PBS, Heresy, and the Inquisition

Last night, out of morbid curiosity, I turned on the TV and watched PBS’s new docudrama, “The Secrets of the Inquisition.” Based upon records from Rome, it is ostensibly a true story. I don’t have any reason to question their facts, per se. But, it was a remarkably biased presentation. As Maclin Horton put it last night, “Cathars: Good; Catholics: Bad.” Why would someone come to that conclusion?

The basic problem with this, and almost every other popular presentation of historical events from ages past, is that we’re trying to read our modern sensibilities onto pre-modern people. Today, we don’t think of heresy as a big deal. Since individual religious freedom is enshrined as an inalienable right, the mere idea that someone could be arrested, tried, and punished for his beliefs is absurd–even evil. “It’s your soul that’s on the line, not mine.” So, we naturally sympathize with a presentation of peace-loving, gentle Cathars just trying to live their lives in medieval Languedoc.

But, if we step back and realize that Medieval society, and to my knowledge every society everywhere until the modern West, were communal. Heresy in a non-individualistic setting, particularly in one where the hereafter is a primary concern, is one of the most serious problems imaginable. What mattered to a Medieval was not that you followed a modern notion of conscience, but that you believed rightly. By imperiling your own soul, you endanger others as well who might be influenced by you. Christianity was the one true Faith (it still is, of course), so heretics had no right to lead others astray. Seen from that angle, the severity of punishment is understandable. We may recoil from it today, but we cannot fit the story of the Inquisition into our modern mold.

The same paradigm can be used to understand the reactions of Catholics today to politicians receiving the Eucharist after supporting abortion legislation. Being “personally opposed” means precisely nothing, because by public actions, they scandalize others. But, again, in modern society, individual beliefs exist in a vacuum, or at least they are perceived as such. So, to deny someone a “right” when his “conscience” dictates otherwise is an insult. Until we recover the sense that our actions, influenced by our beliefs, influence other people, we will never understand why excommunications occur.

I’ve read several folks claiming that PBS is a part of a nefarious anti-Catholic agenda. That’s pushing it too far: if PBS is anti-Catholic, which is a possibility, it is because our modern culture is, by its very premises, antithetical to traditional Catholic belief. If you believed that everyone has a right to express his own religious beliefs, regardless of their effects on society and other people, then you would be anti-Catholic too.

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8 Responses to “PBS, Heresy, and the Inquisition”


  1. 1 LaVallette May 10, 2007 at 9:58 pm

    Heresy in medieval Europe and during and Post reformation did not merely imperil one’s soul but also imperiled the State by introducing division. Indeed during the Religious wars in Europe during and after the Reformation the political theory that developed was “cuius regio eius religio”, literally transalated as “whoever rules also determines the religion”. In so far as Spain had the Inquisition to enforce uniformity every other State had its own “enforcement” court. Indeed the claimed most liberal state of England had the Court of the Star Chamber (from which we get “star Chamber” tactics signifying
    unjust judicial procedures). A vast number of people dissenting from the Elizabethan and Jacobean Protestant settlement in England were tried for their lives in the Court of the Star Chamber: one of its principal “legal procedures” was the right to torture suspects and it was sufficient for the suspect to confess under torture to be found guilty under the principle of “ab ore tenus” i.e. “from his own mouth”.

  2. 2 Edmund C. May 10, 2007 at 10:10 pm

    Excellent points, LaVallette. My thoughts were more focused upon the Cathar heresy in Medieval France, before cuius regio eius religio would have been possible.

  3. 3 JP Benjamin May 12, 2007 at 8:42 pm

    Defamation, counterfeiting (especially of money), “false advertising”– these are all cases of spreading lies that are still punishable by law. It is interesting to consider exactly why is the punishment of heresy so repugnant to modern minds, while at the same time it is commonly accepted that these other sorts of lies can fall under the law. I think the main reason is that no one believes there can be such a thing as orthodoxy or heresy. But also its because the “inquistion” is widely accepted to have punished people for their beliefs and not for the effect of their beliefs on society. Under this model it would be like charging someone with slander even though they had never said anything slanderous–only thought it.
    BUT on the other hand… we would still call someone guilty who had counterfeited money but claimed they never intended to spend it. Right? So which is the inquisition most like?

  4. 4 Edmund C. May 13, 2007 at 10:49 am

    But also its because the “inquistion” is widely accepted to have punished people for their beliefs and not for the effect of their beliefs on society. Under this model it would be like charging someone with slander even though they had never said anything slanderous–only thought it.

    It may be possible to believe something and not affect society, but I suspect that it’s rather unlikely. John Donne was speaking about death, but I think his words apply to heresy as well:

    No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

    I like the counterfeiting analogy: if a counterfeiter was making fake money just for the sheer pleasure of forgery, but it got loose into the general money circulation without his knowledge, he would still be guilty of counterfeiting and would have, depending upon the amount of fake money he produced, affected the livelihood of a lot of people.

  5. 5 Joe Konn May 17, 2007 at 2:46 am

    If I had not read it I would not have believed it. The conduct of the Church during the peak of the Inquisition is indefensible. Jesus did not kill Thomas for doubting, and He rebuffed Peter for daring even to raise his sword. The Roman Church will never be catholic until such time as it confesses its sins and does not hide behind the weak excuse of “historical context.” The Roman Church has been around a long time, and should be forgiven many of its sins, but as the Baltimore Catechism explained, mortal sin causes the death of the soul. Murder is a mortal sin.

  6. 6 Dewey M May 17, 2007 at 8:06 am

    The reprehensible, immoral, and murderous conduct of the church during the Inquisition was little different from the actions of Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin. It was about control, and the willingness to intimidate, torture, and murder to maintain it.

  7. 7 Edmund C. May 17, 2007 at 5:06 pm

    Dewey, Joe:

    Thanks for the comments, which remind me that I need to do a better job of explaining the Catholic position, which is contrary to the myths perpetuated down through the centuries.

    I was going to write a lengthy reply, but I realized that Dr. Thomas Madden from St. Louis University had already made all my points, better than I ever could. (There’s a shorter version of the same article here.)

    In a nutshell, most of the PBS series is myths weaved around actual historical record, topped off by an utter inability to understand that medieval people did not share our modern presuppositions.

  8. 8 james O. Clifford, Sr. May 19, 2007 at 12:10 am

    A priest tried to give torture some historical context.Seems to me he was cut off. Nothing about Luther and peasants, the Irish penal laws, Thomas More, etc. The church had a franchise but hardly a monopoly. Made Napoleon look like a nice guy. I wouldn’t be surprised if the French Revolution took more lives than the Inquisition.


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