Galileo appears before the Holy Office in this 19th century painting by Joseph Nicolas Robert-Fleury. While the Inquisitions were a very real part of the Middle Ages — and did on occasion involve abuse of authority — they must be understood in the context of their time, and the numbers of those condemned were not nearly as great as revisionist historians often suggest.
Apologetics (defending Catholicism and sometimes Christianity in general) is usually very fun. I love my work, but at times it is maddeningly frustrating. One time I had an experience that provided an opportunity to clarify some relevant historical facts about the Inquisition (actually, if we’re being historically correct, there were several “Inquisitions”).
Non-Catholic Christians and the secular world have used the Inquisitions, the Crusades, and the Galileo incident as “clubs” to bash the Church for almost 500 years. I did so myself, in my Protestant days. But such critics almost invariably distort (willingly or unwittingly) the known facts in order to do so.
One Reformed Protestant apologist, for example, referred on his website to “the Inquisition where an estimated 50-68 million people were killed by Rome.
” That’s quite a fantastic allegation (to put it mildly and charitably), seeing that the entire population of Europe at its height in the Middle Ages is thought by scholars to have been between 100-120 million. If true, that would mean the Church killed as many people as the Black Death (Bubonic Plague), which wiped out about a third to half the population.
I replied by asking him to give me the names of any reputable historians who asserted such absolutely ridiculous figures. He said he knew of an Internet article that he couldn’t locate, by one David A. Plaisted, who turned out to be a professor of computer science; not an academic historian at all. Ultimately, when pressed, my friend offered no actual historian to back up his assertion, and the “debate” quickly descended from there.
On the other hand, there are many historians — even non-Catholic ones — and professors of history who offer vastly different opinions. Edward Peters, from the University of Pennsylvania, author of Inquisition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), and Henry Kamen, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and professor at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, who wrote The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), are two such scholars.
These two books are in the forefront of an emerging, very different perspective on the Inquisitions: an understanding that they were exponentially less inclined to issue death penalties than had previously been commonly assumed, and also quite different in character and even essence than the longstanding anti-Catholic stereotypes would have us believe.
“The best estimate is that around 3,000 death sentences were carried out in Spain by Inquisitorial verdict between 1550 and 1800, a far smaller number than that in comparable secular courts,” Dr. Peters writes on page 87 of his book.
Likewise, Dr. Kamen writes: “Taking into account all the tribunals of Spain up to about 1530, it is unlikely that more than two thousand people were executed for heresy by the Inquisition (p. 60).
“It is clear,” he goes on, “that for most of its existence that Inquisition was far from being a juggernaut of death either in intention or in capability. … it would seem that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries fewer than three people a year were executed in the whole of the Spanish monarchy from Sicily to Peru, certainly a lower rate than in any provincial court of justice in Spain or anywhere else in Europe” (p. 203, emphasis added).
Huge myths obviously abound. But does this mean that I “defend” capital punishment for heresy, or that Catholics in general should? No; personally, I advocate the tolerant practices of the early Church. Yet I think it’s also supremely important to properly and accurately understand the Inquisitions in the context of their times (the Middle Ages and early modern periods).
In those eras, almost all Christians (not just Catholics; minus only a few small groups such as Anabaptists and Quakers) believed in both corporal and capital punishment for heresy, because they thought heresy was far more dangerous to a person and society than physical disease was. Their premise, at least, was exactly right, as far as it goes: heresy can land one in hell; no disease could ever do that. How to deal with heresy is a separate, and very complex question.
In the Middle Ages, all heresy was pretty much regarded as obstinacy and in bad faith; evil will, etc. The Church today takes a much more psychologically nuanced approach: much heresy is (erroneously) believed in good faith; hence the adherent is less culpable and not guilty enough to be punished. We’ve also learned the pointlessness of coercion regarding one’s religious beliefs. This assumption of “bad faith” was the original Christian position, anyway, before heresy became wrapped up in civil disorder (such as in the cases of the Donatists, Monophysites, Arians and Albigensians, among others).
Be that as it may, some Protestants and other critics of the Catholic Church exercise a glaring double standard in condemning only the Catholic Church for engaging in this practice, and grotesquely exaggerating ludicrous numbers. In reply, it must be noted that Protestants (including Luther, Calvin, the early English Protestants, Zwingli, Melanchthon, et al) have a long and troubling list of scandals and “inquisitions” as well. As just one example among many, Martin Luther and John Calvin both sanctioned the execution of Anabaptists due to their belief in re-baptizing adults, which they considered to be “sedition.
” In addition, thousands of English and Irish Catholics were executed (often in very hideous ways) simply for being Catholics and worshiping as their ancestors had done for 1,500 years. The execution of reputed “witches” (such as in the famous Salem Witch trials) was almost entirely a Protestant phenomenon as well.
In any case, it is clear that the notion of the death penalty for heresy was largely a product of the Middle Ages, and the Protestants who came at the end of that period did not, for the most part, dissent from it.
To utterly ignore these facts, while condemning the Catholic Church, is to engage in dishonest historical revisionism.
Dave Armstrong has been a published Catholic apologist since 1993 and webmaster since 1997. He lives in Allen Park, grew up in Detroit, and has attended St. Joseph Church near downtown since 1991. He’s been happily married to his wife Judy since 1984, and they have three sons and a daughter. Dave has written or edited 48 books on apologetics, including several bestsellers. If you’d like to help keep his influential teaching apostolate going as a much-needed monthly supporter, write to Dave at apologistdave@gmail.