Almaric, Abbot of Cliteaux, was asked during the siege how he planned to distinguish the believers from the heretics in the city. His answer was spine-chilling: "Kill all, God will know his own." The killing, in many cases was not done instantly, the victims were first blinded, mutilated, dragged behind horses and used for target practice. By Arnald's own account, about 15,000 men, women and children were slaughtered there. Some chroniclers estimated the figure to be closer to 50,000. [2]

The papal legates tried to outdo each other in the level of cruelty imposed on the Albigenses. One of them, Simon of Montfont was truly a crusader in the traditional mould. In his piety he prayed to his God before every battle. The chronicler Pierre des Vaux-de-Cernay described one of Simon's prayer:

Having prayed at length and with great devotion, he grasped the sword hanging by his side and laid it on the altar, saying, "O good Lord, O Gentle Jesus! You have chosen me to wage your wars in spite of my unworthiness. It is from your altar that I receive my arms today, so that in the moment of fighting your battles I may receive my weapons from you." [3]

Divinely inspired, Simon captured one Albigensian stronghold after another. He used torture as a method of slowly killing his victims before burning them. As for those whose live he decided to spare, he had their eyes torn out. The crusade lasted for more than twenty years and the estimated casualty was about one million dead. [4]

This wholesale massacre almost completely destroyed the nascent civilization of a brilliant people. [5]

Almost was not enough for the pious Christian bishops. In 1233, Pope Gregory IX (c1148-1241) established the Inquisition or, more formally, The Congregation of the Holy Office. Its aim was simple, to seek out and eradicate the Albigensian heretics. Gregory entrusted the Inquisition to the Dominican monks. As an ecclesiastical court, with a "secular arm" for administering the death penalty, the Inquisition wielded immense power. Accusations can be made anonymously, which made the task of the defence all the more difficult. If a person accused of heresy refused to confess, he will be tried before an Inquisitor, who will generally be assisted by some members of the clergy and the lay community. The ultimate penalty was burning at the stake. Other penalties included imprisonment and confiscation of property. [6]

In 1251 Pope Innocent IV (d.1254) authorized the use of torture in the Inquisition to abstract confession from the accused. The tremendously added to the efficacy of the whole process. The methods of torture used must be described for its horror to be appreciated. Given below is a summary, by the Swiss historian Walter Nigg, of the torture used the Inquisition:

The thumbscrew was usually the first to be applied. The fingers were placed in clamps and the screws turned until the blood spurted out and the bones were crushed. The defendant might be placed on the iron torture chair, the seat of which consisted of sharpened iron nails that could be heated red hot from below. There were the so-called "boots" which were employed to crush the shinbones. Another favorite torture was the dislocation of the limbs on the rack or the wheel on which the heretic, bound hand and foot, was drawn up and down while the body was weighted with stones. So that the tortures would not be disturbed by the shrieking of the victim, his mouth was stuffed with cloth. Three- and four-hour sessions of torture were nothing unusual. During the procedures the instruments were frequently sprinkled with holy water. [7]

Some people, unaccustomed to associating religion- or religious people- with atrocities, would tend to assume that these inquisitors acted against their religious beliefs and were, very probably, vandals and hooligans; and certainly not virtuous. But that would be a gross mistake; they were ruthless precisely because of their deep faith; as the ex-priest, Peter de Rosa clearly testifies:

The most frightening of the inquisitors were the incorruptible ones; they tortured purely and simply for the love of God. They had no financial interest...they acted solely for the good of the cause. The very asceticism of most of these pious God-fearing Dominicans made them pathologically harsh. Used to pain themselves, they had a spiritual yearning to inflict pain on others. The screams of their victims were a kind of theological music to their ears, a proof that Satan was taking a pasting. They also rejoiced like children at the pope’s benevolence towards them; he gave them the same indulgences he gave the knights who went to the crusades. [8]

The Inquisition was extremely successful in southern France. By the middle of the thirteenth century, the Albigensian heresy there was extirpated. The Inquisition continued to ruthlessly hunt down the remainder throughout Europe. By the fourteenth century, the Albigenses had ceased to exist, a powerful testament to the strength of the Inquisition. [9]

After the success with the Albigenses, the Inquisition was used on other heresies. Pope Innocent VIII (d.1492) used the tribunal against witchcraft and Pope Paul III (1468-1549) used it against the Italian Protestants in 1542.

The Inquisition, in the form of the Congregation of the Holy Office, continued to operate until well into the nineteenth centuries. As late as 1766 we still hear of the atrocities of the tribunal. In that case, a young Frenchman, Chevalier de la Barre was arrested for singing blasphemous songs and for wearing his hat while a church procession passed. He had his tongue torn out, his ears and his right hand cut off and was sentenced to death by hanging. The great Enlightenment thinker Voltaire (1694-1778) pleaded to the court to spare the boy's life, he appealed to the parliament in Paris. The clergy demanded death by the stake, the parliament in a fit of Christian charity refused and substituted a quicker form of the death penalty. On the 1st of July 1766 Chevalier de La Barre was decapitated. [10]

The Inquisition was finally suppressed in France in 1772. [11] The final curtain on the atrocities of the Inquisition fell in 1834 when the Spanish Inquisition was finally abolished. [12]

Although the Congregation of the Holy Office (which was the final court of appeal for heresy trials) no longer exists today, it is replaced by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. It seems that while the atrocities had stopped, the basic principles had not stopped. It was this congregation that deprived Hans Kung of his academic post in 1979 when he challenged the doctrine of papal infallibility. Similar methods, of depriving scholars of their livelihood, are used on all dissenters.

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1.Armstrong, Holy War: p390-392
Livingstone, Dictionary of the Church: p13
Rosenbaum, Desk Concord Encyclopedia: p39
2.Armstrong, Holy War: p396-397
Haught, Holy Horrors: p54-56
Robertson, History of Christianity: p153
3.Armstrong, Holy War: p397
4.Robertson, History of Christianity: p153
5.Fisher, History of Europe: p276
Knight, Honest to Man: p85
6.Livingstone, Dictionary of the Church: p261
Robertson, History of Christianity: p174
Summerscale, The Penguin Encyclopedia: p311
7.Haught, Holy Horrors: p61-62 Rosa, Vicars of Christ: p230
9.Armstrong, Holy War: p456
Knight, Honest to Man: p85-86
Summerscale, The Penguin Encyclopedia: p13
10.Haught, Holy Horrors: p133
Knight, Honest to Man: p87
Livingstone, Dictionary of the Church: p87
Summerscale, The Penguin Encyclopedia: p311
11.Knight, Honest to Man: p87
12.Haught, Holy Horrors: p68

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