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The Inquisition was an office of the Roman Catholic Church charged with suppressing heresy. Their actions and interactions with the local governments are subjects of considerable historical enquiry.



The Inquisition was a permanent institution in the Catholic Church charged with the eradication of heresies. Unlike many other religions (e.g., Buddhism, Judaism), the Catholic Church has a hierarchical structure with a central bureaucracy. After Constantine ended the persecution of the church, the local administrative structures of the Empire (the western church) were pulled together into one hierarchy centered in Rome. Those whose beliefs or practices deviated sufficiently from the orthodoxy of the councils now became the objects of efforts to bring them into the fold. Resistance often led to persecution.

Heresies (from Greek haeresis, sect, school of belief) were a problem for the Church from the beginning. Acts 15 recounts the convening of a council in Jerusalem to deal with the heresy of the Judaizers, who had been a particular problem in Asia and especially Galatia. In the subsequent centuries there were the Arians and Manicheans; in the Middle Ages there were the Cathari and Waldenses; and in the Renaissance there were the Hussites, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Rosicrucians. Efforts to suppress heresies were initially ad hoc. But in the Middle Ages a permanent structure came into being to deal with the problem. Beginning in the 12th century, Church Councils required secular rulers to prosecute heretics.


The first of the Medieval Inquisitions is called the "episcopal inquisition" and was established in the year 1184 by a "papal bull", a letter from the Pope, entitled "Ad abolendam", "For the purpose of doing away with". The inquisition was in response to the growing Catharist heresy in southern France. It is called the "episcopal" because it was administered by local Bishops, which in Latin is "episcopus". The episcopal inquisition was not very effective for many reasons (see Medieval Inquisition)

The "papal inquisition" in the 1230s was in response to the failures of the episcopal inquisition and was staffed by professionals, trained specifically for the job as decreed by the Pope. Individuals were chosen from different orders and secular clergy, but primarily they came from the Dominican Order who had a number of traits that made them suitable (see Medieval Inquisition).

After the 13th Century the Inquisition spread northward to Germany and Scandinavia. In northern Europe the Inquisition was considerably more benign: in the Scandinavian countries it had hardly any impact (although northern Europe had its own institutions such as the "witchhunt").The Inquisition was never instituted in England, but Christopher Columbus carried it with him to the New World. At the end of the 15th century, under Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile, the Spanish inquisition became independent of Rome. In its dealings with converted Moslems and Jews and also illuminists, the Spanish Inquisition with its notorious "auto de fe" represents a particularly dark chapter in the history of the Inquisition.

Pope Paul III established, in 1542, a permanent congregation staffed with cardinals and other officials, whose task it 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 himself holds the title of prefect but never exercises this office. Instead, he 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. In 1616 these consultants gave their assessment of the propositions that the Sun is immobile and at the center of the universe and that the Earth moves around it, judging both to be "foolish and absurd in philosophy," and the first to be "formally heretical" and the second "at least erroneous in faith" in theology. This assessment led to Copernicus's De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium to be placed on the Index of Forbidden Books, until revised and Galileo Galilei to be admonished about his Copernicanism. It was this same body in 1633 that tried Galileo.

Not all prosecutions of alleged heretics, atheists and other deviations from the Catholic faith were prosecuted by the Inquisition. In some countries, such as France under the ancien régime, atheists and blasphemers could be prosecuted by civilian courts, with the possible penalty of death.

Different inquisitions

There have been four different Inquisitions:

See also


  • Edward M. Peters, Inquisition. (University of California Press, 1989). ISBN 0520066308
    • A brief, balanced inquiry, with an especially good section on the 'Myth of the Inquisition'. This is particularly valuable because much of the history available in English of the Inquisition was written in the 19th century by Protestants interested in documenting the dangers of Catholicism or Catholic apologists demonstrating that the Inquisition had been an entirely reasonable judicial body without flaws.
  • Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision. (Yale University Press, 1999). ISBN 0300078803
    • This revised edition of his 1965 original contributes to the understanding of the Spanish Inquisition in its local context.
  • Simon Whitechapel, Flesh Inferno: Atrocities of Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition (Creation Books, 2003). ISBN 1840681055

Last updated: 02-07-2005 17:54:23
Last updated: 02-25-2005 21:01:11