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THE INQUISITION, by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, Viking 1999

THE INQUISITION, by Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, Viking 1999; ISBN 0-670-88032-9. 318pp. Price hardback £16.99.

Reviewed by Anne Baring

This is a deeply disturbing book which brings to light facts that may be unknown to many people. Its principle value to us is that it exposes the unacknowledged shadow aspect of religion, describing the evil that an institution is capable of engendering when it falls into the messianic delusion that it is the appointed agent of God’s will and stands above the laws of man. The authors explore the pathology of this belief and tell the story of the indescribable suffering that resulted from it. More than this, they show how a carefully thought out and minutely organised policy using intimidation, sadism and fear as its tools of power offered a model of cruelty and violence as a method of ensuring conformity of belief among vast numbers of people, so creating a precedent for the behaviour of totalitarian states in the twentieth century; a precedent made more influential because it was practised by the highest religious authority.

Until the time of the Reformation, people believed in the Church absolutely and lived in fear of incurring its displeasure. They could not risk rebellion and protest against the methods it used to ensure obedience. They were in effect brain-washed by a mixture of unquestioning belief and fear into accepting behaviour that was unquestionably evil towards those the Church designated heretics or a threat to Christendom. With the methods of the Holy Office of the Inquisition and the fear of it deeply imprinted on the European psyche it is not surprising that within barely a century of its demise as an instrument of persecution, its methods were adopted (whether consciously or unconsciously) by modern totalitarian states. As late as 1846, spying, torture by Inquisitors and repression were still being practised in the Papal States in Italy. The terror aroused by the persecutory agents of modern states is no different from that aroused from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century by the agents of the Inquisition. As the writers comment:

"The Inquisition rapidly developed a methodology and control that was impressively effective – so much so that one can see in it the precursor of Stalin’s secret police, of the Nazi SS and Gestapo…Here was a prototype for the kind of computerised records kept by modern police forces."

They describe how, in the reign of terror which prevailed in different parts of Europe for centuries, people were encouraged to inform on their neighbours - wives on their husbands, children on their parents - and were rewarded for this betrayal exactly as they were to be under the totalitarian regimes in Germany, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The worst aspects of human nature – cruelty, envy, greed, hatred - were encouraged. Those who denounced their neighbour were rewarded. Those who spoke up in defence of the accused risked falling under the taint of heresy. When this persecution was at its height, no-one could be trusted.

The suffering created by this abuse of power was beyond description: destitute women and their children, outcasts of society, were left to fend for themselves when their husbands were murdered and their homes and property confiscated; children lost mothers who were burnt at the stake as witches. Thousands (mainly Jews) were expelled from countries that had been home to their families for centuries. The Inquisition was even exported to the New World with the Spanish colonisation of Central America. We have not seen the end of the social and cultural effects of the seeds sown during these centuries by the Church: the hatred and enmity between different religious groups; the fear and repression of women; the habit of demonising others. The facts are incontrovertible, the effect on European civilisation immeasurable.

This book raises the question of how the most obscene crimes against men and women could ever have been defended as the "internal" matter of a religious institution. How could they have been justified by the Church? A great part of the wealth of the Office of the Inquisition during these centuries was derived from the confiscated property of those it had murdered or exiled. How was it possible for a religion which preached love, tolerance and forgiveness of enemies to practise hatred, intolerance and persecution in the name of God? How were priests who proclaimed themselves followers of Christ able to conceive of the idea of the Inquisition and to act as the Church’s agents of repression? There is no doubt that in choosing this path, the Church attracted to its service men who derived a perverted pleasure from the exercise of omnipotent control over others and who obeyed orders without question.

Today we try people for crimes against humanity. Reading the catalogue of cruelty detailed in this book I wonder why the Catholic Church (or for that matter the Protestant one which practised similar atrocities, although not on the same scale) has not been called to account for these crimes. The dead cannot speak but the living can bear witness to what was done by bringing to light, as these authors have done, the evidence which has long existed in European archives.

Many people connect the Inquisition with Spain and do not know that it was first established in south-western France and that it took root there as a tool with which to extirpate the Cathar ‘heresy.’ In 1208 the Albigensian Crusade was launched by Pope Innocent III - a Crusade which was to accomplish the destruction of the remarkable culture which nurtured this ‘heresy.’ Had this culture, which fostered tolerance of Jews and Muslims, respect for women and women priests, the appreciation of poetry, music and beauty, been allowed to survive and thrive, it is possible that Europe might have been spared its wars of religion, its witch-hunts and its holocausts of victims sacrificed in later centuries to religious and ideological bigotry.

There were certain events arising out of the Albigensian Crusade which were to lay the foundations of the Inquisition. A decree of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 stated that Catholics who assumed the cross and devoted themselves to the extermination of heretics on the Crusade should enjoy the same indulgence and privilege as those who went to the Holy Land. 1 A second decree defined heresy as a sin that could incur (if the heretic did not recant) the punishment of being "exterminated from the world by death."

In 1216 the Dominican Order was established to counter the teaching of the popular Cathar priesthood. However, in 1233 a Papal Bull conferred on the Order the task of eradicating heresy and it then became the main vehicle of the Inquisition, given authority over and above local Catholic bishops to convict suspected heretics without any possibility of appeal. The Dominicans set up an efficient machinery for the "process of the investigation, indictment, trial, torture and execution of heretics." Inquisitors were granted the right to expropriate the entire property of heretics. Even the bodies of the dead suspected of heresy were dug up and burnt. At first the Dominicans were not permitted to administer torture themselves but from 1252 they were given Papal permission to do so although they still handed over their victims to the civil authorities for execution. There are, the authors write, copious records showing that victims could be tortured twice a day for a week or more by methods which assiduously avoided the shedding of blood but maximised the degree of pain and terror inflicted until a confession of guilt was obtained. Again, to avoid the shedding of blood, death by burning at the stake was the preferred method of "extermination."

When, two hundred and fifty years later, the Inquisition was established in Spain, it was not accountable to the Papacy as elsewhere in Europe, but to the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. With its help, Spain was purged of Muslims and Jews as well as heretics. With this persecution went the massive accumulation of wealth since the Office of the Inquisition appropriated here, as elsewhere, the entire property of the condemned. Many Jewish families had converted to Christianity in the last decade of the fourteenth century because of the persecution already directed against them. They were known as ‘conversos’ and many held the highest offices of state and were both rich and influential. The Inquisition, presided over by Torquemada, called for the expulsion of all Jews from Spain, including the ‘conversos’. They were accused of heresy, imprisoned, exiled or sent to the stake and their wealth and land seized. As contemporary illustrations show, these human sacrifices, often timed to coincide with a public holiday, were made an occasion for rejoicing in the pious certainty that God’s will had been done. The writers comment: "In the virulence and systematic nature of its anti-Semitic activities, the Inquisition in Spain was to anticipate the pathology of twentieth-century Nazism."

The demonising of heretics and Jews in southern France and Spain is only one aspect of this dark story. Another was the attempt to extirpate all vestiges of pagan animism under the heading of heresy and witchcraft. A document called the Malleus Maleficarum (‘The Hammer of the Evil-doers’) - "among the most notorious and obscene works in the entire history of Western civilisation," as the authors rightly describe it - was written by two Dominicans and published in 1487-9. It went through nineteen editions over the next 300 years. This manual became the textbook of the Inquisition, and came into the hands of every Inquisitor, judge and magistrate. (It was also used later by Protestants). Never has woman been more systematically degraded than during this century when, as the authors write, "fear and paranoia were to be promulgated until they clamped the entirety of Europe in a vicelike grip." In the delusional certainty that the will of God was being done, tens of thousands of women were tortured and burnt at the stake in this and subsequent centuries (by the Inquisition’s own admission 30,000 in 150 years). Many of those burnt were women who acted as mid-wives, herbalists and healers in villages where the poor had no access to medicine or physicians. Anything that went wrong in the community from natural disasters to still-births, was attributed to the malevolent activity of women in league with the devil.

Misogyny had been intrinsic to the Church’s attitude to women since the third century AD. but now it was given carte blanche to persecute them. Through the malevolent influence of the Malleus Maleficarum, the demonising of women was disseminated in subsequent centuries throughout Europe and even to the New World. The last witch was executed in 1782. The legacy of this time still lingers in ours, reflected in the reluctance to ordain women to the priesthood and in the official opposition to complementary medicine in certain countries.

Some of the most interesting chapters in the book tell the story of what happened to the Papacy in the nineteenth century when the triple assault of Darwinism, critical Biblical scholarship and Italian Nationalism weakened both the spiritual authority and the secular power of the Papacy. In 1870 the Papacy lost control of the Papal States and was left with only the territory of the Vatican City. At the same time the resurgence of an old question as to whether ultimate authority in the Church resided with the bishops or with the Pope aroused a fierce struggle for power. In 1414 the Council of Constance had declared that the Council of Bishops was above the Pope; "All Christians, including the Pope, were declared subject to the decisions of a General Council, which was deemed to derive its authority direct from God."

But the declaration of the Council of Constance was set aside by Pope Pius IX who, in 1870, convened the First Vatican Council. The objective of this Council was to promulgate the doctrine of Papal Infallibility, although this intention was not announced in advance and was so to speak "sprung" on the unsuspecting bishops some time after the Council had met. Of the 1,084 bishops entitled to vote, only a total of 535 endorsed the resolution establishing Papal Infallibility, a majority of 49 per cent. By virtue of this ‘majority’, the authors write, "the Pope was formally declared infallible in his own right and ‘not as a result of the consent of the Church’." By the time of his death in 1878, Pius 1X left a Papacy stripped of its temporal power but with a greatly increased influence and control over the Catholic faithful.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the Inquisition no longer functioned as an instrument of overt persecution but the power of excommunication and the Index (list of prohibited books) were two of the tools of coercion it still used. The Index, which came into being in 1559, was only formally abolished in 1966 but the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (as the former Holy Office of the Inquisition was renamed) can even now ban books deemed unacceptable to it, can still "muzzle, investigate, suppress or even excommunicate a dissident theologian…and is still the single most powerful department of the Vatican." Denunciations of any individual who deviates from the orthodox position are welcomed.

A recent example of this was the resignation of a Roman Catholic nun (Dr. Lavinia Byrne) from her Order (January 2000) because she could no longer tolerate the bullying and intimidation of this Office. Her book, Woman at the Altar, which set out the arguments in favour of women priests, has been banned and 1300 copies of it confiscated. She felt she had no choice but to resign when she was asked to make a public declaration supporting the Roman Catholic Church’s stance against artificial birth control (Humanae Vitae) and the ordination of women priests.

Christianity has flourished in Europe for nearly two thousand years and has inspired the highest expression of art, music, literature and architecture. Countless millions of people have been helped and enriched by following this path to God. Yet, at the end of this book, I am left with the question: What is the root of the pathology in the Christian psyche (both Catholic and Protestant) which has been expressed as the need to establish control and obedience by engaging in the persecution, torture and extermination of others? Why was the crusading or evangelical impulse to convert others to the "true" religion considered to reflect the will of God? A Church which claimed to receive its authority directly from Christ, savagely betrayed it in its persecution of Jews, Muslims and any individual or group which threatened its spiritual imperialism. It has consistently shown itself to be fearful and suspicious of the new and unknown; it has rejected and persecuted many of its most creative thinkers from Origen and the Gnostics in the third and fourth centuries, to Eckhart in the fourteenth, Galileo and Giordano Bruno in the sixteenth and Hans Kung and Matthew Fox (among others) in this one.

The present Pope launched Holy Year (2000) with a call for repentance, urging people to redress the wrongs of the past and saying that "At times people have refused to respect and love their brothers of a different faith or race and have denied fundamental rights to individuals and nations." I wonder if he himself is fully aware of how profoundly the institution he heads denied those rights, refused that respect and love. As long as there is no acknowledgement of evil, no atonement for guilt, there can be no conscious repudiation of the drive to convert, coerce and manipulate others "for their own good" or otherwise. As this book amply demonstrates, the pathology of sadism and cruelty established in the past will be repeated and amplified in future centuries unless it is challenged and exposed in the present. If the new millennium is to see any radical change in human behaviour, a change will need to come from the leaders of institutions which have, in the past, been responsible for persecuting others in the mistaken belief that in the name of God any form of coercion is acceptable.

If the Papacy could publicly repudiate the behaviour of the Inquisition, this pattern of repression and control could be recognised as something that must never be allowed to repeat itself in the name of any group or institution, secular or religious. It would tell people all over the world that this was wrong and not only wrong but totally antithetical to the teaching of Christ and the will of God. True repentance is more than expressing regret. It is to acknowledge the wrong that was done in error, perhaps to hold a mass for the souls of those men and women who, over a span of 500 years, lost their lives in the most atrocious way imaginable, victims of a group of individuals whose drive for omnipotence has only been rivalled by the messianic pretensions of the modern totalitarian state.

Today our great achievements in science, medicine, standards of living, respect for human rights, are threatened by our reluctance to explore the roots of the drive for omnipotence and control that lies in the shadow aspect of our own human nature. An intrinsic aspect of that drive is the demonising of others and the delusion that an individual or association of individuals, whether religious or political, has the right to coerce, persecute or murder others in order to establish or maintain its belief system. 1. The more identified with an ideology people are, the greater the danger of inflation, megalomania and violence against others. What use is religion or belief if it has not helped us to treat all people, all creatures and the Earth itself with respect?

This book deserves a wide audience. It is not written as an academic study but as a call to recognise the continued abuse of power by a religious institution. At a time when so much that was hidden is emerging into the light, it offers a vital contribution to our understanding of how events in the past may still influence and condition the present, how perverted habits of behaviour may be perpetuated. It may help us to identify and challenge the totalitarian tendency wherever it manifests today in our own society.

Anne Baring

  1. Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, OUP, 1963, p. 133

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