Writings by Dr. John C. Rao

Inquisitions: Then and Now

(Social Justice Review, November-December, 1982)

Twentieth-century Catholics seem to find some aspects of their Church’s past to be at best embarrassing and at worst reprehensible. They have, perhaps, experienced the most anguish with regard to the idea and the institution of the Inquisition. The thought of priests and friars engaged in what some label as being an attack upon “conscience” rouses these critics to expressions of a rage which no denial of sacred doctrine has been able to inspire.

Historical studies of the Inquisition are available in sufficient number to provide knowledge of both the origins as well as the daily operation of that much criticized arm of the Church. Historical studies, however, are not exactly what the modern Catholic requires. His want is not even that of a direct defense of the Inquisition. Rather, he needs to see the problem from a different perspective, one that probes and dissects long-hidden axioms and considers the potentially devastating consequences of a total rejection of the idea of controlling the expression of opinion. It is this need that the present article intends to fill. In doing so, it will underline the fact that that which the contemporary Catholic understands to have been a temporary historical aberration is, on the contrary, a rational, perhaps inescapable constant in the lives of men.

The late Professor Will Herberg was fond of illustrating points by means of stories, one of his most memorable being that aimed at demonstrating the peculiar character of ideology. A man awakened one morning, he explained, to tell his startled wife that he was dead. Her inability to alter his conviction led her to call upon the aid of a friend, a doctor, whose objective judgment she was certain he would accept. Doctor and dead man discussed the latter’s predicament in the family living room. Medical theory having failed to make its impact, the doctor resorted to experimentation. “Look”, he exclaimed, taking a threatening needle from his bag, “dead men do not bleed, do they?” “Of course not”, came the expected response. “Well then”, he triumphantly demanded, inserting the needle into his friend’s forearm and drawing forth the life-giving substance, “answer for this!” “Good heavens”, the “corpse” concluded, “it appears that dead men do bleed!”

Professor Herberg’s point is well-taken. Ideology has a blinding effect. It prevents the unmasking of seemingly obvious absurdities, substituting a dream world for the disdained reality. Evidence upon evidence can mount against the ideologue, but no matter; anything can be assimilated to his fundamentally absurd principles. The ideologue’s sole long-term problem is the fact that the existing order of things remains unmoved by his obstinacy. It bides its time, but eventually it strikes, making a mockery of his assertions, disturbing the repose even of those who insist that they are dead. All who are unaffected by the ideology can see this clearly, though they, too, must frequently suffer from the hardships occasioned by its proponents.

It is a grim fact that ideology can grasp hold of whole societies, or at least their most influential elements, so that no one of effective importance sounds the necessary alarm in time. Wives do not see their husbands’ madness. Doctors deliver weighty lectures in which the phenomenon of bleeding dead men is assumed to be a given. The educated elite finds amusement in satirical depictions of a lunatic antiquity in which the idea of a talking corpse was looked upon with a gnawing doubt. Ideology, in so forming the spirit of a society, the “spirit of the times”, establishes a set of erroneous, “self-evident” axioms which are revered as the necessary starting point for all serious intellectual endeavor. These axioms are then developed according to their inner logic, ultimately leading down pathways never envisaged and never desired by their original defenders. Since the veracity of the ideological principles is held to be unquestionable, the real cause of a social malfunction is never uncovered. Thus, the revenge of the natural order of things has an epic scale on which to operate.

Most contemporary western societies are ruled by ideologies which share a common, unexamined rejection of the concept of authority. Authority is suspect. No evidence of its positive character, as a possible good in itself, is permitted in court, since such evidence, as all “sensible” men realize, would obviously be fallacious. At best, authority is admitted as a necessary evil, a “brake” upon the abuses of “freedom”, which every minute seem to diminish in number. All good folk yearn for the day when it humbly passes out of world history forever. As far as authoritative interference with the expression of opinion in concerned, the special insult that it offers to the dignity of man and to human freedom is understood to be too clear even to be contested.

This brings us back to our initial problem. The first institution to which an ideological disdain for authority—and especially authoritative control over the expression of opinion—was effectively applied was the Church. For centuries, at first haphazardly, later on more formally, the Church had demonstrated her willingness to exercise the instruments of authority for the purpose of restraining what were said to be erroneous ideas. The Inquisition, which in fact played but a partial and variable role in this effort, became the symbol for the entire enterprise.

Merely to mention the existence of such an institution is sufficient for modern man, programmed by his ideological formation, to hold it in abhorrence. Did cynical or obscurantist prelates derive hidden satisfaction from its manipulation? Undoubtedly, since this could well have been the case. Were legal irregularities its daily fuel? Authority that it was, this should have been true. Were the dignity and progress of the Christian population offended and halted by its brutal repression? Everywhere and at all times, any evidence to the contrary probably being the result of pious forgeries.

I myself have heard scholars who would demand documentation for the slightest turn of the head of the least significant politico attribute enormities to the Inquisition on the basis of widespread legend. “Kill them all, God will know His own”. Some say that this phrase was uttered by Innocent III, others by a lesser bishop, still others by a pious nobleman. It has been mentioned in conjunction with attacks upon Albigensians, Catharists, and Anabaptists. Does the ideologue sense the need for further research, to determine whether or not Grand Inquisitors might have judged the statement to be commendable or condemnable, or, indeed, whether or not it was formulated at all? Not really. It expresses the “unchanging authoritarian mentality” so well, and can pass as historical truth, as a sure guide to the inquisitorial spirit.

Such an attitude, deeply rooted in the “spirit of the times”, has also been adopted by the modern Catholic. True, there are those who criticize authorities like the Inquisition in the same way that experienced parents might reprimand the harshness of a young couple towards its first child, due to the realization that penalties and prohibitions are sometimes self-defeating. Nevertheless, the general rule is that the modern Catholic is convinced that such prohibitions are doctrinally untenable, wants them to be self-defeating, and is, furthermore, ideologically certain that they must be self-defeating. Evidence to the contrary is either ignored or treated as being scholastic quibbling. Why even bother to distinguish Christian and secular definitions of “freedom”, to indicate a possible difference between “freedom of conscience” and unrestricted liberty to express one’s opinions in the public forum? It is clear long before such evidence has been produced and such distinctions made that they will be dismissed by him as being insignificant.

It would not be superfluous to add that it is not the abuse of the Inquisition that causes the modern Catholic’s alarm. Neither is he primarily upset by its indirect responsibility for executions, nor by its maintenance of its own prisons. The outrage is the appeal to authority as such. Both the death sentence and the slightest official reprimand to the lowliest and most guilty cleric are but particular manifestations of a single greater evil. The auto-da-fe and the statement that a notorious heretic no longer deserves the title of “Catholic theologian” share the same reprehensible character. The use of authority entails a “self-evident” violation of “freedom” abhorrent to the true Christian spirit.

Thus, although many of the opponents of the Inquisition have attacked it for pragmatic reasons, the ideological assault upon authority has played a prominent role in its rejection. I believe that it has ultimately played the most decisive role. If this is true, one ought to be able to demonstrate the way in which the “inner logic” of the ideological principle has developed along pathways leading to more exotic regions than many enemies of the Inquisition wanted to visit. One ought to be able to outline reality’s revenge upon the ideological axiom, the manner in which the established order makes a mockery of its own most cherished goals. I would like to call attention to two ways in which this is done, with regard to anti-authoritarianism’s supposed defense of human dignity and freedom, without wishing to infer that the list of mockeries is thereby complete.

Let us first consider the question of human dignity. The West, historically, and the population, generally, have thought human dignity to involve a certain respect for man’s mind, man’s person, and the seriousness of man’s actions. The ideological assault on authority, beginning with the emasculation of the Inquisition, has unwittingly encouraged the victory of that school of thought which reduces man to the level of a directionless beast, blinds him to any meaningful consideration for his own and his neighbor’s existence, and deprives him of an awareness of the significance of his intellectual and bodily actions. Hence, the depiction of the ideological opponent of authority as a proponent of human dignity must either involve an equivocation or self-deception. This can be perceived by beginning with a second glance at that which really disappears along with the inquisitorial spirit.

Three clear principles lay at the basis of the Inquisition: the conviction that there was such a thing as truth; the belief that it was crucially important to possess truth and to avoid error; and, finally, the idea that human beings, even those with the best of motivations, were subject to sin and error, and might stand in occasional need of correction by the level-headed. Bound firmly together with this last point was, of course, the doctrine of the infallibility of the Church in matters of faith and morals.

The chief effect of the institution, achieved through a public, ceremonial condemnation of falsehood and reaffirmation of truth, was to give palpable witness to the reality and significance of the spiritual realm. Christians were shown that this other world was not something nebulous, that inquiries into the nature of truth, goodness, and beauty had definite answers, and that men were called upon to embrace them. They saw value placed in truth, and horror awakened by error. The existence of the Inquisition, one might argue, paid tribute to a crucial lesson taught by the Incarnation: the efficacy of imbedding the supernatural realm in the material world for the benefit of creatures of flesh and blood, who might otherwise lose track of it.

Ideological anti-authoritarianism demanded an end to the Inquisition, the prohibition of its palpable pinpointing of truth and error. What was the natural, even if irrational result? Indifference. It was not reasoned argument that won the general population, or the bulk of educated opinion for that matter, to the belief that certitude in religious questions and accurate doctrinal formulations were impossibilities. Rather, to a large degree, public abandonment of long-held religious certainties followed the abandonment of authoritative public testimony to them. One no longer beheld the spectacle of concern for truth, of a fear for its safety as vivid as that which might accompany the transportation of some precious gem, or a conviction of the power of evil.

The logical conclusions were drawn. Whether one wills it or not, it appears to be in the character of man to drive from his mind that which is out of his sight. Whether one wills it or not, it appears to be in the character of error to appeal to man’s more easily stimulated feelings, and, hence, to rout an unarmed and unpretentious truth. If non-ideological precepts had been the sole cause of the Inquisition’s departure from the scene, drastic consequences might not have followed. Unfortunately, however, the ideological principle useful in dismantling it—the idea that authority necessarily offends a freedom defined as the absence of restraints—had a logic to it demanding further development. It proved to be equally applicable to a variety of authorities—some boasting armed protection, the majority with but the weight of tradition behind them—that gave flesh to other truths.

One by one, these other authorities were forced to retire from the western stage. Why, after dissolving the power of priests, should the free man slavishly submit himself to those attempting to rule him with reference to a natural law? Authority was authority, restraint was restraint, whether it be justified with an appeal to God or to Nature. Why pay homage to the Greek philosophical tradition, to Aristotelian logic, to the dictatorial structure of a given tongue, or even to the warnings of prejudice, a much maligned force which simply unites the long digested lessons of past experience with daily problems? Why hearken to any chain upon one’s spontaneous behavior? Inquisition or professorial chair, Credo or grammatical rules, all amounted to the same evil: an assault upon freedom from authority.

The western world quickly grasped the lesson to be learned here, and understood that it was similar to that taught by the disappearance of the Inquisition. Shorn bit by bit of his most readable and authoritative intellectual signposts, and always prone to draw irrational conclusions, modern man progressed towards an ever-increasing skepticism regarding his ability to grasp or to appreciate anything. He learned, moreover, to place greater value in a free ignorance than in a constrained enlightenment, to treasure the perpetual search above the joy of discovery, Tantalus and Sisyphus above the mystic. Better that each generation should begin anew in total ignorance blindly groping towards that which it ought fervently to hope that it never reaches: a fast-binding truth, offensive to freedom.

Thus, the contemporary battle-lines are now clear, though popularly described in the most curious of terms. On the one side stand the “obscurantists”, the friends of authority, the last remaining proponents of the inquisitorial spirit. These are men who are certain that there is such a thing as truth, that one’s ideas have consequences that must be calculated before they are put into effect, and that society ought to use the means at its disposal to protect men from the evils that harm them. On the other side are arrayed the “defenders of the dignity of man”. These are soldiers who willingly march blindfolded, ridiculing the entire concept of truth, laughing at the distinction of weak as opposed to strong minds, and sinful in contrast to healthy souls. Their banners proclaim the importance of allowing the expression of all ideas rather than a preoccupation with their content. This army’s morale is high, its progress continuous. Yet, ironically, its whole mission is in question, since the logic of its battle cry makes it impossible for this host to embrace any notion of human dignity whatsoever, or even effectively to criticize the position of its enemy. A fervent attack upon the principle of authority requires just that admission of the existence of truth and error, good and evil, which the army can no longer make. Thus, its general carries not only a death sentence for any society possessing a well-defined culture and cherished beliefs; he brings with him not only a condemnation for those who distinguish rational from irrational behavior; he will also proclaim license for Everyman to abuse himself and his neighbors in violation of a human dignity impossible for the conqueror to define.

This brings us to the question of freedom. Human liberty reels from the blows directed against the principle of authority by the ideological opponents of the Inquisition. This is true not only of human freedom understood in a Christian sense, as freedom from sin, but also in that sense given to it by modern man, as freedom from restraints. For it is manifestly not the case that the disappearance of the historical Inquisition has entailed the abolition of inquisitions as such. Different appellations and altered structures today define and shape what is, in fact, an historical constant: control of the expression of opinion.

In practice, the absurdity of not believing in anything has proven to be beyond man’s ability to digest. However much its proponents might be horrified by the thought, anti-authoritarianism itself has positive substance which demands assent, is propagated with ferocity, and is totally intolerant of opposition. It thus carries on the tradition of previous “innocent” enemies of the Inquisition: Catharists, who, rather than wishing simply to be left alone to practice ritual suicide, positively demanded the destruction of Church and State; Anabaptists with similar requirements; even Galileo, bored by mere research, and dedicated to a public campaign for unconditional ecclesiastical confirmation of that which was not yet scientifically demonstrable.

This substantive doctrine of anti-authoritarianism has fought relentlessly against Catholicism. It insists that Catholic positions not be taken seriously, that they not be defended, and it associates all the odium of the inquisitorial spirit with their slightest support. The intolerance of its own campaign, however, is not deemed to be inquisitorial; it is always a defense against the Inquisition. Thus, the doctrines of freedom, progress, and even that of perpetual doubt, implicit in the negative attack upon the principle of authority, call upon all the sympathy enjoyed by the oppressed, and end by justifying and exercising all of the instruments utilized by the oppressor.

Modern inquisitions, however, in distinction to their historical precursor, are unjustifiable, dishonest, and rarely capable of doing good. They can only operate in direct conflict with their underlying philosophy of freedom and doubt. Their existence is frequently denied, and their operations, therefore, often hidden. When officially non-existent, they are unwatched and uncontrolled. Abuses cannot be attributed to them. The public obtains little encouragement from them, since ceremonial condemnations of error are avoided, or, if issued, reserved solely for the defense of ideology. They are, in a way, pseudo-inquisitions, guaranteeing a pseudo-truth for what have become purposeless and thoughtless pseudo-peoples. Yet the modern Catholic, bowing his head in shame over the abuses of a now powerless historical institution, submits himself willingly to the grip of contemporary institutionalized abuse.

Three examples of the continued existence of inquisitions may be noted here. The first of these bears the closest resemblance to its historical predecessor, since, to a certain extent, it simply carries on its work. This is the State, in its role as censor, when, with general approbation, it controls the expression of opinion on subjects concerning which the population and intelligentsia both retain strong convictions. Child molestation, for example, is still repugnant to the vast majority of men. Few would consider it to be an abuse of the State’s power were it to prevent someone from publicly defending this action. Teachers propagating the doctrine of child molestation could be silenced with impunity. No Don Carlos would be produced to lament their sufferings. Similarly, few recriminations would follow the dismissal of mathematicians or botanists basing their lectures on magical theories rather than upon reason and research. Again, convinced Nazis can expect minor public sympathy should the State punish them for turning classrooms into a forum for their views. In short, inquisitorial powers are still permitted with regard to these phenomena. It does little good to insist that one is speaking here of the repression of obvious absurdities, or only of those actions which injure others. Past ages, certain of more truths, held a broader sense of what was obviously absurd and injurious. They could apply the same argument to the actions of the historical Inquisition.

The average western State, however, as indicated above, finds its inquisitorial power hard to justify. It senses that it possesses the right to act in defense of the common good; it perceives that it cannot abandon its people to ideas disturbing the entire social order; it recognizes, weakly, that it ought not to commit suicide. Perhaps someone should regularly explain to it that Catholics who issue the civil authority stern prohibitions against doing what is necessary to defend society frequently violate the boundary of Church and State more than any Grand Inquisitor ever did. But when the modern western State sets out to do its duty, it is afraid to refer to the concept of truth and the goodness of authority. It either acts without justifying itself at all, retreating irrationally in case of a public outcry, or, more often than not, it hides behind the shield of popular opinion. This latter appeal is itself an offense to human dignity, since it demonstrates that censorship is not founded upon reason, but, rather, upon the strength afforded by number. Sheltered behind a mercurial popular will, which sways with the wind blown by vigorous, well-organized dissidents, the State tightens and loosens bonds capriciously. It destroys all belief in the significance and permanence of any given guideline for censorship. The impression is created that that which is condemnable today will tomorrow be smiled upon from on high.

The second substitute inquisition, which stems more clearly from the attack upon authority and may be called the radical inquisition, develops neatly in the following pattern. No authority is acceptable. The only legitimate control in a given society is that stemming from the freely-expressed will of the people. The will of the people, however, cannot be made manifest until such time as it is removed from the pressure exerted by exploitative influences. Only the far-sighted, who have already extracted themselves from these pressures, understand what the population would will were it to be truly free. Hence, the far-sighted faction, or party, may fight and destroy opposing viewpoints in the name of the people, even when the people as a whole hold firmly to them. In this case, the party interpolates the popular will, certain that the real population, enlightened after the completion of its work, will bless its actions. The party’s license to act against the enemy is an unlimited one, and its power is incapable of being abused, given the fact that it is not really an authority at all, but simply a helpless instrument of the (interpolated) popular will. An inquisitorial Party State is born, due, to no small degree, to the attack upon legitimate civil authority, which historically understood itself to control the population rather than to be a simple expression of its will.

An example of this radical outlook may be seen in a discussion that I once overheard between two friends, one Mexican, the other English. The Mexican complained that the Church in his country had ensured the material backwardness of the land, directing the intentions of the population towards otherworldly goals. She had, he insisted, kept the uneducated superstitious and enslaved. Fortunately, however, the Mexican Revolution had brought to power a party interested in freedom, progress, and enlightenment. “As the party of freedom”, the Englishman asked, “it presumably allowed the Church the right to express her views, to maintain, for example, an independent school system?” “What?”, came the indignant reply; “but that would simply have ensured the continued enslavement of the population, which would have sent its children to such schools en masse!” “Then Mexico has a kind of Inquisition”, the Englishman argued, “one that represses Catholic viewpoints”. “Of course not”, his interlocutor insisted; “the Revolution encouraged freedom. It is the Church that is the inquisitorial force”.

No efforts of the Englishman were successful in demonstrating to the Mexican that he was begging the question; that inquisitions as such had not been abolished, but, rather, that a new one supporting secular goals had replaced an older one with supernatural definitions of freedom, progress, and enlightenment. Despite the fact that the Party State might fine, incarcerate, and even, in the 1920’s, execute men for propagating their beliefs, he refused to allow it to be accused of exercising inquisitorial powers. Again, one might note the fact that the theoretical non-existence of this control of the expression of opinion makes discussion of its abuse perforce a waste of time.

The third replacement inquisition, which operates in the United States, is much more subtle. Its subtlety is due to a number of peculiarities in the American experience, oddities which also illustrate the way in which ideological attacks upon authority can offend the dignity of the human mind.

The historical accident of American religious and ethnic diversity gave encouragement to the concept of pluralism, which, in effect, argued that groups with radically-opposing goals, such as those of the Mexican materialist and the Church, could somehow manage to live together in peace. This pragmatic hope of pluralism easily became the Iron Clad Dogma of Pluralism, the real enmity of hostile world views being either dismissed as illusory or condemned in themselves for their destructiveness. Destructiveness to what? Destructiveness to the dogma of pluralism. In other words, while it certainly considers it permissible to be devoted to the attainment of sanctity, or to the cause of progress, or to the speeding up of the Marxist dialectic, or to whatever else one might imagine, it demands that one must never be quite so seriously devoted to these causes as to the superior requirements of pluralism. One then advanced from the demand not to be all that bothered by one’s principles to the insistence that their opposites be understood, accepted, and even cherished, in order to enrich the so-called diversity of the nation. A final consolidation of the dogma was achieved when the concept of openness to everything was rigorously taught as the public philosophy.

Catholicism’s experience with pluralism has clearly mirrored this evolution of the dogma. At first, the pluralist sought freedom of expression for the faithful (and the historian must ask himself what pre-existing orthodoxy or authority he hoped the use of Catholicism might destroy). Next, the Catholic was made to feel ashamed that he held “fanatically” to views not espoused by other fellow-Americans (How can you think that abortion is really murder when your very nice neighbor has just had one!). Finally, enough of the non-essential aspects of Catholicism were foisted upon the rest of the population, equally victimized by the pluralist outlook, to deceive the Catholic into thinking that a potential for mass conversion existed. A dilution of the real strength of an idea through the general encouragement of its innocent and superficial features, common to the pluralist approach, is one aspect of that which the leftist Marcuse has acutely defined as repressive tolerance.

Two discussions in which I once participated while an undergraduate illustrate the natural consequences of pluralism. The first involved a university lecturer who was explaining what he identified as John Dewey’s fervent defense of freedom. Freedom was once more understood to have but one self-evident definition. I asked him if Dewey, at least in theory, would have approved of the establishment of Catholic, Southern Baptist, and Socialist schools, all of which could then educate a given nation’s youth in quite distinct manners. “Of course”, he answered, whether correctly or not is presently unimportant. Then, however, came the crucial disclaimer. “Naturally”, he added, “they must not present their world-views as established reality”. Again, one is free to believe what he wills, so long as he does not believe it fully. One is free to follow his reason, provided he does not assume that its dictates should really guide his actions. The human mind and will cannot long endure such a program without becoming either childlike or stark raving mad.

My second illuminating discussion was at a Catholic Newman Club meeting. Every member present, excluding the present author, argued that it was essential for the American Catholic to be forced after a certain age to attend schools whose faculty at the very least propagated other beliefs. This was not due to a laudable desire for the Catholic to understand the world as it is presently constituted. Rather, it was the result of an unshakeable conviction that it was more important to be exposed to, and for a time to embrace, a wide variety of hostile viewpoints and lifestyles than it was to rest firm in the possession of one’s own faith and morals. No conception of sin, of possible loss of souls, of an overbearing superficiality, or of any other negative significance to their suggestion animated them. How could it? What value have ideas? The Newman Club members were but honest soldiers of the sacred pluralist host, marching forward under a banner which dismissed my qualms as being the scruples of a primitive time. They were no longer Catholics.

One might argue that such discussions are nonetheless purely abstract in character, and that, after all, there is no inquisition in the United States imposing pluralism as the Mexican Party State might seek to encourage secularism. Such a contention, however, would ignore a second oddity of the American system, one noted by observers of the United States from the days of Alexis de Tocqueville to the present: the weakness of its State and the inordinate strength of its subsidiary society.

The American system, partially built upon and partially having fallen accidentally into anti-authoritarianism, leaves an enormous power vacuum that has gradually been occupied by organizations other than the State and an established Church. These forces can and do restrain personal expression of opinion with such an effectiveness as to dampen any excitement over ecclesiastical and governmental retreat from the scene. The mass media {and, I would add, in 2006, the mass market—author’s note} in particular, which understand that their exaggerated independence and influence in American life is connected with the pluralism which helps to keep State and Church away from the door, search the horizon for signs of discontentment requiring fraternal correction.

Let us, for a moment, refer to the plight of the academic. Every orthodox Catholic academic knows that it is exceedingly dangerous to question the validity of pluralist doctrines. One is partially unwilling to broach the subject due to the dolorous reality that openness to everything has so dulled students’ minds to the problem of truth that they no longer even comprehend a sharp statement of real conviction on substantive issues. Mostly, however, one refuses to broach it for fear of survival.

Attack pluralism, or, worse still, attack the media as such, and the consequences can be devastating, especially in state schools. Universities, terrified at the thought of being accused of giving shelter to a fanatic (i.e., a non pluralist), purge him from their ranks. Conference doors are closed. Books are not published, or, if they are, are officially treated as being worthless and not reviewed by the journals that count. The fanatic becomes an outcast, a sick man, sharing the fate of many dissidents in the Soviet Union. Incisive minds end in menial positions along with the other Dubceks of the western world. Meanwhile, the victim’s opponents rise to fame as confessors, the glory of their heroic struggles against fascistic heavy-handedness being sung from station to station, from press to press. Numerous cases of such injustice have been detailed by those men who have managed to escape the inquisitorial claw, scholars like Russell Kirk.

Rectification of the problem is most unlikely. Why? Because as already illustrated by the Mexican example, western man retains an historical frame of reference several centuries out of date. He has frozen history. Inquisitions, he is certain, must involve Church or State, and must be exercised by means of thumbscrews, racks, the hangman’s noose, and the Cossack’s whip. Men of the media are unfeignedly bewildered when one accuses them of abusing their power, because their failure to keep pace with historical developments has left them with the idea that tyranny can only come from other sources. Despite the immense wealth of the instruments for disseminating opinion, despite their demonstrable ability to silence unacceptable viewpoints, to bring down governments and States, despite privileges opening doors firmly shut to the common citizen, the media sees themselves in an eighteenth-century halo. Others injure, but you, media felicia, defend the little man, the persecuted innocents, and deserve their love. For you, presses are still hidden away in Parisian back alleyways, while the gendarme maintains his frightful watch for their owners’ return.

Pluralist lands are no more threatened by the inquisitorial abuses of Church and State today than Romans were by the possible tyranny of nominal fifth-century emperors. {This statement, too, has to be modified in 2006—author’s note}.Yet everyone’s attention continues to be focused upon them. Meanwhile, the media are free to crush careers and to destroy real freedom of expression. If the punishments utilized in this effort are not the historically familiar ones, this is due both to the peculiar character of the pluralist approach, which would cease being itself were it to act openly and even consciously in the older fashion, as well as to the fact that the present penalties are so effective. And very little stands in the way of a faction eventually taking advantage of this curious situation to transform the pluralist inquisition into a radical or irrational statist one. {Our situation today?—author’s note}

The purpose of this article has not been to belie the dangers of the historical Inquisition, nor to treat disagreement with Catholic doctrine as though it were absurd, nor to demand the reestablishment of the auto-da-fe. Rather , it has sought to indicate that those who are concerned with the evils that can come from men who feel that they possess the truth, those who fear the real abuses of authority, must look for succor in the right place. Western man, in modern times, has attempted to escape the problem of fanaticism by abolishing the search for truth, and the difficulties of acting moderately and providing justice by condemning the instruments of restraint. This effort was foredoomed to failure. It has failed. The controls on expression of opinion exercised today are as real and as firm as anything known in the past; they are simply not quite as honest. However painful it may be to admit it, modern man cannot escape the choice that lies before him: either build an inquisition upon that which is honestly believed to be true, and which acts as justly as one can make it act, or submit to ideological or irrational controls that operate on the basis of power alone. The answer to fanaticism and to abuse can only be the more fervent search for truth and for justice. Yet so long as the contemporary mind continues to submit itself to the self-evident truths of anti-authoritarianism, it will never understand and correct its mistake.

What ultimately, was the historical Inquisition? It was an institution built by a society that knew what it was, that understood where it was going, and that did not entertain illusions concerning its ability to get there without defending itself. Far from being essentially brutal in its operation, its complex of legal formalities made it much more humane than secular legal bodies of the Middle Ages or the Renaissance-Reformation period. Indeed, its existence was partially due to a reaction against the lynch law threatened by popular and State outrage over the preaching and actions of medieval heretics.

It is one thing for non-Catholics to disapprove of that type of Inquisition which guards Catholic doctrines. It is quite another when the modern Catholic does so. He cannot claim to be a defender of human dignity, and he cannot claim the title of freedom fighter. Above all, as a passage from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy helps to illustrate, he has no right to argue that its departure has improved the quality of everyday western life. For there is no joy to the unrestricted existence:

Those countries in Europe which are still influenced by priests are exactly the countries where there is still singing and dancing and coloured dresses and art in the open air. Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.

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