"The Inquisition" is one of the most complicated and difficult topics in world history—let alone European or Catholic history—to discuss. Much ink has been spilled on this topic, and many common perceptions persist that are at least erroneous, if not outright wrong. Mere mention of the dreaded "Inquisition" brings up rancor and ridicule on the one hand and knee-jerk shame (or sometimes triumphalism) on the part of Catholics on the other. The fact is that most people do not know what the "Inquisition" even was: not an event, that is, but organizations—multiple, from various periods. And while there is certainly some truth to the imagery conjured by mention of "the Inquisition"—burnings at the stake, cries of "Heretic!", and clerical abuses of power meant to crush opposition—the realities, as so often in the dusty annals of history, are far more nuanced and complex. It is not merely that perceptions of abuses are grossly exaggerated, but that the facts are fundamentally misunderstood by most people today.
Writing in 1940, Yale-graduate William Thomas Walsh attempts to set the record straight in Characters of the Inquisition. Far from a reactionary, mindless defense of the Church's actions during the high periods of the Inquisitions, especially the Spanish Inquisition, Walsh rather attempts a reasoned, balanced, nuanced, and objective approach to the troubled history from an admittedly conservative Catholic perspective. Using a clever narrative frame, Walsh describes the lives of six of the Grand Inquisitors in the history of the institution and shows the origins of the burning penalty, the nature of trials and judgment in the ecclesiastical courts of the Inquisitions, the distinction between the secular and ecclesiastical powers' use of the Inquistions, and much more that is glossed over in popular and secular history. Anyone who wishes to understand the truth about these issues, what fault the Church has—and what fault she does not— should pick up this book. Any student of Catholic or European history would be in deficit without it.
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