The Inquisition, Torture, and Modernity

(This is Neil.) In the most recent issue of Faith & International Affairs, the theologian William T. Cavanaugh tells us that his lectures on torture in the modern world are often met with a semi-accusation, “How can you criticize the United States for using torture when the Catholic Church has such a history of torture – you know, the Inquisition and all that?” Professor Cavanaugh acknowledges that the Catholic Church did sanction torture, but he is surprised that the “Black Legend” of the Inquisition, which exaggerated the severity and extent of the Inquisition, continues to be so widespread in its influence.

But, then again, he is not so surprised: “The Black Legend of the Inquisition is part of a larger Enlightenment narrative that celebrates modernity and its institutions as a darkness overcome.” The acts of Muslim extremists – and torture itself – are inevitably described as “medieval,” and the solution always appears to be more and more “modernity.” Ironically, though, the “triumphal tale of modernity” helps establish the “conditions under which torture can take place in the modern world,” including through the actions of the United States.

How is this?

Torture seems so relegated to a barbaric past – to them – that we cannot imagine that we the United States, a nation seemingly characterized by modernity, could ever practice it. The torture practiced by American soldiers must not really be torture. Or we tell ourselves that it is an “aberration,” the fault of soldiers from (predictably) a more rural part of the country. But, despite the Black Legend’s claim that torture is the dark symptom of the pre-modern, torture can be and has been practiced in the name of modernity and modernity’s key institution, the nation-state. Even by the United States.

In fact, the Guardian’s “Face to Faith” column for this week is written by the historian Toby Green, who tells us that the Inquisition at its worst, in the Iberian Peninsula, was a “secular institution” designed for a political purpose very recognizable to us moderns – the creation of “social unity at a time of anarchy.” Although it would be wrong to rival a “triumphal tale of modernity” with the exaltation of the medieval (again, the Catholic Church did sanction torture), it actually was the seemingly “medieval” institution of the papacy that often sought to stem the violence for a seemingly “medieval” reason – “spiritual commitment.”

Here, then, is Toby Green:

Thus almost two centuries after the Inquisition was extinguished in Spain, there has been little public examination of what the Inquisition really meant, and how it was used to dominate the peoples of Spain, Portugal and their colonies in America and Asia. When five centuries of antipathy can allow Catholics to fall back on a sense of injustice and non-Catholics to belittle an old religious enemy, one reaches an impasse. Stereotypes are so easy to invoke.

Yet studying the Inquisition of Portugal and Spain, far from being a reprise of the anti-Catholic propaganda of the past, can help to distinguish between the best and the worst of religion. For the worst excesses of the Inquisition in Portugal and Spain were always sanctioned by a secular drive to power rather than by religion. The Inquisition was instituted in 1480 by Ferdinand and Isabella, the monarchs of Spain, as a means of creating social unity at a time of anarchy. In both Spain and Portugal it was a resolutely secular institution in which the papacy had very little practical influence. Popes were unable to secure inquisitorial posts in Iberia for their favourites, and attempted – often in vain – to stem the violence of the institution with sporadic bulls and pleas for clemency.

By contrast, the Inquisition was always at its most lenient in the lands controlled by the Vatican in Italy. Fewer people died under the Inquisition in Italy in the 16th century than in England during Mary Tudor’s five-year purge of Protestants. Torture was not used with the same regularity and rigour as it was in Iberia.

These important but often ignored facts help to explain the importance of reassessing the Inquisition today. For though the Inquisition did indeed commit many bloody outrages in Portugal and Spain, the established religious authority of the papacy was always a moderating influence. This was because the religious ideals of Catholicism were used in the Inquisition as a moral fig leaf by the Iberian monarchies for their political motivations. The most dangerous use of religious ideology was when it could be appropriated by powerful political forces for secular ends.

Thus although the Inquisition is rarely championed by Catholics, it can help to show the difference between dogmatic use of religion for hidden purposes and the genuine commitment to a faith which can encourage pluralism. After all, while Spain and Portugal expelled Jews at the end of the 15th century, the Vatican allowed them to reside in the papal state. This is the perfect metaphor for the difference between extremism and spiritual commitment which is encompassed by the curious history of the Inquisition.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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