Anti-Catholic Bias

by Michael Sean Winters

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We all make mistakes. But I encountered the same mistake twice this past week, both instances in the work of British writers and it leads me to believe that their ignorance is at the service of their animus in a way that should give us pause.

In an article at, Christopher Hitchens wrote a remarkably uninformed article about Pope Benedict’s involvement with the sex abuse scandal, which Hitch used as an opportunity to attack Pope Benedict XVI. Compared to the writings of my colleague here at NCR, John Allen, well, there is no comparison. Within his diatribe, Hitchens writes of Benedict that ‘he was put in charge of the so-called ‘Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’ (formerly known as the Inquisition).” Ohhh-Ahhhh. The Inquisition. Images of torture chambers and burnings at the stake.

Of course, those images do not come from the Holy Office of the Inquisition, the predecessor of the CDF, established by Pope Paul III in 1542. They come from the Spanish Inquisition, which had nor formal relationship with the Roman curial office and which had completed most of its auto-de-fe’s by the time of the establishment of the Roman tribunal. More importantly, as the eminent scholar Henry Kamen amply demonstrated, the Spanish Inquisition was an arm of the state not the church, although its was mostly staffed by clerics, and was driven by racial and political concerns more than theological ones. Kamen’s first authoritative work on the Spanish Inquisition was published in 1965 so it is neither novel nor peculiar. Hitchens is a gifted writer and a very smart man, but he should not use the word “Inquisition” again until he has consulted Kamen’s scholarship.

Over at the Guardian, Andrew Brown made the exact same mistake p only twice in one article. Is this a coincidence? Is it just that the tropes of traditional British anti-Catholicism are so deeply embedded, otherwise intelligent commentators do not recognize them? Now do their editors?

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