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The Impulse Toward Inquisition

IMG_5548The word “inquisition” has a Middle Ages ring to it, and a distinctly religious one.  Its three best known episodes—the Medieval, the Roman and the Spanish (driven more by royalty than religion) have won a chilling place in Western cultural lore through stories of Catholic pursuit of heresy, machines of torture, and burnings at the stake.  Ad extirpanda, issued in 1232 by Pope Gregory IV, was an awful call for the systematic elimination of heretics, and gave papal sanction for the use of torture.

The Catholic Church has not been the only one to use such measures in pursuit of doctrinal purity. John Calvin, the reform founder of what would become the Presbyterian Church, pursued much the same response when his own nascent denomination was affronted by other reformers. (See Out of the Flames, by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone.)  Many secular governments, even commercial interests have done the same.  Moreover, inquisition is not only history, it is a horrifying but recurrent modern phenomenon as well.

The book God’s Jury, by Cullen Murphy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012), makes this case convincingly.  He cites some recent examples and predicts there will be more.  Those of the recent past include the Jewish Holocaust, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the “red scare” of the McCarthy era, and the rush by some to engage in warfare against an entire religion (Muslims) after 9/11.  Consider today, too, the purity standards by which men and women of long, high reputation in their respective political parties are excoriated and expelled from service for the heresy of disagreeing with their most extreme and righteous wings.

Outside this country, consider the genocides of even the last half century, and the mass graves of those who opposed the dictatorial forces of politicians and generals.  Think Slobodan Milosevic, Pol Pot, Papa Doc Duvalier, Biafra, Sunnis and Shiites, Guatemala from the 1960’s to the mid- 90’s.  Syria today.   Yes, inquisition remains a potent human impulse.

Murphy cites several requirements that an inquisition must have to succeed.  The first and most important is self-righteousness–complete conviction that one is right and others are “wrong” (and not only wrong, but thus inherently dangerous and subversive). They must therefore be monitored, censured and even destroyed.  In such righteousness, Murphy concludes, even morally reprehensible means (e.g., torture and assassination) become not only permissible but morally imperative.

Religious belief, he points out, is the strongest motivator for such righteous conviction, but the urge for secular power can be nearly as strong and equally as brutal.  For inquisition to succeed, he says, “There needs to be a system of law, and the means to administer it with a certain amount of uniformity.  There needs to be a well-defined process for conducting interrogations and extracting information.  Procedures must exist for record-keeping, and for retrieving information after records have been compiled and stored.  An administrative mechanism—a bureaucracy—is required, along with a cadre of trained people to staff it.  There must be an ability to send messages across significant distance—and also some capacity to restrict the communications of others.  And there must be a source of power, to ensure enforcement.”

It was the development of such bureaucracies within the Catholic Church that enabled the inquisitions of the Middle Ages to succeed over so much time and geography and with such great effect—the Spanish Inquisition, Cullen demonstrates, reached even into the great American Southwest.

It is clear that today’s capabilities for inquisition are exponentially greater than at any time in the past.  Unfortunately, the tendency toward righteousness is no less virulent.

Cullen’s antidote?  Tolerance.  Personal, social and institutional tolerance of people with different religions, views, skin colors, cultures and backgrounds.  And an unwillingness to accept the unthinkable as “necessary,” or “justified,” or “righteous.”

I call it “gracism”, the root word of which I have turned on its head. Gracism:  An entirely positive approach to others in the world who are of different races, religions and circumstances, based upon mercy, generosity and goodwill.

Cullen’s book is not only fascinating and well-referenced, it is a cautionary tale well worth considering.

(In the photo above  (2010), a great brass bell outside the Cathedral of Pamplona is clinched to its yoke.) 

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