After the Church had consolidated its power in the early Middle Ages, heretics came to be regarded as enemies of society. The crime of heresy was defined as a deliberate denial of an article of truth of the Catholic faith, and a public and obstinate persistence in that alleged error.
The medieval church condemned religious diversity and independent thinking. A fundamentalist/literalist approach to biblical interpretation prevailed into the twentieth century. Most Catholics during the Middle Ages and subsequent centuries were uneducated and illiterate, particularly before Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, but those who were educated and literate were, nonetheless, discouraged from reading Scripture for fear they would misunderstand its meaning. To underscore that scriptural interpretation was the exclusive province of the Church, Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) declared that anyone caught reading the Bible would be stoned to death by soldiers of the church militia.
Beginning in the thirteenth century, orthodoxy among the faithful was preserved by rooting out and suppressing heresy, primarily through the Holy Inquisition, Inquisitio Haereticae Pravitatis (“inquiry on heretical perversity”). Heresy included Judaizing (reverting to the practice of Judaism). Established in 1231 by Pope Gregory IX (1227–41), the Inquisition continued in one form or other for almost seven hundred years, with its last execution occurring in 1826. The first Inquisition is referred to as the Medieval Inquisition. Burning at the stake, termed auto-da-fe, or “act of faith,” was the preferred method of execution, in part because of its supposed endorsement in Scripture, especially in this verse from the Gospel of John: “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.” (John, 15:6)
The auto-da-fe involved a solemn Mass, prayer, a public procession of the convicted, and reading of the sentence. The ritual took place in public squares and lasted several hours with ecclesiastical and civil authorities in attendance. Execution was carried out by the civil authority. The trial occurred before an ecclesiastical court with the accused often not knowing what witnesses would be called to testify for the prosecution. There was no right to cross-examine adverse witnesses; no right to defense counsel, or to call defense witnesses. Accused heretics were often tortured until they “confessed” their guilt. Methods of torture included starvation, forced consumption of large quantities of water or other fluids, reminiscent of modern day water-boarding, and burning coals heaped on parts of the body.
Strappado was a particularly brutal form of torture initiated by the Medieval Inquisition. In one version, the hands of the accused were tied behind his/her back and the rope looped over a brace in the ceiling of the chamber or attached to a pulley. Then the subject was raised until hanging from the arms. This might cause the shoulders to pull out of their sockets. Sometimes, the torturers added a series of drops, jerking the subject up and down. Weights could be added to the ankles and feet to make the hanging even more painful. The rack, photo above, was another widely used form of torture in which the accused’s hands and feet were tied or chained to rollers at one or both ends of a wooden or metal frame. The torturer then turned the rollers with a handle, which pulled the chains or ropes in increments and stretched the accused’s joints, often until they dislocated. If the torturer continued turning the rollers, the accused’s arms and legs could be torn off. Not surprisingly, often simply seeing someone else being tortured on the rack was enough to make an observer confess to anything the torturer suggested. Terming the Inquisition, “God’s Jury,” Cullen Murphy, author of “God’s Jury, The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World,” contends that the Inquisition pioneered surveillance, censorship and “scientific” interrogation methods which became tools of secular persecution. The Gestapo, for example, used some of these methods during the Nazi reign of terror, another unintended consequence.
The notorious Spanish Inquisition began operation in 1478 by order of Pope Sixtus IV during the reign of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Established at their request, the Spanish Inquisition was directed primarily at conversos, Jewish converts to Christianity aka Marranos (derived from a Spanish word for “swine”), whose conversions were suspect. It also focused on Muslim converts to Christianity suspected of reverting to Islamic practices. Between 1480 and 1520, up to four thousand Marranos were tortured and condemned to death as heretics and/or as Judaizers. The first inquisitor general in Spain, Tomas de Torquemada, a Dominican monk, whose name became synonymous with the Inquisition, had two thousand or more people executed within a few years of assuming office. In 1492, the Spanish Inquisition’s recommendation led to the expulsion of Jews from Spain, notwithstanding that Jews had lived on the Iberian Peninsula since, at least, the days of the Roman Empire. Under terms of the Spanish monarchy’s Edict of Expulsion, however, any Jew who converted to Christianity could return to Spain. The Inquisition survives as part of the Roman Curia, renamed to Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office in 1904, now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The Inquisition is an example of the dark side of religion, an historical episode of religious persecution that lasted for centuries. It demonstrates that the most dangerous people in the world can be those who consider themselves “righteous.” A great deal of evil has been done in the name of God. Christopher Hitchens, an avowed atheist, in his book, “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” wrote that organized religion is “the main source of hatred in the world,” because it is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children,” and accordingly it “ought to have a great deal on its conscience.”
The Church eventually repudiated the violence of the Inquisition, but continued to hold to many of the ideas that produced it until Vatican Council II in the 20th century.