'Inquisition' Docudrama Pillories Catholic Church

Halfway through the four-hour PBS docudrama Secret Files of the Inquisition, this much can be said:  the purpose seems to be to discredit the Catholic Church, not to shed light on a controversial era in history.

Secret Files characterizes the Church as nothing but evil and corrupt. In broadcasting such a one-sided diatribe, PBS appears to be trying to transfer past sins to current debate, suggesting that Christian institutions like the Catholic Church are fatally flawed at best.  Therefore, Christian messages about personal responsibility, virtues and morality are hypocritical and should be ignored.


Secret Files purports to tell the “truth” behind the Inquisition, but truth is a fuzzy thing, it seems, when it comes to docudramas.  While the series is founded on documentary evidence taken from diaries and Church records, the series uses cinematic and literary devices to portray the Inquisitors in the worst possible light, while it paints the people investigated by the Inquisition as innocent victims.

For example, eight minutes into the first hour, which aired May 9, the narrator ominously intones: “The last stronghold of the gentle Cathar heresy is about to suffer the full and terrible vengeance of the Holy Inquisition.” 

The visuals and music used to portray the lives and homes of victims of the Inquisition are gentle, even pastoral.  Closeups of people holding hands, smiling faces, or shepherds in the field with their flocks are accompanied by a lighter musical score. Secret Files' depictions of the Church of Rome contrast sharply.  Visuals associated with the Church often contain harsh subject matter, or are shot at extreme angles, and the message sent by the troubling pictures is reinforced by background music that implies danger and evil.

The narration is also manipulated.  Descriptions of the Church commonly uses words and phrases like these:

    “The holy army lays waste to the land, killing and burning its way across the country.” “sinister investigation” “cataclysm of fear” “unwilling to bend…to the changing needs of the people”

In contrast, the targets of the Inquisition are described with words and phrases like:

    “gentle” “apostles of an alternative Christian sect” “the good men are welcomed and sustained by the villagers, but always in secret”

While moving forward with this four-hour docudrama/hatchet job against the Catholic Church, just two weeks ago PBS spiked a balanced documentary about radical Islam, Islam vs. Islamists, because of fear of offending Muslims.  While that film uses undercover documentary footage to tell a true story, Secret Files uses dramatic license to put its spin on documents that are hundreds of years old.  While Islam vs. Islamists is highly relevant to today's current cultural landscape, the Inquisition is, quite literally, ancient history. 

There is no denying the period of the Inquisition is one of the darkest eras in the history of the Catholic Church.  It was a corrupt time and much harm was done.   The late Pope John Paul II acknowledged that publicly and asked for forgiveness on the Church's behalf.

PBS can tell any story it wants.  But to call this dramatization of the Inquisition “truth” is a lie.  Secret Files may rely on historical records and some verbatim transcripts and depositions, but the series takes extreme artistic license in telling its story.  Secret Files buries the kernels of truth in piles of anti-Catholic chaff.   

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.