The all-too-common narrative goes like this: Centuries ago, Catholics and Protestants gladly burned heretics up and down Europe by the thousands until, thank God—or All Powerful Goodness, as Ben Franklin would put it—the rise of Enlightenment thinkers banished the barbarity that is somehow native to religious fervor. Only with the liberalizing mandates of Vatican II (1962-65), we’re told, did Catholicism—usually the main boogeyman in this version of history—come to grips with the idea of democracy and religious freedom, and finally extinguish the last embers of the Inquisition.
This narrative is false according to the historical record and to the origins and abiding ethos of Christianity, Catholic and Protestant. Historians call this the la leyenda negra—the “Black Legend”—because it blackens the name of Catholicism in particular and religion in general. According to this legend, the Inquisition is on a continuum with the Holocaust and the terrors of Stalinism.
Yet objective historians realize that in the most infamous example, in Spain, several popes condemned the Inquisition’s excesses. Moreover, the 6,832 members of the clergy executed by the Spanish Republican Red Terror in 1936 is more than twice the number of those executed in 345 years of the Inquisition in Spain.