God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the making of the modern world


by Cullen Murphy





Este livro é muito interessante, embora não estude a Inquisição com a profundidade que seria desejável, sendo basicamente o texto de um jornalista. Penso que o autor deveria ter aprofundado mais o estudo da perversidade da Inquisição que ofendia a liberdade de pensamento, de crença e de opinião, aliás coisas que é praticamente impossível conhecer.

A Inquisição portuguesa é referida bastante superficialmente, talvez porque a principal fonte utilizada é Francisco Bethencourt, que é bastante incompleto. É demasiado assimilada à Inquisição espanhola, quando afinal era muito mais feroz, ver este artigo.

A ideia de base é a actualidade dos princípios inquisitoriais nas sociedades modernas e algumas comparações são muito conseguidas. É o caso do paralelismo entre o “relaxe à justiça secular” (era a justiça secular e não a Inquisição que condenava à morte) e a “extraordinary rendition” dos nossos dias (quando um País – os USA, por exemplo – envia os presos para outro que ainda usa os métodos de interrogatório do antigamente, incluindo a tortura). A mesma hipocrisia, num e noutro caso (pag. 46).

Muito interessante também a definição da Inquisição como sendo basicamente uma burocracia (pag. 57), composta por indivíduos que defendem simultaneamente os seus interesses e os da instituição a que pertencem. Hoje é já comum estudar a Inquisição como sendo sobretudo uma estância de poder. Mas poder-se-á ir ainda mais longe, considerando o poder dos inquisidores sobre o preso, pondo em marcha baixos instintos de natureza sádica - ex., o prazer de torturar, de matar.

Também o autor conclui que a perseguição dos cristãos novos tinha pouco que ver com a defesa da Fé católica e muito com o anti-semitismo (pags. 96 e 97). Diz ele que tanto Henry Kamen como Benzion Netanyahu (falecido em 30 de Abril de 1012 aos 102 anos) concluíram que muitos dos cristãos novos condenados pela Inquisição não judaizavam.

O autor faz também uma boa descrição da tortura e dos instrumentos dela, utilizados pela Inquisição (pag. 90 e ss.).  Porém, a questão em que o livro tem mais sucesso é a comparação entre a Inquisição e os modernos métodos de investigação, seja nos regimes de ditadura, seja nas democracias ocidentais.





Friday 1 March 2013

God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World by Cullen Murphy – review

The Inquisition was a foretaste of modern institutionalised evil argues Cullen Murphy in this history that doesn't quite join the dots


Ian Pindar


Moral certainty is dangerous, says Cullen Murphy. It is at the heart of the "inquisitorial impulse": an "unswerving confidence in the rightness of one's cause". There are chapters on the three main Inquisitions, from Pope Gregory IX's appointment of "inquisitors of heretical depravity" in 1231, to Ferdinand and Isabella's appointment of Tomás de Torquemada as grand inquisitor in 15th-century Spain, and the Roman Inquisition, established in 1542. There is, Murphy concludes, an "Inquisition template". They all shared a taste for detailed record-keeping, nurtured by an institution: "bureaucracy, communications, the tools of surveillance and censorship". The Inquisition was a foretaste of modern institutionalised evil, he argues, leaving behind a vast paper trail comparable to that of the Third Reich or Stalin's Russia. He also looks at attempts to legitimise torture after 9/11 and the surveillance state. As history, God's Jury doesn't quite join the dots, but it succeeds as a more general exploration of the "inquisitorial impulse", its message being that "certitude can be a snare".














Volume 127, issue 1  January/February 2012


Inside the heresy files

Interrogation. Surveillance. Ethnic profiling. Censorship. The words come from 21st-century headlines, but they have an ancient pedigree. Cullen Murphy on how the Inquisition ignited the modern police state


Cullen Murphy


On a hot autumn day in Rome not long ago, I crossed the vast expanse of St Peter’s Square, paused momentarily in the shade beneath a curving flank of Bernini’s colonnade and continued a little way beyond to a Swiss Guard standing impassively at a wrought-iron gate. He examined my credentials, handed them back and saluted smartly. I hadn’t expected the gesture and almost returned the salute instinctively, but then realised it was intended for a cardinal waddling into the Vatican from behind me.

Just inside the gate, at Piazza del Sant’Uffizio 11, stands a Renaissance palazzo with a ruddy ochre-and-cream complexion. This is the headquarters of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose job, in the words of the Apostolic Constitution Pastor bonus, promulgated in 1988 by Pope John Paul II, is “to promote and safeguard the doctrine on faith and morals throughout the Catholic world”. Pastor bonus goes on: “For this reason, everything which in any way touches such matter falls within its competence.” It is an expansive charge. Every significant document or decision emanating from anywhere inside the Vatican must get a sign-off from the CDF. The Congregation has been around for a very long time, although until the Second Vatican Council it was called something else: the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office. From the lips of old Vatican hands, one still hears shorthand references to “the Holy Office”, much as one hears “Whitehall”, “Foggy Bottom” or “the Kremlin”.

But before the Congregation became the Holy Office, it went by yet another name: as late as 1908, it was known as the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition. Lenny Bruce once joked that there was only one “the Church”. The Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition was the headquarters of the Inquisition – the centuries-long effort by the Church to deal with its perceived enemies, within and without, by whatever means necessary, including the most brutal ones available.

The palazzo that today houses the Congregation was originally built to lodge the Inquisition when the papacy, in 1542, amid the onslaught of Protestantism and other noxious ideas, decided that the Church’s intermittent and far-flung inquisitorial investigations needed to be brought under some sort of centralised control – a spiritual Department of Homeland Security, as it were. The Inquisition had begun in the Middle Ages, to deal with Christian heresies, and been revived in Iberia, under state control, to deal with Jews and Moors. Pope Paul III considered the task of his new papal Inquisition so urgent that construction on the basilica of St. Peter’s was suspended and the labourers diverted so that work could be completed on its headquarters. At one time the palazzo held not only clerical offices but also prison cells.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith inherited more than the Inquisition’s DNA and its place on the organisational charts. It also inherited much of the paper trail. The Inquisition records are kept mainly in the palazzo itself, and for four and a half centuries that archive was closed to outsiders. Then, in 1998, to the surprise of many, the Vatican decided to make the archive available to scholars.

Any archive is a repository of what some sliver of civilisation has wrought, for good or ill. This one is no exception. The archive may owe its existence to the Inquisition, but it helps explain the world that exists today. In our imaginations, we offhandedly associate the term “inquisition” with the term “Dark Ages”. But consider what an inquisition – any inquisition – really is: a set of disciplinary procedures targeting specific groups, codified in law, organised systematically, enforced by surveillance, exemplified by severity, sustained over time, backed by institutional power and justified by a vision of the one true path. Considered that way, the Inquisition is more accurately seen not as a relic but as a harbinger.

The opening of the archive at the Vatican is one more development in what has, during the past several decades, become a golden age of Inquisition scholarship. Until the appearance of Henry Charles Lea’s magisterial History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, in the late 19th century, most writing about the Inquisition had consisted of bitter polemics by one side or another. In recent years, using materials newly available in repositories outside the Vatican, and now including those of the Holy See itself, historians throughout Europe and the Americas have produced hundreds of studies that, taken together, revise some traditional views of the Inquisition.

To begin with, the notion of “the Inquisition” as a monolithic force with a directed intelligence – “an eye that never slumbered”, as the historian William H Prescott once phrased it – is no longer tenable. Rather, it was an enterprise that varied in virulence and competence from place to place and era to era. “The Inquisition” remains a convenient shorthand term, but there were many inquisitions. Another finding of modern research is that, insofar as their procedures were concerned, Inquisition tribunals often proved more scrupulous and consistent than the various secular courts of the time. Of course, the bar here is low. Modern scholarship has also revised the casualty figures. Some older estimates of the number of people burned at the stake by the Inquisition range to upwards of a million; the actual number may be closer to ten thousand – perhaps two per cent of those who came before the Inquisition’s tribunals for any reason. Whatever the number killed, the Inquisition levied penalties on hundreds of thousands of people, and the fear and shame instilled by any individual case rippled outward to affect a wide social circle. Little wonder that the Inquisition has left such a lasting imprint.

But from between the lines the new scholarship has some larger lessons to offer. The Inquisition can be viewed as something greater and more insidious than an effort pursued over centuries by a single religious institution. It was enabled by the broader forces that brought the modern world into existence, and that make inquisitions of various kinds an inescapable feature of modern life. Inquisitions advance hand-in-hand with civilisation itself.

It’s a troubling conclusion but an inescapable one. Here’s the central question: why did the Inquisition come into being when it did? Intolerance, hatred and suspicion of one group by another had always existed. Throughout history, these realities had led to persecution and violence. But the ability to sustain a persecution – to give it staying power by giving it an institutional life – did not appear until the Middle Ages. Until then, the tools to stoke and manage those embers of hatred did not exist. Once the tools do exist, inquisitions become a fact of life. They are not confined to religion; they are political as well. The targets can be large or small. An inquisition impulse can quietly take root in the very systems of government and civil society that order our lives.

The tools are these: there needs to be a system of law, and the means to administer it with a certain amount of uniformity. Techniques must be developed for conducting interrogations and extracting information. Procedures must exist for record-keeping, and for retrieving information after records have been compiled and stored. An administrative mechanism – a bureaucracy – is required, along with a cadre of trained people to staff it. There must be an ability to send messages across significant distances, and also an ability to restrict the communications of others – in a word, censorship.

The Inquisition was built on all of these capabilities. The new universities brought order to canon law, defining heresy with precision and therefore defining who was “inside” and who was “outside”. The Church bureaucracy became professional; papal chanceries turned out perhaps 300 letters in 1200 and 50,000 a century later. Inquisitors learned how to organise their documents and make them searchable; a person’s testimony to one tribunal could be known to another tribunal decades later. Interrogation manuals, like the famous Practica written by Bernard Gui, were drawn up to instruct inquisitors on how to question the accused – the tricks to use, the psychology to employ. The resemblance to the modern manuals for military personnel and intelligence operatives is hard to miss. As a supplement to interrogation, torture became systematic – subject to rules, perhaps, but rules that proved elastic, as they always do.

So the tools were new. The precipitating mindset was age-old: the conviction that one is absolutely right. Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, the prefect of the Holy Office through most of the 1960s, adopted as his motto the Latin phrase Semper idem – “Always the same”. The inquisitors shared an outlook of moral certainty. In a world of moral certainty, the unthinkable becomes permissible. The sanctity of private conscience is no longer deemed inviolate. Techniques for ensnaring the innocent in scenarios of scripted guilt become increasingly sophisticated. A Franciscan inquisitor once confided to King Philip IV of France, in the early 14th century, that if Saints Peter and Paul had appeared before his tribunal, he had no doubt that the techniques he employed would be able to secure their convictions.

It all sounds very medieval. But it’s not merely medieval. Scholars may debate whether there truly is such a thing as a “totalitarian” state, and what its characteristics are, but the desire to control the thoughts and behaviour of others – joined to a belief that God or history will render an approving judgement – underlies much of the sad narrative of the past hundred years: the police states, the dirty wars, the ethnic cleansing, the internments, the renditions, the Red Scares, the fatwas, the special prosecutors, the electronic surveillance, the encroachments accomplished in name of national security.

One day, in the archives, I came across two polished wooden boxes, resembling old library card-catalogue drawers, with hinged wooden tops. The boxes rested one above the other on a wooden rack. Inside each box, well-worn index cards ran its length, their upper edges velvety from use. It was the catalogue of the Index of Forbidden Books, the very last one, issued in the 1940s. (After 400 years, the Index was formally discontinued in 1966.) The boxes seemed so antique; the musty smell evoked yesteryear. But was this effort any different, fundamentally, from China’s Great Firewall?

What separates an inquisition from other forms of intolerance is its staying power. It gets institutional support. It goes on and on. Today, the basic elements that can sustain inquisitorial behaviour are more prevalent and entrenched, by many orders of magnitude, than they were in the days of Bernard Gui or Tomás de Torquemada. None of them will decline in significance in the years ahead. They will only become more powerful.

Looking at the Inquisition, one sees the West crossing a threshold from one kind of world into another. Persecution acquired a modern platform – the advantages afforded by a growing web of standardised law, communications, administrative supervision and controlled mechanisms of force. It was run not merely by warriors but by an educated elite; not merely by thugs but by skilled professionals. Every subsequent outbreak of persecution, political or religious, has been abetted by these same forces. They ensure that the basic trajectory of repression will always look remarkably the same. They suggest why persecution is so difficult to stop. And they help explain why the Inquisition template has translated so easily from the religious sphere into the world of secular governments and secular ideologies. Through the lens of the Inquisition we can glimpse the world we inhabit now.

When the Inquisition’s palazzo was built, in the mid-16th century, the Pope ordered words to be carved in a marble scroll over the front door – a kind of mission statement – establishing the building as a “bulwark against heretical depravity”. The words are gone now, removed by French troops during Napoleon’s occupation. It’s easy enough to remove some words – harder to erase a legacy.


Cullen Murphy’s new book God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World will be published by Allen Lane in January.



January 18, 2012

A Grim Aspect of Modernity (and a Breezy Tour)


GOD’S JURY: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World

By Cullen Murphy

310 pages. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $27.


While visiting the Alhambra, Cullen Murphy, editor at large at Vanity Fair, overheard a guide recounting the momentous events of 1492. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella united Spain under a single Roman Catholic monarchy; Columbus journeyed west; and all Jews who refused to convert to Christianity were expelled, part of the rulers’ full-bodied embrace of the Inquisition.

“It was a very busy year,” he said to his listeners, who responded with uncertain laughter.

In “God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World” Mr. Murphy functions much like that guide, offering readers a tour of the Inquisition’s nearly 700-year-old edifice. Down to the dungeon to visit gruesome instruments of torture, up to the library to meet the scholars and then a stroll in the garden to survey the surrounding scenery. All the while Mr. Murphy tosses out amusing asides, weighty philosophical observations and contemporary analogies.

His aim is, ultimately, deeply serious. Mr. Murphy wants to demonstrate how the mind-set and machinery of the Inquisition are inescapable products of the modern world that later surfaced in Stalin’s Russia, Argentina’s military junta and 21st-century America, where harsh interrogation tactics and unlimited detention were used at Guantánamo Bay.

His strategy is to combine this grave and grim message with a charming road trip through the Vatican archives at the Palazzo del Sant’Uffizio, quaint French villages and Santa Fe’s plazas, a package tour that the publisher describes as both a “colorful travelogue” and “political analysis.”

In less capable hands, this somewhat incongruous combination might register as off-key. Fortunately, Mr. Murphy, the author of “Are We Rome?” and “The Word According to Eve,” is such a witty writer that he pulls it off for the most part, offering a compact and breezy history of the Roman Catholic Church’s bloody crusade with an incisive critique of America’s post-9/11 security apparatus.

What we now refer to as the Inquisition, with a capital “I,” was begun by Pope Gregory IX in 1231 when he appointed “inquisitors of heretical depravity” — usually Dominican friars — to root out those who disputed the Vatican’s authority. They started with the Cathars, members of a Christian sect, who were ruthlessly eradicated from their stronghold near the Pyrenees. The inquisitors then ventured further afield to enforce the pope’s dictates, particularly against conversos, Jewish converts, and secondarily, Christianized Muslims, Protestants and freethinkers.

Persecution is as old as man. What distinguishes inquisitions are communications, bureaucracy and single-mindedness. It is the last feature that gives rise to what Mr. Murphy calls “the inquisitorial impulse.”

“Moral certainty ignites every inquisition and then feeds it with oxygen,” he writes. But to keep it going, one must also have an organized bureaucracy that establishes a set of repressive procedures that are formalized in law and enforced by an institutional power.

Mr. Murphy notes that the Inquisition walked hand in hand with civilization. In earlier times Rome would be largely unaware of deviant views elsewhere. But once a code of canon law and an administrative infrastructure began to take form, “questionable beliefs could be examined against codified standards,” he writes. “Casual remarks could be sorted into pre-existing categories of nonconformity.”

Inquisitors like Bernard Gui (who appears in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose) and Nicholas Eymerich created manuals that outlined model sermons, methods of interrogation and a range of punishments, from wearing a yellow cross to death.

Gui meticulously recorded his expenses, like the wood, stakes, ropes and manpower required for burning four heretics. But it is the similarities between the medieval prosecutorial strategies — play good cop, bad cop; instill a sense of futility; use rapid-fire questioning — and the United States Army interrogation manual that are chilling.

Mr. Murphy continually jumps between the historic and the contemporary to drive home his points. He notes that 15th-century Spain is where the Inquisition’s power and certitude fully flowered. Ferdinand and Isabella essentially appropriated the Inquisition for their own political ends. They appointed Tomás de Torquemada as grand inquisitor.

“Full of pitiless zeal,” in the words of one historian, Torquemada held the kind of show trials we’ve come to know in the modern world, with secret proceedings, accusers and charges; confessions wrought through torture; and defense lawyers who are denied critical information.

The travelogue continues with the Roman Inquisition, established in 1542.

Mr. Murphy points out how the advent of the printing press revolutionized both the Inquisition and heresy. Print spread ideas faster and farther than anyone could have imagined. Consider that during the entire 14th century, scribes copied some 2.7 million books, a number that printers in 1550 were able to exceed in a single year. Censorship followed in the form of the Vatican’s Index of Forbidden Books, which managed to keep texts like Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1945 novel “The Age of Reason” out of some Catholic hands in the 20th century.

Always on the move, the Inquisition traveled to the New World, Asia and Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries, wreaking havoc in Europe’s colonies as it did at home.

Enlightenment ideas about reason and liberty began eroding inquisitorial powers in the late 1700s, but the Inquisition did not officially expire until 1870, when soldiers defied the pope, entered Rome and unified Italy.

Boiling down nearly 700 years of history to a digestible portion seems difficult, yet even at 251 pages of text, “God’s Jury” feels padded at times. Many of Mr. Murphy’s visits are primarily to gather local color. For research he relies on the painstaking work of renowned scholars like Henry Kamen, Benzion Netanyahu and Peter Godman.

There are lengthy quotations and entertaining but frequent digressions. Depending on your appetite for quirky detail, you may be delighted or irritated to learn, say, about the papal water pipes’ being encrusted with lime or that the Sumerian archives at Ebla, in what is now Syria, contain 17,000 cuneiform clay fragments.

Mr. Murphy is at his best when he demonstrates the eerie resonance of the Inquisition today. More than cruelty and lust for power, the plodding tedium of bureaucracies, which take on a life of their own, are the engines of inquisitions. With their “myopic imperatives and petty ambitions and animosities,” he notes, they can deliver the wonders of the modern world as well as its horrors. It’s not evil that is banal, but its machinery.



January 27, 2012


The Influence of the Inquisition



GOD’S JURY: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World

By Cullen Murphy

310 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


In the moral atlas of Cullen Murphy, the road to Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay and the secret “black sites” of the war on terror begins in Montségur, a fortress in the foothills of the Pyrenees. There, in 1244, a French army assembled at the behest of the Roman Catholic Church besieged several hundred Cathars. Their sect’s heresy was dualism, a belief in both a beneficent God and an equivalent evil deity. Enticed into surrendering by the promise that their followers would be spared, the Cathars were burned alive on a pyre.

From the run-up to this massacre, Murphy dates the start of the Inquisition. By this, he means not only the Spanish iteration with its concentration on Jews converted to Christianity (Marranos) but several sequential inquisitions that over 700 years convulsed Europe, Central America and parts of Asia in pursuit of a wide variety of theological deviants. Even this expansive history, in turn, functions for Murphy as a kind of prologue, for the goal of this lucid, learned and ultimately predictable book is to present the Inquisition as the template for America during the “global war on terror” declared by President George W. Bush and still being fought.

An editor at Vanity Fair and previously The Atlantic, Murphy has done this sort of political time-traveling once already, in a 2007 book neatly distilled by its title: “Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America.” And he is not alone in parsing history to find the antecedents for the panic and intolerance he associates with post-9/11 America. In Louis Begley’s 2009 book “Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters,” the lawyer-author likened the persecution of a French army officer in the 1890s to the assault on civil liberties in the name of national security in the contemporary United States.

All three of these books share an aura of knowledge, a tone of refinement and a sensation of bracing insight that, in a volume of modest length, loses rather than gains power through repetition. For all its fascinating detail and immensely readable prose, “God’s Jury” essentially delivers the single point of a potent op-ed essay. That point comes early, when Murphy characterizes the Inquisition not as a primitive, atavistic undertaking but a presciently modern one.

“Looking at the Inquisition,” Murphy writes, “one sees the West crossing a threshold from one kind of world into another. Persecution acquired a modern platform — the advantages afforded by a growing web of standardized law, communications, administrative oversight and controlled mechanisms of force. It was run not merely by warriors but by an educated elite; not merely by thugs but by skilled professionals. And in its higher dimensions it was animated not by greed or hope of gain or love of power, though these were never absent, but by the fervent conviction that all must subscribe to some ultimate truth.”

At his best, Murphy assays Inquisition history both by smoothly synthesizing secondary sources and by describing his encounters with active scholars in the field. Strange as the comparison may seem, Murphy’s passages about his visits to the Vatican’s Inquisition archives bring to mind the mordant wit and curious eye of Paul Theroux in his travel memoirs. Every sentence in “God’s Jury,” and I mean every sentence, reads as if it had been chiseled and etched. And in his concise way, Murphy provides a thorough overview of the Inquisition’s motives, methods and effects.

Murphy, though, has larger ambitions, and in pursuing them he becomes tendentious. Point by point, he shows the precise manner in which the Inquisition anticipated the Bush administration’s war(s) on terror. Murphy traces the rendition of suspected terrorists to third countries, generally ones that practiced unrestrained torture, back to the Catholic Church’s policy of turning over convicted heretics to secular armies or governments for punishment. He explains that one of the Spanish Inquisition’s favored techniques — “toca,” a word for “cloth” — referred to “the fabric that plugged a victim’s upturned mouth, and upon which water was poured . . . to induce the sensation of asphyxiation by drowning.” Waterboarding 101: got it. And should a reader not get it, Murphy heavy-handedly applies the modern antiterror lexicon to the Inquisition — “chain of command,” “enhanced” interrogation, “mission creep.”

You can be appalled by America’s willing adoption of torture, a process exposed and chronicled by Jane Mayer in her 2008 book “The Dark Side,” and still feel hectored and preached at by Murphy. Moreover, he can let his critique grow so wide-ranging as to include what would seem to be permissible modes of interrogation during wartime. In citing a medieval guide to inquisitors written by the Dominican cleric Nicholas Eymerich, Murphy notes that the manual suggests ruses for the interrogators to use with their quarry, like feigning compassion, providing food and water, pretending to already know the answers being sought. A recent United States Army manual, Murphy informs us, recommends similar tactics.

Is this to say that in the present context, nonviolent, psychologically astute interrogation is as heinous as torture? Unless I misread him, Murphy appears to be saying so. Yet isn’t the lesson of the former F.B.I. agent Ali Soufan in his recent memoir, “The Black Banners,” that precisely such methods obtained accurate information from prisoners, as opposed to the desperate fictions that captives offered to stay a torturer’s hand? It is to America’s shame that our nation swept up so many innocent people in its hunt for terrorists. But that sweep also did capture some of the guilty, a reality that Murphy mentions only belatedly and almost backhandedly.

“Moral certainty ignites every inquisition,” he writes late in the book, “and then feeds it with oxygen.” “God’s Jury,” while no inquisition, abounds in moral certainty of its own.

Samuel G. Freedman writes the “On Religion” column for The Times and is the author of six books.






Published on Saturday 21 January 2012


Book review: God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the making of the modern world

By Stuart Kelly


God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the making of the modern world

by Cullen Murphy

Allen Lane, £25, 310pp


THE Inquisition is almost shorthand for all the backward, repressive and intolerant features of life which modernity has defined itself in opposition to; and yet, as Cullen Murphy elegantly and persuasively shows, a strain of the “inquisitorial impulse” is alive and well in the 21st century.

This is not an academic volume, and it is all the better for that: Murphy, editor-at-large for Vanity Fair, combines reportage, travelogue and interview to advance his argument, although there is a bedrock of sound academic research. While the typical academic volume might be even-handed to the point of never quite stating anything (on the one hand … however, on the other), Cullen animates these debates by actually speaking to the historians. It makes for a surprisingly breezy book about monstrosity.

The Inquisition was not a monolithic entity. As Cullen shows, there were three distinct European inquisitions: the first Inquisition, in the 13th century, targeted heretic groups in France, particularly the Cathars; the second, under Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain in the 15th century, began by investigating converted Jews and Muslims suspected of persisting in their former beliefs (and rapidly spread to Christian heretics as well); and the third, Roman, Inquisition in the 16th century was created to deal with Protestantism. Crucially, although each Inquisition came to an end, the bureaucracy did not. In 1908, the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Roman and Universal Inquisition was renamed – rather like the unpopular Windscale nuclear power station being renamed Sellafield – as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The most abiding aspect of Murphy’s book is the sheer scale of the documentation the Inquisitions amassed. Fifty miles of shelving in Rome contains the Vatican’s opinions on everything from the heretical nature of Descartes to the miller in Montereale in 1590 who thought angels appeared in matter as worms appeared in cheese. There are many other inquisitorial archives – Napoleon stole huge amounts on invading Italy; some were maintained in the Americas; others bought and sold by universities and private collectors. It may be a very small compensation, but the Inquisition’s ruthless bureaucracy represents the clearest window we have on the past.

Although Murphy’s book is subtitled The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World, it could as well have been subtitled The Inquisition and the Invention of Bureaucracy. One of the questions everyone held by the Inquisition would ask is “who has accused me?” More often than not, the answer was themselves – their testimony would be found to be contradictory, even if decades had passed between incidents. More than anything, the Inquisition created and was sustained by the earliest information technology and data management systems. It almost seems a universal rule in Murphy’s book: tyranny has a paper-trail. It leads to the almost surreal situation where the only copy of some books – or rather, manuscripts – deemed heretical exist in the archive of the Inquisition. Readers of Murphy’s book will be gently nudged towards some of the most inspiring works of “microhistory” which have only become possible since the Vatican agreed to open the Inquisition archive.

In a manner both sly and alarming, Murphy brilliantly places the words of medieval inquisitors next to their contemporary versions. Bernard Gui – made famous by his appearance in Eco’s The Name Of The Rose – and Nicholas Eymerich both wrote manuals for inquisitors. For example, Eymerich recommends multiplying the questions and asking them in quick succession to confuse the subject and elicit either a confession or a contradiction. Murphy places this next to an extract from the Human Intelligence Collector Operations manual of the US army – “The HUMINT collectors ask a series of questions in such a manner that the source does not have time to answer a question completely before the next one is asked. This confuses the source and he will tend to contradict himself as he has little time to formulate his answers.” Right down to leafing through copious folders of paperwork when the prisoner is brought in, the US Army was pre-empted by seven centuries of theological inquisition. The Inquisition even had its own versions of extraordinary rendition, and their justification of torture finds a haunting parallel in the words of Dick Cheney.

Certain aspects of the book betray its journalistic origins: in terms of the surveillance society, Murphy writes that the Cameron government decided to scrap ID cards on ideological grounds. There may have been an ideological justification, but the reasons were economic, not political. Moreover, the restrictions on civil liberties, particularly surround the forthcoming Olympic games, shows the Coalition is not as libertarian as Murphy presents it. In terms of modern versions of the inquisition – whether Guantanamo Bay or Soviet gulag – Murphy seems to omit a key link in the chain: the trials during the Terror of the French Revolution.

Another aspect that becomes fearfully evident is that whoever the ostensible targets are of an inquisition, it metastasises rapidly. In his analysis of the frequent harassment of Jews, another point becomes clear: that inquisitions tend to focus on identity over belief. It is who you are, not what you think that brings you to the attention of the guardians of theological (or political) orthodoxy.

Since a key feature of the inquisition is its reliance on state support – the Pope tried to rein in the activities of the Spanish Inquisition, to no avail – it is unsurprising that as religious belief declines, the State aggregates the powers of the inquisition to itself. But Murphy does not ignore the fact that the Inquisition still exists in its religious form too.

During Vatican II, Cardinal Frings gave a speech mostly written by his young adviser, Josef Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI: “no one should be judged and condemned without being heard, without knowing what he is accused of, and without having the opportunity to amend what he can reasonably be reproached with”. In 1968 Ratzinger signed the Nijmegen Declaration denouncing “any form of inquisition, however subtle”. By 1981, Ratzinger was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and many of the theologians with whom he had been dealing at Vatican II – Hans Küng, author of Infallible? An Enquiry, Fr Edward Schillebeekx, author of Jesus: An Experiment in Christology, Bernhard Häring, author of The Law Of Christ – were called to account for themselves in front of the CDF. Häring, who had been investigated by the Gestapo, said of the encounter “I would rather stand once again before a court of war of Hitler”. Schillebeekx had to sign a retraction; Küng was forbidden to teach.

Charles Curran, a Catholic theologian who now has to teach at a Methodist college in Dallas, asked Ratzinger by whom he had been accused. “Your own works have been your accusers, and they alone”, he was told. The image of the Panzerkardinal seems not to be too far from the truth.

While it could be argued that strong-arm tactics of the CDF are a far cry from the auto-da-fe and having to burn your books before being burnt yourself, Murphy shows that a degree of ossification has beset Catholic theology under Ratzinger’s control of the CDF. One wonders if the current trials and traumas over paedophile priests might not have been dealt with sooner and more equitably had the CDF been more concerned with criminal behaviour than theological niceties.

God’s Jury is an expansive and provocative book. I would not be surprised if it appears on shortlists for the year’s best non-fiction.



January 22, 2012

‘God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World’ by Cullen Murphy

By Michael Washburn


July 21, 1643 was a typical day during the Spanish Inquisition - hot and dusty, haunted by flimsy denunciations, and tinged with blood.

Over the preceding year or so a nasty, convoluted debate between some friars and members of what passed for the civil authority had raged. Each faction made accusations of witchcraft and blasphemy, and in a sudden eruption of violence a group of renegade church partisans attacked and slaughtered Luis de Rosas, a former governor. On this July day the newly installed governor apprehended eight men he divined were responsible for the killing of Rosas and, with the authority granted by the Inquisition, had the conspirators beheaded. In “God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World,’’ journalist Cullen Murphy quotes a tourist guide’s description of this town’s plaza as site of “the largest mass beheading of Europeans by Europeans in a continental American town.’’

The town in question? Santa Fe, N.M.

We rarely think of the Spanish imperial presence in North America, but that the Inquisition raged with such ferocity in what was to become US territory feels doubly strange. Like much of the world, New Mexico, Texas, and California all saw spasms of inquisitorial rage. What the world hasn’t seen, “God’s Jury’’ argues, is the Inquisition’s end. “Modernity . . . is not a time - it’s a place,’’ Murphy writes, quoting geographer David Harvey. Likewise, the Inquisition isn’t an institution so much as an instinct, one that persists.

Richly detailed and exquisitely told, “God’s Jury’’ dissects the ”inquisitorial impulse,’’ juxtaposing historical accounts with contemporary political affairs showing how the latter are often conducted in the spirit and with the brutal bureaucracies of the Inquisition.

In our imaginations,’’ Murphy writes, “we offhandedly associate the term ‘inquisition’ with the term ‘Dark Ages.’ But consider what an inquisition really is: a set of disciplinary procedures targeting specific groups, codified in law, enforced by surveillance, exemplified by severity, sustained over time, backed by institutional power, and justified by a vision of the one truth path. Considered that way, the Inquisition is more accurately viewed not as a relic but as a harbinger.’’

The “Inquisition’’ as it’s deployed in the popular imagination is a convenient condensation of more than 700 years and at least three distinct movements.

The first “inquisitors of heretical depravity’’ were appointed in 1231, inaugurating the Medieval Inquisition. During this century-long plague of violence the Roman Catholic Church exterminated Christians whose sectarian peculiarities placed them outside the grace of the universal church. Murphy describes in vivid, gripping prose both the doctrinal differences and the outcomes of these differences, most notably in relation to the Cathars, a Christian sect once located in southern France.

The Spanish Inquisition commenced in the late 15th century and reigned in blood for 350 years, killing tens of thousands. This inquisition was administered by royal, rather than clerical, authority, and the Spanish crown expanded the object of interest to “classes of people rather than just categories of belief.’’ On the Iberian Peninsula, in particular, Jewish converts to Catholicism suffered from lethal skepticism.

Heretics and “judaizers’’ often were burned at the stake, and Murphy offers a ghoulishly readable account of the mechanics and gallows etiquette of torching heretics. Nearly as undesirable was a sentence of oarsmanship on Spanish ships; the ships “consumed [men] like fuel,’’ often transforming brief sentences into capital punishments. This transition from a theoretically penitential punishment to mercantile slavery offers another glimpse into the inquisitorial evolution. The demands of God were allowed to serve the interests of a king.

Starting in 1542, and overlapping with its Spanish counterpart, the Roman Inquisition relied on brutal precedent while adjusting for technological advances. “The Medieval Inquisition and, in its earliest stages, the Spanish Inquisition were directed chiefly at people - that is, at the physical corpora of sentient beings. They were directed at heretics who inhabited a mainly oral culture . . . . The Roman Inquisition went after people too . . . [b]ut it was just as much about the written word.’’

The Roman Inquisition counts among its notable accomplishments the trials of Galileo and Giordano Bruno, as well as the Index of Forbidden Books. Even rogue Catholic novelist Graham Greene fell under its reproachful gaze. Much like Santa Fe, that a mid-20th century writer would run afoul of the Inquisition seems anachronistic, but as Murphy points out, the Inquisition is organizationally and spiritually with us today. A key portion of the Vatican’s administrative apparatus is the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, or CDF, which finds its roots in the centuries-old Sacred Congregation of the Holy Roman and Universal Inquisition. The CDF doesn’t burn people these days, but the office maintains responsibility for priestly good behavior. According to Murphy, the CDF, also demonstrates a hallmark characteristic of inquisitions and modernity: bureaucracy.

Like all administrative entities, inquisitions are “inertial’’ forces requiring guidelines, institutional memory, and efficient ways to communicate this memory. Murphy argues persuasively that all inquisitions are ignited by the collision of panic and certainty, but that they are sustained through banalities like bureaucracy and communication technology, which make our contemporary world so vulnerable to the inquisitorial instinct.

“God’s Jury’’ is beautifully written, very smart, and devilishly engaging. Murphy’s ghastly tale even manages charm at moments. What “God’s Jury’’ is not is straightforward history. Rather, Murphy offers a historically grounded, elegant rumination on humanity’s aggressive certainty and aptitude for moral hysteria and violent overreaction

As Murphy writes, “Shift perspective slightly - turn the object in the light - and you can see that the Inquisition was enabled by some of the broader forces that brought the modern world into existence, and that make inquisitions of various kinds a recurring and inescapable feature of modern life.’’ Murphy is speaking of Guantanamo, of course, and of the Stasi, as well as the South American dirty wars, all of which he discusses in passages that sometimes show the limits of inquisition as metaphor. But the broader contours of his argument get to the fabric of modernity - our bureaucracy, our surveillance, our penchant for feckless cruelty.

Murphy has a keen ear for the pitch-perfect quote, but Kurt Vonnegut once wrote something that predicted the contents of this fascinating book. “You want to know something?’’ Vonnegut wrote. “We are still in the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages - they haven’t ended yet.’’







JANUARY 28, 2012


Inquiring Minds Wanted to Know—or Else



God's Jury

By Cullen Murphy

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 310 pages, $27


It has been more than 40 years since the Monty Python troupe provided the definitive statement on one of history's most vexing subjects: "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Amongst our weaponry are such diverse elements as fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, almost fanatical devotion to the Pope, and nice red uniforms." What more can Cullen Murphy possibly tell us in "God's Jury"?

A good deal, as it turns out. To begin with, he shows that the Spanish Inquisition formed only a part of the apparatus of surveillance created by the Roman Catholic Church to detect and destroy heresy. First came the "inquisitors of heretical depravity" set up by the papacy in 1231 to eliminate a group of Christian deviants known as Cathars in southern France. Within a century the inquisitors encountered, as Mr. Murphy puts it, "a shortage of combustible material" but still continued their search for deviants. In the late 15th century, Queen Isabella of Castile and her husband, King Ferdinand of Aragon, created and received papal approval for a separate inquisition in each of their kingdoms to eliminate Jewish converts to Christianity (known as conversos) rumored still to practice Judaism.

As the Spanish monarchy expanded, the Inquisition expanded with it—to Sicily and Sardinia in the east and to Mexico and Peru in the west—until 22 distinct tribunals reported to a central body in Madrid composed of an Inquisitor-General and a small committee of assistants, all appointed directly by the crown. Other states followed this initiative and created their own Holy Office (the alternative name of the institution).

These tribunals never ran out of "combustible material" because they expanded their remit to include those suspected of other deviations from Catholic orthodoxy. Meanwhile, the papacy established a tribunal of its own to eliminate Protestantism in Europe—although mission creep also characterized the Roman Inquisition, which tried and punished those suspected of Judaism, sodomy and witchcraft and any "public intellectuals" who held opinions contrary to the teaching of the church.

It still does. The papacy may have changed the Roman Inquisition's name in 1988 to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but its postal address remains the same: "Piazza del Sant'Uffizio, 11." It is still composed of cardinals (with or without red uniforms); it still holds regular meetings to consider complaints received about people suspected of unorthodox teaching and theology; it still condemns public intellectuals with whose views it disagrees; and, above all, it still relies on denunciations for its information.

All inquisitions depend on denunciations—a significant fact stressed by Henry Kamen, a historian who has written extensively on the Spanish Inquisition, whom Mr. Murphy interviewed and quotes in "God's Jury." Since almost everyone tried by the Spanish Inquisition had been denounced by someone (almost always anonymously), Mr. Kamen reasons that "the denunciations are the principal problem, not the Inquisition" and that therefore the proper subject for historical investigation is "the people—lots of them—who are denouncing conversos to the Inquisition."

Mr. Murphy draws two modern parallels from this insight. He notes that the "show trials" of Communist regimes (from Stalinist Russia through Mao's China to Pol Pot's Cambodia) all depended on denunciations; and many of the inmates of the Guantánamo Bay detention facilities arrived there as the result of some kind of denunciation. Drawing such parallels is a central feature of "God's Jury." When Mr. Murphy interviewed Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, the author of a book about Bishop Jacques Fournier's 14th-century investigation of the Cathars of Montaillou, a remote French village, the historian mentioned that, as a boy, "he had often come across wiretap transcripts in the office of his father, who had been an official of the Vichy government during World War II." Mr. Murphy immediately "ventured a parallel" between "Fournier and [Le Roy's] father," to which the historian "gave a Gallic shrug, which could have meant 'There you have it' or 'Think what you wish.' "

Mr. Murphy also juxtaposes numerous events and texts from yesterday with those of today. Thus he prints extracts from the lubricious examination of Monica Lewinsky by Kenneth W. Starr and pairs them with extracts from Fournier's interrogation of the villagers of Montaillou to demonstrate "the same attention to mundane social interaction," the same "pains to document the precise geography and chronology of illicit relations," and the same tendency to "linger over the use of unusual sexual aids."

The author also notes the persistence at Gunatánamo of several techniques perfected by the Roman and Spanish inquisitions (besides the reliance on denunciations)—from the practice of transcribing the victim's every word, scream and plea for mercy to the use of the "toca," now known as waterboarding, which involved pouring water onto a cloth placed over the suspect's upturned mouth, inducing the sensation of asphyxia or drowning. The only difference, according to Mr. Murphy, is that the Inquisition "understood that the toca was torture" whereas George W. Bush did not.

Do such explicit comparisons serve, as Mr. Murphy asks rhetorically, to "establish a firm link between now and then—between suggestive cultural practices in our own time and the reality of events that occurred centuries ago"? The answer is surely "no." Historians can never establish "the reality of events that occurred centuries ago." They can only reconstruct those events for which adequate sources remain—and they must always stand ready to consider new sources that alter the apparent "reality." The link between "now and then" can never be "firm."

Even the archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith contain a large section titled "Dubia," doubts; and when historians enjoy full access to the presidential archives of "Dubya," doubts will surely remain about the "reality of events" (to say nothing of motives) during the "War on Terror." There has always been more to inquisitions than "fear, surprise, ruthless efficiency, an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope, and nice red uniforms."

Mr. Parker, who teaches history at the Ohio State University, is the author of "The Grand Strategy of Philip II."



The Washington Post

 January 13, 2012

“God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World,” by Cullen Murphy

By Edward Peters


Cullen Murphy has an unusual talent for dealing in surprising ways with historical comparisons of past and present in lucid and lively prose. He writes intelligent history because he reads and understands current historical research and applies its results consistently. But he also talks to the historians who produce it and makes them and their research part of his book.

Murphy’s subject here is the history of the investigative and interrogatory techniques of 13th-century papally commissioned inquisitors of heretical depravity, and their successors, the Spanish and Roman Inquisitions and the present-day Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. At the same time, Murphy links the technological features of the inquisitions to modern political techniques of forcibly acquiring and using information. He examines these techniques and those who use them less as regrettable features of historical Roman Catholicism than as expressions of technologies of power that were “enabled by some of the broader forces that brought the modern world into existence.” They were an early example, but not the originators, of a modernizing process that later took shape in other polities and now flourishes globally.

Murphy ponders “ what . . . any inquisition really is: a set of disciplinary practices targeting specific groups, codified in law, organized systematically, enforced by surveillance, exemplified by severity, sustained over time, backed by institutional power, and justified by a vision of the one true path. Considered that way, the Inquisition is more accurately viewed not as a relic, but as a harbinger.” It was a harbinger of the world of apparently endless state campaigns to gather, extract, store and (often) fabricate information. Such a state routinely operates under the assumption that emergency government is the normal condition of politics and diplomacy. In order better to protect itself and its endless need for intelligence, it has tacitly or overtly legitimized or redefined torture and obliterated the moral and legal stigma long attached to it.

Those investigative techniques shaped ecclesiastical discipline in the later Roman Catholic Church in Continental Europe and the Americas, but also during the Reformation in Protestant England and elsewhere. Later, when secular states in need of information acquired comparable powers of organization and enforcement, they, too, adopted and refined some of these techniques. The story that Murphy tells so vividly and provocatively thus raises serious and thought-provoking questions about conventional narratives of modernization.

Murphy skillfully brings to life the places, things (especially manuscripts, books and archival caches), atmosphere and people of the Inquisition’s history. He takes the reader along with him, from the Piazza del Sant’ Uffizio in contemporary Vatican City to southern France in the 13th century when the Church first leveraged secular powers against those it considered heretics, then to Seville and Simancas in the 15th and 16th centuries, when an Inquisition became a component of the Spanish state, and back to Giordano Bruno’s Rome and Galileo’s Florence, where the Church itself was a state.

Even these chapters on early European history contain arresting examples and alarming comparisons from our own world. His account of the control of information — from the Index of Forbidden Books to Orwell’s “memory holes” to proposals for Internet restriction and the editorial standards of the Texas Board of Education — makes the reader think at least twice about the similarities and differences between some aspects of that distant world and our own, the world of the inquisitorial state.

Full disclosure: This reviewer makes an appearance or two in the book, notably opening the door for Murphy when he came to the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia and visited the wonderfully preserved 19th-century library of Henry Charles Lea, the great American historian of the medieval and Spanish inquisitions. Murphy does justice to Lea, also.

Murphy is neither an inquisition-basher nor an inquisition-apologist. He comes to the subject with frankly acknowledged personal interests and experiences. This is very high-end, appealing and thought-provoking popular history. It does its historical duty by making us look at several aspects of the past from an unconventional and surprising perspective. It does its public duty by making us consider our own world as the outcome, at least in some respects, of a process of modernization that needs to be understood and regarded more critically. It is certainly not a world from which the United States can any longer be exempted. And Murphy rightly worries about its present and future — as should we.

Edward Peters is the Henry Charles Lea Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of a number of books and articles on legal history, the history of criminal law, heresy, inquisition and torture.


San Francisco Chronicle

Sunday, February 5, 2012


'God's Jury,' by Cullen Murphy: review

Michele Clouse


God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World

By Cullen Murphy

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 310 pages; $27)


In "God's Jury," Cullen Murphy masterfully traces the social, legal and political evolution of the Inquisition and the inquisitorial process from its origins in late medieval Christian France to its eerily familiar, secular cousin in the modern world. Murphy dons many hats, including historian, tour guide, journalist and civic-minded citizen, as he attempts to get at the heart of what made and makes a persecuting society.

Drawing from a wealth of archival material, most notably sources from the recently opened Vatican Library; personal interviews with professional historians, ecclesiastics and victims of modern "inquisitions"; a careful reading of the most respected academics in the field; and a not insignificant well of intellectual curiosity, Murphy has given both form and identity to an institution that is synonymous with torture and repression and brings it out of the "dark ages" and into the light of modernity.

The late Middle Ages in Europe was a time of increasing religious tensions as the Catholic Church extended its authority across Western Europe, a move that often brought it face to face with religious dissidents such as the Cathars of southeastern France, the Jews and conversos (Jews who converted to Christianity) of 15th century Spain, and the wealthy and secretive European-wide religious order the Knights Templar.

With the authority of a professional historian, Murphy explains these moments of religious conflict and the rationale behind the creation and implementation of the Inquisition as a method through which such threats could be identified and controlled. He correctly points out that although the Inquisition was a distinctly religious institution, its success depended upon the degree of local and national governmental assistance. For example, England refused the church's efforts to introduce this religious court of law to the island, while Spain not only welcomed the incursion but also directed the institution's efforts in the peninsula, effectively targeting both enemies of God and enemies of the state (typically seen as one and the same).

The Inquisition did not remain solely in the hands of the church, however. The Inquisition allowed both religious and secular authorities to monitor society; it required surveillance of public and private life, communal or individual denunciations, interrogation at the hands of trained professionals, and reconciliation or removal (often death) of the accused. Without splitting contextual hairs, it was a policing force utilized by various authorities across Europe.

It was adopted and adapted by governments as diverse as Elizabeth's England to Napoleon's France to Stalin's Soviet Union with great success as a means to monitor, discipline and control their respective societies. Of course, neither Elizabeth nor Stalin would have referred to their methods as "inquisitorial," but the comparison is an easy one to make, and that is precisely what Murphy does. Moreover, once 18th century minds accepted the idea that there was truth to be found without God, the Inquisition took on a distinctly secular identity, yet retained its core purpose as a means to control and discipline society (in the spirit of protecting that very society, of course).

What then, the reader might ask, can the medieval Inquisition and a world that is centuries long gone, a world characterized by religious zeal, concerns about racial purity and extensive bureaucratic expansion, tell us about our modern persecutorial impulses? As it turns out, quite a lot.

If one defines an inquisition as "a set of disciplinary procedures, targeting specified groups, codified in law, organized systematically, enforced by surveillance, exemplified by severity, sustained over time, justified by a vision of the one true path, backed by institutional power," then inquisitions are shockingly ubiquitous and Murphy never falls short of sufficient examples to explore. A side-by-side comparison of 14th century inquisitorial manuals with a HUMINT (Human Intelligence) interrogation manual reveals striking similarities and a unity of purpose: Interrogations are meant to elicit information and affirm a perceived truth. Whether waterboarding a suspected al Qaeda member at Guantanamo or putting to the rack a female converso accused of backsliding into Judaism despite her Christian baptism, the goal and results are astonishingly the same.

Let me clarify a point here. Murphy is not using the historical record as a backdoor criticism of U.S. governmental policy since 9/11. And one should not dismiss his work over a disagreement of opinion. His point is at once much broader and more personal - how does a society, any society, come to accept an inquisitorial process as standard operating procedure?

Murphy convincingly connects our modern surveillance state (case in point, my local newspaper's headline this morning read "Police use of GPS to locate suspected criminals reined in") to its medieval roots, and "God's Jury" will leave the reader both puzzled and concerned. Yet a fundamental question remains unanswered: What makes a persecuting society? Moreover, how might (or should) this tendency be combatted or even reversed? Murphy offers no answers, yet in the very act of recognizing and coming to terms with the modern inquisition in our lives, perhaps therein lies a new beginning.

Michele Clouse is a professor of history at Ohio State University.



                                                             V A L L E Y






With GOD’S JURY, Vanity Fair Editor at Large and former Mass Humanities board member Cullen Murphy has written a worthy successor to his widely praised ARE WE ROME? Like the earlier book, GOD’S JURY provides a learned yet accessible angle on the past while illuminating its connections to the present. Those who enjoy Murphy’s erudition, his intriguing asides and dry wit will not be disappointed with this latest effort.

A book subtitled The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World that nevertheless comes in at a mere 250 pages is not intended to be a complete history of the Inquisition. Most accounts of this sorrowful chapter in the history of what we euphemistically refer to as Western Civilization run to several volumes. It is not even “a brief history” in the style, say, of a Bill Bryson, although the two writers have much in common. What Murphy excels at is weaving engaging and economical narratives of history-shaping events, threaded with quirky but fascinating observations, and demonstrating their relevance to our own time.

In GOD’S JURY we learn first of all that there was not just one Inquisition but three, separated in both time and place and stretching over seven centuries (which makes you wonder about the subtitle of this book). The first, the Medieval Inquisition, began in Southern France in the 12th century and was a fairly localized affair. The second – the Spanish Inquisition – is perhaps the best known. Like the Spanish Empire, it eventually spanned the globe. But it took place primarily on the Iberian Peninsula, is associated in our minds with the dreaded Torquemada and the expulsion of the Jews (although its principal targets were Protestants), and endured for three and half centuries. The third was the Roman Inquisition – the offensive arm of the Counter-Reformation and a vain attempt to hold the forces of scientific enlightenment at bay that lasted well into the 19th century. It ended only in 1870 with the capture of the Papal States and the founding of modern Italy under King Victor Emmanuel III.

The best known victims of the Roman Inquisition were the freethinking Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake in 1600, and Galileo Galilei, who was condemned in 1633 and, rather less dramatically, forced to spend the last eight years of his life under house arrest. While thus confined he managed to write one of his most important books, Two New Sciences.

Galileo’s heresy was the espousal of Copernicus’s heliocentric theory. He was spared Bruno’s fate because he recanted. It goes without saying that he did so under duress. Legend has it that after denying that the Earth moves around the Sun, the astronomer was heard to mutter under his breath, “And yet it moves!” – thereby recanting his recantation. Murphy notes that there is no actual evidence that Galileo ever said this but goes on to point out, with characteristic humor, that the finger bone of Galileo on display in the Florence museum that bears his name is “without question a middle finger.”

Besides being instigated and prosecuted by the Roman Catholic Church or its surrogates, what the Medieval, the Spanish and the Roman Inquisitions had in common were “a set of repressive procedures, targeting specific groups, codified in law, exemplified by severity, sustained over time, justified by a vision of the one true path, backed by institutional power.” Once these characteristics are brought to light, Murphy argues, inquisitions are “not hard to find.” Even in our own time.

Some of the most captivating sections of GOD’S JURY are Murphy’s reportage of his own encounters with the primary documents of the Inquisitions – in the Vatican Archives and elsewhere – and the personalities responsible for their interpretation and safekeeping. One such account, in a chapter entitled “The Secular Inquisition,” describes a conversation with Eamon Duffy, an historian of the early modern period in Magdalene College at Cambridge University, whose work focuses on the forced conversion of England in the sixteenth century from a Catholic country to a Protestant one. The passage begins with a meticulous description of Duffy’s cramped and book-strewn garret, down to the teakettle on the stove and the bottle of Jameson’s on the corner table.

 “What makes religious persecution so shocking to us, I suppose,” Duffy tells Murphy, “is that cruelty in the pursuit of the things of God seems particularly outrageous. I’m not sure it’s any more outrageous than protecting democracy with, you know, waterboarding. Systems find ways of protecting themselves, and ways to justify these things to themselves.” [emphasis added]

We see where Murphy is taking us – Guantánamo, the Patriot Act, extraordinary rendition, summary deportations, the Surveillance State. Murphy demonstrates clearly that what he calls “the inquisitorial impulse” is still with us. (Surprisingly, he makes no mention of the McCarthy hearings which, except for the absence of physical punishment, display in abundance the defining characteristics of an Inquisition.) “When it comes to inquisitions,” he writes, “a concise way to describe the modern world would be: fertile soil. Plant an inquisition, and it grows.”

Whether we are painfully aware or blithely unaware of the presence of this impulse in our own time, it is undeniably here. When it is allowed to express itself, the outcome is invariably something shameful and ignoble. The reading of history helps us better understand the challenges of the present. Reading GOD’S JURY persuades us that the obverse can also be true. When it comes to inquisitions, appreciating the present helps us understand the past.



 The Telegraph

30 Jan 2012

God’s Jury by Cullen Murphy: review

Cullen Murphy's 'God's Jury' is an unscholarly take on a complex historical subject


By Noel Malcolm


God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World

Cullen Murphy

Allen Lane, £25, 310pp


In the Jubilee Year of 2000, Pope John Paul II issued a special apology for the past sins of the Roman Catholic Church: for its treatment of Jews, its hostility to other groups and faiths, and its “use of violence in the service of truth”. That last phrase, which distinguished so neatly between the means (bad) and the end (good), was taken to be a coded reference to the Inquisition. But the Pope did not go into any detail about this – which is just as well, since the story of what the Inquisition did at different times is complex, and the degree of blame is often quite hard to measure.

In a nutshell, there were three main Inquisitions. The medieval one was a rather ad hoc affair, with inquisitors (typically, Dominican friars) tackling outbreaks of heresy here and there. The Spanish one (created in 1478) was, in contrast, almost an arm of the Spanish state; obsessed at first with sniffing out crypto-Judaism among newly converted Jews, it then became a general enforcer of orthodoxy against heresy, superstition and sexual immorality.

The Roman Inquisition, known as the “Holy Office”, was set up in response to the Reformation; its main target was heresy, and it worked hand in hand with the committee which maintained the famous Index of Prohibited Books. That Index was abolished only in the 1960s, when the Holy Office was reformed and renamed. Its head, until his most recent change of job, was Cardinal Ratzinger; it is still a force to be reckoned with, as it summons errant Catholic theologians to Rome for questioning. But while knuckles may be metaphorically and severely rapped, “violence in the service of truth” is no longer used.

How violent had these Inquisitions been? Modern research has dismantled the “black legend” of the Spanish Inquisition; it did kill roughly 2,000 in its first 50 years, but then settled into a rhythm of at most 10 deaths per year. The Roman Inquisition may have killed 1,250 people in its entire history. Torture was used, but only in a very small percentage of cases. Yes, there are many human tragedies lurking within these statistics; but there are many, many more in the history of the secular courts of the same periods, which dispensed much rougher justice.

Cullen Murphy’s new book is partly – but only partly – an overview of this history; it picks out a string of memorable details, from the appalling massacres of medieval Cathars to the agonising of Vatican censors over the novels of Graham Greene. Murphy has read enough of the scholarly literature to know that the old “black legend” is unsustainable. Yet he sets up, in its place, a new dark legend of his own. The old view was that the Inquisition was the worst example of institutionalised evil in our rather primitive past. The new one is that while it wasn’t so very bad by past standards, it foreshadowed the institutionalised evil of the present. It is the ancestor, in some way or other, of the fascist and communist secret police, McCarthyism, the surveillance state, and, for good measure, Guantánamo Bay.

I say “in some way or other”, because it’s often unclear what exactly Murphy is claiming. Sometimes he is just drawing analogies between past and present (witty comparison-making being part of his stock in trade as a writer for Vanity Fair magazine). But sometimes he does imply that our modern bureaucracies of oppression had their origin in the Inquisition. “Repressive regimes are record-keeping regimes”, he observes; and who taught the modern world how to keep such records, if not the Inquisition?

Historically speaking, this argument is worthless, for two obvious reasons. Murphy pays almost no attention to the centuries-old history of ordinary bureaucracy, as developed by governments, not the Church. Taxation, not heresy-hunting, was what taught the emerging modern state to keep track of its citizens. And secondly, the idea that the dossier-keeping of the Inquisition foreshadows that of the Gestapo or the KGB ignores a rather elementary difference. The Inquisition, like any legal system, was merely storing the records of the cases that came before it; it never tried to keep tabs on the whole population.

Admittedly, this book is not intended as a piece of historical research. While Murphy has visited archives, he has done so to get local colour, not to do original work. (The results are some rather bathetic descriptions of reading-rooms: “A few scholars sit at tables. Espresso must be left outside. Smoking is prohibited.”) He also supplies various pen portraits of historians in their offices – a quaintly journalistic approach to historical understanding, as if someone writing a book about the novels of Dickens were to go and interview other people who had read them.

Along the way, readers may pick up some interesting details about such things as the perennial nature of torture techniques or the survival of crypto-Judaism in Mexico. But they will also encounter jarring attempts to jollify the past – as, for example, when Murphy introduces the founder of the Dominican Order as “the man celebrated in the 1963 song Dominique by the Singing Nuns”. If ever there is an Index of Recommended Books, this one is unlikely to be on it.




Friday, 17 February 2012


God's Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World, By Cullen Murphy

Peter Stanford


Television has been widely credited with making history fashionable again, with all those enthusiastic and engaging experts taking to the small screen. They have hauled what had become too often a subject constrained by the lifeless prose of academic books into the mainstream of public debate. Now there seems to be traffic the other way, for there is something televisual about God's Jury, an enormously enjoyable and very modern history of the Inquisition by Cullen Murphy, editor-at-large of Vanity Fair.

He is not content with just slipping in the standard reference, in the small industry of books on the topic, to Monty Python's "No one expects the Spanish Inquistion" quip. Instead, he sets out to walk and talk his way through his subject, right up to the present day. The absence of moving images is scarcely an impediment. Murphy has a way with words and, with the choice of beguiling stopping-off points, this reader forever had a vivid picture running in my mind.

God's Jury is part travelogue, part polemic, with a tiny smattering of memoir. Murphy is a Catholic, albeit, to judge by his choice of modern theologians, of the liberal variety. He starts inside the Vatican's archives, only recently opened to the public, then makes his way through the various manifestations of the Inquisition. For it was never a single entity. Like the Catholic church that it served, it may have claimed continuity and universality but took on different forms depending on the soil in which it sprang up.

The first coming was in southern France in the 13th century, where a papacy that had expanded to claim authority across western Europe was facing a little local difficulty in the shape of the Cathars: clean-living, pious Christian folk who regarded this world as the creation of the Devil and the Church as doing Satan's business. The Inquisition was established to bring them back in line by torture, public executions and the cultivation of such paranoia that husbands turned in their wives, neighbour spied on neighbour, and woe betide anyone who stood out from the norm.

Sounds familiar? Murphy introduces at this early stage his key thesis – namely, that the Inquisition was thoroughly modern in its techniques. Persecution had been around for as long as there were two human beings to pick on each other, but this apparatus of total Catholicism perfected methods that remain with us: a bureaucracy of oppression, control of information, the cloak of legal justification rooted in institutional power, and, above all, a ruthlessness that came from the sincere belief that it was 100 per cent right. Compare and contrast this "inquisitorial impulse", Murphy challenges, to those that have arisen since – the gulags, the generals in Argentina's "Dirty War" and Guantánamo Bay are but three he quotes.

He builds his case patiently and convincingly, with plenty of references to George Orwell, as he continues his travels to the scene of the second coming of the Inquisition – the reunited Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella in the latter 15th century. It set up shop there to target all who did not fit into the Catholic identity the new kingdom had chosen to adopt – Jews, Muslims, and recent converts to the faith. And it threw up in Tomas de Torquemada the most notorious inquisitorial mastermind of all. Like many persecutors, he seems to have been driven, by some deep-rooted, self-loathing impulse, to target in others what he disliked in himself: namely, Jewish blood.

The Spanish Inquisition dragged on until the 19th century, when it took the invading armies of Napoleon to dislodge it. But it lived on even longer in Rome itself, since the Pope remained until 1870 a temporal as well as a spiritual prince. Even after the united Italy made the pontiff a "prisoner in the Vatican", the Inquisitorial mindset continued to pollute the lives of Catholics, with its Index of prohibited books that Murphy links to current campaigns to restrict freedom of expression on the internet. The major Vatican department today, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, once headed by the current Pope, is in name and deed the heir to the Inquisition, Murphy concludes.

Even the jacket of this book is modern – a juror's chair rather than a medieval image of some poor individual being torn limb from limb on the rack in an effort to convince them to break their alleged pact with the Devil. The twin narratives – ancient and modern – might make for a clumsy device, but Murphy's touch, tone and emphasis are never anything but sure and sane. This is popular history at its very best.

Peter Stanford's history of cemeteries will be published this year by Bloomsbury








 12 February 2012

God's Jury: the Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World

Reviewed by John Cornwell -


Trials and tribulations


God's Jury: the Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World
Cullen Murphy
Allen Lane, 320pp, £25

Several years ago, a Jesuit historian of the Reformation was regaling me with the horrors endured by Catholics who were hanged, drawn and quartered for their faith in the 16th century. When I remarked that Catholics don't seem so bothered about the scores of Protestants burned at the stake under Mary Tudor, he replied: "Oh, burning at the stake? That's nothing - it's all over in a few minutes. But hanging, drawing and quartering is truly terrible and the executioners were expert in cutting off the victims' organs of generation and stuffing them into their mouths while they were still alive."

Cullen Murphy's journey through a millennium of inquisitions and torture is both beguiling and horrifying. In a mix of travel, history, interview, anecdote and acute reflection, he is immensely entertaining while being horribly specific about the mechanics of man's inhumanity to man in the name of conviction. He could have told my Jesuit friend, for example, that there were a variety of ways in which to make burning at the stake an unspeakable death: not least the custom of using green firewood to slow down the torture. More humane executioners would strangle their victims before lighting the fires.

Yet one of the more queasy aspects of the book is the justification for inquisitorial culture expressed by some of Murphy's informants. Catholic defenders of the inquisitions have recently claimed that they were the precursors to modern legal systems. Murphy argues that the Catholic inquisitions were a prelude to modernity itself. He makes much of how the inquisitors kept elaborate records, anticipating the proliferating centralised databases of the French Revolution, the FBI, the Gestapo, the Stasi and, indeed, the UK's surveillance bonanza, which boasts four million spy cameras - apparently a world record.

I am not entirely persuaded by the "modernity" argument. The ecclesiastical record-keeping of the early inquisitions might have owed as much to imperial Rome as to the dawn of the modern, but I think that Murphy is right to draw comparisons and even an equivalence between the past and the present.

He takes us from the southern French sites of the 12th-century destruction of the Cathars to the cities of the Spanish Inquisition, to the Roman Inquisition and the groaning library shelves of the Vatican's old Holy Office, and on to the more recent inquisitions of Guantanamo Bay. On the way, we meet an intriguing cast of characters: monks and librarians, army officers and academics.

Throughout the book, Murphy moves back and forth between the historic and contemporary. Yet the attempt to make connections between the Catholic inquisitions and the current "war on terror" reveals hazards of which, to his credit, Murphy is well aware. On a visit to Magdalene College, Cambridge (under the eaves of the Pepys Library), Murphy has a conversation with Eamon Duffy, professor of the history of Christianity in the divinity faculty. Duffy tells him:

The good professor, whom I know personally to be a gentle soul, is ramming home the dangers of anachronism. "I feel less shocked by the Inquisition than a lot of people do," he goes on. "Because you ask yourself: what should she [Mary Tudor] have done?" He later stresses: "That was then, and this is now."

However, carried too far, this argument ends in moral relativism. It can be exploited to exonerate, if not to justify, virtually any brutality in the interests of security, survival and conviction on the basis that the perpetrators were in a "different place." What ultimately explodes the anachronism fallacy in the case of the Inquisition are those instances of condemnation in which courageous dissidents went against the tide.

An example of this is that remarkable hero Father Friedrich Spee (another Jesuit), appointed by the bishop of Würzburg as con­fessor to the women condemned to the stake in the witches' trials in 17th-century Germany. He discovered that torture did not encourage truth-telling and wrote a powerful book in Latin, entitled Cautio Criminalis ("A Warning to Prosecutors").

Alas, it has done rather less well than the infamous inquisitors' handbook, Hammer of the Witches. I suspect that Spee's courageous, rationalist stand against the power of super­stition was more modern than the records that the inquisitors kept. And it tends to undermine Duffy's argument that because they saw things differently then, we today should not be quick to condemn.

Ironically, a late instance of 20th-century Catholic inquisition, reported by Murphy, reveals the fragility, if not the entire implosion, of his overall argument about "modernity". In 1903, a pope who took the title Pius X was elected and set about attacking those whom he called the "modernists". Under his secretary of state, Cardinal Merry del Val, and a nasty monsignor called Umberto Benigni, he instituted a spy network employing the most up-to-date methods of espionage. The example reveals what a weasel word "modernism" can be.

Pius X borrowed his inquisitorial methods from the new media of the time (telegrams, "Banda" machines, codes and sophisticated databases). Yet the "modernity" he attacked was the attempt of a new generation of theologians to engage with science, rationalism and democracy, and to understand the Church and its doctrines in the light of history.

Does one create the good society or community by greater control? Or is it modern to believe that we flourish by greater freedom? Murphy has written a book rich in stories and imaginative connections. It succeeds, however, in raising rather more questions than it answers.

John Cornwell is the author of "Newman's Unquiet Grave: The Reluctant Saint" (Continuum, £18.99)




January 22, 2012

Cullen Murphy's 'God's Jury' draws parallels between Inquisition and modern-day interrogations


By Alan Cate


God's Jury

By Cullen Murphy

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 310 pp., $27


A fanatic, as the saying goes, only does what God himself would do if he knew all the facts of the case. This absolute certainty, an "unswerving confidence in the rightness of one's cause," is what Cullen Murphy describes as "the inquisitorial impulse" in his informative, wide-ranging, and surprisingly -- given the grim subject -- entertaining "God's Jury."

Murphy, an editor at "Vanity Fair" and author of "Are We Rome?," a 2007 book that drew insightful parallels between the United States and the Roman Empire, examines the Inquisition here. The term normally refers to the Catholic Church's official fight against heresy, a campaign that commenced in the 13th century and endured into the 20th.

For Murphy, this is just the departure point for a wide-ranging meditation on the relationship between, as his subtitle puts it, "the Inquisition and the making of the modern world."

This is, of course, a major paradox. After all, the Inquisition's "chief target was modernity itself." Nevertheless, Murphy persuasively argues that we should view the Inquisition not as merely some medieval "relic but as a harbinger" of modern secular states' ability and willingness to surveil, censor and punish those who threaten the established order.

It's actually more apt to speak of multiple inquisitions. The term "the Inquisition" is a convenient shorthand for medieval Spanish, Portuguese and Roman variants. Murphy briefly traces each, lingering over greatest hits such as Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada's cruelty and the persecution of Galileo. He depicts the Inquisition as "a modernizing institution" that developed sophisticated bureaucratic procedures -- codified standards, meticulous record keeping -- to accomplish the vital work of rooting out heretics.

Murphy makes arresting connections between medieval guidebooks for conducting inquisitions and the techniques employed by modern military, intelligence and police interrogators. Even the euphemisms are similar. The Inquisition employed rigoroso esamine -- "rigorous examination" -- while the U.S. has recently subjected suspected terrorists to "enhanced interrogation." Both, of course, stand for "torture."

One of this book's most sobering sections invokes the Canadian intellectual Michael Ignatieff's depiction of torture chambers as "intensely moral places." Murphy explains that those who torture in the name of God or the state don't avoid moral thinking; rather "they override the obvious immorality . . . by the presumptive morality of the larger endeavor." Paraphrasing Dostoyevsky, with God everything is permitted. The ends justify the means.

Still, despite its chilling task, the Inquisition exhibited its share of the same "bungling and administrative idiocy . . . one finds in 'Dilbert' or 'The Office.' " Murphy quotes one scholar's description of a 15th-century Inquisition manual as " 'a strange amalgam of Monty Python and 'Mein Kampf.' "

Censorship was "often myopic, childish, capricious, or daft." Indeed, its most insidious consequence may have been in books never-written due to self-censorship. Impishly, Murphy also observes that placing titles on the Index of Forbidden Books could serve primarily to tempt curious Catholic lads, if not always reliably, "as those who have tried reading Hobbes or Pascal under the covers with a flashlight will have discovered."

Murphy deploys his own Catholic bona fides early on; he's definitely more Dorothy Day than Opus Dei. Still, one suspects that some readers will resent the barbs he hurls at Holy Mother Church. A few are merely irreverent: jibes at the "gerontocrats" running the Vatican or the well-worn "panzerkardinal" to refer to the current, German-born Pope. Others are more serious: The Church has failed to square up to its misdeeds prosecuting the Inquisition.

Similarly, Murphy's comparisons between the Inquisition and detainee abuse at Guantanamo Bay are well taken. So are the parallels to the witless attempts to proscribe the menace of Sharia in Tennessee. Yet some will wonder why Murphy doesn't get just as exercised over the far nastier abuses in enforcing orthodoxy in Cuba or in those unhappy regions under the Taliban's sway.

Part historical survey, part "Da Vinci Code," "God's Jury" is also a subtle, learned warning against intolerance in our own time. Murphy cites an earlier Inquisition historian in what could serve as the motto for his own book. "I have not paused to moralize, but I have missed my aim if the events narrated are not so presented as to teach the appropriate lesson."


Alan Cate, a retired altar boy, teaches history at University School in Hunting Valley, Ohio.




                                        Pittsbhurgh Post-Gazette


Sunday, January 15, 2012


'God's Jury': Why everybody has come to expect the Inquisition


Cullen Murphy's intelligent and wide-ranging survey of extremism in the name of virtue


By Mitchell James Kaplan



By Cullen Murphy

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($27).


In this accomplished, highly readable and thought-provoking survey, Cullen Murphy examines the Catholic Church's centuries-long effort to stamp out heresies of all kinds. These efforts always involved fact-gathering and deposition of witnesses. Sometimes they resulted in the censorship of books and other materials. In thousands of cases -- it is difficult to come up with exact figures -- investigators utilized torture to obtain confessions.

Mr. Murphy groups these efforts together under the common term "the Inquisition." He demonstrates that many of the Inquisition's salient features, including surveillance, invasion of privacy and aggressive investigation, were never "owned" by the Catholic Church and are in fact intrinsic to modern civilization. He passionately argues that Inquisition-like secular institutions are just as pernicious as their ecclesiastical forebears.

The pages teem with colorful portraits of inquisitors, victims and contemporary scholars. Mr. Murphy vividly depicts libraries, villages and medieval churches, as well as the city plazas where autos-da-fé (trials) took the lives of many suspected heretics. He culls materials ranging from the 13th-century Albigensian Crusade to the "enhanced interrogation" techniques of Guantanamo Bay and tells stories that would suffice by themselves to make "God's Jury" a gripping and highly informative read.

To pluck out just two: In Mexico in the 1590s, while awaiting execution in the Inquisition's jail, Luis de Carvajal scratched his final confession onto avocado pits. In this message, addressed not to his torturers but to his family, he admitted his secret Jewish faith. In 1858, Pope Pius IX utilized the Inquisition to abduct Edgardo Mortara, a 6-year-old Jewish boy, and raise him as his own child, demonstrating utter contempt for the emotions and beliefs of Edgardo's birth parents.

But "God's Jury" is not merely a compilation of gut-wrenching anecdotes. It is also the heartfelt mea culpa of an enlightened 21st-century Catholic who takes pride in his rich cultural and religious heritage but refuses to deny historical truths. The self-examination and intellectual honesty of writers such as Mr. Murphy and James Carroll ("Constantine's Sword") are impressive and moving. At the same time, even the wisest and bravest among us view history through lenses colored by cultural, ethnic and religious affiliations.

Two juxtaposed statements bring into focus Mr. Murphy's conflict. "Partisans who jump to the church's defense," he warns us, "come across as blinkered and naive." Immediately thereafter, and characteristically, he does exactly that; he leaps to the church's defense. "The Inquisition ... seems to have executed a smaller percentage of defendants than most secular courts did. It attempted to codify its practices and place restrictions on its behavior."

Notice the words "seems" and "attempted." These are fudge words that belong to the logical twilight zone where facts and emotions collide. As Mr. Murphy knows all too painfully, when zealots determine to suppress free thought by any means necessary, the most important moral issues involved have little to do with body counts or record-keeping.

"God's Jury" argues that inquisitions result from moral certitude and are maintained by bureaucracies. One can hardly disagree with the latter observation, strongly reminiscent of Hannah Arendt's "Eichmann in Jerusalem."

But Mr. Murphy might have pointed out that not all moral certitudes are equal. The abolitionist movement in the United States, although animated by vigorous moral certitude, was not an Inquisition but a much-needed corrective. The McCarthy trials of the 1950s, also driven by moral certitude, were a kind of inquisition. The problem with the Catholic Inquisition, at least from our 21st-century American vantage point, is not the inquisitors' moral certitude but their lethal brand of moral confusion.

It is important to note that not all the lay contemporaries of the inquisitors suffered from this moral confusion. Many knew the Inquisition was wrong; otherwise, heretical ideas and secret religious activities could not have persisted.

Nor was heresy the only form of protest. Mr. Murphy recounts that "at the death of the hated Pope Paul IV, in 1559, the people of Rome stormed the headquarters of the Inquisition." The problem was not that Romans were anti-Catholic but that Paul IV and his Inquisition were anti-Christian.

Mr. Murphy occasionally enters problematic territory when he compares inquisitorial practices with the behaviors of modern, secular bureaucracies. An airport interrogation by an employee of the Transportation Security Administration, even a rude one, is not the strappado torture device. The worst errors of the American penal and military systems remain exceptional and, at least in principle, open to public debate and legal correction.

Mr. Murphy makes valid points about the spread of surveillance in England, the erosion of tolerance in America and Internet censorship in China. Perhaps due to his legitimate concerns about Islamophobia, though, he fails to mention the most egregiously inquisitorial regimes in the modern world. These include Saudi Arabia, where morality police hold sway over the lives of common citizens and apostasy carries a death sentence, and Iran, which condemned Salman Rushdie to death for expressing supposed heretical views in a novel. Such repressive societies harm Islam just as the Inquisition harmed Catholicism.

For in the end, one of the most enduringly damaged victims of the Inquisition was the Catholic Church itself. Despite its shortcomings and omissions, Cullen Murphy's ambitious and scintillating study shines an effective and powerful light on the church's self-inflicted wounds and thus helps further the process of understanding and healing.

Mitchell James Kaplan, a writer and translator, lives in Mt. Lebanon. His historical novel "By Fire, By Water," set in 15th-century Spain, received the 2011 Independent Publisher Book Award Gold Medal for Historical Fiction. He is at work on a novel set in first-century Rome and Judea