Thursday, July 5, 2018

defending the InquisitionThe Spanish Inquisition Was a Moderate Court by the Standard of Its Time.



In Elizabethan and Protestant propaganda, the Spanish Empire figured as a threat to all that was good in the world.

Wherever politics and the judicial system overlap, there is bound to be controversy. Whether it be the Mueller probe or the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the moment any legal authority appears to be going after someone a little too eagerly, people cry foul. In our pluralistic society, equality before the law is about the closest thing we have to a common article of faith. So it is no surprise that it’s a sensitive issue that can evoke emotive responses.

A familiar reaction is to accuse someone of behaving like the Spanish Inquisition. As a rhetorical device, it works well. It carries overtones of a thought police, of a tyranny over mind and soul. It conjures up images of dank cellars and sinister monks with red-hot pokers. It is a byword for oppression and abuse dressed up as law.

Yet while any reasonable person would find a lot not to like about the Spanish Inquisition, much of our popular conception of it is the product of Elizabethan propaganda and gothic fiction. There was a concerted effort by northern (mostly Protestant) European kingdoms to paint the Spanish Empire as constitutionally evil; not just a political, religious, and military rival but an existential threat to all that was good in the world. The Inquisition was the poster child for these efforts, which collectively became known as the Black Legend. Julián Juderías, Jose Alvarez-Juno, and other 20th-century historians have done much to unwind the more cartoonish allegations and understand them as the propaganda campaign they were.

In fact, examined simply as a functioning court, the Spanish Inquisition was in many ways ahead of its time and a pioneer of many judicial practices we now take for granted.

Let’s start with the basic legal concept of an “inquisition.” It just means a court of inquiry in which the judges take the lead in directing proceedings in the pursuit of truth, rather than a prosecution-driven adversarial system. Such courts continue to function in many secular jurisdictions today, and there is, frankly, nothing very sinister about it, though it appears alien to those of us raised on American courtroom dramas.

Because it was a religious court primarily concerned with heresy trials, it has the reputation of being an ecclesiastical thought police run by religious fanatics who trapped innocent laymen with theological technicalities. The Inquisition was actually a reluctant creation of the Church.

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