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The Roman Inquisition: Evolution and impact

Published on 27 December 2014
Updated on 30 January 2024

Human society, I have argued, is driven by ‘enablers’ – key factors or events that significantly shape societal developments (see my post ‘A long tale of “enablers”‘ Part 1 and Part 2). The Counter-Reformation (or Catholic Reformation) is a good example of a complex enabler for counterinsurgency. It is worth visiting.

Two approaches toward Protestant reformers

Faced with the ‘heretical’ ideas of Martin Luther (1483–1546), the Catholic Church scrambled to formulate a response toward the reformers. Two polar positions emerged: proponents of a ‘soft’ (‘irenic’), compromising approach, and the ‘hard’ (intransigent) approach which favoured a strict, uncompromising stance. Although the theological details are not the primary concern in this context, it is notable that the advocates of the softer approach nearly achieved a significant victory. They came within one vote of securing the Papacy following the death of Paul III (who served as Pope from 1534 to 1549), but ultimately, they were unsuccessful.

A painting by Karl Aspelin depicts Martin Luther burning the 1520 papal bull that condemned his teachings. This act marked Luther's rejection of papal authority, emphasizing the supremacy of Scriptures over Church doctrine.
A painting by Karl Aspelin depicts Martin Luther burning the 1520 papal bull that condemned his teachings. This act marked Luther’s rejection of papal authority, emphasizing the supremacy of Scriptures over Church doctrine (Wikipedia).

One of the main reasons for the defeat was the successful campaign waged by Cardinal Carafa in the Conclave against the British Cardinal Pole, whom he accused of heresy. Carafa was the first head of the Roman Inquisition which was established in 1542 chiefly to combat Protestantism. It followed earlier models like the Medieval Inquisition, which began in the 12th century to address heretical movements in Europe, and the Spanish Inquisition, established in 1478, primarily targeting converted Jews and Muslims.

Whether Pole, had he become pope, would have pursued the soft position, remains a subject for counterfactual speculation. Personally, I harbour doubts. The term ‘soft’ also implies ‘unfocused’ – a readiness to compromise and accommodate that often results in weak coalitions. Internal wrangling or a lack of commitment might have ultimately allowed the intransigents to prevail.

The Inquisition, however, was the pivotal enabler for the ‘intransigents’. It functioned as a modern structure with the power to penetrate the complex web of conflicting jurisdictions and privileges, which often provided ‘heretics’ with safe havens. Carafa had also established a ‘troop’ to aid him in his task – the Teatin order, founded in 1524. Operating in secrecy, the Inquisition relied heavily on informers. Its accusations were as nebulous as they were perceived to be threatening. Much like contemporary perceptions of security, the concept of heresy was largely in the eye of the beholder.

The evolution and impact of the Roman Inquisition

Although an intransigent himself, Pope Julius III (served as Pope from 1550 to 1555), Paul III’s successor, attempted to rein in the Inquisition and curtailed some of Carafa’s more flagrant schemes. However, the Pope’s tenure was short-lived, and his successors were predominantly drawn from the ranks of the Inquisition, including Carafa himself, who ascended to the papacy as Paul IV (served as Pope from 1555 to 1559). For the ensuing half-century, a pattern emerged where one would typically become pope only after proving their mettle with the Inquisition.

The Inquisition evolved into a career path, offering ambitious clerics without family connections a route to advancement. Consequently, it attracted some of the sharpest minds, all intent on uncovering ‘heretics’. Any true unbelievers that may have existed were quickly dealt with – some fled, others were apprehended, and most conformed. However, as the supply of heretics dwindled, the Inquisition needed new targets to maintain its operations and to fund itself through confiscations. It expanded its focus to various forms of deviant behaviour. After ‘purifying’ the elite, the Inquisition turned its suspicious gaze towards the ordinary people, employing the confessional as a tool to root out mystics, lowly mechanics, witches, and dissenters. Consequently, a pall of conformism descended upon Italian society.

Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury's 'Galileo before the Holy Office' captures Galileo's 1633 trial by the Inquisition, highlighting the clash between scientific innovation and religious orthodoxy.
Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury’s painting depicts Galileo’s 1633 trial by the Inquisition and the clash between scientific innovation and religious orthodoxy (Wikimedia).

Conformism, based solely on repression, was not sufficient. Power rooted in repression is never secure, as rebellion constantly simmers in the minds of the oppressed. The solution lay in social control: shaping a society of believers who willingly accept conformity as ‘truth’ and actively purge dissent from within. To this end, a set of tools—enablers—originally developed overseas for converting heathens was repurposed in the homeland. Missionary techniques of indoctrination were employed: religious rallies, uplifting rituals, prayers, processions, and devotions to saints and sacred places. This comprehensive approach ultimately established a self-policing, self-replicating social system. People’s inherent need for spiritual solace in the face of adversity and the unpredictable nature of reality was exploited for the purpose of social control. This strategy is invariably effective: people desire to believe, regardless of the belief’s content, because belief provides meaning.

Faith may have been the intended goal, but it was the Inquisition and its tools which were the crucial enablers. These tools soon dominated, favouring those adept at their use. Those who made a career of it and gained recognition were reluctant to cease their activities. Goals were interpreted more broadly, and new objectives were added, eventually eclipsing the original ones. Were they despicable careerists or evil men like Eichmann? Not necessarily. Trotsky observed that 95% of Party commissars were opportunists, with the remainder being true believers. His wasn’t a moral judgement but a realistic one, understanding how an enabler or structure functions. In such a system, the goal and the means are distinct: ‘have a hammer; will bang nails; just tell me where’. The strength of the opportunist (focused more on process than ideological goals) lies in their dedication to skilfully execute tasks without questioning the necessity of these actions. Their weakness, however, is in their intent to perpetuate the system beyond its useful life to justify their actions. With no real commitment to the goal, only to the process (which they master), they continue unless stopped. In contrast to a market system, where overshooting is checked by resource scarcity and the highest demand, there is no such natural check in virtual domains like security. Consequently, the machine persists indefinitely.

The painting 'St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre' by François Dubois depicts the massacre that occurred in 1572 during the 16th-century French Wars of Religion. This tragic event unfolded between Catholics and Protestants (Huguenots) and resulted in the deaths of thousands of Huguenots
The painting St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre by François Dubois depicts the massacre that occurred in 1572 during the French Wars of Religion. The event unfolded between Catholics and Protestants (Huguenots) and resulted in the deaths of thousands of Huguenots (Wikimedia).

Religious tactics for modern-day security

The mentality and tactics originally developed for religious enforcement during the Counter-Reformation, such as those used by the Inquisition, have transformed and found their place in contemporary approaches to maintaining order and security. These goals are so vague and ill-defined that they allow enablers (structures designed to achieve these goals) to dominate. Over the long term, the logic inherent in these enablers overrides the original objectives, leading to path-dependent outcomes.

The power of analogy lies in its points of similarity, enabling us to make telling, albeit incomplete, predictions. One need only observe the attire of today’s typical police officer to witness the gradual encroachment of a counterinsurgency mentality into the civilian streets, a mentality returning from ‘missionary work’ in Iraq and Afghanistan. This attire serves as a silent, yet potent, indicator that we inhabit a world increasingly shaped by the notion of urban guerrilla warfare, thereby inadvertently legitimising such behaviour. Whether a society can endure this creeping militarisation is a matter of conjecture. The true tragedy lies in the diffuse nature of this phenomenon. As these tools proliferate, there appears to be no one with the authority or willingness to say ‘enough’.

This post was first published on DeepDip.

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