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For serious devotees of torture, Washington’s embarrassment about Abu Ghraib paled beside the Vatican’s defense last week of the Spanish Inquisition. It turns out, reported church officials at a June 15 press conference, that the Spanish Inquisition burnt at the stake less than 1% of the 125,000 accused heretics brought before it. On the strength of this statistic they qualified Pope John Paul II’s previous apology for the Inquisition. “A request for forgiveness can only refer to facts that are true and objectively recognized. One does not ask forgiveness for some impressions widely held by public opinion, which contain more myth than reality,” said Cardinal Georges Cottier.
Catholic publicists in possession of these data have been campaigning to rescue the Inquisition’s good name from the besmirchment of Protestant propaganda. Wrote Prof. Thomas F. Madden of St. Louis University in October 2003: “The Spanish people loved their Inquisition. That is why it lasted for so long.”
Silly as he sounds, Prof. Madden is quite right. In fact, I have been defending the Spanish Inquisition for years, most recently in a comment on March 16, 2004 (Spain’s elections show why radical Islam can win). People do nasty things not because they are negligent or bloody-minded, but rather because they cannot avoid doing them. That is why we call such things tragic. Spain’s inquisitors were not the horror-movie sadists of popular myth, but sad little functionaries seeking to prevent the sort of religious war that plagued Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. Not the boorish Germans but rather the agile Latins first opened the Pandora’s Box of religious reform. If we accept that Spain’s Inquisition was tragic rather than arbitrary, we must – I believe – also reach the conclusion that Christianity can flourish only on the American model. Neither Catholic empire nor the Protestant nation-state could do anything except destroy itself. But this is to get ahead of the story; we have only just tugged at the loose thread.
Before it burned heretics, the Spanish Inquisition burned books. Only one leaf remains of Bonifacio Ferrer’s 1478 Spanish translation of the Bible, for the Inquisition hunted down every copy printed. Bible reading, they knew led to Protestantism, and Protestantism led to religious war.
Then the Inquisition hunted down Jews, for Jews knew Hebrew, and might teach it to Protestants who then might translate the Bible (which happened in Luther’s Germany). As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it, the Inquisition sought to prevent the “Judaizing of all of Spain,” that is, the spread of Protestantism, and thus persuaded the Catholic monarchs to expel the Jews in 1492.
Was the Spanish Inquisition wrong? On the contrary. Religious war devastated France during the 16th century, and during the 17th century reduced the population of Germany by more than half. England’s Civil War shed less blood, but left its business unfinished. Cavalier and Roundhead diehards emigrated respectively to Virginia and Massachusetts, sowing the seeds of America’s devastating Civil War 200 years later (see David Hackett Fischer’s 1989 book Albion’s Seed).
Not until 1936 did the lid blow off, and Spain fought a long-delayed religious war between Catholicism and Atheism, in which the firing squad claimed more than a fifth of the estimated half-million violent deaths. The Spanish Civil War reduced a formerly martial nation to the feckless, infertile hedonists of today whose only claim to fame is the world’s lowest birthrate. It was not always so.
Thanks to the Inquisition, the likes of Luther and Calvin got all the credit for the Reformation, but there is reason to believe that given a chance, the Spanish variant would have been far more intrepid. After the American Revolution, Massachusetts Puritans became overt Unitarians. Like George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin they believed in a Creator but not in the divinity of Jesus. As such they traced their spiritual ancestry to the Spaniard Michael Servetus, whom John Calvin burned slowly at the stake at Geneva in 1553. Calvin deserves censure for the killing of Servetus no more than does the Inquisition for burning its own heretics. Necessity, not bigotry, made Calvin kill Servetus.
More radical still was Fernando de Rojas, whose 1499 “tragic-comedy” La Celestina became, at least proportionally, the biggest fiction best seller of all time, with multiple editions in all the European languages. The tiresome race of cultural historians likes to think of an orderly evolution of literary styles. On the contrary, with de Rojas modernism sprang fully-grown from the Spanish crisis of 1492, like Athena from the head of Zeus. De Rojas, a barrister, defended an uncle accused by the Inquisition of covertly practicing Judaism, suggesting that his family was among the Jews who chose conversion rather than exile in 1492.
De Rojas’ protagonist is a perverse old procuress next to whom Shakespeare’s Iago or Marlowe’s Barnabas seem like mischievous children; only Goethe’s Mephisto can be termed a worthy successor. Engaged by a social-climbing nobleman to obtain access to the daughter of a high and ancient family, Celestina evinces tactical genius and steely nerve. Many passages are funny and frightening at the same time, a true mixture of genres Shakespeare never attempted. Celestina sets in motion a series of events that kills the lovers as well as most of the remaining characters. De Rojas portrays a world of greed, lust, self-delusion, and hypocrisy that deserves its own doom.
From Spain at the turn of the 16th century, that is, we already obtain the theology of the Enlightenment from Servetus, as well as a mixed-genre satire not re-encountered until Goethe’s Faust or Mozart’s Don Juan. Despite the best efforts of the prudent inquisitors of the Spanish Church, Spain still managed to produce the greatest satire of all at the turn of the 17th century, Cervantes’ Don Quixote. A remnant of de Rojas’ savage sense of humor stayed alive in Spanish literature. The auteur Luis Bunuel was his last spiritual descendant.
The price of religious peace, in short, was to turn Spain from a nation of spiritual conquistadors into Europe’s laughingstock. When Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais put on stage his lampoons of the French monarchy, the censors gave him leave because he set the plot in Spain. Even the doomed aristocrats of France had no objection to portraying the Spanish nobility as buffoons.
Nonetheless, Spain’s inquisitors were right to fear what Protestantism might bring. Sir Thomas More, portrayed for posterity as a martyr to freedom of conscience, had the great English Bible translator William Tyndale burned at the stake for the same reason. Protestantism presented a double danger. By its nature it spoke to the conscience of the individual seeking grace in the word of God. A Protestant state religion is a contradiction in terms, yet no one (except the unfortunate Servetus) then envisioned a separation of Church and State. When Luther allied with the German princes against Pope and Empire, he opened a path for a nationalist Christianity whose deplorable consequences plagued Europe into its decline, a topic I have addressed elsewhere (The sacred heart of darkness, Feb 11, 2003).
By replacing the Magisterium of the Church with the faith of the individual, Protestantism puts at risk the slender flame of faith. Influenced by the Jewish critique of original sin, Luther well knew that it could not be reconciled with free will. Christianity cannot do without original sin, which motivates Christ’s sacrifice to begin with. Luther instead excised free will, in favor of the unsatisfactory doctrine of predestination. Otherwise Protestantism must take the path indicated by Servetus, which ultimately must lead to loss of faith.
Doctrinal questions of this sort arise when under a state religion; in this case heresy implies disloyalty to the state. The fundamental responses of Christianity and Judaism are not logical, but rather existential. Nothing could be further from logic than the doctrine of election – the notion that God specifically chose the Jews as His People. Yet the Jews have persisted through millennia in the faith that Abraham’s seed shall not fail once God established His covenant with their forefather.
As I wrote previously (Why Europe chooses extinction, April 8, 2003): “The early Christian Church encountered a great extinction of peoples and their cultures through the rise and fall of the Alexandrine and Roman empires. Who now remembers the Lusitani, the Illyrians, the Sicani, the Quadians, Sarmatians, Alans, Gepidians, Herulians, Pannonians and a thousand other tribes of Roman times? As nations faced extinction, individuals within these nations came face to face with their own mortality. Christianity offered an answer: the Church called individuals out of the nations and offered them salvation in the form of a life beyond the grave. The Gentiles (as the Church called them) embraced original sin, which to them simply meant the sin of having been born Gentile, that is, to a culture doomed to extinction.”
Neither Christian nor Jew cares much about the logic of salvation. The soul stands in fear and trembling, sick unto death – which is the same as sin – and reaches out for grace. The Jews do this as a kinship community (Blutgemeinschaft), in Franz Rosenzweig’s phrase; Christians must do so as individuals, because as Christians they abandon the doomed ties of kinship, and instead join the assembly (ecclesia) that calls them out from among the nations.
The remnants of Christian state religion rot and stink on the dying continent of Europe. Christianity cannot persist except as a continuing revival, a recurring conversion – as a sequence of singular events, rather than as an orderly process. Awaiting execution in Hitler’s prisons, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that in a world come of age, the Christian religion no longer could exist as organized practice, but only as an expression of individual conscience.
America was created for precisely this purpose, to replace state religion on the European model with a religion of individual conscience. Such a religion must be schismatic, multi-sectarian, short on doctrine but long on inspiration. America’s kaleidoscope of Protestant denominations, so bewildering to Europeans, constitutes the only type of milieu in which Christianity yet may flourish. Although Christian communities are burgeoning throughout the world, they will succeed only in emulation of the American version.
With right the Vatican may defend the record of the Spanish Inquisition, but it alters not a jot or tittle of the awful sentence – oblivion – that history has passed upon European Christianity.