The Death of Conscience (Part 2)

Shadia B. Drury

Below, the author concludes her examination, begun in the last issue of Free Inquiry, of the negative effect of religion on conscience. —EDS.

In 1232, Pope Gregory IX established a system of “legal” investigations to stamp out heresy. The Dominicans (Domini Canes, or Hounds of the Lord) were granted the exclusive “privilege” of conducting the Inquisition. When the Inquisitors arrived in a town, the local people were given a period of time to confess or inform on their neighbors. The informers were assured total anonymity. This presented a golden opportunity for grudge informers, scoundrels, and villains of every stripe.

If you heard a knock on your door in the middle of the night and you opened it to find a Dominican friar, the chief of police, and a few armed guards, then you were doomed. Witnesses for the defense were prohibited; only witnesses for the prosecution were allowed. You could not have legal representation. You had no right to ask what the charge was and no opportunity to discover the identity of your accusers. Hooded Dominicans were prosecutors, judge, and jury. If you did not confess at first, you were tortured. If the torture did not make you confess, you were deemed to have the assistance of the Devil—and that was also proof of your guilt. If you were obstinate, your children could be tortured until they became witnesses against you. In 1252, Pope Innocent IV made torture an official policy of the Catholic Church in his bull, “Ad extirpanda.” The Inquisitors were allowed to torture boys of fourteen and girls of twelve years of age. The Hounds of the Lord were so totally shameless that they saw no reason to conceal their crimes. They were doing the work of God and “his Holiness.” As a result, “trials” and burnings were done in broad daylight. In this way, they terrorized Europe with ruthless energy for six hundred years.

Not surprisingly, the Dominicans were reviled by ordinary people whose consciences were not destroyed by the propaganda of the Catholic Church. In 1253, one of the pope’s Inquisitors was torn to pieces by a mob in northern Italy. One year after his death, the victim was canonized as St. Peter of Verona. Thomas Aquinas was fully aware of the hostility of the people toward his fellow Dominicans. When Aquinas arrived in Paris in 1245, the friars could hardly venture out of their monastery for fear of insults and assault. The royal troops of King Louis IX (St. Louis) had to guard the monastery at St. Jacques, where Aquinas was staying. Nevertheless, Aquinas was a vociferous defender of the Inquisition. He thought that it was absolutely necessary and that its activities were morally right. He compared heretics with germs that infect the community of the faithful and threaten their salvation. He quoted St. Paul, saying, “Know you not that a little leaven corrupts the whole lump?” He did not think that it was enough to kick the heretics out of the Church. He insisted that they must be “severed from the world by death” (Summa Theologica II-II, Q. 11, A. 3). He quotes Saint Jerome: “Cut off the decayed flesh, expel the mangy sheep from the fold, lest the whole house, the whole paste, the whole body, the whole flock, burn, perish, rot, die.”

Aquinas lost sight of the fact that the heretics were innocent people who were good neighbors and law-abiding citizens. They harmed no one, were pale with fasting, had an intimate knowledge of the Bible, and were often better Christians than the pope. In defending the Inquisition, Aquinas was defending the killing of innocents—with a clear conscience.

Catholic apologists shrug off the Inquisition by saying that every age has its atrocities. Every age does indeed have its atrocities, but no other age was blessed with a philosopher who was morally blind enough to defend its crimes. The moral blindness of Aquinas and his fellow Inquisitors transcends the callousness of the most spectacular secular criminals.

Unlike Aquinas and his fellow Dominican Inquisitors, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (Lenin), the leader of the Russian Revolution, retained his moral sensibilities and did not display the same callous disregard for the killing of the innocent. Unlike Aquinas and the Catholic Church, Lenin recognized his actions as crimes; he had to make a conscious effort to harden his heart so he could carry them out. Lenin loved listening to Beethoven’s Appassionata, but he did not allow himself this pleasure too often because the beauty of the music made him feel like patting everyone’s head. As a revolutionary, he had to break a lot of heads. He had no illusions about the wicked means involved in his project of world transformation. He recognized his crimes for what they were.

The same is true for members of the Nazi elite. Unlike Aquinas and his fellow Dominicans, the Nazis knew that the murder of innocent people was wrong. Indeed, the Nazis were so ashamed of their crimes that they used elaborate means to conceal them. First, they employed a complex vocabulary of death—final solution, special treatment, resettlement, removal, loosening up, and a host of “night and fog” symbols that the Inquisition saw no reason to employ. Second, the killing was done in remote locations such as Auschwitz and not in broad daylight, as was the case with the burning of heretics. Third, in contrast to Aquinas, who thought that the activities of his fellow Dominicans were profoundly Christian and nothing to be ashamed of, the Nazis regarded their own activities with such horror that they declared them “unGermanic.” This is why none of the death camps was located on German soil. Annihilation camps such as Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, Majdanek, Chelmno, and Sobibor were in Poland. Dachau and Buchenwald, which were in Germany, were forced labor camps, not extermination centers.

Heinrich Himmler, head of the Nazi SS (Schutzstaffel), the party’s black-shirted elite corps, was a fervent believer in the necessity of exterminating the Jews to pave the way for the new Aryan world. Yet he feared that the ugliness of the task might turn the heirs of the new world into callous and insensitive ruffians. In a speech delivered to the SS (responsible for maintaining the smooth operation of the death camps), he said that the real challenge was to avoid becoming contaminated by the germ of death. The real achievement was to accomplish the task of extermination while remaining decent fellows—loving to their families, good to their friends, and kind to members of their blood: “Most of you must know what it means when a hundred corpses are lying side by side, or five hundred or a thousand. To have stuck it out and at the same time (apart from exceptions caused by human weakness) to have remained decent fellows, that is what has made us so hard. This is a page of glory in our history that has never been written and will never be written.”*

Of course, there was no glory. The horror of the camps turned many a Nazi operative into a callous and worthless ruffian. But such compunctions were unknown to the Hounds of the Lord. Like the Islamic jihadists of our time, the Inquisitors were as self-righteous as they were callous and insensible. This leads me to conclude that in lethal doses, religion creates ogres that are greater than either Lenin or Himmler. It causes irreparable damage to the rational faculty and leads to the total death of conscience and the horrors it implies. When coupled with the powers of modern technology, the death of conscience is a menace that we cannot afford to ignore in this age of religious revival.


* Roger Manvell and Heinrich Fraenkel, Heinrich Himmler: The SS, Gestapo, His Life and Career (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2007).

Shadia B. Drury

Shadia B. Drury is professor emerita at the University of Regina in Canada. Her most recent book is The Bleak Political Implications of Socratic Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

Below, the author concludes her examination, begun in the last issue of Free Inquiry, of the negative effect of religion on conscience. —EDS. In 1232, Pope Gregory IX established a system of “legal” investigations to stamp out heresy. The Dominicans (Domini Canes, or Hounds of the Lord) were granted the exclusive “privilege” of conducting the …

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