God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World, by Cullen Murphy ’74 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Reviewed by Frederick J. McGinness


[Nonfiction] Many know little more about “The Inquisition” than Mel Brooks’ rendition of the Inquisitor General Cardinal Tomás de Torquemada or Monty Python’s memorable phrase, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” But all are correct in sensing that it was a terrifying historical reality. Today it appears as a colossal affront to our democratic values, our freedom of conscience and our Fourth Amendment protections.

It is the great virtue of Cullen Murphy’s God’s Jury to bring us up to date on the best scholarship covering this once- dreaded institution and, at the same time, to awaken us to the startling similarities between the church’s past inquisitorial abuses and the stark realities of our own world, where governments across the globe (and the U.S. government in particular) gain total access to our most personal information while we are hardly aware of it.

Though we might lure ourselves into believing that our government has relaxed efforts to spy on our lives or resort to torture in cases of national security, Murphy’s absorbing account of the medieval church’s and our government’s impulses to control information will shake us out of any such illusions. Since the book’s publication, in fact, we’ve learned that the National Security Agency’s new Bluffdale, Utah, Data Center should be capable of breaking every code that protects our financial, medical and personal information; according to a U.S. official, “Everybody’s a target; everybody with communication is a target.” God’s Jury turns our eyes, in a timely way, to the many distressing ironies, both past and present, in our respective ages of “information technology.”

It may surprise us that, when Pope Sixtus IV granted permission in 1478 to Ferdinand and Isabella to establish a Spanish Inquisition, “The Inquisition”—that is, a universal agency, subject to the authority of the pope, for “extirpating heresy”—did not exist. To be sure, local inquisitions were set up by bishops and by members of the Dominican and Franciscan orders in certain parts of Europe, but only in 1542, at the dawn of the Counter-Reformation, did the papacy establish for itself the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, whose purpose was to combat the threat of evangelical teachings in Rome and Italy. From that time on, both the Spanish and the Roman inquisitions would enjoy long, if not honorable, lives.

Not until 1834, after advocates of tolerance had emerged in force, did the Spanish Inquisition shut down. The Roman Inquisition, on the other hand, lasted longer: In fact, it never shut down. Having undergone a makeover—a name change, at least—it is alive and functioning today as the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Murphy knows it well, having visited its offices and archives in Vatican City at Piazza del Sant’Uffizio 11. Quoting Faulkner, Murphy notes: “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”

Faulkner’s quotation might best describe Murphy’s amiable approach as he takes us along on a path from the Middle Ages to the present, whether in engaging conversations with archivists and scholars of inquisitorial records (such as Francisco Bethencourt and Carlo Ginzburg) or in reflections on the many men and women who have experienced the force of censorship in the long reach of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (such as Teilhard de Chardin, Graham Greene and Hans Küng).

Looking today at our government’s record, Murphy observes that the “overarching attempt to exert a more systemic form of control” has not abated. He detects eerie resemblances to earlier inquisitorial bureaucracies, which characteristically grew ever more suspicious of difference, obsessed with procedures, data gathering, new record-keeping technologies, control­ling thought, spying on “the Other,” resorting to torture, extending with
impunity the scope of their authority and never once doubting the righteousness of their cause. Murphy’s book is a cautionary lesson about how we let government institutions come to life—for the sake of “national security”—and grow to the point where we no longer can control them. Like inquisitions of the past, they become too successful. We have much cause for alarm.

McGinness is a professor of history at Mount Holyoke.