Book review: God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the making of the modern world

Military Police guard Taliban and Al Qaeda detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Photo: Getty
Military Police guard Taliban and Al Qaeda detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Photo: Getty
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THE Inquisition is almost shorthand for all the backward, repressive and intolerant features of life which modernity has defined itself in opposition to; and yet, as Cullen Murphy elegantly and persuasively shows, a strain of the “inquisitorial impulse” is alive and well in the 21st century.

This is not an academic volume, and it is all the better for that: Murphy, editor-at-large for Vanity Fair, combines reportage, travelogue and interview to advance his argument, although there is a bedrock of sound academic research. While the typical academic volume might be even-handed to the point of never quite stating anything (on the one hand … however, on the other), Cullen animates these debates by actually speaking to the historians. It makes for a surprisingly breezy book about monstrosity.

The Inquisition was not a monolithic entity. As Cullen shows, there were three distinct European inquisitions: the first Inquisition, in the 13th century, targeted heretic groups in France, particularly the Cathars; the second, under Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain in the 15th century, began by investigating converted Jews and Muslims suspected of persisting in their former beliefs (and rapidly spread to Christian heretics as well); and the third, Roman, Inquisition in the 16th century was created to deal with Protestantism. Crucially, although each Inquisition came to an end, the bureaucracy did not. In 1908, the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Roman and Universal Inquisition was renamed – rather like the unpopular Windscale nuclear power station being renamed Sellafield – as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The most abiding aspect of Murphy’s book is the sheer scale of the documentation the Inquisitions amassed. Fifty miles of shelving in Rome contains the Vatican’s opinions on everything from the heretical nature of Descartes to the miller in Montereale in 1590 who thought angels appeared in matter as worms appeared in cheese. There are many other inquisitorial archives – Napoleon stole huge amounts on invading Italy; some were maintained in the Americas; others bought and sold by universities and private collectors. It may be a very small compensation, but the Inquisition’s ruthless bureaucracy represents the clearest window we have on the past.

Although Murphy’s book is subtitled The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World, it could as well have been subtitled The Inquisition and the Invention of Bureaucracy. One of the questions everyone held by the Inquisition would ask is “who has accused me?” More often than not, the answer was themselves – their testimony would be found to be contradictory, even if decades had passed between incidents. More than anything, the Inquisition created and was sustained by the earliest information technology and data management systems. It almost seems a universal rule in Murphy’s book: tyranny has a paper-trail. It leads to the almost surreal situation where the only copy of some books – or rather, manuscripts – deemed heretical exist in the archive of the Inquisition. Readers of Murphy’s book will be gently nudged towards some of the most inspiring works of “microhistory” which have only become possible since the Vatican agreed to open the Inquisition archive.

In a manner both sly and alarming, Murphy brilliantly places the words of medieval inquisitors next to their contemporary versions. Bernard Gui – made famous by his appearance in Eco’s The Name Of The Rose – and Nicholas Eymerich both wrote manuals for inquisitors. For example, Eymerich recommends multiplying the questions and asking them in quick succession to confuse the subject and elicit either a confession or a contradiction. Murphy places this next to an extract from the Human Intelligence Collector Operations manual of the US army – “The HUMINT collectors ask a series of questions in such a manner that the source does not have time to answer a question completely before the next one is asked. This confuses the source and he will tend to contradict himself as he has little time to formulate his answers.” Right down to leafing through copious folders of paperwork when the prisoner is brought in, the US Army was pre-empted by seven centuries of theological inquisition. The Inquisition even had its own versions of extraordinary rendition, and their justification of torture finds a haunting parallel in the words of Dick Cheney.

Certain aspects of the book betray its journalistic origins: in terms of the surveillance society, Murphy writes that the Cameron government decided to scrap ID cards on ideological grounds. There may have been an ideological justification, but the reasons were economic, not political. Moreover, the restrictions on civil liberties, particularly surround the forthcoming Olympic games, shows the Coalition is not as libertarian as Murphy presents it. In terms of modern versions of the inquisition – whether Guantanamo Bay or Soviet gulag – Murphy seems to omit a key link in the chain: the trials during the Terror of the French Revolution.

Another aspect that becomes fearfully evident is that whoever the ostensible targets are of an inquisition, it metastasises rapidly. In his analysis of the frequent harassment of Jews, another point becomes clear: that inquisitions tend to focus on identity over belief. It is who you are, not what you think that brings you to the attention of the guardians of theological (or political) orthodoxy.

Since a key feature of the inquisition is its reliance on state support – the Pope tried to rein in the activities of the Spanish Inquisition, to no avail – it is unsurprising that as religious belief declines, the State aggregates the powers of the inquisition to itself. But Murphy does not ignore the fact that the Inquisition still exists in its religious form too.

During Vatican II, Cardinal Frings gave a speech mostly written by his young adviser, Josef Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI: “no one should be judged and condemned without being heard, without knowing what he is accused of, and without having the opportunity to amend what he can reasonably be reproached with”. In 1968 Ratzinger signed the Nijmegen Declaration denouncing “any form of inquisition, however subtle”. By 1981, Ratzinger was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and many of the theologians with whom he had been dealing at Vatican II – Hans Küng, author of Infallible? An Enquiry, Fr Edward Schillebeekx, author of Jesus: An Experiment in Christology, Bernhard Häring, author of The Law Of Christ – were called to account for themselves in front of the CDF. Häring, who had been investigated by the Gestapo, said of the encounter “I would rather stand once again before a court of war of Hitler”. Schillebeekx had to sign a retraction; Küng was forbidden to teach.

Charles Curran, a Catholic theologian who now has to teach at a Methodist college in Dallas, asked Ratzinger by whom he had been accused. “Your own works have been your accusers, and they alone”, he was told. The image of the Panzerkardinal seems not to be too far from the truth.

While it could be argued that strong-arm tactics of the CDF are a far cry from the auto-da-fe and having to burn your books before being burnt yourself, Murphy shows that a degree of ossification has beset Catholic theology under Ratzinger’s control of the CDF. One wonders if the current trials and traumas over paedophile priests might not have been dealt with sooner and more equitably had the CDF been more concerned with criminal behaviour than theological niceties.

God’s Jury is an expansive and provocative book. I would not be surprised if it appears on shortlists for the year’s best non-fiction.

God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the making of the modern world

by Cullen Murphy

Allen Lane, £25, 310pp