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Why the Inquisition Was Founded

Hugh O’Reilly

As the father of Christendom, Pope Gregory IX was anxious to correct the many errors of his time that were poisoning society spiritually and causing people to go astray from the Catholic Faith. He was facing the rapid spread of many of the Manichean sects throughout Christendom, especially in southern France. How could he steer a safe course facing, on the one hand, the exasperating indifference of many Bishops regarding the interests of the Church and their exaggerated susceptibility to pressures of local politics, and, on the other hand, the brutality of the masses and of the Imperial agents?

St. Dominic burns heretical books

St. Dominic of Guzman presiding over an Auto-da-Fe, a burning of heretic books
Gregory IX, who reigned from 1227 to 1241, was inspired to use the new Mendicant Orders of the Dominicans and Franciscans.

Even historian Henry Charles Lea, who opposed the Inquisition, recognized their usefulness:

“The establishment of those Orders seemed to be a happy inspiration to provide the Church of Christ with what it urgently needed. Insofar as the necessity became apparent for special and permanent tribunals, there was every reason to believe that they [the Mendicant Orders] would be wholly free from those local jalousies and enmities which could harm the innocent, or from the local favoritism that could prevent the punishment of the guilty. If, in addition to this freedom from local partialities, these examiners and judges were men especially trained to detect and convert heretics; if they had also renounced the world by irrevocable vows; if they could require no wealth and were dead to the appeal of pleasures, then every guarantee seemed to be afforded that their momentous duties would be fulfilled with the strictest justice. Thus, while the purity of the Faith would be protected, there would be no unnecessary oppression, cruelty or persecution dictated by private interests or personal revenge.”

Pope Gregory established those tribunals to respond to an urgent necessity. The Domincans, with their thorough training in theology, seemed perfectly fitted to assist the Bishops. Obviously, the plan would not raise unanimous applause. There were Bishops who were very touchy about any external interference, even from Rome. Taking this into consideration, Gregory IX wrote a tactful letter to the Bishops of southern France, explaining his initiative:

“Seeing you wrapped in a whirlwind of cares and scarcely able to breathe under the pressure of heavy concerns, we believe it opportune to divide your burdens so that they may be easier to carry. Thus, we have determined to send Preaching Friars - the Dominicans - against the heretics of France and neighboring provinces; and we beg, warn and exhort you to welcome them, giving them your favor, counsel and assistance so that they may fulfill their office.”

This is how the Dominicans and, to a lesser extent, the Franciscans, were sent to the places where the heretics were more numerous. Some went to Germany, but no formal tribunal was founded there until 1367. Alberic, a Dominican, was sent to Lombardy with the title Inquisitor hereticae praevitatis - inquisitor against the perfidy of the heretics. One of his successors died at the hands of heretical mobs. Another, St. Peter of Verona, also a Dominican and founder of the Inquisition in Florence about 1245, was murdered by heretics on the road from Como to Milan in 1252. To be an inquisitor was a dangerous business since the heretics often had influence and power, and were moved by fanaticism and despair.

Count Simon de Montfort

Count Simon de Montfort, the commander of the Crusade against the Cathari
None of the young Dominicans took pleasure in hunting out the heretics from their hiding places. This was especially true in southern France where the Cathari, who had survived the Crusade, put up a hard and tenacious fight against the new monastic tribunals. In 1234, several heretics sacked a Dominican Convent; eight years later the Inquisitor Arnaud and several Preaching Friars were murdered. The Dominicans then asked the Pope to be relieved of their task, but their request was not accepted.

Instead, an armed force of Catholics broke the Cathar resistance in 1244 by storming and taking Montségur, where the murderers of the Dominicans had taken refuge. They burned 200 heretics without trial, like the Levites of Moses had eliminated the idolaters. After such flagrant heretical boldness and that ensuing military success, the Inquisition was accepted by the secular authorities. In 1238 the Pope sent inquisitors to Spain. One of them was shortly poisoned by heretics.

In his instructions to his emissaries, the Pope made a distinction between the Medieval Inquisition and the Bishops’ investigations and all their previous attempts to deal with the problem of heresy. The friars were to go into a town reported to be strongly infected with heresy and publicly proclaim that all those guilty of offenses against the Faith should present themselves and abjure their errors. Those who would do so were to be forgiven. To detect those who would not, the friars were to set in motion an Inquiry. If two witnesses testified that someone was a heretic, then he should be placed on trial. The friars should work in cooperation with and under the consent of the local Bishop. There is no historical mention of the use of torture in this period.

Pope Gregory intended the new institution and the Religious Orders to be used to help the Bishops accomplish their duty. The inquisitors should be experts in theology, and not politicians or soldiers, so that they could distinguish who was a true Catholics and who was not. Once that question had been decided, the Church was free to either reconcile or excommunicate the heretic, and in the latter case, to hand him over to the civil power to apply the common punishment for high treason.

Like Moses in the Old Testament, Gregory IX desired to protect the children of God from error. Like Moses, he ordered an Inquiry, or Inquisition, to be made with all diligence, and he demanded the testimony of at least two witnesses. Like Moses, he insisted that crimes against God should not go unpunished. The parallel stops here. Moses, in much earlier times, had no interest in distinguishing between the penitent and the obstinate, the deceiver and the deceived. He simply commanded the guilty to be stoned to death. Gregory IX’s principal desire was to draw the heretic back into the grace of God. Only in the cases where he insisted on remaining an enemy of God - and, therefore, of society - was he to be cut off from the Church and handed over to the discretion of the State.

It took some time and effort to get the new organization working in accordance with what the Pope desired. Today it is generally recognized that the judges of the Inquisition were much superior in knowledge and the application of justice than their contemporaries of the secular tribunals.


Blason de Charlemagne
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Based upon and translated from
William Thomas Wash, Los Personajes de la Inquisición,
Madrid: Espasa Calpe, 1948, pp 71-74
Posted May 16, 2008

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