The spirit of the Inquisition is alive and well

The recent BBC story about the Catholic Church’s Office of the Inquisition pressurising some US nuns who are considered too liberal by the Church hierarchy got me to wondering whether our behaviour today is much different to that in medieval times.

To make the parallel to medieval times we have to substitute modern institutions. Governments and their institutions ( such as the United Nations or the IMF or the ICC) are today the equivalent of the medieval monarchs and their Catholic Church. They bless some countries and excommunicate others. They tolerate the same behaviour (for example the quest for nuclear weapons) in favoured countries and condemn it in others. They support uprisings against some of their less-favoured member countries and help suppression of rebellion in others. They enforce sanctions – even with the use of collective force – against some and ignore the same behaviour in others. And like the college of cardinals a select group of 5 nations and the 15-member Security Council makes up the holy inner circle controlling these institutions.

I conclude that in our enlightened twenty-first century human behaviour is not so very different to that during the medieval period. Crusades and inquisitions are paralleled in today’s world. Wars between the religions of the past have become wars between “cultures” today. “Terrorists” are the heretics of our age who deserve to be burned at the stake.  Some idealised form of “democracy” has become a religion and it is perceived that holy wars against dictatorships is perfectly justified. “Politically correct issues” have taken on religious overtones and oppression of dissenting minorities in the name of the majority is again acceptable. Coercion of others “for their own good” is something to be proud of. We have “doomsayers” galore but instead of threatening the everlasting fires of hell they preach about the dangers of nuclear proliferation or environmental catastrophe.

The InquisitionInquisitio Haereticae Pravitatis (inquiry on heretical perversity), was the “fight against heretics” by several institutions within the justice system of the Roman Catholic Church. It started in the 12th century, with the introduction of torture in the persecution of heresy. Inquisition practices were used also on offences against canon law other than heresy. .. After 1200, a Grand Inquisitor headed each Inquisition. Grand Inquisitions persisted until the mid 19th century.

The Catholic Church’s Office of the Inquisition was founded in 1542 as the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition.  In 1908 it became the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office. In 1965 this became the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under which name it still continues with a Cardinal as its head. It is currently led by Cardinal William Joseph Levada.  But they no longer resort to physical torture preferring psychological pressure to coerce perceived offenders.

The purpose of the Inquisition was not just punishment – it was deterrence. In 1578 the Inquisition produced it’s own handbook for punishment which does not take place primarily and per se for the correction and good of the person punished, but for the public good in order that others may become terrified and weaned away from the evils they would commit. 

While the Catholic Church itself has lost its supreme position in controlling the politics of the day, it has been replaced by our new institutions. Defying the UN today is just like defying the Church of old. There seem to be many parallels between the medieval war on heresy and the modern day war on terror. We have new inquisitions where the ends are used to justify the use of torture. Church tribunals have been replaced by military courts or special courts. Just as with the Inquisition, punishment is usually handed over to the “secular” authorities after judgement. Just as with the Inquisition where accusation virtually guaranteed a confession, accusation today by key countries of the UN as a “terrorist” or a “terrorist nation” is usually sufficient proof of guilt. Actions are no longer necessary for a finding of guilt in an accusation of terrorism. As with heresy the crime of terrorism includes just the having of “bad thoughts”. The 1578 Inquisition handbook would not seem out of place  today when considering the purpose of Abu Ghraib or Guantanomo or the various secret prisons set up by the CIA.  While the Inquisition mainly targeted small groups or individuals, the Church also targeted large groups such as the Cathars in France or the Saracens in Palestine. That in turn led to the Crusades internally against large groups of dissenters or externally aganst followers of other religions. Since then “holy wars” in one form or another have never stopped. Crusades against unbelievers and jihads against the infidel continue today whether as the war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan or the actions of Al Quaida or Boko Haram or Lashkar-e-Taiba. Genocide was and still is seen as a “solution” in some situations.

The church hierarchy and the monarchs and the feudal lords of yesterday have become governments and their institutions. Their financiers like the robber barons of old are now corporate bodies and lobby groups today. The multitude of serfs have given way to the millions of ordinary tax-payers.

Technology has advanced and society has changed but I suspect our behaviour to others is much the same. More people than ever before (in absolute numbers and as a proportion) are being fed and clothed and educated. But as a species we still want to impose our thoughts and ideas on others and are not averse to using force to ensure compliance with the “majority” view or the “politically correct” view. My own opinion is that focusing on basic human rights as “rights” are meaningless unless our behaviour ensures those rights. And I think that behaviour will not change till we have developed sufficiently to be able to each adopt the  Basic Human Duties to be considered as fundamental to being human.

We are as far away from respecting the “freedom of thought” of others as we were a thousand years ago. The spirit of the Inquisition is alive and well.

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