A Review of Cullen Murphy’s “God’s Jury”

GOD’S JURY: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World. By Cullen Murphy (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) 310 PP. ISBN 978-0-618-09156-0.

Mr. Cullen Murphy never claims to be an historian. His edited conversations with noted historians (Eamon Duffy, Henry Kamen, Edward Peters, Le Roy Ladurie, Francisco Bethencourt) are nonetheless impressive. But what is curious is the omission of other serious and relevant historians, including: “Knights Templar and Joan of Arc-specialist” Régine Pernoud, Helen Rawlings, Christopher Dawson, and the distinguished Paul Johnson. They do not merit a simple entry in the bibliography.

Murphy thanks several historians, on page 253, for their guidance ‒ Francisco Bethencourt, David Kertzer, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Edward Peters and John Tedeschi. (We diplomatically wonder to ourselves how much of the book was composed by Murphy himself, and how much was redacted, or ghost-written, by research associates, European style?)

His subject is treated midway, between erudite banter and entertainment, with at least one fine exception. The disagreement between Benzion Netanyahu and Henry Kamen over the social causes of the Spanish Inquisition is nicely presented in “A Clash of Explanations” (pages 94-102). The conclusion of Henry Kamen is that Spanish society was already “curdled” before the Inquisition emerged. Curdled!? (p. 101) Without this section, and with numerous asides and wild remarks (and a needlessly ugly dust jacket), Murphy may just remind us of Dan Brown, whose 2003 The Da Vinci Code, uses religious themes and historical references to develop a conspiracy-fiction plot. Brown is mentioned neither in the bibliography, nor in the index, nor in the acknowledgements, but his work is referred to by name on page 29.

Anthony Burgess once was reported to have said of himself, “Just because I don’t believe in God, doesn’t mean I am not Catholic!” Although Cullen Murphy presents himself as what one might still call a “cultural Catholic,”—on page 9, “as a Catholic growing up with many Jesuit friends;” on page 24, “I began to explore the Inquisition as one who happens to be both a Catholic and an American;” on page 78, “as a boy growing up in the 1950s and 1960s… I remember references in Catholic liturgy…”—possibly his natural intellectual home is with the religiously hostile “new atheists,” who include: Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Victor J. Stenger. Although, Murphy does not quite say this.

In passing, let us recall that the premier “old atheist,” who was more accomplished than all of the new ones put together, was Anthony Flew (1923 ‒ 2010). At last, he rejected atheism after a long academic career and much fame. Flew never took much interest in Roman law, or its offspring, the inquisitions. His obituary called him “a welcome counterblast to recent anti-religious bestsellers.” Among those bestsellers, we must add: God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World.

In 2003, both Mark Massa and Philip Jenkins published works on anti-Catholicism, subtitled: “The Last Acceptable Prejudice.” Francis J. Beckwith now speaks of the “New Anti-Catholicism.” (*The New Anti-Catholicism: Occupy the Vatican by Francis J. Beckwith posted on The Catholic Thing,  February 3, 2012, http://www.thecatholicthing.org/columns/2012/the-new-anti-catholicism-occupy-the-vatican.html.) It is said that some Jews are anti-Semitic; it is also likely that some “Catholics” are anti-Catholic.

Mr. Murphy would never dare attack homosexuals, Jews, Muslims, the handicapped, Communists, Socialists or women, the way he attacks the Catholic Church—which, in this book, was never in the right, but always in the wrong. Perhaps, only an apostate can do as well in promoting this perspective, as he has done here. Experiencing the Church “from the inside” is an advantage, as we know from Murphy’s American “spiritual kinsmen”: James Carroll and Garry Wills, whom he sometimes cites.

Murphy might profit from the following anecdote. There was a conversation, not long after Vatican II, between Henri DeLubac and Hans Küng on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Küng was complaining about the Church when DeLubac interrupted him to say—“But she is our Mother.” During the informal conversations recounted between Kung and Murphy, we hoped, in vain, to learn whether DeLubac’s remark had made a difference (p. 182-183).

One improves in the spiritual life when not quarrelling with one’s mother. Murphy’s seething tone is almost unbearable, as it represents much more than a quarrel. He is devoid of sympathy for a medieval European society (or apparently any society) ripped and bitten at various intervals by pernicious sects, so vile that, at least one of them—either the Albigensians or the Cathars—wanted to abolish marriage. He rejects confidentiality, either professional or personal, expecting the clergy, of whatever rank, to expose their thoughts and deliberations in a way that would satisfy the curiosity of ecclesiastical enemies. This is an assumption built into the book, as the author complains, on every page, about secret procedures of the Inquisitions down through time—in particularly, or the Church generally.

The exercise of ecclesiastical authority is to blame for everything. This is really a book which denounces church authority on every page. When Hans Küng’s missio canonica is discussed on page 110, there is no mention of why Cardinal Ratzinger was obliged to remove this from Küng. Never are two sides treated equally and with fairness, even when we know that “ideas rule the world.”

Philosophically, Murphy has no evident concern for the “common good.” Paul Johnson, in his History of Christianity, and Ronald Knox, in his Enthusiasm, give us details about gnostic sects  and other dangerous groups, some from the Reformation era. But Murphy would depict them simply as points of view, in a world of many competing points of view. In other words, the Church was wrong to put the label “poison” on any bottle whatsoever, contents notwithstanding. Murphy is a relativist. For him, there is no absolute truth, no religious truth, worth living for, nor dying for. He is implicitly unwilling to make the distinction between the innocent and the guilty when it comes to error, since error has the same rights as truth. All offenders should be exonerated in a world devoid of truth. Our author is a naïve scion of the Enlightenment. Here, we are talking philosophy, not practice. Obviously, human failing is of a different order. The inquisitions may have been the instruments of faltering hands in a fallen world, but the philosophy was not the same as that of Auschwitz, nor the Gulag. Somewhere, Karl Barth was supposed to have quipped, “If there is no such thing as heresy, then there is no such thing as the truth,” or words to that effect.

Our author further brings to mind the analogy of an Italian-American son of immigrants in 1942. He is in the army and meets other personnel from around the country. He is ashamed of his parents, who speak broken English, grow grapes in their backyard, wear quaint old-world clothes, and attend the saccharine “Our Lady of Perpetual Help Devotions” in their Bronx parish. Little does our soldier know that his own children, once grown up, will re-evaluate their grandparents. They will even travel to Italy to discover what kind of cultural soil produced such spiritual sources of inspiration for their own youthful generation. The embarrassment of one generation becomes the pride of the next. Perhaps, Murphy should have a discussion with Michael Coren, H. W. Crocker III, or Thomas E. Woods, Jr., on the subject of Catholicism’s role in the formation of Western civilization—a role in which inquisitions played a miniscule part. Murphy might investigate “comparative institutions” to see how many people the British or the French monarchies tortured, comparing those findings with the inquisitions. Murphy is overly preoccupied with applauding Carlo Ginzburg’s call for an orgy of shame on the part of contemporary Catholics (p 231).

A minor observation: Murphy spends a lot of words lavishly describing the countryside, especially the French countryside, Roman buildings, and the physical set-up of the building in Rome which houses the Holy Office Archives. Spare us these tedious excursions, please. Do we really need to hear about the transponders in the National Archives of the United States (on page 201)? Here is a great line from page 216: “Bits of duct tape lie among the droppings of banana rats.” It leads some readers to adopt the “entertainment theory” about this book.

Similarly, too much time is spent on describing certain minor players in the story. For instance, the low-level curialist, running the Holy Office Archives, may be a nice fellow, but we do not need to hear every detail about his automobile, his personal habits, nor his verbal asides. It matters only to those wishing to be entertained by authors who write for sport on the coattails of the news.

There are some micro-corrections, for the record. Had Murphy relied upon Régine Pernoud, he might have profitably avoided a less precise usage for the word “crusade,” as we find in many references to the medieval period and the Cathars (p 31). Perhaps, “campaign” is a better and less dramatic term.

On page 110, Murphy states that the Holy Office Archives were first opened to competent scholars in 1998. All I know is that I used them in 1994, and by then, there were German and Italian scholars at work when I first arrived. I also had dealings with the archivist, Mons. Alejandro Cifres, whom I thanked in the acknowledgments section inside the front cover of my humble dissertation.

A not so mini-observation begins on page 5: “It was under twenty-four-hour papal surveillance, watched over by a marble bust of Pius XII, a stern and enigmatic pontiff and now a candidate for sainthood, despite his troubling record in the face of the Holocaust.” Again, on page 229: “To be sure, they closed the door at the papacy of Eugenio Pacelli—Pius XII—whose silence during World War II, as evidence mounted of German genocide, has drawn both abiding scorn and uneasy apologetics.” Does this mean that Murphy has not seen Gary L. Krupp’s 2010 book, Pope Pius XII and World War II, The Documented Truth: A Compilation of International Evidence Revealing the Wartime Acts of the Vatican? The Pave the Way Foundation is not the only important defender of Pius XII, either, just the most recent, and the most Jewish, perhaps, since Eugenio Zolli (1881-1956) or Pinchas Lapide (1922‒1997). For Murphy, to engage in Pius-bashing, so late in the day, is unhistorical and venomous.

Murphy does not explain why there were so many Jews in Rome in the first place. These were refugees from the Spanish Inquisition, or more exactly, refugees from the construction of the new unified Spain, accepted and resettled by pontifical Rome!

The Jews and the inquisitions come in for extra scrutiny in this book, especially the Spanish conversos. However, Jewish scholars, divided among themselves, are likely to produce interpretations distinct from Murphy’s. David Kertzer’s work on the Edgardo Mortara case indicates that the exception proves the rule. The Jews were relatively well-treated in the Papal States, allowing their laws to prevail in the Jewish Quarter, an exception to general law in a theocracy. Mortara was almost pampered after 1858, when his family fell afoul of legalistic canons that, because of a transfer of “theological jurisdiction” over a subject in the Papal States, seemed out of reach, even for the pope. Pius IX took special interest in the case. That legalistic magistrates said of Edgardo Mortara, “He is ours!” is not surprising in a world anxious about the fate of unbaptized babies.

This jurisdictional situation over the baptized would save Jews during World War II throughout Europe. Even the claim of their false baptismal documents was enough proof as to their non-Jewishness for acceptance by civil authorities—such a reversal! While the solution may have been defective, it was far from common to find baptized Jewish children, snatched from their parents, in order that they would be brought up by Catholics in Italy.

Curiously, Murphy does not dredge up another nineteenth-century bogey, so dear to the descendants of the Enlightenment—the alleged banning of vaccination in the Papal States during the time of Leo XII. This would have involved many hundreds of children, not just the isolated case of poor Edgardo Mortara. And, it would have been an illustration of the Church’s war on science. Was this a missed opportunity? Owen Chadwick says of the matter:

One measure, for which all the books blamed Leo XII, has been proved to be no matter for blame. It was said that he condemned vaccination. That was not what happened. The government of Cardinal Consalvi had issued (June 1822) stringent orders to ensure that the people were vaccinated. Any application for poor relief must be accompanied by a certificate of vaccination. Except in Ferrara and Ancona, the people were almost unanimous in failing to come forward. The priests at Forlì and Rimini refused to give out notices from the altar, or sound the church bells to summon to the clinic. Curates started refusing to report births. The medical profession doubted these compulsions. Consalvi persisted; a commission discussed whether to refuse admission to hospitals or orphanages or seminaries without a certificate of vaccination. By the time that Leo XII was elected Pope, government had obviously failed. What the new Pope did was to bow to necessity and make vaccination optional.

The Pope was also accused of abolishing street lighting so that passengers might be lit only by the lamps before the shrines of saints. This also is legend.” [Owen Chadwick, The Popes and European Revolution (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981) p 568]

Occurring in different centuries, the Galileo affair and the Edgardo Mortara case, both have to do with an Augustinian sacramental theology accepted in the West over the ages—in the one instance, concerning the Eucharist, and in the other, Baptism. The Church has no jurisdiction over science, but she does have jurisdiction over, and a divine mandate to protect, her own dogmatics. Mr. Murphy should explain the theology involved in order to help the reader understand. Instead, he just goes on the attack. {See Karen Liebreich, Fallen Order: Intrigue, Heresy, and Scandal in the Rome of Galileo and Caravaggio (New York: Grove Press, 2004) pp 9, 155.} Karen Liebreich, who, perhaps, is no more sympathetic than Murphy to much of this history, does, at least, introduces transubstantiation in the complex cases of Bruno and Galileo.

We read, on page 3: “The members of the papal curia are famously tone-deaf when it comes to public relations— these are men, who in recent years, have invited a Holocaust-denying bishop to return to the Church, have tried to persuade Africans that the use of condoms will make the AIDS crisis worse, and have told the indigenous peoples of Latin America that their religious beliefs are ‘a step backward’…” There is not enough space to answer everything, but the snarky reference to AIDS begs for a reply. None other than a Harvard secularist, and AIDS researcher, defended the pope on the matter of condoms. [See: Edward C. Green, “The Pope May Be Right,” (03-2009-29)  www.washingtonpost.com… ]

At every turn, our author refuses to say that there are two sides to every story. For him, the Catholic Church is always wrong, or at least, when it comes to the Enlightenment themes of the Cathars, the Spanish Inquisition, Galileo, the European Jews, and, by extension, any contemporary dissenters from the magisterium. As Cardinal Daniélou once said, we do not lack authority in the Church, we lack the exercise of authority in the Church. He was speaking of the immediate, post-Vatican II chaos. Seemingly, by definition, Murphy is against any exercise of valid authority, seeing it merely as religious arrogance.

Murphy, of course, rants against Pius IX for the Syllabus of Errors (1864), and Pius X for the anti-Modernist oath (1910), so he can sing the praises of Modernism or modernity, as the case may be (p 171-172). But, then he leaves out the 1950 Humani generis controversy, in the time of Pius XII. Liberal historians, such as Thomas Bokenkotter, agree with Murphy, but none of them is cited. Bokenkotter is not in the general bibliography. Perhaps, Murphy felt he had enough anti-Catholic ammunition without this support.

Faithful to his Irish heritage, Mr. Murphy is not without humor. On page 201, we read that he thinks the destruction of the archives of Carcassone was funny, or, at least, a friend of his thought it was funny, and so the anecdote was repeated for our entertainment. It gets funnier. On page 202 (and 226), we learn that in the National Archives, “people sometimes get trapped when the shelving closes.” Laugh Out Loud (LOL).

In sum, what is Murphy’s methodological failure? One can compare institutions horizontally, such as the Spanish Inquisition, and others of the same era — the French monarchy and the English monarchy. If the Jews were expelled from Spain, and the Huguenots were exiled from France, so were the Anabaptists expelled from Lutheran Germany. We can compare those events, let us say, hypothetically. But vertically, or in a linear time-line, one cannot, in academic history, perform facile tricks, such as comparing the NKVD, or the Stasi, or the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with the Spanish Inquisition. It is tendentious. In another work, Murphy asks “Are We Romans?” Perhaps, that has the same methodological flaw. We just cannot ask “Are We God’s Jury?” or “Are We Inquisitors?”

On 13 May 2007, Walter Isaacson wrote in the New York Times: “In his provocative and lively ‘Are We Rome?’ Cullen Murphy provides these requisite caveats, as he engages in a serious effort, to draw lessons from a comparison of America’s situation, today, with that of imperial Rome. Founded, according to tradition, as a farming village in 753 B.C., Rome enjoyed 12 centuries of rise and fall before the barbarians began overwhelming the gates in the fifth century. During that time, it became a prosperous and, sometimes, virtuous republic, and then a dissolute and corrupt empire, that was destined to be mined for contemporary lessons by historians, beginning with Edward Gibbon, whose first volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was fittingly published in the British empire in 1776.”

Indeed, are we Rome? Perhaps we should look into Vaclav Smil’s 2010  book, Why America Is Not a New Rome,  to get the other side of it. There are always at least two sides.

Since she is not listed in the Murphy bibliography, and if you, gracious reader, want an undistorted and sober summary of the state of the research, see Helen Rawlings’ chapter on “The Balance of History” (pp. 151—156) in her 2006 book, The Spanish Inquisition. She is a Kamen supporter. Her assessment of the Spanish Inquisition has applications for the others.

Or, if you prefer erudite gossip and entertainment, shaped into a conspiracy-fiction narrative, then read Cullen Murphy’s book: God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World. You will not be disappointed. The author denies the conspiracy theory of history (p 20-21), while reconstructing an exotic version of it anyway. We do not know his intended audience, nor the real genre of this work. So, perhaps, neither historians nor entertainers—called “pundits” in the popular literary world—will be happy with God’s Jury. Is Murphy just a younger Malachi Martin, or a James J. Kavanaugh (1928 – 2009), who, in 1967, brought us A Modern Priest Looks at his Outdated Church. No! Murphy was never a priest.

As to the “hermeneutic of continuity” between the inquisition-model, morphing and re-morphing itself into our times, from pre-Christian days to the present: the reasonable response to this hypothesis is by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, on page 59. He is cited for a “think what you wish” shrug. Shrug instead of buying this book.

If God’s Jury is a device to permit any contemporary dissenters (p 24), not just liberal theologians, to remain in good standing with the Church, then the author should defend their ideas outright, and not use history as a parable. Murphy defends Hans Küng, and the other usual European suspects. He defends some Americans, as well, occasionally a non-liberal, but strangely, he omits the famous cases of “the abortion nuns”—Barbara Ferrara and Patricia Hussey—as well as, Roger Haight, Matthew Fox, Donald J. McGuire, the Belgian Jacques Dupuis, the Brazilian Leonardo Boff, and the Mexican Marcial Maciel. He does not tell us why they are left out, since they incurred canonical penalties, in one form or another. Perhaps, there was a word limit from the publisher.

Fr. Brian Van Hove, S.J.
Alma, Michigan

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  1. The Catholic Inquisitions have an inflated significance in the modern mind. All three inquisitions (medieval, Spanish, and Roman) were of limited scope and impact. None of them affected all or even most of Christendom. While their true significance, relative to other things going on in the Church and Western civilization, should have made them a footnote, or at least subject of only a few pages, in any history of Christendom they have taken on an exaggerated significance in our culture. Which tells us more about our culture than the actual inquisitions.