The Catholic Church has a long and sordid history behind it. While Christianity as a whole is meant to spread the good word of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God, the Catholic Church, while having good intentions, had its flaws and was just as vulnerable to corruption and extremism as any other institution. Sometimes, the Church turned to extreme measures, such as the Inquisition and the Crusades, to pursue its agenda. These acts, while having relatively simple end-goals in mind, had extremely large ramifications to the world in the long run.
The Inquisition is one such act perpetrated by the Catholic Church. The Inquisition commonly refers to the Spanish Inquisition initiated in 1478 (Lemieux, 2002), but also refers to the Inquisitions in Portugal and various other colonies centuries later, including the New World (Soyer, 2015). Surprisingly, despite being signed off by Pope Sixtus IV, the Spanish Inquisition acted mostly independent of the papacy and was mostly enacted by the will and authority of the Spanish Royalty. The reason the Spanish Inquisition was enacted was to find and punish heretical conversos, local Jews that recently converted to Christianity, who were still practicing the old Jewish practices (Lemieux, 2002), as well as ensuring said practices do not gain traction within their lands, either colonial or homeland (Soyer, 2015).
Anti-semitism played a major role in the initiation of the Inquisition, with prejudice against Muslims, Lutherans, and even Jesuits enacted later. However, despite the prejudices, the Inquisition’s goals evolved to increase religious awareness, avert immoral Catholic practices and unify Spain under a single religion rather than keep it multicultural and risk a potential civil war (Lemieux, 2002). An Inquisition began when a trio of inquisitors entered a town and requested said heretics to come forward immediately for a grace period in which they will be punished relatively leniently. After these grace periods, then the inquisition proper would commence and inquisitors encouraged the townsfolk to essentially spy on one another and report any alleged heresy to them to investigate (Lemieux, 2002). When arrested, the inquisitors would use torture to extract confessions out of their victims, after which they would be ‘relaxed’, which is essentially burning at the stake, ‘reconciled’, which is essentially being imprisoned or whipped, or penanced, where after publicly confessing for their sins, they will be forced to wear a shameful piece of clothing known as a sanbenito and subsequently fined and/or banished; all of which is done publicly (Lemieux, 2002). While all of these were certainly true, the extent of the Inquisition’s cruelty has been put into question, with some historians arguing that their use of torture has been grossly exaggerated over the years, claiming that torture was used scarcely, only for very serious offenses, intended not to leave any lasting injury, and only used previously invented techniques. Another point of contention is the fact that the total number of deaths from the Inquisition isn’t nearly as high as its reputation would have one believe (Lemieux, 2002). This should all be taken with a grain of salt, however, since records of the Inquisition as a whole are very rare, especially during its earliest and perhaps most violent period (Lemieux, 2002)
Whether or not these allegations are true, the Inquisition would go on for centuries, with multiple inquisitions occurring at the height of Portugal and Spain’s power and in their colonies in the new world. Since individuals were especially mobile due to the nature of merchants and settlers, the Inquisition went to great lengths to ensure heretics didn’t escape their clutches. (Soyer, 2015). Inquisitions often took much longer due to how long it took for mail and documents to be delivered, sent, and replied to, with one tribunal in particular lasting a whole ten years, from start to finish (Soyer, 2015). The Inquisition’s reach went far and wide in its prime, but eventually, the movement lost traction and popularity over the centuries, with King Ferdinand II abolishing it in 1820 after briefly reviving the organization in 1814. While the Inquisition more than likely didn’t rid the world of heresy, it did manage to shift Spanish moral and intellectual paradigms in a way that drastically increased religious knowledge and decreased what was thought to be moral behavior at the time (Lemieux, 2002). However, while the Spanish Empire “contributed hugely to areas of learning such as navigation, natural history and medicine”, Spain as a whole was effectively becoming less prominent on the world stage “by the 17th century”, with the Inquisition coming to an end nearly two centuries later (Lemieux, 2002). With an era of terror long gone, with its goal of ridding heresy from Spanish lands far from complete, the Inquisition left behind a legacy of increased Christian knowledge and not unfounded fear of what the Catholic Church is capable of doing against those that don’t follow its standards.
Another act done by the Catholic Church is the Crusades. The Crusades collectively refers to several Holy Wars initiated by the Catholic Church to reclaim the Holy Land, which was currently occupied by the Fatimid Caliphate. Tensions first began when the Fatimid Caliph Hakim “began to persecute Christians and despoiled the Holy Sepulcher” (Crusades, 2020), but it all came to a head when Emperor Alexios I of the Byzantine Empire requested help from the church to prevent the Seljuk Empire from invading Constantinople (Crusades., 2020). Another reason the Crusades came to be was the chance at reconciliation; the Byzantine Empire was of the Greek Orthodox Church, which had split from the Catholic Church in 1054, so Pope Urban II used the Byzantine’s crisis not only to regain the Holy Land for Catholics and strengthen the power of the papacy but to mend the divide between the Catholic and Greek Orthodox Church (Philips, 2015).
Gathering an army was relatively simple enough for Pope Urban II in 1094; to encourage people to take arms and head for the Holy Land, he promised those who participated in the Crusade spiritual salvation and forgiveness of all their sins. What was essentially a free ticket to heaven despite one’s sins, as well as promises of honor, land, fortunes, and the chance to leave their humble home and head to the Holy Land, it was an extremely attractive offer to many Europeans of both common and noble descent (Phlips, 2015). An army, estimated to be as large as 100,000 men, was amassed and marched to the aid of Constantinople, where they made a deal to recapture lands taken by the Seljuk Turks “in return for supplies, guides, and luxury gifts” (Philips, 2015). Over the next few years, the Crusaders managed to capture city after city, starting with Nicaea in 1097, Antioch in 1098, and finally, Jerusalem in 1099, establishing the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem among many other Crusader states (Philips, 2015). Of course, this is only the first of nine Crusades, and instead of conquest, these latter Crusades were more to recapture land taken from them by the Muslims. Jerusalem was recaptured shortly before the Third Crusade in 1187 by Saladin, and right before the Seventh Crusade, in 1244. By the end of the Ninth Crusade, most of the Crusader States fell to Muslim control (Crusades., 2020). After all Nine Crusades, the Catholic Church, and Europe were initially able to reclaim the Holy Land, but ultimately unable to hold onto it for long (Crusades., 2020). However, The Crusades did manage to change a lot of the status quo. The Italian City-states, while obviously on the side of the Crusaders, managed to establish trade routes with the Middle East as early as the First Crusade. Pilgrims were now free to travel to the Holy Land, this, alongside increased trade and with the “unprecedented burst of historical writing” (Philips, 2015), more and more people were being exposed to new ideas and thoughts than they ever were before. Also, in an ironic twist, in what was originally a bid to increase to powers of the Papacy, the Crusades lead to more power going to the ruling monarchies since they were the ones making most of the hard moment-to-moment choices during the Crusades (Crusades., 2020). While the Crusades never resulted in the Christian dominance of the Holy Land, it did lead to a significant paradigm shift in European thinking and way of life.
The Catholic Church was behind multiple different events in world history. It seems for all of its good or ill intentions, whatever the Church backed always ended up having consequences that changed the world as a whole. However, without some of these events, such as the Inquisition and the Crusades, the world as it is known now would not exist. Indeed, the Church’s historic actions should always be remembered, both as a reminder of what an organization like the Catholic Church is capable of doing, and so such horrible events can never repeat themselves.
- Crusades. (2020). Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition, 1–4.
- Lemieux, S. (2002). The Spanish Inquisition. History Review, 44, 44.
- Phillips, J. (2015). THE CRUSADES.. (cover story). History Today, 65(5), 26–34.
- Soyer, F. (2015). Enforcing Religious Repression in an Age of World Empires: Assessing the Global Reach of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. History, 100(341), 331–353.