My Life with God in and out of the Church
This excerpt from chapter 11
pages 160-164 shows the Church's fallibility
when it utilized the Inquisition during 700 years under 70 Popes
to torture and execute heretics and critics
for an answer, I began reviewing my Church history which I remembered vividly.
I started my search in the twelfth century. In the year 1163, to root out a
fast spreading heresy that denied Christ’s human nature, Pope Alexander III
got what he considered a brilliant idea. Judges appointed by the Church would
conduct inquests to determine the innocence or guilt of people suspected of
heresy. The judge would receive and examine the evidence and then absolve or
condemn the accused. Answerable only to the Pope, the inquisitor’s decision
was final. Pope Alexander should have known that this absolute power would be
The succeeding Popes, Lucius III, Innocent III and Gregory IX, adopted Alexander’s brainchild and nurtured it until it became the monstrous papal tribunal called “The Inquisition”. The chief inquisitor, usually a Dominican or Franciscan monk, did not work alone. He used spies, jailers, and sergeants at arms to apprehend suspects. To obtain a confession of guilt, the inquisitor often resorted to artifice, deception and torture. After the trial, the inquisitor turned the guilty over to the State. Those who abjured their crimes received life imprisonment; the impenitent were burned to death. One inquisitor, Torquemada, had 2000 suspected heretics killed at the stake. This horrible institution lasted 700 years under 75 popes. Any of them could have abolished the Inquisition in three words: “close it down.” No one did. If God was protecting the Church from error, how could he permit such cruel abuse of power, all in his name and for his greater glory!
Pope Alexander VI
painting by Pinturicchio
Many Popes used the Inquisition to exterminate heretics and some, to eliminate critics, as did Pope Alexander VI who reigned between 1492 and 1503. When only 25 years old, Rodrigo Borgia became a cardinal and vice-chancellor of the Roman Church. There he amassed enormous wealth and bestowed benefices among the papal electors. After he became pope in 1492, he appointed 47 cardinals and positioned them strategically to expand his political power. For three of his many bastard children he arranged marriages into the royal families of France, Castile, and Naples. To close such deals, he annulled any first marriage in the way. He was a great wheeler-dealer but also the worst Pope in history.
painting by Fra Bartolomeo
scandalous conduct troubled the people but none more than the Italian
Dominican Savonarola, a sincere preacher. After reforming the city of
Florence, he tried to change the corrupt Roman Church. He condemned its
decadence. To silence the fiery preacher, Alexander VI offered him a bribe, a
cardinal’s hat with its privileges and influence. Savonarola refused it.
When all else failed, the Pope ordered his lackeys in the Inquisition to
exterminate the pest. After weeks of cruel torture, they finally wrested a
confession of heresy from Savonarola and handed him over to the civil
magistrates for execution. From Rome, the Pope sent him a plenary indulgence.
What a cruel joke! On May 23, 1498, Savonarola was hanged and his body burned.
With the flames, his efforts to reform the Church went up in smoke.
As I compared
Alexander VI and Savonarola with Christ, only one resembled him - the
preacher, not the Pope. Jesus was chaste, indifferent to worldly possession
and totally focused on God’s glory and man’s salvation. So was Savonarola
but not Alexander. Jesus had denounced the “greed and self-indulgence” of
the religious leaders and the priests. The vengeful priests then condemned
Jesus of blasphemy and handed him over to the civil authorities for execution.
Repeating history, the priests of the Inquisition condemned Savonarola of
heresy and wrested his death sentence from the civil magistrate.
school the nuns told me that the Pope represented Christ. Then during 12 years
in the seminary, priests pounded that idea into my brain. Now far away in
Africa, I faced the fact that Pope Alexander VI was not a true representative
of Jesus but a grotesque distortion of the poor and chaste Christ. Savonarola
was the look-alike.
seminary, the priests also drummed into me the idea that the Pope was the
highest authority on Christ’s revelation, interpreting it with
infallibility. Tonight while listening to the distant drums in the village
below, I reviewed Pope Alexander VI’s record. Clearly he never learned the
ABC’s of Christ’s simple message. If he couldn’t grasp Christ’s
explicit doctrine, how could he deduce dogmas from it and proclaim their truth
with infallibility. Clearly the Pope didn’t have the brains and the faith
and love to do that. In my black mood that night, I wished that a universal
church council had quickly deposed that incompetent immoral misfit and
replaced him with a more Christ-like pope,
For over 300
years, the papal tribunal responsible for the murder of Savonarola and many
others was called “The Inquisition”- a name that struck fear everywhere.
In 1542, perhaps to whitewash the Inquisition’s blackened reputation, Pope
Paul III renamed it the “Holy Office”. Despite this new sanctimonious
name, the Holy Office continued its sinister game of hounding and harassing
anyone who crossed the Church.