Book review: God’s Jury: The Inquisition And The Making of The Modern World

God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World
by Cullen Murphy
Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0-618-09156-0
Review copy supplied by publisher

Review by Ida Vega-Landow

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose office is located at the Piazza del Sant’Affizio 11 in Rome, is the part of the church whose job is, “to promote and safeguard the doctrine on faith and morals throughout the Catholic world”. All the Vatican’s pronouncements on cloning and same-sex marriage originated here, along with its directives to Catholic parishes not to supply names of past or present congregants to the Mormon Church’s Genealogical Society of Utah, because of the Vatican’s “grave reservations” about the Mormon practice of posthumous baptism. The declaration Dominus Jesus, issued in 2000, reiterating that the Catholic Church is the only true church of Christ and the only assured means of salvation, is also a CDF document.

But it was also once known by another name: the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Roman and Universal Inquisition. Yes, that’s right, The Inquisition, or as the author states in his opening chapter, “the centuries-long effort by the Church to deal with its perceived enemies, within and without, by whatever means necessary, including some very brutal ones.”

Whenever the Inquisition is mentioned people usually think of the Spanish Inquisition. The first thing that comes to mind is that sketch by Monty Python’s Flying Circus, where Michael Palin bursts into a room wearing cardinal’s robes and yelling, “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!” Believe it or not, there were actually three separate inquisitions; the Spanish Inquisition, which “ended at different times in different places,” and “survived in Mexico until 1820…and in Spain itself until 1834”, according to the author. The Roman Inquisition began in the Holy Roman Empire in the Sixteenth Century with the Reformation, and the Medieval Inquisition lasted through most of the Dark Ages and into the New World as well, including the Salem Witch Hunts.

The hunt for heretics was the chief characteristic of all three phases of the Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition was concerned with hunting down Jews, specifically Jews who had converted to Catholicism and were suspected of having regressed, or gone back to practicing their old religion in private. The Roman Inquisition was concerned with keeping their powerful position in civilized society by making sure that their faith, and the policies which favored the church, remained inviolable. The Medieval portion of this charming organization combined the last two goals, especially during the reign of the Tudors. Henry VIII and his daughters were all concerned with rooting out heretics, the definition of which changed every time the monarch of England did. But their persecution of heretics was mainly concerned with strengthening the power of the monarchy of England. The Catholic Church was concerned with the salvation of souls for the next world, as well as with maintaining their power and influence in this world.

This book is a slow read, but an informative one. It may end up telling you more about the Catholic Church than you want to know, especially if you are a more devout Catholic than I am. Cullen Murphy is no stranger to church politics, being also the author of “Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America” and “The Word According to Eve: Women and the Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own”. He draws some interesting parallels between the Inquisition and the modern world, especially the current conservative trend in America to equate secularity with treason. From the war in Iraq to the controversy over allowing the Ten Commandments to be displayed in court, it seems we have our own group of elders on the far right determined to bring us all back to the True Faith, whether we like it or not.

All the more reason for you to read “God’s Jury” before the next election, to decide for yourself whether you really want to have your thinking done for you as far as religion is concerned, or vote to maintain our freedoms of speech and choice, among others. Remember that Freedom of Religion can also mean freedom not to have a religion. Atheism is not a crime, but there is a dangerously intolerant portion of the American Fundamentalist Movement hoping to make it so, once they get the “right people” elected. I’m not naming any names, just read “God’s Jury” if you want to understand better what’s happening to religion in America in the present, as well as what happened to it in the past. It’s quite an eye-opener.