DISCLAIMER! The Catholic Church was the dominant faith tradition of the time when the inquisition began. I believe that any other Christian faith, were it dominant in that time, would have done the same thing. This is not intended to be a condemnation of the Catholic church, rather a tragic mistake of the faithful that we will hopefully not repeat in our day and age.
The Inquisition was a group of institutions within the judicial system of the Roman Catholic Church whose aim was to combat heresy. (I use heresy here as the church has chosen to use it, not in it’s more historic context as simply a way to divide philosophic schools of thought) It began to combat the Waldensians and Catharism primarily as they were teaching things contrary to the Catholic church and were therefor a threat to the church, and, as the Catholics saw it, Christianity as a whole. I choose to believe that this was a bad choice from a group of good people. It did not take long for the church to begin active persecution of individuals who held to these beliefs as opposed to the beliefs themselves. By the end of the middle ages, the scope had expanded to include the protestant reformation and had already included the broad category of witchcraft. The last official death due to the inquisition occurred in 1826 in Spain.
Now, before I continue, let me say that I believe strongly in a fairly conservative understanding of scripture. I want that to be clear. I believe that the church, as an institution, needs rules and that those rules need to be followed. I believe that the church has a responsibility and duty to set the moral standard for those who attend. I believe that the church needs to discipline clergy and administrators that deviate from their duties and violate the laws of the church. That is not an inquisition, it is simply maintaining order in an organization. What is an inquisition are attempts to stop and silence any amount of discussion of a topic, attempts to actively persecute, not discipline or correct, but persecute (yes there is a difference) people for an opinion that deviates from the official opinion of the church.
An inquisition starts with trying to stop an idea, it progresses to persecuting the people behind an idea and ends up spreading like wildfire burning up anything that deviates from the majority. History should have taught us that. I don’t think that we will end up with burning at the stake, hangings, or any of the other distasteful things that occurred in the past, but we are already having character assassinations, personal attacks, as well as attempts to discredit and destroy people. We desperately need to be better than this. I believe that in our better moments we even are better than this and I know that the Spirit that dwells within us certainly is better than this.
Today there are active congregations of those persecuted during the inquisition, the protestant reformation seemed to have gone pretty well for us protestants all in all, people still practice witchcraft and other pagan rites. Yes, the church needs clearly held beliefs and doctrine and should stand by it. We just need to be ever vigilant that standing by that doctrine and belief does not drift into the realm of inquisition. The inquisition failed once and will again. Worst of all it didn’t encourage people to love God it just taught them to fear the church. Is that really the message that we want to send?