The Inquisition in Mexico—How Did It Happen?
IMAGINE that you are before a religious court that wants to force you to believe what that religion teaches. You do not know who is accusing you or what you are accused of. Instead of being told, you are being forced to provide a reason for your arrest, to explain what you believe the charge against you is, and to tell who the accuser is.
Be careful how you answer—you could confess to something that you have not been accused of and make your situation worse! You could also implicate people who had nothing to do with the charge being brought against you.
If you do not confess, you may be tortured by having a great quantity of water forced down your throat. Or you may have your arms and legs tied progressively tighter on a torture table until the pain is excruciating. Your property has already been confiscated by the court, and you will most likely never get it back. Everything is done in secret. If you are found guilty, you may be exiled from your country or even burned alive.
In this 20th century, you may find it difficult to comprehend a religious action as horrible as this. But several centuries ago, such atrocities took place in Mexico.
“Converting” the Native Population
When what is now Mexico was conquered by the Spaniards in the 16th century, a religious conquest took place as well. The religious conversion of the native peoples was little more than a substitution of traditions and rites, since few Catholic priests concerned themselves with teaching the Bible. They did not bother to learn the language of the natives or to teach them Latin, in which religious doctrine was available.
Some thought that the Indian should receive complete religious instruction. But others were of the same opinion as Friar Domingo de Betanzos, who, according to Richard E. Greenleaf in his book Zumárraga and the Mexican Inquisition, “believed that the Indian should be denied instruction in Latin because that would lead to his realizing how ignorant the clergy was.”
Inquisition Against Native Peoples
If native-born Mexicans did not embrace the new religion, they were regarded as idolaters and were severely persecuted. For example, one of them publicly received one hundred lashes for worshiping his pagan idols, which he had buried beneath an idol of Christendom in a simulated act of “Christian” worship.
On the other hand, Don Carlos Ometochtzin, tribal chief of Texcoco and grandson of the king of the Aztecs, Netzahualcóyotl, verbally attacked the church. Greenleaf states that “Don Carlos had particularly offended the Church because of having preached to the natives about the dissipation of the friars.”
When Friar Juan de Zumárraga, inquisitor at the time, learned about this, he ordered the arrest of Don Carlos. Accused of being a “dogmatizing heretic,” Don Carlos was burned at the stake on November 30, 1539. Many other natives were punished under charges of sorcery.
Inquisition Against Foreigners
Foreigners living in Mexico who refused to accept the Catholic religion were accused of being heretics, Lutherans, or Judaizers. The Portuguese Carvajal family was one example of this. Charged with practicing the Jewish religion, almost all of them were tortured by the Inquisition. The following sentence pronounced against a member of this family reflects the horror: “The said Doña Mariana de Carvajal [I do] condemn to be . . . given the garrote [an instrument of strangulation] until she dies naturally, and then that she be burned in a blazing fire until she turns to ashes and of her not even the memory remains.” That is just what happened.
Whenever a foreigner threatened the clergy’s power, he was brought to trial. A man named Don Guillén Lombardo de Guzman was accused of wanting to liberate Mexico. However, the charge brought by the Holy Office for his arrest and trial was for being an astrologer and sectarian heretic of Calvin. During his imprisonment he went out of his mind. Finally he was burned alive at the stake on November 6, 1659.
The book Inquisition and Crimes, by Don Artemio de Valle-Arizpe, describes that occasion: “They went tying up the culprits, fastening them to the stake with an iron collar around the throat. . . . The holy bonfires of the faith began to burn in a whirlwind of red and black. Don Guillén . . . let himself suddenly drop and the collar that was holding him by the neck strangled him, his body disappearing afterward in the horrifying splendor of the blaze. He left this life after seventeen years of slow and continuous suffering in the somber jails of the Holy Office. The bonfires went dying down little by little, the cardinal red tumult of their flames fading away, and when they became extinguished, only a bright pile of embers was left glowing in the night.”
“Holy Office” Established
As already noted, many native and foreign-born Mexicans were punished, and some were killed for criticizing or for not accepting the new religion. This brought about an inquisition created by the friars and later by the bishops. However, the first General Inquisitor in Mexico, Don Pedro Moya de Contreras, came from Spain in 1571 to set up officially the Tribunal of the Holy Office of Inquisition there. This court quit functioning in 1820. Thus, from 1539, there were some three hundred years of harassment, torture, and death for those who did not share the Catholic beliefs.
When someone was accused, he was tortured until he confessed. The court expected him to renounce his anti-Catholic practices and accept the beliefs of the church. The accused was freed only if he proved his innocence, if his guilt could not be proved, or, lastly, if he confessed and repented. In the latter case, his statement that he detested his offense and promised to make amends for what he had done was publicly read. In any event, he lost his property and had to pay a heavy fine. Found guilty, he was turned over to the secular authorities to be punished. This generally ended with his being burned at the stake, either while still alive or after having been put to death moments before.
For public execution of sentences, a huge auto-da-fé was held. A public proclamation would be made throughout the city to inform everyone of the day and the place to convene. That day the condemned ones would come out of the jails of the Tribunal of the Holy Office dressed in a sambenito (a kind of cloak without sleeves), carrying a candle between their hands, a rope around their neck, and a coroza (cone-shaped hat) on their head. After the crimes against the Catholic faith were read, the punishment decided upon for each victim would be meted out.
In this way many were condemned and punished in the name of religion. The cruelty and the intolerance of the clergy were evident to the crowds who observed the victims dying at the stake.
Outright Opposition to Christianity
Christ Jesus commissioned his disciples to convert people to true Christianity. He commanded: “Go therefore and make disciples of people of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy spirit, teaching them to observe all the things I have commanded you.”—Matthew 28:19, 20.
However, Jesus never indicated that people should be converted by force. Rather, Jesus said: “Wherever anyone does not take you in or listen to your words, on going out of that house or that city shake the dust off your feet.” (Matthew 10:14) The final judgment of these people is left to Almighty God, Jehovah, without physical intervention by Christians.
Clearly, then, wherever an Inquisition was carried out in the world, it was done in outright opposition to Christian principles.
The climate of religious tolerance that now prevails in Mexico allows people to exercise freedom as to the way they worship God. But the centuries of the so-called Holy Inquisition remain as an evil page in the history of the Mexican Catholic Church.