What To Expect When You're Expecting the Inquisition: Author Cullen Murphy Finds the Past in the Present

Published on May 8, 2012  
The Monty Python comedy troop famously portrayed the Inquisition as so inept that the inquisitors could manage only one line of its official dialogue--"Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!". The historical truth is much more grim, of course. In his new book, God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World, author Cullen Murphy documents the brutal efficiency of the Medieval, Spanish and Roman iterations of the Inquisition and traces their influence to our own time. Howard College of Arts and Sciences hosted Murphy for a lecture on his book in February.

Murphy, editor at large for Vanity Fair magazine and former managing editor of The Atlantic, has often engaged with religion and history, including through two previous books, The Word According to Eve: Women and the Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own (1999) and Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America (2007). His latest book reflects those perspectives as well as recent developments in geopolitics and Church culture.

As a Catholic, albeit the sort "who would not have lasted long in the 14th century," Murphy is especially interested in the history and legacy of the Church. In pursuit of that interest he said he has met many Catholic theologians who have run afoul of the Vatican and have been silenced, censored and professionally wounded as a result. The secular post-9/11 embrace of surveillance, torture and cultural demonization further fueled Murphy's interest in the Inquisition. "It couldn't help but ring some bells," he said. Add a recent thawing of Inquisition archives and Murphy had an exceptional opportunity to examine the most notorious expression of the Church's fear and power.

Origins of Bureaucracy

Medieval inquisitor Bernard Gui certainly was not the bumbling and harmless official of the Python sketch. In just one day of his long career he burned alive 17 people, Murphy said. Gui's influential writings documented the decentralized Medieval Inquisition of the 13th and 14th centuries, which persecuted heretical Christian sects. His Book of Sentences, preserved in the British Library, served as a touchstone for Murphy's discussion.

"There's something extremely modern about what is going on here," Murphy said of the Book of Sentences' detailed index to the torture, trial and punishment of the Church's perceived enemies. "Bernard Gui is not someone from the truly remote past--he's someone who's beginning to think like a modern human being," Murphy said. "He's learning how to organize information and make information retrievable".

Murphy sees in Gui's organization the beginnings of the bureaucracy that was growing in the Church and secular governments. He noted that in 1200 the Pope's secretaries wrote about 300 letters per year. A century later, as the Medieval Inquisition began, they wrote about 50,000 letters per year.

When Spain re-unified under Christian monarchs in the late 15th century the Inquisition focused on converted Muslims and Jews. Murphy said 2,000 people were burned alive in the first 15 years of an Inquisition that lasted into the 19th century and spread throughout the Spanish and Portuguese empires.

The Roman Inquisition, begun in the 16th century and directed by the Pope, targeted the Protestant Reformation. Murphy said its Index of Forbidden Books (the "must read list" for a young Murphy) and other censorship efforts reflected the printing technology that challenged the Church's monopoly on knowledge. This Inquisition was recast as the Vatican's Congress of Doctrine and Faith in the early 20th century but still occupies the palazzo built for the Inquisition in the 16th century. The German Cardinal who led the Congress from 1985-2005 opened its 20 rooms of archives in 1998, facilitating important new research into the Inquisition. Murphy said that decision is one of very few points of agreement between himself and the man who became Pope Benedict XVI.

The Best Defense

Murphy knows the Church did not invent persecution, hatred and intolerance. But, he said, "it's one thing to have an outburst of intolerance of some sort, with all its attendant violence--it's quite another thing to institutionalize it, to make intolerance something that lasts from generation to generation, century to century." To do that, Murphy, said, the Church helped develop tools modern society takes for granted, including bureaucracy, systematic information-gathering and training of new generations.

Murphy said those tools are more powerful and bureaucratically entrenched than ever, and are being used with familiar justifications. He noted the fundamental similarity between the censorship of the Roman Inquisition and the "Great Firewall" meant to control the flow of information in China. He also pointed out that even democratic societies have now, in the name of defense, embraced the surveillance and torture culture of the medieval Church. In fact, he said, the U.S. Intelligence Science Board, in the preface of a report on U.S. interrogation techniques, thanked Bernard Gui for his influential manual for interrogators--part of the training that perpetuated the Inquisition. "I worry about that mindset," Murphy said of such developments. And although he acknowledged a pessimistic outlook, he does find reason for hope. In fact, he found it in Gui's otherwise chilling Book of Sentences.

A sheaf of correspondence stuffed in the front of Gui's book documents its rediscovery by a 17th century Englishman Gui would happily have condemned to the stake. That man, Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, was at the time developing what would become his Letters Concerning Toleration. In that work, Murphy said, Locke argued that no person's understanding of truth can justify the violent imposition of that belief on others, and that to allow such would be to create a state of permanent social conflict. Locke's role in preserving Gui's book was thus "one of the most wonderful conjunctions I've ever experienced," Murphy said.

Locke's ideas helped limit the power of the Church but he and Gui compete for dominance even today. "We sometimes think of ideas as weak things, forgetting that they are in fact powerful things, frequently more powerful than physical force," Murphy said. They can become "bedrock," he said. Given the choice, Murphy said, Locke's tolerance is "the best defense that we can have".