The Brothers Karamazov

by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Explain how the Grand Inquisitor represents the almost unlimited power of the Roman Catholic Church at that time, and try to cite some historical examples of the church's far-reaching powers.

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Ivan relates a story that Jesus Christ returned to earth in the sixteenth century, during the Spanish Inquisition. The Grand Inquisitor adamantly repudiates the core values of Christ’s teachings. Instead, he conforms to the rigid views that the Catholic Church was putting forward at that time. One of the most far-reaching was the condemnation of all non-Catholics as heretics, which resulted in either burning them and texts that contained their beliefs or forcing them to convert. Such a mass burning was called an acts of faith, auto da fe.

As Ivan and Aloysha discuss this fable, Jesus was apprehended by the Inquisition, and the Grand Inquisitor ordered his execution. Among the tenets this Church official challenges is Christ’s assurance to make men free and promises to end what he sees as a false promise of freedom. This implies that the Church seeks domination and control, as distinct from faith. The Grand Inquisitor’s concern is that this has encouraged evil to spread, and that his responsibility is to contain it.

During the fifteenth–seventeenth centuries, as the Inquisition extended its reach across the Atlantic, forced conversions were a part of the missionization of the New World. Some indigenous people were still killed after they were baptized, with the rationalization that they would no longer be condemned to limbo. The Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas was among the Spanish clerics who wrote treatises that opposed such practices.

The considerable political power that the Catholic Church wielded in the fifteenth century is well illustrated by its role in the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas which divided the subsequent colonialization of the New World between Spain and Portugal. The treaty built on the Spanish support obtained from Pope Alexander VI, who issued two papal bulls in 1493 favoring the claims of Ferdinand and Isabella, known as the Catholic Monarchs.

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