The first myth that should be addressed is the notion that Inquisitions were a purely Catholic phenomenon. In point of fact, there were Protestant Inquisitions after the Reformation, and both Luther and Calvin maintained that the state had a right to protect society by ridding it of false religion. Nor were such efforts a solely Christian, medieval, or European phenomenon…
The first clue as to the truth here may be found in a discrepancy between claims against the Inquisitions and the timing of the latter’s inception. After all, we’re told that the Catholic Church was bent on persecuting heretics, yet it took her until 1184 – more than 1,000 years after her birth – to institute the first Inquisition (which was in southern France). And it wasn’t as if heretics were previously in short supply. In the fifth century, for instance, Arian Christian Vandals began conquering Roman and Catholic North Africa, persecuting Catholics in the process and sometimes giving them the choice of conversion or death (church father Augustine of Hippo died during the Vandal siege of his city in 430). And even when Roman Emperor Justinian reconquered North Africa in 534, the church saw no need for an Inquisition to root out closet Arians. So what happened 600 years later? Did heretics become such a problem that the church felt compelled to act?
In point of fact, heretics were already taking it on the chin – from the state. Heresy was generally a capital offense under secular law…In other words, heresy was somewhat analogous to treason. And who judged traitors? The government did. And this is precisely what happened to those accused of heresy in medieval times: They would be brought before the local lord for judgment. You can imagine the problems this presented. Not only might nobles be reluctant to devote the time necessary to assess a case fairly, but they had little if any theological training and were often arbitrary, capricious, and heavy-handed; they were hardly suited to judge whether a person really was a heretic or some hapless soul accused by enemies seeking revenge. The result was that many innocent people were tortured and killed.
So the church didn’t have to worry about heretics, as the secular authorities were already suppressing them with vigor. But the church was worried about heretics – about their being treated unfairly.
Selwyn Duke, “The inquisition and iniquity: Burning heretics or history?” The New American (2013, Dec 23)