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.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ($27).
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 ( mitchelljameskaplan.com ). First Published January 15, 2012 5:00 AM