The very idea of an “Inquisition” seems totally outdated and barbaric to us in the 21st Century. But, in principle, an inquisition is a perfectly normal and reasonable procedure. Every time a crime takes place, the Gardaí carry out an investigation, which is just another word for inquisition. So, we have no problem with an inquisition in principle – it’s just a way of getting to the truth. The problem is that people don’t recognise that the Catholic Church can carry out investigations or inquisitions.
But, if the State can investigate someone who is accused of producing counterfeit banknotes or a school principal can investigate a pupil accused of bullying, why can the Pope not carry out an investigation to see if a baptised Catholic is teaching counterfeit beliefs? Because that’s all an inquisition is in principle. Since the beginnings of Christianity, this has been the practise of the Church. If someone was accused of teaching falsehoods, they were investigated, and some form of punishment was inflicted, if they were found guilty.
This power to investigate and punish is necessary for any society and the more dangerous the crime committed, the more necessary it is. So, if it’s important for the school principal to be able to investigate and punish a bully, it’s even more important for the State to be able to investigate and punish a murderer. But, because false teaching (heresy) is even worse than murder (because it kills souls, not just bodies), the power of the Church to investigate and punish heresy is the most important of all. Our difficulty with the Inquisition comes from the fact that we don’t realise the terrible nature of heresy like our ancestors did.
Bishops always carried out these inquisitions on their own initiative, because of their concern for the salvation of souls – both the soul of the heretic and the souls of those who could be influenced by his unchecked false teaching. Over time, States became Catholic and civil powers began to punish those found guilty of heresy by these inquisitions, because heresy was seen to attack the very principles of these Catholic States.
In the 13th Century, the Popes set up the institution of the Inquisition. The Inquisition was made up of judges (who were theologians), appointed by the Pope, and who investigated those people accused of heresy. These judges were mostly very humane (with some exceptions, of course). If the accused was found guilty, they were given a variety of punishments, some more severe than others. If he refused to repent of his heresy, he was handed over to the civil power. Practically, this often meant execution, but the Church Herself never executed anyone.