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Jews conducted inquisitions long before any Christian did. Rabbi Yeshua’s bet din (Hebrew: trial, literally “house of law”) by the Sanhedrin was based on this passage from the Torah: Deut 17:2 “If there is found among you, within any of your towns which the Lord your God gives you, a man or woman who does what is evil … then you shall inquire diligently, and if it is true … you shall stone that man or woman to death.” Caiaphas conducted Jesus’ bet din under that passage.
Spaniards speak of the black legend, the Inquisition myth. It did not arise in 1480, but a century later, exactly one year after the Battle of Mühlberg, when Holy Roman Emperor Charles V defeated the Protestants. In 1567 the Protestants published a scurrilous leaflet, written by Montanus, to win with words what they could not win by force of arms. Lurid tales of thought control by sinister fiends spread rapidly. Millions were said to have been killed, far more than Spain’s entire population. The black legend gained its greatest notoriety from Verdi’s opera Don Carlo. Let us step back, take a deep breath, and look more closely.
In medieval Europe, religion was not a Sunday morning departure from daily life. It was a man’s daily life, his science and philosophy, his identity, his only hope of salvation. Heresy directly threatened a man’s eternal life. No mass murderer could do as much. Rabbi Yeshua had taught, Mt 10:28 “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Heretics were traitors to God and king.
At that time, heresy trials were mostly conducted by secular courts, feudal lords, or mobs. Illiterate laymen were not qualified to examine witnesses or assess whether a man’s beliefs were heretical. Many men were put to death through mob justice. To remedy the situation, Pope Lucius III in 1184 sent a list of heresies to all the bishops of Europe and asked them to become involved in whether those accused of heresy were actually guilty. Each bishop was to make sure that men accused of heresy in his diocese were examined by a knowledgeable churchman using Roman laws of evidence. These churchmen were to inquire, hence, “inquisition.”
Most of the accused were acquitted or received a suspended sentence. The Inquisition assumed that most heretics were merely wayward sheep. Those found guilty of grave error were offered an opportunity to confess their sin, do penance, and be restored to the Church in good standing. However, if a particular sheep had purposely attacked the flock, he was excommunicated and given over to the secular authorities. To this day, the Church’s formal definition of heresy is quite narrow. First, the person must have been baptized; no Jew living as such could be tried as a heretic. Second, the person must continue his external profession of Christian faith; no Jew who pretended to be Catholic but relented and returned to Jewish life could be tried. Third, the person must outright deny, or at least cast doubt on, the doctrine at issue. Fourth, the denial or doubt must be obstinate; anyone willing to submit to Catholic authority could not be tried as a heretic, as wrong beliefs were considered mere transient opinions.
During the 1300s and 1400s secular authorities forced many Jews to accept baptism or lose their lives and property. The sins of Christians, some ignorant and some culpable, were a primary cause of these persecutions. England expelled its Jews in 1290, France in 1306, Spain in 1492. Many Europeans resented the wealth of Jewish merchants, and their closed shtetls, ghettos, that seemed to nurture hatred of Christianity. When a storm of persecution arose, many Jews moved elsewhere to wait out the fury. Some accepted baptism.
The Church has never recognized forced baptism as valid, so if the Jew repudiated his baptism soon after the persecution was over it was considered null; no true baptism had occurred.
If the Jew did not repudiate a coerced baptism within a reasonable time after the coercion had ceased, the Church considered his baptism freely accepted and therefore valid. Church authorities were responsible to assure that a validly baptized man continued to live a Christian life.
In Spain many Jews publicly entered the Catholic faith but privately remained Jewish. These false Catholics, called conversos, began to form a secret network. They grew rich and rose to high positions in the Church, the royal court, and the state, and married into the noblest families of Spain. Because their loyalty was to one another, not to Church or crown, the conversos were a threat to the Church and to Spain.
Spanish Jews baptized as Catholics during the Inquisition are sometimes called marranos. Marrano comes from the Spanish verb marrar, to deceive. A marrano is el que marra, one who deceives. Probably during the sixteenth century, the connotation of “dirty animal” or “pig” was added. In some minds, the juderias, Jewish neighborhoods, were as dirty as pocilgas, pig pens, and so marrano became synonymous with puerco, pig. Catholics therefore use the respectful term conversos, converts, to refer to Jews baptized as Catholics during the Spanish Inquisition.
In 1480 Spain began a historic reunification. The marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile was intended to bring together Aragon and Castile to create a unified Spain, not seen since Roman times. Isabella, concerned that conversos were trying to infiltrate the new state, set up a court that would judge whether a person was a Catholic and Spaniard or a traitor.
No Jew who lived as a Jew was tried by the Spanish Inquisition. The only Jews tried were those pretending to be Catholic.
The most grave charge against the Spanish Inquisition is that when the Catholic rulers, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel, conquered Granada in 1492, they forced the Jews to embrace Christianity or leave the country. 160,000 Jews, known as Sephardim, left for the Ottoman Empire, where they and their descendants continued to do well. Andalusia’s Muslims resettled in Morocco, leaving behind as their contribution to Spanish Catholic culture flamenco music. Ferdinand and Isabel acted as temporal rulers; the Church had no part in it.
At first, there were severe abuses. Pope Sixtus IV quickly intervened and appointed new inquisitors under a Dominican monk, Tomas de Torquemada. Torquemada reformed the procedures, making them more lenient, improving conditions in the prisons, and giving money to help the families of those on trial. He also personally examined appeals from the accused. Even so, under Torquemada, the first 15 years of the Inquisition were the most deadly, with two thousand conversos executed. After that, his successor, Cardinal Cisneros, went much farther in instituting reforms. During the rest of the Inquisition’s 350 history it was one of Europe’s most efficient and compassionate courts, executing fewer than 3,000 heretics. No major European court executed fewer people.
It is charged that the Inquisition used torture. The Church now condemns all torture, CCC 2297, 2298 but at the time all governments extracted confessions through torture. The Inquisition courts used torture in only 2 percent of its cases.
It is also charged that the Inquisition executed persons found guilty. Those found guilty were traitors to Church and state; treason is everywhere recognized as a capital crime. Moreover, those found guilty were always given a chance to repent; only those who refused were executed. Even in American jurisprudence today, repentance does not automatically prevent execution for capital crimes.
It is finally charged that the method of execution, burning at the stake, was barbaric. Compared with executions in other countries, burning seems moderate. In England, the person was hanged, cut down while alive, disemboweled, then cut into four pieces (drawn and quartered). In France, persons were executed by being boiled alive. Even in American jurisprudence today, we execute criminals in an electric chair, while the Catholic Church today condemns virtually all capital punishment. CCC 2266
Let us be clear. Our Father’s fifth commandment was: “You shall not kill.” Jesus strengthened it. Mt 5:21 “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.” Human life is sacred. CCC 2258 Killing even one Jew or anyone else, other than in self-defense, is an abomination. CCC 2264 The only true measure of moral stature is God’s law, and by it Catholic churchmen committed grave sins. But when they are charged by comparison with Protestant or civil society, it is appropriate to revisit the perspective of that time.
In fact, the Spanish Inquisition saved tens of thousands from death. Spain remained Catholic, and so did not become involved in the religious wars that came when Luther’s Reformation set Europe aflame. During the Inquisition’s 350 year history 100,000 persons were put on trial but fewer than 5,000 executions were documented. We lament each one, but we remember that during the same centuries Protestants burned more than 150,000 “witches” elsewhere in Europe.
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