The Inquisition

I just read Cullen Murphy’s God’s Jury, which is a popular history and meditation on the meaning of the Inquisition. Cullen, an outstanding writer, makes the point that the Inquisition was not a pre-modern phenomenon that we have outgrown. Quite the opposite: modernity created the tools of the Inquisition, and they still operate.

“Why was there suddenly an Inquisition? Intolerance, hatred, and suspicion of ‘the other,’ often based on religious and ethnic differences, had always been with us. Throughout history, these realities had led to persecution and violence. But 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 inquisition impulse can quietly take root in the very systems of government and civil society that order our lives.” [p. 21]

He points out how the same tools were used by the Nazis, by the Soviet Union… and by the United States after 9/11.

As to the church, I liked Murphy’s citation of Carlo Ginzburg, a historian who played a role in the Vatican’s decision to open their archives of the Inquisition to scholars.  He was at a convocation of historians and theologians, some of whom hoped the pope would issue an apology. “This is all very well,” Ginzburg said. “What I didn’t hear the pope say today, and what I haven’t heard anybody in this discussion say, is that the Catholic Church is ashamed of what it did. Not sorry. Sorry is easy. I want to hear the Catholic Church–I want to hear the pope–say he is ashamed.” [p. 231]

I agree.  But what Murphy doesn’t adequately analyze is the fundamental problem of control and freedom in institutions or communities. Murphy suggests, without quite saying it, that freedom is good and control is bad. It’s easy to feel that way after learning of the horrors of the Inquisition. But what would he say about the pedophile scandal in the church? That there was not enough freedom? Institutional control was needed, everybody agrees. And such control can, and does, turn into inquisitions.

Institutions and communities must have boundaries. Their need for control can easily become institutionalized and abusive. The way through this dilemma calls for wisdom and humility. It doesn’t yield, so far as I can see, to a generalized formula.


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