Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Inquisition: What’s It to You?

I don’t know about you, but I want to understand the Inquisition. I’m only four years a convert, and still in love with the Catholic Church, so I want to understand why anyone would not love it. It’s like falling in love with a girl at school and then hearing things about her in the locker room. You want to get to the bottom of things.

By my count, the Church has received four big black marks from non-Catholic historians and kibitzers. I understand two of them: the Crusades (no issue) and the priest abuse scandal (issue, sadly). But I know nothing about the other two: Pope Pius XII’s alleged complicity in the Holocaust or that big bad bogeyman, the Inquisition.

That’s why I read Cullen Murphy’s new book God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World with interest.

Murphy has been an editor for two leading magazines of the liberal establishment (The Atlantic and Vanity Fair) and his book has been lauded by fellow liberal opinion-makers; but it is not a hatchet job. God’s Jury was meticulously researched for a decade and seems written with at least a residual affection for the Church in which Mr. Murphy was raised. Reading it taught me a lot and pointed out paths of inquiry I am tempted to follow.

But in the final analysis I have grumbles.

Murphy’s main topic is the Inquisition in its several Catholic forms—primarily the “medieval” (dealing with the Albigensian heresy of the 13th century), the Spanish (a state-run affair mostly), and the Roman (a response to the Protestant Reformation). He follows the history trail to Cardinal Josef Ratzinger and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the Inquisition’s modern-day embodiment.

But from the first pages it is clear that Murphy has bigger fish to fry, linking the Inquisition in its several Catholic forms with non-Catholic inquisitions like the Salem witch trials and up-to-the-moment ones like the interrogation of Muslim prisoners at Guantánamo. After all, to secure a wide readership, he must offer more than a critique of the Catholic Church, that outdated irrelevant fossil. His Big Idea is that any inquisition, Catholic or otherwise, is a symptom of modernity—hence his subtitle.

“Consider,” he writes near the opening, “what an inquisition—any inquisition—really is: a set of disciplinary procedures targeting specific groups, codified in law, organized systematically, enforced by surveillance, exemplified by severity, sustained over time, backed by institutional power, and justified by a vision of the one true path. Considered that way, the Inquisition is more accurately viewed not as a relic but as a harbinger.”

Later, he fleshes out this point:

“The ability to sustain a persecution—to give it staying power by giving it an institutional life—did not appear until the Middle Ages. Until then, the tools to stoke and manage those omnipresent embers of hatred did not exist. Once these capabilities do exist, inquisitions become a fact of life—standard operating procedure. They are not confined to religion; they are political as well. The targets can be large or small. An inquisitional impulse can quietly take root in the very systems of government and civil society that order our lives.”

To bring readers inside this Big Idea, Murphy uses the Church and its capital-I Inquisition as a Trojan horse, to be whipped and even burned if necessary. The first section of the book, titled “The Palace,” trots out this horse, laying out several of the bullet points that liberal non-Catholics find so abhorrent. The CDF, he writes, “originated“:
  • Church rulings on cloning and same-sex marriage
  • “the directive ordering Catholic parishes not to give the names of past or present congregants to the Genealogical Society of Utah, a move that reflects the Vatican’s ‘grave reservations’ about the Mormon practice of posthumous baptism”
  • Dominus Jesus, which reiterated that the Catholic Church is the only true church of Christ and the only assured means of salvation
“Because the Congregation is responsible for clerical discipline, its actions—and inactions—are central to the pedophilia scandals that have shaken the Catholic Church,” Murphy continues. Nor does he spare us the knowledge that Ratzinger headed the CDF for two decades, during which time he was “known as the enforcer and sometimes as the Panzerkardinal. . . . [and] sometimes . . . as the grand inquisitor.” Murphy even resurrects the misunderstanding that Ratzinger was a Nazi, by slyly contradicting it.

Thus, gentle reader, if you, like me, have a gripe against the Catholic Church, or its current Pope, keep reading.  Especially because my Big Point is not even about the Church.

You will have to slog through 80 percent of the main text—through 700 years of not-always-pretty Catholic history—to get to that Big Point. Along the way, there will be hits and misses.

When Murphy first introduces the Order of Preachers (the Dominicans who ran many inquisitional proceedings), he does so with a pop reference: “Its founder, Dominic Guzmán, is the man celebrated in the 1963 song ‘Dominique,” by the Singing Nun (said to be the only Belgian song ever to hit No. 1 on the American charts).” Fortunately, his discussion of the Dominicans grows more serious later. Likewise, Murphy informs us that early in his pontificate Benedict was known more for “his sartorial choices, the designer sunglasses, the red Prada shoes” than for his “scholarly credentials.” However, he does concede many positives to the former Cardinal Ratzinger. For one thing, Benedict and his predecessor, John Paul, are credited with opening up the formerly secret Inquisition archives to historians, although only as far as 1939 and the beginning of the Holocaust question.

Still, Murphy can’t resist pointing out, in his concluding chapter, that a shop just outside the Vatican, which sells “resplendent liturgical garments . . . has been Josef Ratzinger’s tailor for many years.”

The history of the Inquisition, read closely, is not likely cheer anyone, Catholic or otherwise. Murphy notes that our most recent Popes have openly regretted some of its excesses. But in the final chapter, Murphy expresses his dissatisfaction with this apology:

“The papal apology, when it did come, had been maneuvered into place slowly, over a period of years, and with careful rhetorical adjustments along the way. . . . The formulaic parsing was widely noticed.”

Murphy does not ask the US government for an apology over Guantánamo.

The final subsection of the book is titled “The Seventh Virtue.” “If the first virtue, charity, summons us to our better natures,” he writes, “it is the seventh virtue, humility, that protects us from our baser ones.” True enough, and it is clear where Murphy is driving. Inquisitions are founded on the certainty of the inquisitors—that they are right and the heretics wrong, and that for civilization as we know it to survive, the heretics must be found and silenced.

Unfortunately, without a truly God-centered perspective (we Catholics might say Christ-centered), Murphy must drive all the way to relativism:

“Fundamentally, the inquisitorial impulse arises from some vision of the ultimate good, some conviction about ultimate truth, some confidence in the quest for perfectibility, and some certainty about the path to the desire place—and about whom to blame for obstacles in the way.” The Catholic Church, of course, offers just such a vision: of ultimate good and truth, of confidence and certainty. That is one of main reasons I love it so.

In Murphy’s telling, the evils of the Inquisition were slowly banished by the Enlightenment; but without God or Christ in his picture, it is not clear—and Murphy never makes it clear—how our modern world will avoid even more terrible lower-case inquisitions.


  1. Thanks. It's so good of you to read and summarize for us big books such as this one!

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