Catholic Inquisition Murdered “50-68 Million”?

Catholic Inquisition Murdered “50-68 Million”? May 23, 2017



One person [who has since changed his mind on this issue, by the way: almost seven years after the time of this paper] asserted that “an estimated 50-68 million people were killed by Rome” in the Inquisition.

That caught my eye (being a cherished anti-Catholic myth that I have encountered many times), and I replied, citing his numbers:

Really? Please tell me the name of reputable historians who assert such an absolutely ridiculous figure. Thanks! I’ve yet to get a name after asking several Protestants who make this ludicrous claim.

He counter-responded with a source:  “Estimates of the Number Killed by the Papacy in the Middle Ages and later” by David A. Plaisted (published in 2006).


Plaisted has a Ph.D. in computer science. He’s not an historian at all. The actual numbers, of course, are just a few thousand, according to real (and competent) historians.  For starters, here are two non-Catholic, reputable historians:

1) Edward Peters, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, author of Inquisition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

On page 87 of his book, Peters states: “The best estimate is that around 3000 death sentences were carried out in Spain by Inquisitorial verdict between 1550 and 1800, a far smaller number than that in comparable secular courts.”

2) Henry Kamen, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and professor of history at various universities, including the University of Wisconsin – Madison; author of The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998; fourth revised edition, 2014).

Their work is featured in the Wikipedia article, “Historical Revision of the Inquisition”.

These two books are in the forefront of an emerging, very different perspective on the Inquisitions: an understanding that they were exponentially less inclined to issue death penalties than had previously been commonly assumed, and also quite different in character and even essence than the longstanding anti-Catholic stereotypes would have us believe. Dr. Kamen states in his book:

Taking into account all the tribunals of Spain up to about 1530, it is unlikely that more than two thousand people were executed for heresy by the Inquisition. (p. 60)

[I]t is clear that for most of its existence that Inquisition was far from being a juggernaut of death either in intention or in capability. . . . it would seem that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries fewer than three people a year were executed in the whole of the Spanish monarchy from Sicily to Peru, certainly a lower rate than in any provincial court of justice in Spain or anywhere else in Europe. (p. 203)

For copiously documented facts and figures, see:  “Beyond the Myth of The Inquisition: Ours Is ‘The Golden Age'”, by Fr. Brian Van Hove, S. J., Faith and Reason (Winter, 1992).

I do not “defend” the Inquisition as a practice, but what I do do (what you clearly have not done) is try to properly and accurately understand it in the context of its time (the Middle Ages and early modern periods). In those days, almost all Christians (not just Catholics; minus only a few small groups like Anabaptists and Quakers) believed in corporal and capital punishment for heresy, because they thought (here is the correct premise) that heresy was far more dangerous to a person and society than physical disease was. That is exactly right: heresy can land one in hell; no disease could ever do that.

So they believed in punishing the heretic for the sake of the good of the society. I deal with these issues at length, on my web page, “Inquisition, Crusades, and ‘Catholic Scandals'”.

What Protestants often do, however, in direct proportion to how much they are anti-Catholic, is to exercise a double standard in condemning the Catholic Church for engaging in this practice, and exaggerating grotesquely by positing ridiculous, ludicrous numbers, given the entire population of Europe in those days, and even enlisting clowns like Plaisted, who is not an historian, to bolster their uninformed prejudices.

It’s thought that the population of Europe was 73.5 million in 1340 and 50 million in 1450, due to the Black Death. It was about 70 million in 1550 and 78 million in 1600; 150 million by 1800. There is no way that the numbers killed could be anything remotely approaching Sam’s ridiculous figures. We know that they weren’t, anyway, by consulting actual historians (not eccentric computer scientists) and experts on the Middle Ages.

This being the case, I inform my readers that Protestants (including Luther, Calvin, the English “reformers”, Zwingli, Melanchthon et al) have a long list of “scandals” and inquisitions as well. In just one example among many, Martin Luther and John Calvin both accepted the execution of Anabaptists (by a mocking drowning) due to their belief in adult baptism. They considered this sedition. They also executed many Catholics in England, often by drawing and quartering and ripping out their hearts) simply for being Catholics (think: end of Braveheart: William Wallace was hanged, emasculated, disemboweled, his heart cut out, and all four limbs and head cut off).

This is what Henry VIII and his successors did to many Catholics, simply for worshiping as their ancestors had done for 1500 years. I document this at great length and excruciating detail on my web page: “Protestantism: Historic Persecution and Intolerance”. I don’t defend such things committed by any Christian group. I never have. My position is that the early Church and current view of almost all Christians, of religious tolerance, is infinitely preferable.





(originally written in April 2014)


Photo credit: Depiction (from hostile sources) of a torture chamber of the Spanish Inquisition with suspected heretics having their feet burned or being suspended with a rope from a pulley while scribes note down confessions. Engraving by B. Picart, 1722. [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license]


Summary: The actual numbers of people executed during the Inquisition have been grotesquely and exponentially exaggerated. We hear of ridiculous figures of “50-68 million” or even “100 million.” 


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