Inquisition, (capitalized I) as broadly used, refers to the judgment of heresy by the Roman Catholic Church with the cooperation of the secular authorities. It can mean an ecclesiastical tribunal or institution of the Roman Catholic Church for combating or suppressing heresy, a number of historical expurgation movements against heresy (orchestrated by the Roman Catholic Church), or the trial of an individual accused of heresy. Famous occurrences of an Inquisition include the trial of Joan of Arc, the suppression of the Knights Templar, and the silencing and imprisonment of Galileo Galilei. Teresa of Avila was also investigated by the Inquisition.
The Inquisition is alien and excessive to the modern mindset. However, the notion of religious liberty and of freedom of conscience was not recognized in what was an age when both Church and secular rulers thought that society would not function properly if it included people who dissented from the official teachings, or practices, of Christianity or who engaged in non-Christian acts. This behavior, they believed, endangered the health of the whole society because it threatened public order. Those deemed heretics often questioned the authority of the church, or the necessity of priests to mediate between themselves and God, which was also perceived as an attack on the fabric of society. Society was understood as a Christian state under the sovereignty of God, who was represented in the secular sphere by the King assisted by his nobles and their knights and in the religious sphere by the Pope, assisted by his bishops and by their priests. If priests were not needed, neither were kings. Charles I waged his war against the Presbyterians in Scotland because he thought that if bishops were abolished, the monarchy would also become superfluous.
Two quaestores paricidii (Inquisitors of Parricide) were appointed in the Roman Kingdom to investigate and prosecute capital crimes, such as arson, murder, witchcraft, and the destruction of growing crops. (“Parricide” carried in Roman times a separate etymology and far broader meaning than patricide.) They were described in the Twelve Tables when the laws of the Roman Republic were released from secrecy in 449 B.C.E. Enacted in the background of severe famine that caused Romans to adopt Ceres, goddess of agriculture, the Twelve Tables commanded the human sacrifice to Ceres not only of “anyone who, by means of incantations and magic arts, prevents grain or crops of any kind belonging to another from growing,” but also anyone who “secretly, and by night, destroys or cuts and appropriates to his own use, the crop of another” or sets fire to a pile of grain. Even foxes, who stole chickens from the farmer, were liable to be sacrificed to Ceres at the Circus Maximus by having torches tied to their tails after which they were allowed to run loose.
The number of quaestores increased greatly during the expansion of Rome, leading to the creation of a higher post. The quaestor sacri palatii held a prominent position in composing edicts under the Emperor Constantine I and subsequent emperors, such as Theodosius I, renowned for their persecutions of the Gentiles. The Roman Empire did not generally respect a freedom of religion, and proceeded rapidly from persecuting the Christians to persecuting their schismatics and opponents.
On an ecclesiastic basis, the Christians had debated doctrinal issues from very early times. Examples include the Jerusalem Council reported in Acts of the Apostles (Chapter 15) and the many instances of the Apostle Paul defending his own apostleship, and urging Christians in various places to beware of false teachers, or of anything contrary to what was handed to them by him. The epistles of John and Jude also warn of false teachers, as does the writer of the Book of Revelation, John of Patmos. It should be noted, however, that in each of these examples, execution was never exercised as a form of punishment.
Since the second century, Church authorities (bishops and local synods) reacted to these disputes by condemning some theologians as heretics and defining doctrine more clearly to combat perceived errors. In this way, orthodoxy (Greek: The right view) was defined in contrast to heresy (wrong choice). The most notable heresies were Gnosticism, Marcionism, Montanism, and various forms of Monarchianism. During this period, those condemned for heresy were excommunicated from the Church community and only readmitted after having recanted the controversial opinions. Bishops and other church leaders were stripped of their offices and had to resign valuables placed in their care.
When the Roman Emperor Constantine I adopted Christianity in 313, he hoped that the new religion would help unify the Empire. However, such expectations were threatened by the appearance of heresies inside of the Church. Constantine felt compelled to involve himself with these doctrinal or disciplinary struggles, as in the case of the Donatists or the Arians. He tried to enforce decisions reached by the Church by banishing obstinate opponents—clergy and laity—of these decisions. In his view, just as there was one Empire and one Emperor, so there would be one church with one official set of dogmas. Some of his successors, while inclined towards the Arians, increased their use of force in Church matters, regularly banishing bishops from their sees. Theodosius, an unequivocal supporter of Orthodox Christianity, also made Christianity the official religion of the Empire.
The first person to be executed as a “heretic” was Priscillian of Avila. Having been condemned for heresy by a synod, he appealed to the Emperor Maximus; the latter, however, had Priscillian and six of his followers beheaded at Treves, in 385. This act was approved by a synod which met at Treves in the same year, though the most prominent bishops of that time, Ambrose of Milan, Martin of Tours, and Pope Siricius protested against Priscillian’s execution, largely on the jurisdictional grounds that an ecclesiastical case should not be decided by a civil tribunal, and worked to reduce the persecution.
The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that “various penal laws were enacted by the Christian emperors against heretics as being guilty of crime against the State. In both the Theodosian and Justinian codes they were styled by infamous persons … In some particularly aggravated cases sentence of death was pronounced upon heretics, though seldom executed in the time of the Christian emperors of Rome.” Though the death penalty was seldom executed during the Early Middle Ages, these laws nonetheless later served as the basis of the prosecution of heretics, especially after Emperor Frederick II had confirmed these rulings.
Inquisition Tribunals and Institutions
Before the twelfth century, the Catholic Church gradually suppressed heresy, usually through a system of ecclesiastical tribunals. Initially, the persecution was carried out mostly by state authorities, but the Catholic Church gradually became more active as episcopal jurisdiction grew in power. The Church’s punishment included excommunication, proscription, and imprisonment. Although many states allowed the Church to use the death penalty, initially it was not frequently imposed, as this form of punishment had many ecclesiastical opponents.
In the twelfth century, to counter the spread of Catharism, prosecution against heresy became more frequent. Church Councils, composed of bishops and archbishops, were charged with establishing inquisitions.
Later, in the thirteenth century, the pope assigned the duty of carrying out inquisitions to the Dominican Order. Inquisitors acted in the name of the Pope and with his full authority. They used inquisitorial procedures, which was a common law practice at the time. They judged heresy alone, using the local authorities to establish a tribunal and prosecute heretics. After the end of the fifteenth century, Inquisitions were headed by a Grand Inquisitor. Inquisition in this way persisted until the nineteenth century.
In the sixteenth century, Pope Paul III established the Roman Inquisition. This was a system of tribunals, ruled by the “Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition,” staffed by cardinals and other Church officials. In 1908, its name was changed to “Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office” by Saint Pope Pius X. This, in turn, was changed in 1965, to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which continues to be the modern name.
Historic Inquisition Movements
Historians distinguish between four different manifestations of the Inquisition: The Medieval Inquisition, the Spanish Inquisition, the Portuguese Inquisition, and the Roman Inquisition.
Because of its objective, combating heresy, the Inquisition had jurisdiction only over baptized members of the Church (which, however, encompassed the vast majority of the population). Non-Christians could still be tried for blasphemy by secular courts. Also, most of the witch trials were held by secular courts. The Inquisition could only operate because of the consent of the secular authorities, which recognized the Church’s legal jurisdiction in those areas covered by ecclesiastical law, including the right to inflict capital punishment.
The Medieval Inquisition is a term historians use to describe the various inquisitions that started around 1184, including the Episcopal Inquisition (1184-1230s) and later the Papal Inquisition (1230s). It was in response to large popular movements throughout Europe considered apostate or heretical to Christianity, in particular the Cathars and Waldensians in southern France and northern Italy. These were the first inquisition movements of many that would follow. Just as Constantine assumed that his Empire needed one Church, with one creed to unify his subjects, so the Medieval world thought that conformity to the teachings of the Church was necessary in order to maintain the social fabric. The Church was fully integrated into the social system. No king could ascend his throne without the Church’s blessing.
Bishops and Abbots were also feudal lords, with serfs subject to their authority, and acted as royal advisers alongside the nobles. Kings were understood to be divinely anointed, like the Biblical David. To dissent from the teachings of the Church—or even to cease to worship in the Church—was regarded as undermining its authority. If the authority of the church was undermined, so was that of the king and his assistants. People who were considered heretics often questioned whether they needed the services of priests. They were also often critical of the wealth of the clergy, pointing out that Jesus had been poor. At bottom, a concern for the preservation of the social order informed the Inquisition. The secular rulers thought that if the authority of the Church was questioned, the basis of their own authority and rights would be undermined and anarchy would ensue.
The Spanish Inquisition was set up by King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile in 1478, with the approval of Pope Sixtus IV. In contrast to the previous Inquisition, it operated completely under royal authority, though staffed by secular clergy and orders, and independently of the Holy See. It aimed primarily at converts from Judaism and Islam (who were still residing in Spain after the end of the Moor control of Spain), who were suspected of either continuing to adhere to their old religion (often after having been converted under duress) or having fallen back into it, and later at Protestants; in Sicily and Southern Italy, which were under Spanish rule, it targeted Greek Orthodox Christians. After religious disputes waned in the seventeenth century, the Spanish Inquisition more and more developed into a secret police against internal threats to the state.
The Spanish Inquisition would subsequently be employed in certain Spanish colonies, such as Peru and Mexico. The Spanish Inquisition continued in the Americas until Mexican Independence and was not abolished in Europe until 1834.
One source estimates that as many as 60 million Native Americans were killed during the Spanish Inquisition, some of whom were already Christians. Most experts reject this number. Estimates of how many people were living in the Americas when Columbus arrived have varied tremendously; twentieth century scholarly estimates ranged from a low of 8.4 million to a high of 112.5 million persons. Given the fragmentary nature of the evidence, precise pre-Columbian population figures are impossible to obtain, and estimates are often produced by extrapolation from comparatively small bits of data. In 1976, geographer William Denevan used these various estimates to derive a “consensus count” of about 54 million people, although some recent estimates are lower than that.
The Portuguese Inquisition was established in Portugal in 1536, by the King of Portugal, João III, as a Portuguese analogue of the more famous Spanish Inquisition.
The Goa Inquisition was the office of the Inquisition acting in the Indian city of Goa and the rest of the Portuguese empire in Asia. Established in 1560, it was aimed primarily at wayward new converts from Hinduism.
In 1542, Pope Paul III established a permanent congregation staffed with cardinals and other officials, whose task was to maintain and defend the integrity of the faith and to examine and proscribe errors and false doctrines. This body, the Congregation of the Holy Office, now called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, part of the Roman Curia, became the supervisory body of local Inquisitions. The Pope appoints one of the cardinals to preside over the meetings. There are usually ten other cardinals on the Congregation, as well as a prelate and two assistants, all chosen from the Dominican Order. The Holy Office also has an international group of consultants, experienced scholars of theology and canon law, who advise it on specific questions.
Arguably the most famous case tried by the Roman Inquisition was that of Galileo Galilei in 1633, who was silenced and imprisoned. Because of Rome’s power over the Papal States, Roman Inquisition activity continued until the mid-1800s.
In 1908, the Holy Office of the Inquisition was changed to The Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office. In 1965, the name was changed again to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
In the year 2000, Pope John Paul II called for an “Inquisition Symposium,” and opened the Vatican to 30 external historians. What they found dismounted many exaggerated facts previously believed. It was learned that more women accused of witchcraft died in the protestant countries than under the Inquisition. For example, the Inquisition burned 59 women in Spain, 36 in Italy, and 4 in Portugal, while in Europe the civil justice brought to trial close to 100,000 women; 50,000 of them were burned, 25,000 in Germany, during the sixteenth century, by the followers of Martin Luther.
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Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 03.03.2018, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.