The Holy Office of the Inquisition was a commission against heresy within the Catholic Church. It had no authority over people who were not baptised Catholics. The Inquisition had no authority over Jews. Once a Jew or a Muslim was converted to Catholicism, THEN the Inquisition had authority. Baptism was seen as a one way street. Once someone was baptised, in Catholic eyes they could not revert to their former religion.
Forced conversions were against Canon Law (Catholic religious law) and the Church was very uncomfortable with the practice. Also, according to Canon Law, once someone was converted they were as Catholic as anyone else.
The distinction between ‘Old Christians’ – those whose families had been Christians since early medieval times – and recently converted ‘New Christians’ was AGAINST Canon Law (Church Law). It was the result of populist agitation. As Jews, people were excluded from many careers. Once converted those jobs were initially open to them, and the Old Christians resented the competition. This led to rioting and then legalised discrimination.
Our view of the Inquisition is largely framed by the ‘Black Legend’, Protestant anti-Catholic propaganda. On top of that we have the Ashkenazi cultural imagining, which saw the Inquisition as a sort of medieval version of a Russian pogrom. Now we also have the legacy of the Holocaust.
The Inquisition existed for hundreds of years and operated differently in different places and at different times. Some of the motivations of the Inquisition at different times might include:
- To save souls. If you believe your religion has exclusive access to Heaven and that other people will burn in Hell FOREVER, isn’t it in the other person’s interest to do everything possible to put them on the right path? According to this warped logic, even if you torture and kill them, a few hours or days of pain is an acceptable price to pay for eternal life.
- National cohesion. Religious cohesion and conformity was hugely important for the Spanish and Portuguese monarchies. The Crowns of Castile and Aragon – that later became Spain – were a patchwork of different territories, regions, cities and bishoprics all of whom fiercely supported their local laws and rights. The Inquisition was a Catholic institution but under the ultimate control of the monarchs. This made it one of the only national institutions.
- National defence. A good example is Spanish persecution of ‘Portuguese’ after Portugal restored its independence in 1640. In Spanish territory, being Portuguese was often seen as synonymous with being Jewish. Someone Portuguese in Spanish territory might be seen as a threat to national security.
- It is likely that that sometimes Inquisitors were motivated by racism.
- The Inquisition was self-funding. If it did not arrest people then it could not fund its activities or pay its staff.
- The Inquisition was a bureaucracy operating according to well-defined rules. No doubt, some people were arrested because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Inquisitors were just reaching their quotas.
Clearly the Inquisition was brutal, but it was not generally the proto-Nazi anti-Semitic bunch of criminals of Ashkenazi folklore. At a time the English were burning witches, the Inquisition generally dismissed such claims as being superstitions.
New Christians remained in Spanish and Portuguese territory when they were able to leave, and returned to Spanish and Portuguese territory from free Jewish communities. This suggests that, except during ‘purges’, New Christians may have seen the Inquisition as a manageable risk.
Of course, over its history the Inquisition functioned in different ways in different places.