The rule of faith over reason: the role of the Inquisition in Iberia and New Spain.

Author:Mott, Margaret

"Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward."

Job 5.7

The Inquisition has long been held over Spain's head as an indication of her barbarity. The ecclesiastical use of garrotes and racks, particularly with respect to the indigenous population in the New World, constitutes a good part of the Black Legend, the anti-Hispanic, English-initiated propaganda which was circulated around the time of Henry VIII's divorce of Catherine of Aragon. But England had her own form of barbaric justice. While heretics were being burned in a public auto de fe in Sevilla and New Spain, poachers, found in the King's forest in England, and thus suspected of treason, were being drawn and quartered. Some of the men burned at the stake in Mexico under heresy charges of Calvinism would have qualified for the gallows in Elizabethan England under capital charges of piracy.(1) Medieval justice as a rule came down with a heavy hand.

Nor were inquisitorial practices limited to the Iberian peninsula. Peter Goodrich, in his essay, "The Eucharist and English Law: A Genealogy of Legal Presence in the Common Law Tradition," reports that Sir Thomas More advocated for "ex officio suits under the Statute Dettaretico Comburendo, whereby heretics could be summoned by the ordinances upon suspicion of heresy and without the need for indictment or open accusations."(2) William Tyndale, More's contemporary and translator of the Bible, was condemned in England for daring to make Scripture comprehensible to the common man. He was eventually arrested in Flanders on charges of heresy and later strangled, and burned at the stake.(3) History shows us that the state's use of power to maintain orthodoxy and eliminate heterodoxy is not particular to medieval Spain or Counter-Reformation Mexico.

This essay is, in a sense, an attempt to understand the Inquisition on its own terms without imposing twentieth-century moral values on a completely medieval practice. By examining the institutional usefulness of the Inquisition as well as the Inquisition's historical obligations, it will be demonstrated that not only did the Inquisition serve a necessary role for the Catholic patrimonial state which was developing in Mexico, but, given Christian ideology, the Inquisitors were compelled to act as they did.

An additional area of inquiry is the theological disputes within the Catholic Church. At the time of the Conquest, St. Thomas's hierarchial political structure, "the Great Chain of Being," which positioned God, angels, humans, and demons in one corpus mysticum, was suffering a mortal theological blow.(4) Like the magician's trick of cutting a boxed woman in two, nominalist Franciscan theologians like Duns Scotus and William of Ockham were attempting to separate the supernatural from the natural without destroying the Catholic body politic.(5) As the Defender of the Faith, the Holy Office not only struggled to keep Catholicism pure from outside influences, but it maintained a watchful eye on the effects of the scholastic therapies prescribed by the mendicant orders. In fighting the forces of evil, the Inquisitors had to be careful not to give Satan too much power. Given the doctrinal prohibition against idolatry, the Inquisitors had to be ever-cautious not to treat Satan as if he were as important as God.

Instead of interpreting the Inquisition's severe methods according to twentieth-century standards, it is helpful to situate its practice within the historical constraints and theological obligations of the time. This is not to deny the Inquisitors' cruelty or to minimize the terror which, at times, the Holy Office created. That the Holy Office burned, strangled, and tortured many a free thinker is undisputed. However, at the same time, the Inquisition did fulfill a societal need, it did serve an organizing purpose. Along with the regrettable prosecution of Jews and their kin, the Inquisition also prosecuted Christians who abused the powers of their offices. The Thomistic state maintained its political and religious equilibrium through the downward force of Christian charity. In the vertical landscape, deference was rewarded with grace. It was the Inquisitor who made the cruel Conquistador humble and the wife-beating husband meek.

The prosecution of heretics comes out of a long tradition of religious vigilance against the presence of evil. Since the beginning of recorded time, there has been a concern that Satan was here on earth to steer foolish humans off the path of righteousness and towards their eternal damnation. In the tradition of apocalyptic literature (also known as eschatological literature in that it focuses on the end of time), a Messiah or Christ came to earth to combat these satanic powers. But this contest between supernatural beings did not leave humans in the neutral position of spectators. Given the corporatist, organic understanding of the state as a body ruled by God, all members of the body had a stake in the final outcome. If the body believed, humanity would be saved. If the body was polluted with disbelievers, then humanity would perish in an apocalyptic hell.

Not only was faith an issue in the battle between Christ and the Antichrist, the body itself was the site of the conflict. Possession by succubi and incubi was a common occurrence in medieval life. The devil was afoot and, as portrayed in the Book of job, was looking for humans to tempt away from God's everlasting love and towards eternal damnation. It is this supernatural conflict which became the organizing principle for the Inquisitors. Their work consisted of diminishing the devil's army either by exorcising his power through Christian penance or eradicating his host.

Spain and her dependencies maintained these medieval images into the nineteenth century. Unlike Northern Europe, Iberia did not move from the Middle Ages into the Enlightenment. Instead she chose the baroque path, the way of the Counter-Reformation. Faith was not to be corrupted by reason, despite the advantages which Luther and Calvin suggested. An orthodox government, "vesting authority in a hierarchy of natural virtue and a hierarchy of divine ordination,"(6) would remain intact, suitable for transport to the newly-discovered lands to the West.


The fragment of Western civilization which the Conquistadors carried overseas to the New World was the Iberian rendition of the Thomistic state. Under those divinely-inspired terms, society was structured around status and hierarchy. In the Iberian political system, elite nobles acted as beneficent minds steering the body of the masses closer to God.(7) God spoke to the pope, the pope spoke to the bishops, the bishops conferred with the monarchy and thus the rule of God followed its natural course.

There was little distinction between church and state in the Middle Ages. The Siete Partidas, the codification of Spanish laws published in the late thirteenth century during the reign of Alfonso X, begins with an explanation of its purpose. "Estas son establecimentos para que los hombres vivan bien y segun manda Dios; guarden la fe de Jesucristo."(8) In the hierarchical structure, "living well according to God's Will" not only brought honor to the individual, but "ultimamente en los hijos, en los criados y en los vasallos."(9) According to medieval logic, politics, culture, jurisprudence, and economy were all secondary to the workings of God.(10) The concerns of the day focused on issues dealing with heaven and hell, angels and demons. While this theological totalitarianism caused problems for individuals who found themselves outside of the Catholic faith it also provided a surety which more modem states tend to ignore: No matter how low one found oneself in this social/spiritual hierarchy, one could live well knowing one was following God's greater plan.

But the social body could only function if all parts Were working together. Unity, absorption, and homogeneity were all indications of a community's spiritual health. What created the greatest threat to the body was not an outside adversary but an internal virus. A "great mediaeval German mystic"(11) is credited With saying, "Had I a sister in a country wherein there were but one heretic, still that one heretic would keep me in fear for her." The heretic according to medieval doctrine was the virus which could bring the plague upon the pure body of Catholic patrimonial state.

Richard M. Morse cites Ernst Troeltsch for two key concepts in Thomistic sociopolitical thought: organicism and patriarchalism. The organic features are described as follows:

Society is a hierarchical system where each person or group serves a purpose larger than any one of them can encompass. Social unity is architectonic, deriving from faith in the larger corpus mysticum and not from rationalistic definitions of purpose and strategy at critical moments of history. To the social hierarchy corresponds a scale of inequalities and imperfections that should be corrected only when Christian justice is in jeopardy. Thus us casuistry becomes more important than human law, because to adjudicate is to determine whether a given case affects all of society or whether it can be dispatched by an ad hoc decision.(12)

This organic model in which the polity acts as a unified body, the corpus mysticum, can be traced further back to New Testament scripture. First Corinthians states, "But God has so adjusted the body giving the greater honor to the inferior part, that there may be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together."(13) Following this analogy, the head of the body is the ruling class who does not dominate the people but rules by the divine law of "care," granting "honor" to "the inferior parts."

The body metaphor works on several different levels. Not only is the human body a model of an organic...

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