The courts of the Inquisition were no worse, and no better, than the non-religious courts of the time. And apart from the 'first 20 years of holocausts' under the dreaded Grand Inquisitor, Tomas de Torquemada, they executed fewer than three people a year - far fewer than the secular courts.
The new and more sympathetic look at the Inquisition by an American Jesuit, Brian van Hove, based on recent historical research by non-Catholics, comes only a few weeks after Pope John Paul II effectively absolved the Rome Inquisition for forcing Galileo Galilei to recant his theory that the earth moved round the sun. He maintained that since Galileo could produce no tangible proof of his theory, the Inquisition could not destroy what had until then been a fundamental part of Catholic faith, that the earth was the centre of the universe.
In an article entitled 'Beyond the Myth of the Inquisition', Father van Hove accuses 'old-fashioned English Protestants and other Anti-Catholics' of having mustered an armoury of epithets against the Roman Church, 'of which the most detestable, used with the greatest success, is that of the hated Inquisition, portrayed as the cruel instrument used by the Catholic Church to annihilate its enemies'. Thus the Spanish Inquisition was used, he writes, as the great adversary of Protestantism, while in the United States the 'bogeyman' of the Inquisition has been conjured up to help all sorts of causes, including the sexual revolution.
'But what do they know of its history?' he asks. 'Do they know that the Inquisition was never primarily an anti-Protestant organ . . . do they know that most countries had similar structures to judge heresy, whether Catholic or Protestant, without needing to import anything of the kind from Spain?'
Even though Spaniards themselves call it La Leyenda Negra - the Black Legend - 'the Inquisition was never as efficient as it would like to have been and as the centuries passed, like any other bureaucracy, it became arteriosclerotic,' he writes.
Fr van Hove quotes the British historian Henry Kamen as saying that the Inquisition has been judged out of the context of its times, 'just as if one would write a history of the police without knowing much about society, the laws and the institutions within which the police operates'. Many Moors in Spain who had been baptised Christians were generating heresies, while the Jews, immensely powerful in the 15th century, could force Catholic debtors, through usury, to renounce their faith.
Another cause of the 'myth' was Canon Juan Antonio Llorente, a Spanish priest who wrote a history of the Inquisition in the 19th century which scandalised many Spaniards and gave the Inquisition its appalling reputation. The work, although an indispensable record, was not, according to the article, impartial.Reuse content