The Inquisition began in 1163 when Pope Alexander III instructed bishops to discover evidence of heresy and take action against the heretics. What developed was a campaign of terror, with secret proceedings, supreme authority vested in the inquisitor, and a complete lack of due process, where the accused didn't know the names of their accusers, there was no defense attorney, and torture was used to extract confessions. Those who refused to repent were turned over to the government to be burned at the stake.
"What precipitated the Inquisition?" I asked. "And more important, how could authentic Christians participate in such atrocities?"
"The roots of the Inquisition can be traced back to the papacy's deep concern about the problem of heresy, especially in southern France among the Albigenses," Woodbridge explained. "Actually, there's no question that the Albigeneses were proponents of heretical teachings and practices. Traditional means of persuasion-for instance, sending them missionaries-didn't work. The Inquisition was an alternative approach or tactic to try to prevent this heresy from spreading. And there were political factors at work too-the northern French were looking for any excuse to intervene in southern provinces."
"So that was the first phase of the Inquisition?" I asked.
"Yes, it was," he said. "There were basically three waves of Inquisitions. First, the one I just mentioned. The second one began in 1472 when Isabella and Ferdinand helped establish the Spanish Inquisition, which also had the Pope's authority behind it."' The third wave began in 1542 when Pope Paul III determined to hunt down Protestants, especially Calvinists."
"So," I said, "you have Catholics who call themselves Christians persecuting Protestants who call themselves Christians."
"Yes, this shows once again that you can't really talk about the 'one church,"' he replied. "And things get more complicated because contemporaries often identified heresy with political sedition. If a person was deemed to be a heretic, he or she was also thought to be politically seditious. For instance, in the trial of Michael Servetus, the state ultimately put him to death. One accusation was that he was a heretic, but what was possibly the state's great fear? It's that he was also politically seditious. Religion and politics were bound up together."
"Is it possible that some authentic Christians were actually the victims of the Inquisition? We typically think of Christians as perpetrating the terror and wonder how true Christians could torture anyone, but could it be that the true Christians really were the ones being killed?" "Yes, it's very possible," he said. "We don't know the identities of all those who died, but it's likely many were the ones upholding the true faith. Certainly there's evidence that the Catholic church had lost its way in launching these inquisitions. Protestants sometimes used inappropriate tactics to suppress heresy as well."
"Was the Inquisition an anomaly or part of a broader pattern of abuse and oppression by churches through history?"
"I think that the Inquisition is a tragedy that Christians cannot run away from. But I don't think that it's representative of the history of the Christian churches. It's too much of an extrapolation to say that this kind of hateful activity is part of a pattern.
"For much of their existence, many Christian churches have been in a minority situation and therefore not even in a position to persecute anyone. In fact, talk about persecution-millions of Christians themselves have been victims of brutal persecution through the ages, continuing to the present day in some places. In fact, there have been apparently more Christian martyrs in the twentieth century than in any other. To this very day, Christians are being killed for their faith around the world. So, no, the Inquisition is by far an exception in church history, not the norm."
Woodbridge's remarks reminded me of a magazine column about Christians being on the receiving end of persecution. While most people think of the average Christian today as being a United States resident living far away from any danger for their faith, journalist David Neff set the record straight.
"The typical Christian," he said, "lives in a developing country, speaks a non-European language, and exists under the constant threat of persecution-of murder, imprisonment, torture, or rape."i9
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