New Light on the Spanish Inquisition

This book review discusses one of the most misunderstood institutions in history. But what one needs to understand is that inquisition in one form or another is inescapable, and forms part of every society. Even today, in our oh-so-tolerant and liberal democracies, inquisition plays its ineluctable role, screening, dissing, shouting down all opposition. The sanctions may change but the effect is the same: to drive opposition into the shadows, to remove it from public life, to establish an orthodoxy of one form or another. Today’s orthodoxy is libertinism, combined with the privilege-dispensing, interest-group-brokering redistributionist state. If one does not sign on with this orthodoxy and all its attendant agenda items, one is shut out. So much for the liberal claim to champion freedom of speech, thought, and debate.

New Light on the Spanish Inquisition

Ruben Alvarado

Copyright ©1995 Ruben Alvarado

This edition published in 2013 on


Review: Alastair Hamilton, Heresy and Mysticism in Sixteenth-Century Spain:
The Alumbrados (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co. Ltd., 1992), pp. iv, 156.


Inquisition! The very word stands as a monument to all that was wrong with historic Christendom. The legitimacy of the modern age is grounded partly in its – supposed – elimination of an Inquisition from society. Freedom of thought, speech, inquiry, conscience, religion is liberalism’s leading credential.

Yet in reality any public order requires an Inquisition of one sort or another, because every public order is the expression of a belief, to which one has to subscribe in order to be accepted. The very societies which most claim to defend freedom of thought are those which strive to impose the most dogmatic systems of thought. Our public schools catechize a very definite, coherent, comprehensive belief-system. Its metaphysic is the idea that man is the measure of all things; that he is the product of evolution; that he is thus a part of nature and subordinate to it. This explains modern society’s worship of sex. Its ethic is the dogma of consent: anything adults (the age limit gets lower all the time) agree to is legitimate. The juridical expression of this dogma is the ideal of human rights. The political expression is democracy: a majority vote among the adult population is all that is needed to legitimate any course of action. Conversely: nothing is legitimate that does not command this majority vote. Such are the hard and fast loci communes to which one must render appropriate lip service if he is to find acceptance in the Open Society.

Thus the apparent paradox: the tolerant, liberal society is the very one in which specific dogmas must be adhered to if one is not to be silenced and cut off from the community. The result of freedom of religion is political correctness. The Inquisition is in session, and in fact always has been; only the criteria have changed.

Such considerations ought to bring us to reconsider the justification for modern society’s most basic article of faith – opprobrium for the Inquisition of the Roman Papacy and the Spanish crown – not to embrace it but to try to understand it. A just judgement regarding this institution is paramount. Why? Because it is a chief legacy dividing confessional, creedal, antisecularist Christians in the Western tradition, Protestant and Catholic. Rapprochement between these two groups could pave the way for the Church’s return to positive, fruitful intervention in the lives of nations. Because until the Church truly returns to her calling as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, secular humanism will continue to reign unchallenged.

No doubt the roadblocks to such an endeavor are great. The major problem for Protestants in coming to grips with the Inquisition is that they were one of its main targets. Therefore they have viewed the Inquisition as the instrument of Antichrist. Antichrist persecutes the true faith; the Inquisition persecutes adherents to the true faith; ergo, the Inquisition is Antichrist.

But the Inquisition was not established to root out Protestantism, but heresy. All heresy. And until the Reformation, its work was fairly straightforward. Heretics really were heretics. The problem is, the rise of Protestantism brought a new breed of “heretic”: one whose orthodox credentials were not so easily impugned. Granted, Protestants rejected major pillars of the Christian tradition, such as apostolic succession and monasticism. On the other hand, representatives of the “magisterial” as opposed to the “radical” Reformation emphatically upheld the doctrines put forward in the early ecumenical creeds. Thus they could not so easily be written off as heretics. Yet that is what Roman Catholicism did. In so doing, Rome incurred the lasting enmity of those it persecuted.

Still, Protestants must remember that the Inquisition dealt with much more than Protestantism. Its record must therefore be evaluated not only with respect to Protestantism but with respect to heresy in general. If one regards the Inquisition in this light, positive points begin to balance the negatives.

The first thing to keep in mind regarding the Inquisition is that it was an ecclesiastical institution dealing only with baptized Christians. Those of other faiths were not subject to its authority. The second thing is that it only meted out ecclesiastical sanctions. Granted, the civil power often acted to mete out civil sanctions to those found guilty by the Inquisition, but this was strictly speaking a matter for the secular authorities, and could not be taken for granted. Besides, there were two Inquisitions, a papal one and one established by the Spanish crown. The Papal Inquisition was established in the middle ages to deal with undisputed heresies. The Spanish Inquisition was founded in Castile in 1478 to deal with a problem peculiar to Spain – subversion of the church from within by nominally converted Jews and Muslims.

It is the Spanish Inquisition which has garnered the lion’s share of opprobrium. Yet under the circumstances of its introduction it is difficult to think of an alternative which could have effectively dealt with the problems Spain faced. Spain’s unique situation was the result of the Reconquest (Reconquista) of the Iberian peninsula after 800 years of Muslim rule. This brought sizeable populations of Jews and Muslims under the control of Christians. With Muslims, this created a big problem: the possibility of collusion with Muslim powers anxious to attack Christian Spain. Jews were as little keen to submit to Christian authority as Muslims were. Spain in the fifteenth century was in fact a seething cauldron of subversion, and if it were to become a unified nation action had to be taken to ensure obedience to its constitutional foundations – which were, as they always are, religious.

Not that Spain was intolerant. Fact is, Spain had already been down the road of tolerance. During the Middle Ages, Spain was the most tolerant nation 1 in Christendom. During the period of Reconquista the kingdoms of León, Castile, Aragon and Valencia lived in more or less uneasy peace with the Muslim kingdoms (and with themselves), when they weren’t rolling back the Muslim frontiers. In most of Spain, Christians, Jews and Muslims cohabited in neighboring communities regardless of whom the ruler was. The Reconquista was for all practical purposes completed in the thirteenth century (weak, militarily insignificant Granada was allowed to remain as a tributary state); afterward, the Christian rulers of Castile (the primary player in this regard) continued to accord Jews and Muslims full tolerance. In fact, kings often privileged these two groups above Christians because of the material benefits they could provide: money, skills, productivity. Such favoritism sowed seeds of enmity among the Christian populace which would eventually bear bitter fruit.

The policy of tolerance reached its climax during the reign of Henry IV in the mid-fifteenth century, immediately prior to the accession of Ferdinand and Isabella. The court of Henry IV was proverbial for its Jews and Muslims – and its lack of Christians. It was also a proverbial Renaissance court, exhibiting a total lack of morals and complete disregard for the common good. These facts were hardly unrelated. No unifying creed was accepted to provide a standard of justice. Christian ethics, Christian justice were despised. Such a culture found its sharpest expression in the writings of Machiavelli.

The reign of Henry IV marked the nadir of the fortunes of Castile. The reign of his sister would make up for that. The remarkable thing is that Isabella did not become contaminated by this court lifestyle. On the contrary, even as a tender teenager she already realized the problem, and worked with remarkable foresight and consistency to remedy it. Once she was raised to the throne, she and her husband, Ferdinand, king of Aragon, immediately set about putting this program in action. This meant that once again justice was administered, to high and low. The law was made to rule over men. The church was reformed, monks and priests returned to their vows (although many fled to North Africa and converted to Islam rather than give up their concubines). And Christianity was imposed. Again, this was no coincidence. The injustice and anarchy of the previous period were part and parcel of the kings’ policy of religious tolerance. The imposition of the rule of law corresponded with the establishment of the Christian faith.

Paradoxical though it may sound, the driving force behind the establishment of the Inquisition in Spain, and subsequently of the expulsion of unconverted Jews in 1492, was zealous converted Jews (conversos). These were only too aware of the activity of their brothers in undermining the political and ecclesiastical institutions of Christian Spain.2 They knew also that such activities continued under the cover of a nominal Christian faith. The Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews were two elements of a consistent policy: the pursuit of a common public confession, the country’s unifying principle.

Nominal conversos continued to be a suspect group in Spain, and the prime target of the Inquisition. It is this group which forms the focus of Alastair Hamilton’s book, in particular a group which became known as the Alumbrados, illuminated or “enlightened ones,” which first came to prominence in the 1520s. The common denominator was a hostility toward the institutional church, the Bible and the sacraments, and an emphasis on personal mystical union with God apart from any mediation: an attitude consistent with a converso disregard for Catholicism. This was accomplished by practicing dejamiento – self-abandonment – often accompanied by typical psycho-mystical experiences: jerks, collapses, fainting. Women played leading roles in the alumbrado movement. Certain beatas, “holy women,” enjoyed a great deal of authority. The movement also had a strong lay component, with leading wealthy and noble laymen patronizing leaders and providing safe areas for gathering.

In certain ways, the alumbrado movement paralleled that of the Christian humanists whose exemplar was Erasmus. Erasmianism also focused on the spiritual and moral side of religion at the expense of the institutional and sacramental side. The special targets of Erasmus’ institutional criticism were the monasteries. Spain, of course, was loaded with monasteries, and many of its leading intellectual figures were friars. Erasmus’ teaching, though popular at court, was therefore received coolly. In fact, in the 1530s it came under the spotlight to be condemned as a form of Pelagianism, the inquisitors noting affinities with alumbradismo.

Lutheranism was another reason the inquisitors cracked down on the alumbrados. Spain viewed Germany as afflicted with a grievous disease, schism in the church, which destroyed the unity of the nation. One thing was sure: such schism could not be allowed to take root in Spain, for Spain had had enough of “pluralism” in the past centuries. The alumbrado heresy certainly bore resemblances to Lutheranism, including direct resort to the Scriptures and, among certain members, belief in justification by faith. As it turned out, however, the charge of Lutheranism could never be made to stick.

The alumbrado movement had strong roots also in Franciscan spiritualism, which emphasized the kind of personal mystical experience which culminated in loss of the self in God. Among Franciscans, the procedure by which such a state could be attained was called recogimiento, which differed markedly from the alumbrados’ version, dejamiento. Recogimiento called for methodical prayer and meditation. The followers of dejamiento, however,

dispensed with those actions recommended by the recogidos. To sit in a corner and close one’s eyes was unnecessary. The subject merely had to submit himself to God without forcing himself to pray or even to reject temptations. Temptations, evil thoughts, might come; they might be sent by God to purify the soul. The dejado was not to combat them; all he could do was not to consent to them wilfully. 3

Franciscan spiritualism also had an apocalyptic side. The Age of the Spirit was expected to break into history at any time; this millennial fulfillment would entail the conversion of the unbelieving Muslims and Jews and the supersession of the institutional church.

Spurred by the rising menace of Lutheranism, the Inquisition lowered the boom on the first group of alumbrados during the 1520s. The Erasmus question was then also coming to a head. The alumbrados were torn by internal rivalries which gave rise to mutual accusations to the Inquisition. Interestingly, they did not view the Inquisition with dread. Rather, they saw it as an impartial institution which had every right to sit in judgement and would actually vindicate the right. In the eyes of many people, it was performing the indispensable task of keeping the Faith pure, ending the subversion of the Church brought by false beliefs. Only in the 1530s, when Erasmian humanists themselves came under suspicion, did the Inquisition’s legitimacy begin to be questioned (cf. pp. 68-69).

An interesting side to the story concerns Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, who early in his career was also suspected of being part of the Alumbrado movement. Early in his career he had various run-ins with ecclesiastical authorities, who questioned his (as John Locke would later call it) “enthusiasm.” Eventually he did become ordained and, of course, founded the Order of Jesus, dedicated to the supremacy of the Pope and the furtherance of Tridentine Catholic civilization. Although the Jesuits were officially Thomist, they had strong leanings toward spiritualist and Erasmian teaching, and certainly attracted their share of Erasmians. The Dominican order was extremely hostile to the Jesuits, precisely because of their neo-Pelagian Erasmianism. Philip II also looked askance at them. It was not until his death that the Jesuits consolidated their grip on Spanish universities, hitherto mainly under Dominican influence. This meant a shift from Augustinian toward Pelagian teaching, teaching which came to characterize and dominate modern Catholic thought.

The alumbrados themselves never constituted a numerically significant group. Through the remainder of the sixteenth and into the seventeenth century, sporadic flare-ups of alumbradismo were noted. But the movement was essentially coopted by the embracing of spiritualist mysticism within the church itself, especially under the reign of the Jesuits. Hard-line Dominican resistance eventually wilted, resulting in a retreat from juridical to spiritualist and antinomian theology. A similar pattern can be noted in Lutheranism and Calvinism during this period. In both Protestantism and Catholicism, the Church retreated from public confession to private mysticism, just as the absolute state rose to primacy.

The impression of the Inquisition one gains from perusing Hamilton’s book is one of a careful, methodical tribunal watching over the spiritual welfare of the church as it perceived it, and dealing with it as it thought necessary. This is the primary lesson his book can teach Protestants. The Inquisition was much more than simply a persecutor of the true religion, or even a standing offence to the ideal of religious liberty. The Inquisition had to deal with very serious problems affecting the public welfare, and its shortcomings, mistakes, even crimes, should be viewed in that light.

Hamilton’s narrative demonstrates on the one hand that the procedure followed by the Inquisition was certainly open to abuses, and even fostered abuses. Examples include its encouragement of anonymity in which the accused never knew who actually was accusing him; its right to imprison accused persons and confiscate their goods before the conclusion of a trial, rather than afterward; its tendency to allow proceedings to drag on for years; its allowance of a lawyer only in the later stages of a trial, and then one appointed by the court. On the other hand, the Inquisition’s use of torture was much more sparing than was was the case with other contemporary judicial systems, and judges painstakingly gathered all the evidence they could find on a case, even committing all of it to writing, including detailed depositions from witnesses, which today give clear evidence of the degree of scrupulousness they went about their business. According to the Danish historian Carl Georg Bratli, “that tribunal acted with a sincerity and humanity that was rather uncommon in those days; indeed, we have it on good authority that its procedure was superior to that of most secular tribunals.” 4

We may entertain our doubts as to the wisdom or rightness of the work of the Inquisition as exemplified in its treatment of the alumbrados. We must admit, however, that the teachings of this group did constitute a grave threat not only to the Roman Catholic Church as then conceived but to any institutional church. Such teachings undermine her legitimate authority, and in so doing destroy her ability to carry out her God-given task on earth: to publicly proclaim and establish Truth and Justice at the very heart of the nation. Not that personal piety, devotion, prayer is somehow dangerous to the collective body of the church, but that it can become so when used as a justification for a privatized, standoffish self-reliance in spiritual life. Spiritual life is public and corporate as much as it is private and individual.

The kind of piety represented by the alumbrados did not triumph in Spain, at least initially. It did, however, eventually triumph in the Western world, with the triumph of privatized pietism. The flip side of the coin was the triumph of a neo-Erasmian humanism in public life, and its corollary, the absolute state. The independent, public power of the church was removed. The result was the triumph of pluralism, with tolerance as its dogma and the Inquisition as its bogeyman.

It is only in our day that the pretention to neutrality underlying the absolute state has been exploded. It is a myth to suppose that modern society is founded on something higher, or something other, than a common faith. No society can last unless it publicly establishes a confession of faith. The culture wars under way today in the U.S. and elsewhere are the latest confirmation of this truth. Multiculturalism is the extension of pluralism, and the death-knell of a nation. Until a consensus as to basic values arises, entailing that antagonists either compromise or leave the country, one can be sure that wrenching conflicts will continue.

The purveyors of dogmatic secular humanism are certainly hard at work advancing their bigoted, intolerant agenda under the guise of tolerance. A sacramental system is surely crystallizing, purveyed via the government school system, with children catechized in the ways of safe sex and abortion, because sex has become an ersatz religious bond to modern materialist, consumer-hedonist society. Add to that the preoccupation with environmental issues, and the outlines of a return to the nature gods clearly take shape. Dissent is tantamount to excommunication.

The myth of neutrality is based on the misconception that liberalism somehow saved us from the wars of religion, that liberalism rose above this conflict and gave society something less divisive, more humane to agree upon than religious faith. Religion was relegated to the privacy of one’s own conscience. It was therefore also removed from any influence on public life. What replaced it, in early liberalism, was a focus on property rights; when that produced alienation, the focus shifted to collective property redistribution. These are modernism’s first principles, and they are Epicurean, materialist, consumerist. Both foci, property and redistribution, have at their core the consumerist individual. It is consumption – appetite – which this society worships. Human rights mean that each individual has the inalienable right to satisfy those appetites. To deny one such a right is to violate one’s integrity as a human being. When a conflict of appetites arises, or when appetite conflicts with a real right (such as with abortion), the strongest (i.e., the one with the best legal representation or the most effective propaganda machine) wins.

To verify this, all one has to do is read through a list of inalienable human rights, such as that put forward by the United Nations in 1948. It reads like a shopping list! The real thought-crime in our day is to assert that man does not live on bread alone; that he is an eternal creature with an eternal destiny, made in the image of God, who will have to answer to that God for how he makes use of his talents here on earth.

The last time pluralism reigned in Spain, it lasted from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries, and nearly destroyed it. How long has Western pluralism lasted in the modern period? From the mid-seventeenth to the late twentieth centuries — roughly the same period. The question is, where is another Isabella to save us from our court perverts, pandering to popular demand for bread and circuses?

And by the way, it does not matter much whether the government is doing the pandering or whether the private sector is doing it. Capitalist Hollywood receives no government subsidies but is the most destructive, most effectively corrosive, culture-annihilating agent of our time. What must we Christians do? Rise above the simple, so often sterile capitalist/socialist debate and regain the moral high ground, daring to proclaim that the chief end of man is not to satisfy his appetites, but to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.


  1. Perhaps it would be better to speak of geographic region rather than nation: strictly speaking, during that period Spain did not even exist. Spain was the once and future nation. It was the Hispania of Roman times, then the Visigoth kingdom which at the threshold of the Middle Ages virtually ceased to exist in the wake of the Moorish invasion of AD 711.
  2. See e.g. J.H. Elliott, Imperial Spain 1469-1716 (New York: Meridian, 1977 [1963]), pp. 104-105.
  3. pp. 30-31.
  4. Carl Georg Bratli, Philip II, King of Spain (1909), excerpted in John C. Rule and John J. TePaske, The Character of Philip II: The Problem of Moral Judgments in History, of the series “Problems in European Civilization” (Boston: D.C. Heath & Co., 1963), p. 29.