Anti-Catholicism is in our bloodThe problem with discussing Catholicism with many native English-speakers is that they come to the table loaded down with so much baggage. They have been formed by 400 years of anti-Catholic propaganda. Consequently, their negative view of the Catholic religion is in the national subconscious, it is in our blood. If a man actually believes at the level of his sub-conscious that a rosebush is a man-eating tiger, then he will jump and break out in a sweat of fear when he passes a rosebush regardless of the fact that at the level of conscious thought he knows that this is absurd.
One can illustrate the point that we are making by invoking the Inquisition. The very word will conjure up nightmare visions of some poor Protestant being racked for the good of his soul, while a sadistic hooded monk looks on gloating. The fact is that the word “Inquisition” simply means “Inquiry”. And there have been scores of inquisitions throughout the Church’s history. When the popes ruled half of Italy, it was the name given to the Church’s legal system. This was so benign in comparison with the secular legal systems of the time that in the areas where there was dual jurisdiction, accused would seek to be tried by the Inquisition as opposed to the secular courts.
The Spanish Inquisition (1478 to 1808) is the one people usually mean when they talk about the Inquisition. This Inquisition had the misfortune to be operating at a time when the Spanish were our mortal enemies. To understand the Spanish inquisition one should look at France in 1945. At the end of the last war, members of the French resistance and those who, now the occupation was over, claimed to have been active members of the French resistance, were handing out summary justice without trial to people accused of having been quislings and collaborators. Charles De Gaulle, the post-war President of the Provisional Government of France, cracked down hard on this lawlessness and ensured that if any Frenchman were to be punished for collaborating with the occupying power it should be after a fair trial and a proper legal process.
The Spanish Queen, Isabelle, and her consort, Ferdinand, were in a not dissimilar situation. They had just ended 700 years of occupation of their country by the Moors. In the civil unrest following the war, the Spanish crown began the Inquisition hoping that religious unity would foster political unity. By the standards of the time, the Inquisition was very enlightened. One may also point out that while the Church was heavily implicated in the Spanish Inquisition, it was a secular not a Church inquiry.
Most of the penalties handed down were spiritual, rather than physical. Its severest sentences were reserved for people who bore false witness against others. As for torture, in an age when the secular powers (including England) used torture routinely, the Inquisition was restricted by its rules to using it rarely and in very limited circumstances. And as for persecuting Protestants, not one Protestant was ever arrested by the Inquisition, let alone tried - for one very simple reason, the Inquisition regarded non-Catholics as outside its jurisdiction.
Its judicial procedures were far ahead of their time. Such things as the need for witnesses, the rights of the accused to question and challenge their accusers and the right of appeal where all laid down. Inquisitors did not have to be clerics, but they did have to be qualified lawyers. As for the death penalty, it has been notoriously difficult to reach a consensus on the numbers involved, but the highest number supported by serious historians is in the order of 3000 to 5000 over the entire 330 years of its operation.