The startling fact – the Big Truth hidden by the Big Lie – is that Inquisitions were initially instituted as works of mercy designed to stop unjust punishments and executions. As Madden explains, while secular powers viewed heretics as “traitors to God and the king” who “deserved death,” to the church they were simply “lost sheep who had strayed from the flock.” As such, the pope and bishops had an obligation to be good shepherds and provide them with the opportunity to avoid severe punishment and continued community ostracism. It should be emphasized again here that heresy was a capital offense only under the state, not the church. The church’s goal was to seek the truth behind accusations. This is why the institutions developed for that purpose wore a label with the root “inquire,” which means “to ask”; and why, as the Online Etymology Dictionary tells us, inquisitor is a Latin word meaning ‘”searcher, examiner,’ in law, ‘an investigator, collector of evidence.'”
This isn’t what you generally learn in schools, hear from the media, or see portrayed on television, but the proof is in the pudding. The aforementioned Dublin Review made this case already 163 years ago, and Henry Kamen of the Higher Council for Scientific Research in Barcelona, Spain, did so even more thoroughly in his groundbreaking 1965 book The Spanish Inquisition. And with the investigation of Spanish Inquisition files in the 1990s and the opening of Vatican records in 1998, eyes have been opened further. Note here that, unlike lords who might sentence an accused heretic to death and then eat dinner, inquisitors kept meticulous files; in fact, every single case handled by the Spanish Inquisition in its 350 year history has its own file on record. And what do those open eyes see? An 800-page study of the Vatican files compiled in 1998 by 60 historians and other experts from around the world concluded that when compared to secular courts of its day, the Inquisition was positively benign. Contrary to myth, most accused heretics were not executed, but, rather, were acquitted or had their sentences suspended. And most of those found guilty were allowed to do penance and integrate themselves back into society. As Italian history professor and the editor of the study, Agostino Borromeo, explained, writes the Catholic News Agency:
“For a long time, judgments were confused with death sentences, and it was said that 100,000 were executed [during the Spanish Inquisition] – a figure completely unreal. Although some were sentenced to prison or to the galleys, most were given spiritual sentences: pilgrimages, penances, prayers, etc.” Asked about the punishment used by Inquisitions in other countries, Borromeo said that “between 1551 and 1647, it [sic] Italian court of Aquileia condemned only 0.5% of accused to death. On the other hand, the Portuguese Inquisition between 1450 and 1629 condemned to death 5.7% of its 13,255 cases.”
Borromeo added that the total number of cases in the entire history of the Inquisition which resulted in death sentences is around 2%. The notorious Spanish Inquisition, by the way, comes in at just about the average: 1.8 percent.
Selwyn Duke, “The inquisition and iniquity: Burning heretics or history?” The New American (2013, Dec 23)