Every established belief values its own orthodoxy. The more it does so, the less it tolerates heresy. People who fail to toe the party line are cast out into the wilderness of official disapproval. This is sadly true of religious belief systems. It is equally true of some belief systems that are non-religious, notably those that are political. In either case, sacred or secular, heretics suffer, often direly, sometimes at the cost of their lives.

The two most flagrant examples of this punitive exercise of dogmatic power have been in Spain and Russia. The Spanish Inquisition was viciously zealous in its hunting down of Marranos and Mariscos (respectively Christians of Jewish or Muslim background), torturing them and burning them at the stake: the number of victims, over the years, was vast but hard to calculate; Torquemada, the first Grand Inquisitor, was probably responsible himself for over two thousand condemnations. Inquisitions in the Soviet Union were equally ferocious, and were both arbitrary and capricious in their choice of victims: Stalin himself was directly responsible for at least as many condemn­ations as Torquemada; but the head-count amassed by his henchmen, at his prompting, has been estimated at sixty million — a figure that makes Hitler look like an amateur.

Inquisitorial practices within the Roman Catholic Church antedated the Spanish Inquisition by two-and-a-half centuries. Almost from the beginning of Christianity, there had been arguments about doctrine, occasionally vitriolic. As time went by, creeds were agreed on and a general consensus was arrived at about what constituted the faith and how it should be interpreted. This, however, did not prevent the Great Schism of 1054, which divided the Eastern Church from the Western. Nor was there ever a total absence of internal dissent: radical views threatened theological uniformity; and critics deplored what they saw as corruption in ecclesia. Unsurprisingly, the hierarchy closed ranks; and in 1231 the Catholic Church founded the Inquisition, to arrest and try suspected heretics. If willing to confess to heresy and abjure it, the prisoners were spared severe punishment. But many were obdurate. So in 1252 the Inquisition was permitted to use torture: confessions were wrung out of the prisoners; and the convicted were handed over to the secular arm for execution, usually by burning at the stake.

This system of summary arrest, torture, and execution was mainly aimed at malcontents within the Church. But it was part and parcel, too, of a triumphalist attitude that reached beyond Christian bound­aries. This was a period of aggression against Islam: in churches, Muslims were vilified as infidels; and crusades were mounted to wrest the Holy Land from their grasp. And in the same period (as before and since) Jews were everywhere demonized as Christ-killers, and were mercilessly persecuted. This was the basis of attacks on converted Christians with Muslim or Jewish backgrounds, the Moriscos or the Marranos, by the Spanish Inquisition, which was founded in 1478. The purported justification was concern for the purity of the faith. But the motivation, to some extent, was clearly racist.

The Spanish Inquisition survived as an active body much longer than is generally recognized. Despite its excesses, it was not finally abolished until 1834. The Roman Inquisition, mainly active against Protestantism, was somewhat less brutal. But it never became fully inactive. The name Inquisition was dropped in 1908, for obvious PR reasons. And in 1965 it was renamed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But it has not ceased to serve as custodian of orthodoxy. Anything smacking of heresy has been rigorously crushed, often by excommunication. And certain kinds of dissent, even if not openly heretical, have been sternly repressed. Papal disapproval of Liberation Theology in Latin America is a notorious example of that.

Protestant critics, prone sometimes to anti-papal sentiments, are known to dwell rather harshly on the sins of the Inquisition. They would do well to remember their own history before indulging in such censure. In England during the sixteenth-century reign of Elizabeth I, a whole organization was set up of spies, informers, constables, interrogators, torturers, and executioners, to round up and kill off the clandestine Jesuit priests who were ministering to the spiritual needs of citizens still loyal to Rome. Some of their sufferings were dreadful; and Topcliffe, Elizabeth’s inquisitor-in-chief, can be justly compared to Torquemada, for malevolence.

In supposedly more enlightened times, since then, there has been no lessening of insistence on orthodoxy within Christian ranks. Denominations are less inclined to attack each other than formerly. But internally many a denomination exacts from its members an exact and scrupulous obedience to formula. Punishments inflicted on those who step out of line have fallen short of the death penalty. But the emotional and psychological damage has sometimes been severe. In Welsh Methodism, for example, there have been sad individual cases of “sinners” being expelled from their congregation (the clumsy invented verb is “disfellowshipped”); and in tight-knit communities where religious respectability was important, the victims became social pariahs and suffered accordingly. In the United States, a similar exclusion from the fold, with attendant pain, has been inflicted on dissenting Mormons who dared to take issue with the patriarchal policies of their Elders. And in Canada, many Anglicans have been disciplined who felt they could not, in good conscience, countenance gay marriages or the ordination of women.

Non-believing critics, prone sometimes to anti-religious sentiments, are known to ascribe such inquisitorial habits only to churches, synagogues, and mosques. Before indulging in such narrowly focused censure, they would do well to remember two things: first, that most religious people are both kindly and tolerant; and second, that secular faiths have a record just as bloody as, if not worse than, that of the Spanish Inquisition. No objective comparison of Moscow and Seville can conclude otherwise. Under Stalin, any citizen was suspect whose background was anathema to the Communist Party, and who was imprudent enough to doubt the omniscient sanctity of the Party or (if he was very foolish) to lampoon its leader. Arbitrary arrests were made individually and en masse; trumped-up charges were laid and supported by false witnesses; torture was used to extract confessions of guilt; summary trials were conducted without due process or proper defence, and were exploited for propaganda value; a terrified and corrupted judiciary pronounced sentences already decided upon in advance; many of the condemned were taken down to the dreaded basement dungeons and dispatched with a single shot at close range in the back of the head or neck; those who were not executed on the spot were sent, instead, to the labour camps of Gulag, where life was only marginally better than in the torture-chambers; survivors, few enough, came home eventually in broken health and, in most cases, with grave injury to their morale. Stalin had nothing to learn from Torquemada.

Nor should it be supposed, that such abuses were peculiar to the Soviet Union alone, or to the satellite countries of the Soviet Empire. They have been plentiful wherever dictatorship has used police-state methods to stifle possible revolt: in Spain, under Franco; in Greece, under the Colonels; in China, under Mao; in Chile, under Pinochet — the list goes on and on. And all things considered, it seems fair to say that secular bullies have nothing to fear from comparison to their sacred counterparts.

The former have always claimed they act out of love for humanity; but manifestly they do not love people.

The latter have always claimed the right to stand in judgment on others; but manifestly they have ignored their Founder’s bidding, to judge not that ye be not judged.

There is a special place in Hell for hypocrites.


The sonnet that follows is dedicated to one of the victims of Stalin’s purges and, by extension, to all his fellow-victims. Osyp Mandelstam was one of the foremost poets in Russia during the first half of the twentieth century. He never prostituted his art to write the obligatory fawning odes in praise of the Great Leader; and for this he was viewed with disapproval and suspicion in official quarters. Somehow he might have managed to survive, if only as a desk-drawer writer; but that was not to be. He wrote a clandestine poem mocking Stalin with biting wit; and unfortunately a copy of it fell into the hands of the secret police. He was sent forthwith to one of the harshest labour-camps in Siberia, and never returned. The date and place of his death, and the manner of it, have not been discovered.