Understanding the Inquisitions

Web Site E-Mail Response from August 1999

Dear James,

I am sorry you are troubled by the recent cable documentary on the Inquisitions.  I will pray that your burden be lightened.  I also hope the words in this e-mail help you.

I haven't seen the particular documentary of which you are referring, but my experience with that network has shown their documentaries to be somewhat biased.  I saw one of their documentaries on the history of the Bible that watered-down much of the Catholic influence in it's development.  I suspect that a similar slant may have been involved in the documentary you watched.

I also do not know much about the particular details of the Inquisitions, but I believe I am familiar with the general underlying principle of scandal within the ranks of the Church.

I have to admit that you are right--there have been many bad people in the Church including some popes.  We should never defend the evil actions of members of our Church.  Such actions should be condemned because they are inconsistent with the essence of which the Church stands--Christ's teachings of love and truth.  I believe this is why Pope John Paul II recently gave a humble apology for the actions of certain Church leaders during the Inquisitions.  They cannot be defended and must be recognized with honesty.  To cover up our dirty laundry would only hurt our integrity.  We must face the facts, but also make sure that the ideas others infer from those facts be kept honest.

The Spirit has been promised to lead the Church to all truth, and He always will no matter how evil some of the Church's members may become.  The grace needed to find righteousness and truth will always be available within the Church.  God will not force anyone to accept His grace, though.  So being a member, or even a leader of the Church is not enough.  There will always be bad leaders in the Church, but there will always be those who prove its saving power, as well--particularly the Saints.  Christ declared that we would have such a diversity of righteousness and evil within the Church in Matthew 13:24-30 & 36-43 (the parable of the Weeds and the Wheat).  Any Church that does not have both saints and sinners could never be the true Church.  One of the Marks of the Church is that true holiness will always be found at least SOMEWHERE within it's ranks, and that holiness will be accompanied by the complete and unadulterated teachings of the Christ and the Apostles.

No matter how evil any leaders of the Church can possibly become, if we can find at least one member who is faithful, then Christ's promises are still maintained.  As well, never has any bad pope officially taught doctrine that has contradicted the official teachings of the Church.  A former Protestant professor of church history (and friend) once told me how he attempted to prove Papal Infallibility wrong.  He said the first place he looked was in the writings of the bad popes.  He quickly became frustrated with this method of research.  He found that the bad popes were too busy abusing their authority to get around to teaching anything heretical.  He ultimately found nothing officially taught by any pope that contradicted any official teaching of the Church.  He believes the facts from that research give great testimony--testimony that eventually lead him to become Catholic, and not just Orthodox.  Even when our Church leaders involve themselves in scandal, the official teachings of Christ will remain protected and authentic.  That guarantee is an invaluable asset, which we should never give up just because some Church leaders have failed to be good examples.

Many biased historians tend to ignore the just reasons for the Inquisitions.   The main reason was to secure political solidarity within Christendom.   At the time, most kingdoms had sworn allegiance to the Catholic Faith and made it their national religion.  That allegiance was a key element for the kings to keep their kingdoms united.  In the past, national religion acted as a unitifying force for countries.  Only in the past few hundred years have nations successfully accommodated religious diversity.  Many people today forget how things worked back then.  They hold a sort of "chrono-centric mentality," applying the standards of the today to those who lived in the past.  Religious diversity was not easily maintained.  Back then there was a fierce battle between Christian and Islamic nations over territory--particularly over the Holy Land.  Both sides had a valid claim to the regions and both were interested in challenging each others' interests.  When one religion began to infiltrate a government of another religion, both sides saw that as an internal invasion that would split the country's unity, thereby leaving it open for the other country to conquer.  For this same reason, most Islamic countries keep those of other faiths out of their government positions--even today.  For Christian countries, it was a valid concern to make sure other forces did not turn their governments over to rival nations.  They had the right to maintain their existing form of government.

Political science tells how necessary it is for a nation to have common beliefs for it to survive.  When many non-Catholic politicians began to take hold of important positions in the various kingdoms, their influence began to erode that unity.  Those who wanted to save their nation from internal division choose to control the evident threat.  In most cases, those who were found not to be loyal to the Church were stripped of their positions and influence.  Those who were killed usually had influence that could not be stripped unless those persons were put to death.  Those executed were charged by the secular courts with treason against the unity of their kingdom.  Historians admit that a nation has the right to protect itself from internal division even by executing an uncontrollable, political threat.  Even the United States Constitution allows execution for treason (the Rosenbergs for example).  Most of those charged by the Inquisitions, though, were not executed.

Such political battles can hardly be called moral or immoral on either side.  Who is to say that it is immoral for a country to protect its nationally recognized beliefs?  Politics is not an exact science.  Political battles can be fierce.  Even if a battle is fought over which system of government is more effective, the advocates for each side can have righteous motives.  We cannot deny that some Church leaders abused their motive of patriotism beyond a reasonable level.  The problem is when some historians will not concede that there were many others involved who had patriotic and justified motives.  Some people will disagree with such strict patriotism, but then their disagreement is based on their particular belief in the "American" political system and not on general morality.

Have the Orthodox had similar scandals?  Maybe not so large or so recognized, but they are not without sin.  One great scandal of the Orthodox would be the involvement of the Russian Church with the former atheistic Communists.  Soviet Communism was adamant in it's oppression of Catholicism.  The Orthodox leaders worked hard to minimized Catholic influence in Russia.  Many found themselves helping the Communists locate members of the underground Catholic Church.  Many Catholics were tortured and put to death because of Russian Orthodox plots against them.

What did the Protestant Reformers think of the Inquisitions?  Well, the Protestant Reformers had their questionable political practices, too.  Many historians recognize that Martin Luther's teachings did not become widespread because of his capturing intellect but because of his political affiliations.  At the time, many of the German Lords were eager to eliminate the Church's political ties in their country.  When they were approached by Martin Luther, they were presented with an opportunity to challenge the authority of the Church.  Those Lords who adopted Luther's teachings thereby required ALL of the subjects within their realms to become Lutheran.  Many towns did not obey and were crushed by the German Lords' military forces--killing many faithful Catholics.  Many of these military actions were ordered and directed by Luther himself.  Historians also recognize that John Calvin executed three of his lieutenants for challenging his teachings.  They were burned at the stake.  Calvin justified his actions based on treason against the Gospel.

Do these scandals invalidate the teachings of the Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant leaders?  No.  Teachings should be judged by their intellectual content, not by the moral status of their messengers.  I charge all honest persons to not judge Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or Protestantism based on the lifestyles of their teachers.  To do so would be similar to throwing away a good book because of a bad cover.  When searching for truth, we must test the ideas of others for contradictions and consistency.  Anything else would entertain the logical fallacy called "ad hominum."

Is there a use for consideration of scandalous activities of leaders?  Of course.  Such activities should be recognized immediately and stopped if they do not have a just cause.  Even a pope or bishop should be stopped from committing atrocities.  Anyone who failed to do so would be held accountable for the sin of omission.  Such activities also testify to the need for sanctity within our own hearts.  We must be the ones who maintain holiness within the Church.  We must participate in fulfilling Christ's promises.

Do scandals from the Inquisitions prove that the structure of the Church in it's hierarchy is immoral?  All political structures cannot be deemed as immoral in themselves.  Some are more prone to abuse than others, which is why Americans prefer the Republic-Democratic form of government over the Communist-Socialist or Monarchic models.  Many Americans confused their allegiance to their form of government with the idea that other forms are immoral.  There is nothing immoral about a hierarchy, even if it is more prone to abuse.  God himself approved of the Davidic Monarchy even though it was racked with abuse by the Davidic Kings.  The Church is the fulfillment of the Davidic Kingdom on the heavenly level with Christ as it's King and the Pope as it's Prime Minister (Isaiah 22:20-22 and Matthew 16:18-19).  God himself has established the hierarchy of the Church and has vouched for its structure.  To say that the Church Hierarchy is an immoral structure because it has had some abuses is just as ridiculous as saying the parental structure of the family is immoral because child abuse exists.  Both the structures of the family and of the Church have been ordained by God.  Only the abuses are immoral.  The faithful are then charged to accept the structure of the Church and to keep it free from abuse.

Furthermore, such bad leaders gain power when the Church members do not remain faithful in praying for their leaders. Because you feel so appalled by many of our former leaders, I urge you to devote yourself to praying for our priests, bishops and popes.  I also urge you to encourage others to that same devotion.

I hope this letter gives you a better understanding of the Inquisitions.  I also hope that it helps you to focus your feelings toward a more devout purpose toward prayer for our Church leaders.  I completely understand your situation.  I also have struggled with similar issues in the past.  These emotionally challenging issues make the faith that much more valuable and personal.  God bless you.  I will pray for you.  Please pray for us.

In Christ,
Abercius24




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Copyright 1999 CatholicQandA.com.  All rights reserved. The original letter was altered by Abercius24 to improve legibility and protect the identity of the participants.