As you know, before he was Pope Emeritus, Josef Ratzinger was Pope Benedict XVI. And before he was the Pope, he was a Cardinal and the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was formerly the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office. And before that, it was the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition.
We run through this brief history because there seems to be some confusion in high places about the Inquisition, its meaning, and its origins.
As you may have heard, last week, at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Barack Obama took the opportunity to chastise Christians for their 800-year-old moral transgressions. Referencing the ongoing atrocities being committed by radical Islamists, he said the following: “[L]est we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”
We will spare you the commentary on the silliness of Obama’s armchair theologizing and his perpetual indulgence in cultural equivalency. The mainstream and electronic media have more than fulfilled that need. Rather, we would like to focus on Obama’s historical and religious illiteracy, which is not his alone, but largely societal, and which is woefully counterproductive in that it abets and excuses the contemporary Muslim religious leaders who cannot or will not take responsibility for the misdeeds committed in their name.
Obama was clearly right when he said that “terrible deeds” have been committed in the “name of Christ” and specifically during the Inquisition. But what, exactly, was the Inquisition? Why did it seemingly permit the commission of evil in the name of God? And what, pray tell, was the result of the Inquisition itself and of the evil that came from it? Let us attempt to answer these questions.
Most people associate the term “Inquisition” with the Spanish Inquisition. And the Spanish Inquisition was, most historians agree, a fairly gross abuse of ecclesiastical power by Tomas de Torquemada and his patrons, Isabella of Castile and her husband Ferdinand. It culminated in the unjust and barbarous slaughter of at least 2,000 Spanish Jews, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and the perpetuation of anti-Semitism on the Iberian Peninsula.
Now, that said, the Inquisition, more broadly, was and still is a valuable tool for the defense of the Catholic faith. The Inquisition, recall, was originally founded to combat the Catharist heresy in the late 13th and early 14th Centuries and to wrest control of Church discipline from secular authorities who did not have the knowledge required to assess heresy accurately and who were thus wrongly punishing “heretics” where none existed. The Medieval Inquisition, in short, was constituted to protect, not to harm. Eventually, the Inquisition evolved into a more formal congregation within the Church, with the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition officially established in 1542 by Pope Paul III.
The Medieval Inquisition, its Roman successor, and even its modern manifestation, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, have all been charged with protecting the faith and defending the Church against heresy. And while Pope John Paul II correctly lamented the excesses of the early Inquisition, calling it a “painful chapter of history” characterized by, among other things, the unwarranted “use of violence in the service of truth,” there is little question that the institution as a whole has served a valuable purpose and helped to exorcise many of the heretical scourges that have threatened the Church, and the truth entrusted to it, since the late Middle Ages.
All of which is to say that while Barack Obama rightly laments the “terrible deeds,” he nevertheless misses the entire point, i.e. that the Inquisition’s very existence is, in part, what differentiates Christianity from Islam. The Inquisition, in short, was designed to protect Christian orthodoxy and root out moral errors, including violence committed in God’s name. The Inquisition facilitated the eradication of all sorts of evils that have, over the centuries, been erroneously called “Christian.” And in so doing, it permitted the Christian world to unite in rejecting violence as a means for enforcing God’s will.
Recall that almost a decade ago, the aforementioned Pope Benedict XVI issued a challenge to the world’s Muslims to define themselves and to define the type of God in which they believe. Pope Benedict spoke of faith and reason, arguing that the two cannot exist separately and, moreover, that when they exist in harmony, violence in God’s name is impossible. Specifically, Pope Benedict spoke of logos, i.e. Divine Reason, as the animating force of God’s nature. He argued that logos – faith and reason in perfect accord – is the key to human potential, freedom, and civilizational progress.
This challenge was specifically and unambiguously that of the Inquisition. And it is now the challenge facing Islam.
What is Islam? What is it not? How does it define itself and what sort of god does it worship? Does it believe in a god of logos? Or does it believe in some other type of god, a god of voluntas, or pure will?
In his famous address at Regensburg, Pope Benedict declared that “Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and with the nature of the soul.” In so doing, he challenged Islam to reject violence, to reject an arbitrary and willful God who demands violence of his people, and thus to accept God as perfectly and completely rational.
We would argue, moreover, that this challenge was born directly of Pope Benedict’s specific life experiences and his unique and formative involvement in the defense of the faith against heresy as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Pope Benedict, of course, was roundly criticized by the press and by mainstream political forces for insulting Islam and for needlessly instigating rancor between his Church and the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. But he did no such thing. In truth, he asked – begged – Islam to take up the painful, disagreeable, and, because men fail, occasionally bloody challenge of an inquisition, to define itself, once and for all, and either to move past its history of violence or to concede that it is anything but a “religion of peace.”
As we are not mind readers, we can’t say exactly what President Obama was thinking last week when he used his address at the National Prayer Breakfast to chide Christians for sins committed some eight centuries ago. We can, however, say that whatever his intentions, he exacerbated, rather than diminished, the task facing the world’s Muslims. As long as the world’s political leaders – and the leaders of the West in particular – make excuses for Muslim violence; as long as they continue to insist that violence is the norm among religious people and not an appalling aberration; as long as they persist in telling the world’s Muslims what is and is not “true Islam,” then Islam will never have to decide these questions for itself. Islam will never be compelled to have its inquisition and to decide once for all what it is, what it isn’t, and what it believes about the nature of God.
Some of Barack Obama’s critics – including many of his usual political allies – have mocked the fact that in his attempt to be even-handed, he had to retreat several centuries into history to find relevant examples of violence sanctioned by those who claimed to represent Christ on earth. This is, of course, no coincidence. The Inquisition indeed had episodes that were bloody and unholy; they were contrary to the spirit of the undertaking, but they did, regrettably, happen. However, only by the process of weeding out that which was ungodly and that which was in error could the Church lead the Christian world, firmly and definitively, to reject the misbegotten notion that violence should be employed to enforce holiness. As a result, members of the Church today no longer engage in such practices. They no longer believe it is necessary or even permissible to burn heretics or to slaughter apostates.
Through the Inquisition, the Holy Church was able to help Christians recognize the congruence of faith and reason, and to acknowledge the God of logos. By denying it the same opportunity/responsibility, Barack Obama and the leaders of the West are not helping Islam, but are instead facilitating the perpetuation of its barbarism.