Question 109:

Can the inquisition be considered to be an example of Christian tolerance and love of peace?



The following quotations from the 2nd volume of the Katholischen Erwachsenen-Katechismus „Leben aus dem Glauben (Freiburg i. Br.: Herder, 1995, p. 202-204), the Catholic Catechism for Adults, "Life in Faith published by the German Synod, should provide an answer to the question.

“Abuse of power 'in the name of God

The worst kind of bringing the name of God into disrepute and abusing His name is through unjust violence ‘in the name of God’. Historically, many terrible deeds have been committed in His name. The Church, too, has repeatedly succumbed to the temptations of power. Even today, when the Church presses strongly for the recognition of human rights, it still suffers the consequences of heavy past burdens connected with the Inquisition.

The Inquisition is the most misunderstood but also the most abused institution. Its original purpose was to protect the unity of faith from the serious threat of rapturous and revolutionary movements remote from the Catholic faith, which in the case of the Cathars, for example, lead to the foundation of para churches in medieval times. In 1184 Pope Lucius III and King Friedrich I (Barbarossa) reached an agreement on the persecution of heretics in accordance with the then prevailing understanding of clerical and secular authority. Clerical authority had the task of rooting out and enquiring into (inquisition) presumed offenses (heresy), while secular authority was responsible for carrying out the judgment. Secular authority, which considered itself to be the protector of the Church and which saw insurgency against the Christian faith as representing a threat to a Christian society (res publica christiana), was extremely interested in the persecution of heretics and subsequently put pressure on the Church to extend the inquisition. Major theologians, like Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) in his magisterial work “Summa Theologica”, provided the theological justification for the persecution and execution of persistent heretics (cf. S. th. II II q.11, art. 3).

In subsequent years the different responsible institutions in the individual countries implemented the inquisition in vastly different ways. Next to fanatical supporters there were also strong opponents of the abuse of the inquisition, especially during the later persecution of witches from the 15th to the 18th century (among them the Jesuit Friedrich Spee [1591/1635]).

It was the tragedy of the inquisition that the thinking in those days was still without the concept of tolerance we take for granted in our time, that the original purpose of an orderly and just legal authority was falsified and abused in the maelstrom of excess and mass hysteria, and finally, that efforts of forces like the Spanish Inquisition, which attempted to fight the hysterical public fear of witches, could not assert itself sufficiently. With the abolition of the inquisition (in Portugal not until 1821 and in Spain not until 1834), a chapter comes to an end which is still cited as an example of the Church’s abuse of power in the name of God.

Nor can a differentiated historic and factual assessment of the past erase the dismay of Christians regarding the abuse of power even important Catholic and Protestant representatives Church officials displayed in the persecution of witches. In a speech before historians in 1955 Pope Pius III presented an in-depth analysis of the relationship between the Church and the world, between faith and scientific knowledge, and described the respective criteria (cf. Acta Apostolicae Sedis XLVII, 1955, 672-682). Furthermore, Pope John Paul II took a huge step towards coming to terms with the past when he rehabilitated Galilei.

During a festive papal service in St Peters on 12 March 2000, the long announced "Soul-searching at the end of the century” concluded in a great acceptance of guilt for the misconduct of the Church: the great Day of Pardon, or Mea Culpa. The pope asked for forgiveness for the Church’s role in the inquisition, the burning of heretics, religious wars and the centuries of anti-Judaism. See:

We quote from the confession:



The Holy Father:

“Brothers and Sisters,

let us turn with trust to God our Father,

who is merciful and compassionate,

slow to anger, great in love and fidelity,

and ask him to accept the repentance of his people

who humbly confess their sins,

and to grant them mercy.

All pray for a moment in silence.


A representative of the Roman Curia

(Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, Dean of the College of Cardinals)

Let us pray that our confession and repentance

will be inspired by the Holy Spirit,

that our sorrow will be conscious and deep,

and that, humbly viewing the sins of the past

in an authentic "purification of memory",

we will be committed to the path of true conversion.

Silent prayer.

The Holy Father:

Lord God,

your pilgrim Church,

which you ever sanctify in the blood of your Son,

counts among her children in every age

members whose holiness shines brightly forth

and members whose disobedience to you

contradicts the faith we profess and the Holy Gospel.

You, who remain ever faithful,

even when we are unfaithful,

forgive our sins

and grant that we may bear true witness to you

before all men and women.

We ask this through Christ our Lord.

R. Amen.

R. Amen.


Kyrie, eleison; Kyrie, eleison; Kyrie eleison.

The assembly repeats:

Kyrie, eleison; Kyrie, eleison; Kyrie eleison.

A lamp is lit before the Crucifix.


A representative of the Roman Curia:

(Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith)

Let us pray that each one of us,

looking to the Lord Jesus, meek and humble of heart,

will recognize that even men of the Church,

in the name of faith and morals,

have sometimes used methods not in keeping with the Gospel

in the solemn duty of defending the truth.

Silent prayer.

The Holy Father:

Lord, God of all men and women,

in certain periods of history

Christians have at times given in to intolerance

and have not been faithful to the great commandment of love,

sullying in this way the face of the Church, your Spouse.

Have mercy on your sinful children

and accept our resolve

to seek and promote truth in the gentleness of charity,

in the firm knowledge that truth

can prevail only in virtue of truth itself.

We ask this through Christ our Lord.

R. Amen.

R. Kyrie, eleison; Kyrie, eleison; Kyrie eleison.“

A lamp is lit before the Crucifix.


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J. Prof. Dr. T. Specker,
Prof. Dr. Christian W. Troll,

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