It is almost fifty years since the “Spanish Inquisition” sketch by Monty Python’s Flying Circus was first aired on British television. Today its catchphrase, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition,” has an enshrined place in popular culture. It is, however, ironic that the well-known catchphrase contradicts the grim reality of life in our increasingly secular culture. It would be much more true to say that everybody expects the Spanish Inquisition, in the sense that the Inquisition is raised like a spectre or bogeyman whenever a secularist wants an excuse to attack orthodox Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular.
The most recent egregious example of someone using the allegedly evil Inquisition as a stick with which to assault Christian sensibilities was President Obama’s reference to the Inquisition at this year’s National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC. The truth is that the Spanish Inquisition has entered the vocabulary of the historically ignorant, which is alas the vast majority of people in our historically ignorant age, as being a repugnant bête noire synonymous with evil organizations, such as the Gestapo or the Ku Klux Klan, and therefore equally as effective when used as a term of abuse or rebuke with which to smear one’s opponents.
This being so, and since it is being used by secularists such as Obama to smear all Christians and not simply Catholics, it would be good to set the record straight about the alleged excesses of the Spanish Inquisition.
A number of books published recently have exposed, through the practice of diligent scholarship, the nonsense surrounding popular perceptions of the Inquisition. One such book, Henry Kamen’s The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision (Yale University Press), includes a great deal of research into the actual records of the Inquisition which is singularly lacking in the ill-informed and prejudiced mythologizing of it. For those seeking a more succinct summary of this solid research, the chapter on the Inquisition in Diane Moczar’s excellent slim volume, Seven Lies About Catholic History: Infamous Myths About the Church’s Past and How to Answer Them (TAN Books), is invaluable.
Let’s spend a little time looking at the solid facts about the Inquisition instead of the lurid fantasies. Take, for example, the thorny subject of torture. Although it did occur, it was relatively rare, and was certainly no worse than that carried out at the same time by the English government against Catholic priests and laity. In a group of seven thousand accused persons brought before the Inquisition in Valencia, only two per cent were tortured and such torture, as lamentable as it might be, was restricted to a maximum of fifteen minutes. This compares very favourably with the torture suffered by English Jesuits, such as St. Robert Southwell, at the hands of Elizabeth’s chief torturer, Richard Topcliffe.
It is also interesting that the gruesome torture devices associated in the public imagination with the Spanish Inquisition were never used by the Inquisitors. The horrific torture device known as the “Iron Maiden,” for example, was used by secular rulers in Germany and not by the Inquisition in Spain.
As for the infamous dungeons of the Inquisition, they were much more humane than their secular counterparts. There is indeed evidence that prisoners preferred to be tried by the Inquisition because they would be better treated in prison than would be the case if they were convicted by a secular court.
With respect to the number of executions carried out by the Inquisition, it is remarkably low, considering the bloody nature of the times. Throughout the whole of the sixteenth century, at the height of the turmoil spreading throughout Europe because of the Reformation, only 182 people were executed by the Inquisition, fewer than two a year. In contrast, tens of thousands were killed in other parts of Europe, in the so-called “wars of religion,” which in reality were the cankered fruits of secular ambition, in which rich and powerful secular rulers used religious conflict as an excuse and smokescreen to disguise their Machiavellian drive for power.
Let’s now compare the Inquisition’s record of executing fewer than two people a year with the culture of death prevailing elsewhere in Europe. In England, Catholics were executed by being disemboweled. Until as recently as the nineteenth century, people were hanged for such heinous crimes as chopping down a tree or stealing a shilling, i.e. one-twentieth of a pound. Here’s how Diane Moczar compares the relatively humane Inquisition with the heinous barbarism of my own country:
Queen Elizabeth I enjoyed reading the nauseating accounts of her notorious torturer Topcliffe, an expert in inflicting suffering on his victims, particularly Catholics. It was said that during Elizabeth’s reign, “the rack was never silent,” as the English Catholic martyrs could testify. The charming English custom of hanging, drawing, and quartering a condemned person combined execution with prolonged torture. Horses often drew the victim through the streets to the place of execution, where he was hanged until he was almost—but not quite—dead. Then he was cut down, disemboweled, and his entrails boiled in a kettle before his eyes. Sometimes he was then tied to four horses that set off in different directions, thus pulling apart what was left off him. I know no account of the Catholic Inquisition that can top that for diabolical cruelty.
This makes for uncomfortable reading for any Englishman and adds a further bitterly ironic twist to the fact that the Monty Python team (with one exception) were all impeccably English. One thinks of the proverbial pot calling the kettle black.
And speaking of proverbial pots calling the kettle black, Obama was rightly accused of hypocrisy in his efforts to take the moral high ground in his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. Several astute commentators pointed out that Obama had killed more people in unlawful drone strikes in his six years in power than the Spanish Inquisition had killed in its 300 years of existence. In the same week in which Obama made his pompous and preposterous attacks on historical Christianity, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism published its annual study of deaths from US drone strikes outside the country’s declared war-zones. At least 2,464 people were known to have been killed in such drone strikes since Obama became president, at least 314 of whom were known to be civilians.
And this brings us to the really big question that Obama’s supercilious and patronizing attack on the Spanish Inquisition begs but does not answer. Does Obama’s own secularist creed of political progressivism have any right to sit in judgment on Christianity and its past? Does the rejection of religion and the embrace of atheism usher in an era of peace, tolerance and “coexistence”? Is political cleanliness next to godlessness?
Not exactly ….
The first great secularist uprising, the French Revolution, was an anti-Christian revolt inspired by the cold scientism of the Enlightenment and its spurning of religious faith and also by the iconoclastic contempt of western civilization inherent in the proto-hippy musings of Rousseau. Did this first great secularist Revolution usher in a time of peace? Hardly. It ushered in the Reign of Terror and the cold-blooded butchering of the people on a scale rarely seen in the wretched annals of history and far surpassing anything attributed to the Spanish Inquisition. In its wake, and as a direct consequence of it, Napoleon rose to dictatorial power and led Europe into almost twenty years of bloody warfare. The age of secularism had ushered in an age of war.
Refusing to learn from the mistakes of the past, the following century was doomed to repeat them in a plethora of abortive socialist uprisings, culminating in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. As with its secularist progenitor in France, the Russian Revolution followed the same predictable pattern, descending into a Reign of Terror in which tens of millions of people were sacrificed on the altars of atheism. Aping the Revolutions in France and Russia, Chinese communism would claim tens of millions of additional lives, each of which was sacrificed in the name of secularist “progress.” All of this makes the fewer than 2,000 people killed by the Spanish Inquisition over a period of three centuries seem somewhat paltry.
The evidence is clear enough. Secularism in any of its guises is deadly. And yet, in spite of the catalogue of horrors that it has unleashed on humanity, the same ugly brand of secularism is ascendant in both Europe and the United States. When will we ever learn? The unsettling answer is that we will never learn until we learn to respect history and the lessons it teaches. The ignorant abuse of history by propagandists, such as Obama, or by caricaturists, such as Monty Python, serve only to highlight the danger inherent in dogmatic progressivism. How many more lives must be lost to such a heartless, headless and heedless creed before the lessons are learned?
Editor’s note: This essay first appeared May 9. 2015 on the Imaginative Conservative website and is reprinted with permission.