Sunday, 15 April 2012

God's Jury: the Inquisition and the making of the modern world

"We know you're wishing that we'd go away,
But the Inquisition's here and it's here to stay."

Mel Brooks, History of the World: Part 1, 1981

On Holy Saturday, the headline in The Irish Examiner was “Nobody expected the return of the Inquisition”. The article concerned the recent investigation of writings by Fr Tony Flannery, a Redemptorist priest, by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Others will express their views about this particular case, but I am interested in how the shorthand use of the historical term “the Inquisition” retains the power to stir up in the cultural imagination ideas of surveillance, intolerance, interrogation, censorship, torture, murder, injustice or just Monty Python. Why is this?

Cullen Murphy, the editor of Vanity Fair, tackles this question in his latest book, God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World. He argues that “the Inquisition” remains such a potent, terrifying concept because the mind-set (what he calls “the Inquisitorial impulse”) and the bureaucratic machinery of the Inquisition were inherited by the modern, secular world. They would appear again in Stalin’s Russia, in the totalitarian juntas of Latin America and, following 9/11, in the dubious interrogation practices (such as “waterboarding”) and unlimited detention used in Guantánamo Bay. “The Inquisition” remains stubbornly alive in religious and secular circles, he suggests, because it continues to provide a practical arsenal for those who exercise any form of authority.

Cullen reminds the reader that there was no such thing as “the Inquisition,” an organized event with a singular purpose and that, in fact, over a period of some seven hundred years, there were a number of inquisitions each with distinctive features, goals and exhibiting different degrees of efficiency and severity.

In 1998, Pope John Paul II opened the so-called Archivio Segreto which houses a significant store of the Vatican’s records of the Inquisition. At the time, the opening of the Archivio was marked by two academic congresses of Inquisition scholars and, with access to new source material, renewed academic interest in the Inquisition has flourished. Two years later, from the altar of St Peter’s Basilica, an ailing Pope John Paul II made a sweeping apology for the sins of the past, including the Inquisition. The Pope pleaded for a future that would not repeat the mistakes or abusive practices of the past. “Never again,” he said.

Cullen Murphy’s book provides an erudite, witty and stimulating guide to the Inquisition. Although, he weakens his argument, by tending to be overly suspicious of those in authority and by relativising Truth, so that all views appear to hold the same moral and rational weight. Nevertheless, God’s Jury is a useful primer to the Inquisition and makes thought-provoking parallels with contemporary attitudes, such as the burning of The Satanic Verses.

1231 marks the beginning of what is commonly known as the Medieval Inquisition when Pope Gregory IX appointed the first “inquisitors of heretical depravity”. The “heretical depravity” that was of most concern to the Church was Catharism which existed in pockets of southwestern France. Cathars were dualists (the oldest and most virulent form of heresy), believing that the created world (with its disease, famine, violence and suffering) had to have been created by the forces of darkness and that God only had a hand in the pure world of the spirit.

Next to nothing remains of Cathar documentary sources because they were destroyed along with leading figures in this theological movement. But what does remain are the detailed transcripts of interrogations, manuals and the development under Gratian of a code of canon law. Unlike previous forms of persecution, the Inquisition created an organized bureaucracy that formalized in law clear procedures to be enforced by an institutional power. With this administrative infrastructure, “questionable beliefs could be examined against codified standards,” Cullen Murphy contends, “Casual remarks could be sorted into pre-existing categories of nonconformity.” Bureaucracy was the novel and distinguishing feature of the Inquisition.

The Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions lasted for some 350 years. Their main focus was the potential threat posed by conversos – people who had converted from Judaism to Christianity and who were suspected of “judaizing” – reverting to their Jewish faith. These conversos were not only seen as a danger to the Church but also to the power of the monarchy.

It was men like Tomás de Torquemada who were inspired by the task of rooting out heresy and “judaizing” influences. They were prepared to use excessive, sometimes, brutal practices in order to achieve this. “Full of pitiless zeal,” writes the historian Henry Charles Lea of Torquemada, “he developed the nascent institution with unwearied assiduity. Rigid and unbending, he would listen to no compromise of what he deemed to be his duty, and in his sphere he personified the union of the spiritual and temporal swords which was the ideal of all true churchmen.” Secret proceedings, accusations from unnamed sources; confessions extracted by torture; and defense lawyers unable to access crucial evidence became common features of the show trials that men like Torquemada conducted.

The Roman Inquisition was established in 1542, by Pope Paul III. It was this Inquisition that created the Index Librorum Prohibitorum – the Index of Forbidden Books. Attempts to control the spread of ideas that were considered harmful to the faith led to book burnings and extreme forms of censorship. And finally, there were the Inquisitions that took place in the New World, Asia and Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries which tailoured the principles of the European Inquisitions to meet the challenges of new cultural situations.

“Moral certainty ignites every inquisition and then feeds it with oxygen,” writes Cullen Murphy. This is not an argument for abandoning moral certainty and the quest for truth, but a reminder that such a quest must always be done with humility and a great reverence for others. Humility, Cullen Murphy reminds us, protects us from our baser natures and actions. Humility is a guard against triumphalism, orthodoxies rigidly construed and a sclerotic certitude that can maim, disfigure and do violence to other human beings. Humility saps the Inquisitorial impulse of its violent power and allows the truth to be spoken in love.

God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World, Cullen Murphy, Allen Lane, 2012

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