Who ran the Inqusition?

Don’t Blame Dominic

When I began to read “Inquisitions” by Cullen Murphy (January 27), I expected there would be reference to the Dominican order, of which I am a member. I acknowledge that some of my historic brethren were very zealous about their roles as inquisitors and preachers of truth, much to the detriment of both the order and the church. For that misplaced zeal, I sincerely apologize.

I am saddened, however, by the painting subtitled “Saint Dominic presiding over an auto-da-fe” (Berruguet, c. 1495) that accompanies the article, because it wrongly depicts Dominic as the head of the Dominican Inquisitorial movement. In fact the Inquisition postdates Dominic’s life (1170–1221), and had he been alive to witness such atrocities in the name of truth, his heart would have been broken.

Dominic had a healthy respect for the Catharists, or Albigensians, who lived in the Languedoc region of southern France. Dominic himself lived in the Languedoc region and saw firsthand the bloodshed of the Albigensian Crusade. He believed that there had to be a better way to deal with the movement than to slaughter thousands of innocent people, many of them refugees.

Dominic chose to live in Fanjeaux, which was a well-known Cathar village. Cathars were his neighbors and influenced both his personal way of life and that of the order he founded. He founded this new missionary order in 1206 in the church at Prouilhe, a very small village at the crossroads of the five main roads through Languedoc. In other words, he situated the new order at the heart of Cathar territory.

The Cathars were known for public preaching, a simple lifestyle, and a way of gospel poverty. Dominic embraced these great qualities when he chose to form a community of women and men known as the “Houses of the Holy Preaching”—in reference and opposition to Cathar preaching. He engaged in open debates with the Cathar priests.

It has been argued that Dominic’s personal mission to convert the Cathars was a failure that could only be completed with brute force. Yet many qualities of Catharism are foundational to who we are as poor mendicant preachers. The gift of Dominic was that he did not impose his personal zeal on his brothers, but rather entrusted the foundation to them. The struggle with our history is that after Dominic died in 1221, some of his brethren took the order in a different direction, leaving it with the painful reputation of being an order of heretic-burners for a period of about three hundred years. But this was not Dominic’s intention. And this is why the painting grieves me so.

Margaret Scharf, OP

Orange, Calif.

Published in the 2012-03-09 issue: 
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