One of the many myths surrounding “The Inquisition” is that the Catholic Church was brutally executing scores of innocent people by drowning them or burning them at the stake.

In the symposium titled “The Inquisition: What Really Happened?” (April 20) cosponsored by the Lumen Christi Institute and the Medieval Studies Workshop, scholars Hannah Marcus (Stanford University), Daniele Macuglia (University of Chicago), and Ada Palmer (University of Chicago) sought to clarify the numerous misconceptions surrounding the infamous period.

For one, “the Church itself is never executing,” remarked Palmer, Assistant Professor of History, Associate Faculty of Classics, and Member of the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge at the University of Chicago. “There is no Inquisitor tying people’s feet and then dropping them in the canal.”

On the contrary, the most common sentences meted out by the Inquisition were that heretics recite Hail Marys or sit through really boring lectures. “There were very few burnings and drownings,” said Palmer. Furthermore, the Church didn’t have the authority to execute anyone. That was the prerogative of the state. They would recommend that a heretic be executed and then local government authorities would carry out the sentence.

Local governments, for their part, were concerned with political dissenters, primarily those who committed treason against the state. The reason that executions were rare is because they were so costly. Unless a heretic was also a political threat, local officials wouldn’t ordinarily get entangled in the Church’s problems.

Nonetheless, even a mild sentence seems outlandish for modern democratic societies accustomed to freedom of thought.

But in Medieval Europe, ideas mattered. One’s eternal soul could be imperiled by adherence to heretical doctrine. It was rare that heretics were executed. For the most part, they were given every chance to renounce their ill-informed or dangerous beliefs, as in the case of a young man who allegedly sold his soul to the devil in order to sleep with his boss’s wife. He was merely chastised and told to recite prayers, which he did with seeming remorse.

What has come to be regarded as the Catholic form of the Inquisition was an ecclesiastical tribunal established in twelfth-century France for the suppression of heresy. The Inquisition therefore dealt with ideas, news, information, and the dissemination of knowledge—striving to defend people from wayward doctrine by ensuring its purity and veracity.

The Church itself is never executing…There is no Inquisitor tying people’s feet and then dropping them in the canal.

To give even greater context to the topic, Marcus, a PhD student in History at Stanford University, drew upon the work of historian Edward Peters who distinguishes between three types of inquisition. There is the “inquisition,” which was a legal practice that originated in Ancient Rome. Then there is the “Inquisition,” which usually comes with a modifier before it. That’s because there were Inquisitions in many parts of the Catholic world, including Spain, Italy, Portugal, France, Mexico, and even in Goa, a state located in western India. Each of these Inquisitions had different concerns. Even Naples had a different inquisition from the one in Rome. Finally, there is “The Inquisition,” a stubborn myth whose origins can be traced to the “Black Legend” and the Protestant polemicists from the Netherlands in the 16th century who spread it. What was their sinister tale? “That Catholic Spain (which controlled the Netherlands at the time) is the worst and destroys everything,” said Marcus, mimicking the legend’s exaggerated tone.

The propaganda started against Spain, but then spread to Italy and other parts of Europe. “It’s an enduring legend,” she added, explaining that it makes historical scholarship difficult.

There are numerous myths to rebuff.

One is that the Church was opposed to science and reason, and that the victims suffering at the hands of bloodthirsty clerics were intellectuals or saintly visionaries like Joan of Arc.

Macuglia, a PhD student at The University of Chicago’s Fishbein Center for the History of Science and Medicine, confessed to being surprised that the Church actually helped disseminate new discoveries and ideas. “Some of the major contributions to the spread of Newtonianism came from within the Church,” he said, adding that many mathematicians and natural philosophers were able to advance their scholarship through the Church’s inquisitorial networks.

In fact, quite a few academies and centers of learning were established and funded by the Church—especially in Rome. While they helped promote knowledge, their primary purpose may have been more Machiavellian, i.e., to assist the Inquisition in determining whether the latest scientific theories were true or not.

With the invention of the printing press in 1450, the Church was overwhelmed with the scope of their project. Ideas—both good and bad— could circulate with astonishing speed. For example, news of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses was able to reach London within 17 days. If Luther had lived several hundred years earlier, only the inhabitants of Nuremberg would probably have known about his complaints.

“Suddenly and newly in the 1500s, scary ideas – from the perspective of a nervous, conservative, self-identified Orthodox theologian – are jumping all over Europe with incredible speed and multiplying themselves into a hundred or a thousand copies,” said Palmer.

“Heresies were being imagined in the contagion sense,” said Palmer, to give an idea of the Church’s perspective on the threat. Prior to the printing press, a heresy could have been confined to a single area, to one city even. If someone came up with a crazy idea, e.g., projecting your soul out of your body to spy on your enemies, it would stay within a group of interconnected individuals. This was no longer the case.

The Protestant Reformation of 1517 dealt the Church another severe blow in its mission to stop the spread of heresy. “There are suddenly territories where everyone in that territory is officially labeled a heretic,” said Palmer. According to Church law, “you’re supposed to have no contact with them; they’re excommunicated.”

In 1559, the Roman Inquisition under Pope Paul IV issued the first papal index of prohibited books. Catholics were now expressly forbidden from reading Martin Luther or any books written by Protestants. But the Church soon realized that not all Protestant intellectual work is heretical. “Some of the books they wrote are scary theology that you don’t want around,” said Palmer, “but some of the books that they wrote are drawings of rocks.” And these drawings might prove incredibly helpful to a Catholic geologist, only he is unable to use them because they were created by a heretic. “How do you handle that? Is that allowed? Is that not allowed?” asked Palmer, showing how the Church was forced to bend its rules, to make exceptions.

Marcus elaborated on the problem by sharing that the “heretic” countries of Switzerland and Germany were particularly advanced in botany and pharmacology. A Roman physician approached the Inquisition, pleading for permission to read scholarly material published by the sixteenth-century German physician and botanist Leonhart Fuchs. “The physician said he doesn’t know how to save Catholic bodies without the works of a Protestant author.” The Church now has to contend with cases where you need a “heretic” to save a human life.

So when did this painstaking process of sifting through information to determine whether it is heresy or not come to an end?

One thing that probably surprises most people is that the “Inquisition” still is around today. However, just as in the past, it is incredibly rare for cases to go to trial. However, if they do, the body responsible for promulgating and defending Catholic doctrine is the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Although it doesn’t have the universal jurisdiction it had in the past, “there still needs to be an authority that regulates what is and isn’t theologically sound within the Catholic Church,” said Marcus.