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Rehabilitating the Inquisition

These days, one of the blogs where I spend the most time commenting is Leah Libresco’s Unequally Yoked on Patheos. This isn’t just because its author has a unique and interesting perspective unlike any I’ve seen elsewhere, but also because there’s a lot more give-and-take between atheists and theists (mostly Catholics) than you find in the comments section of many atheist blogs.

And while debating and attempting to persuade believers is a fun and worthwhile pursuit in and of itself, I also do it because, occasionally, something slips out that’s worth calling wider attention to. Hence, in case you missed it, I want to recount an illuminating exchange in the comments between me and a Catholic named Ted Seeber. He began with this:

“I think an athiest in a majority Catholic country would find himself surprisingly well treated- I’m sure Galileo never expected that his “punishment” from the Inquisition would be to be set up in a 47 room mansion with a fully equipped laboratory in exchange for his silence, but that’s what happened.” (source)

This effort to rehabilitate the Inquisition is a surprisingly common tactic among modern Catholic apologists. We also saw it in a previous post of mine, “Galileo the Troublemaker“, where Jay Wesley Richards tried to argue that Galileo hadn’t really been treated so badly. Since my response from that post still applies, I’ll repeat it:

What actually happened is that Galileo was summoned to Rome to appear before the Inquisition, where he was imprisoned for the duration of his trial before a jury of ten cardinals. When he was finally judged to be suspect of heresy, his book was banned and he was forced to recant on his knees under threat of torture; and when he had humiliated himself by abjuring his own work, he was then sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life. (Here’s an excellent reference on Galileo’s trial.)

Also important to note, the “47 room mansion” Ted refers to was Galileo’s own villa. And house arrest for life, even in your own house, is still house arrest for life. Ted’s argument appears to be that Galileo was “well treated” by the Inquisition just because they didn’t treat him as badly as they possibly could have. Obviously, religious apologists grade the behavior of their own church on a very lenient curve.

In any case, this remark suggested what was, to me, an obvious rejoinder:

“And I’m sure you don’t have any problem with the military rulers of Myanmar, right? After all, the only thing they did was sentence Aung San Suu Kyi to 15 years of house arrest.” (source)

I had intended this as a reducto ad absurdum, assuming that Ted would immediately see the moral absurdity of his position when it was transplanted to the modern day. After all, the logic that he used to justify the Inquisition imprisoning Galileo would also justify the military junta that rules Burma deciding to imprison a Nobel Peace Prize winner! (I didn’t say it in this comment, but it would also apply equally well to the suppression of other human-rights advocates, like China’s imprisonment of Chen Guangcheng.)

Well, Ted did see the parallel. But he responded in a completely different way than I was expecting:

“I have yet to form a complete picture of Myanmar (formerly Burma). But if they didn’t torture him [sic], if all they did was restrict him to house arrest in an effort to censor his ideas, that is completely within trying to build a single-culture society.” (source)

“Which leads me to ask the question, where do I go so that I can be placed under house arrest in Myanmar? Aside from the lack of contact with family, which would be the worst part for me, this sounds like heaven and is much better than my life in America.” (source)

I’m fine with the Inquisition too– including it’s modern form, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith… It stands to reason that if you have an *objective morality* of any sort, defending the objectivity of that morality is a part of being able to keep that morality; and if we claim the right to defend OUR “objective morality” then we must grant OTHER Dictatorships the right to silence their dissidents as well.” (source)

So, the moral principle being espoused by this Catholic apologist is that if you’re “trying to build a single-culture society”, or if you want to “defend” your morality, it’s perfectly OK to imprison dissidents indefinitely without trial and suppress their ideas by force, just as long as you don’t actually torture them. I’ll grant Ted a point for consistency in that he extends this right to all dictatorships and not just the Vatican, but still, it’s a bizarre and disturbing spectacle to see someone alive today unashamedly embodying the mindset of a medieval inquisitor and advocating settling debates by force rather than reason. (Also, how can you be “fine with the Inquisition” unless you’re fine with torture as well?)

To be fair, there were other Catholic commenters on Unequally Yoked who said emphatically that Ted didn’t speak for them. But he may be closer to the Vatican viewpoint than they realize. The most obvious example is the church’s Index of Forbidden Books, which at one time or another has included the writings of virtually every significant author, scientist and philosopher of Western culture.

The Index has technically been abolished, in that it’s no longer punishable by excommunication or other formal church sanction for Catholics to read or possess any of the books on it. But, according to a 1985 letter written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (a name I bet you recognize!), the Index “retains its moral force“: in other words, it’s just that Catholics are now expected to censor what they read themselves rather than the church doing it for them.

It seems safe to say that the Vatican took this step because the futility of their effort was increasingly apparent, not because they came to recognize the intrinsic wrongness of censorship. Indeed, the New Advent Catholic encyclopedia asserts that censorship of ages past showed “wise moderation and true justice“, and sneers at “the so-called freedom of the press”. Given that sentiments very like this have been expressed by the current head of the entire church, it’s reasonable to wonder whether, if the Vatican ever regained the theocratic power they once enjoyed, they’d be content for that censorship to remain voluntary, or whether they’d try to restore the old regime exactly as it once was.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons


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