Historical Notes: A Church with no need for an Inquisition

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The Independent Culture
THE MODERN Inquisition derives less from the original Dominican Inquisition of medieval times than from the Counter-Reformation. It has relinquished its private prisons and public holocausts, but not its obsession with control. It acts today not so much to support the faith as to support the central power of the Vatican. To understand this, it is necessary to look at the Council of Constance, 1414-18.

By 1414 there were three rival Papacies. To resolve this a general council of bishops was convened in Constance. In April 1415 this Council resolved by decree - the Haec Sancta - that its authority devolved directly from Christ; all other authority, even papal, had to obey its rulings. The Council decided to remove all three Popes and elect a fourth. One Pope abdicated, two were deposed, and in 1417 the Council elected Pope Martin V, the ecclesiastical ancestor of the present Pope. It is from this Council that the legitimate papal line descends. Martin V was Pope by virtue of the authority and decision of the Council of Bishops in whose hands lay ultimate power in the Church.

This created an internal tension within the Roman Church which has been maintained to the present day; a tension founded upon the question, where in the Church does power reside? Is it with the Bishops, and so regional? Or is it with the Papacy and so centralised?

The Roman Inquisition was founded in 1542 to combat heresy in the form of the Protestant Reformation. It became the major force both in shoring up papal authority and attacking its opponents. These included not only heretics and schismatics but also those who questioned the Pope's ultimate authority such as the supporters of the "Gallican Articles" in France who in 1682 reiterated that General Councils held greater authority than the Pope.

In 1870, when the Vatican made its ultimate bid for power by means of the claim to papal infallibility, the Inquisition played an active and crucial role. For the acceptance of infallibility by the Church was by no means a foregone conclusion. Realising the need to appear to recognise the power of the Bishops, the Pope convened the First Vatican Council with the intention of using it to vote infallibility into existence. Nevertheless, despite blatant intimidation, only 49 per cent of those eligible voted for this doctrinal innovation. Ignoring this, a majority in favour of infallibility was quickly declared; power was thus transferred from the Bishops to the Pope. Or so it was planned.

But ever since 1870 the internal tension has remained, today as strong as ever. Hans Kung, at the forefront of those opposing papal power, wrote in 1994, "Authority in the Church does not lie in a monarch but in the Church itself, of which the Pope is the servant, not the master." The widespread "We are Church" movement goes further and argues that the Church belongs to the people, not to the Pope or Curia. And still active, confronting such dissent, is the institution now headed by Cardinal Ratzinger. Of course, it is no longer called the Inquisition: in 1965 its title was sanitised as, "The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith". But an Inquisition it remained.

There is, in contemporary liberal Catholic circles today, much talk about removing the problem of both the Inquisition and papal infallibility by decentralising the Church; by making the Pope once again simply the Bishop of Rome as he was in the early Christian centuries. He would thus be no more than first among the equal members of the Council of Bishops to whom would devolve ultimate power over the Church. In this manner a flexibility might be accorded bishops who, sensitive to the spiritual needs of their congregation, might permit such innovations as birth control, married, or female, priests, as they wished.

In such a Church there would be no need for an Inquisition.

Michael Baigent is co-author with Richard Leigh of `The Inquisition' (Viking, pounds 16.99)

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