From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Christ died for
our articles about

Icon christianity.svg
Devil's in the details

The Inquisition is typically used to refer collectively to a number of different institutions set up by the Roman Catholic Church to combat heresy. Chronologically, these include the following:

  • Medieval Inquisition (1184-1230)
  • Papal Inquisition (1230-late 14th century)
  • Portuguese Inquisition (1536-1821)
  • Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834) (Nobody expected that!)
  • Congregation of the Holy Office, or Roman Inquisition (1542-1965)
  • Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1965–present)

Medieval Inquisition[edit]

Although Catholic bishops have always been expected to work against heresy within their dioceses, the late 12th century saw the appearance of several widespread heresy movements in southern and western Europe, particularly the Cathars and the Waldensians. This led to the establishment of the so-called Episcopal Inquisition, which directed the bishops of southern France in particular to focus and combine their efforts towards suppressing these movements. Many historians consider the inquisition against the Cathars to be a genocide[1][2] including the coiner of the word, Raphael Lemkin,[3] who referred to it as "one of the most conclusive cases of genocide in religious history".[4]

Papal Inquisition[edit]

Since the bishops generally had better things to do with their time, this initiative was massively inefficient, and in the 1230s, it was replaced with the Papal Inquisition, which consisted of a network of specifically appointed and trained inquisitors, often drawn from the Dominican order.

Inquisition myth[edit]

Contrary to what popular imagination, typically fueled by a number of otherwise excellent books and movies,[note 1] would attempt to teach us, the various Inquisitions have rarely been secret organizations made up of nefarious clergymen hell-bent on sending as many innocent free-thinkers as humanly possible to the pyre.

The primary objective of the Inquisition was not the extermination of heretics as such, but rather to ensure the unity of the faith. In the medieval world view, proper belief was an absolute prerequisite for salvation, and heresy could lure people away from the true faith, creating an opening for the Devil. This made it essential to remove heresy as soon as possible, so as to not put any souls in unnecessary danger.

This approach may seem intolerant to modern mentalities, but in the view of at least two historians,[note 2] it seems more productive to try to understand the motivations and world view of these people, rather than simply condemn them for not living up to modern standards.

Many medieval heresies were quite innocuous - such as Wycliffe, who was posthumously hanged for translating the Bible into English- but others were extremely anti-social by modern standards as well as contemporary. For example, the Flagellants believed that new born babies should have "original sin" literally beaten out of them and many had as their goals the purification of society by the killing of the rich, the clergy, and the Jews. Whilst the Jews may not have had much choice in the matter, the rich and the clergy cannot be blamed for taking counter-measures, such as in setting up the Inquisition.

By contemporary legal standards, the Inquisition took great pains to ensure that the persons being brought before it had actually done what they were accused of. Since accusations often came from other people in the local community, the Inquisition was well aware that there could often be motives like personal gain or revenge involved, and as a consequence, accused persons were extensively interrogated. Torture was employed, but confessions made under torture was not sufficient as evidence. Further, all proceedings were written down verbatim and preserved.[note 3]

If a person was found to be guilty of heresy, he or she would be encouraged to recant and required to do penance as with any other sin. Penances would often include public recantations, pilgrimages, or being forced to wear special types of clothing or emblems for a period of time. Somewhat unusual for medieval practice, imprisonment was another common punishment. Corporal or capital punishment was rarely used, and usually only in the case of relapsi (those who had previously recanted, but were found guilty of heresy again at a later date), or for those who had actively encouraged others to commit heresy.

Surviving Inquisition protocols show that, for example, the inquisitor Bernard Gui executed 42 out of 900 suspects interrogated between 1307 and 1323, while his contemporary Jacques Fournier executed 5 out of 587 suspects between 1318 and 1325.[5] This was, however, in the later stages of the medieval Inquisition, when the Cathars in particular had lost much of their former strength.

Portuguese Inquisition[edit]

Like the Spanish Inquisition, the Portuguese inquisitors mostly persecuted converts suspected of still practicing their original faith in secret, or mixing rituals (such as converted Jews still observing kosher dietary rules, or former Muslims and Hindus in the Portuguese colonies of southern India doing likewise, along with those who had not converted and interfered with attempts at conversion or observed their rites, which the Portuguese had banned). Apparently, the Portuguese presence in this area, according to Dinesh D'Souza, is who we have to thank for him being a Christian apologist today.[6] They also created racist categories distinguishing between "New" and "Old" Christians, due to being suspect as converts or the descendants of them, and thus discriminated against, such as being barred from government positions, guilds and the military (which may, of course, have led some to be less enthusiastic as Christians).

Spanish Inquisition[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Spanish Inquisition

The Inquisition... Here we go

The Inquisition... What a show

The Inquisition... betcha hoped we'd go awayyyyyyyy.

But the Inquisition's here and it's here to stayyyyyyyy.

Nobody expects the Spa... oh, bugger!

The Roman Inquisition[edit]

The Roman Inquisition was instituted in the middle of the 16th century. As a part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, its most important objective was to combat growing Protestant influences in Italy, especially in the northern areas bordering Switzerland, as well as to investigate accusations of heresy and witchcraft in general. The Roman Inquisition was organized as a system of regional tribunals under the oversight of the Congregation of the Holy Office in Rome.

The Roman Inquisition was most active in the late 16th and the 17th centuries, during which time a number of high-profile cases were brought before it, including those of Galileo Galilei, Giordano Bruno and Menoccio (see below). However, it continued functioning until the middle of the 19th century, when the "Risorgimento" and the resulting unification of Italy led to a dismantling of the Papal States and a severe reduction of the powers of the papal Curia.

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith[edit]

In 1965, the Holy Office was renamed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as part of a reorganization of the papal administration following the Second Vatican Council. According to the 1988 Apostolic Constitution Pastor Bonus, its duty is "to promote and safeguard the doctrine on faith and morals in the whole Catholic world".

In recent decades, it has taken a particularly strong stance against liberation theology, especially during Joseph Ratzinger's tenure as prefect of the Congregation (1981–2005). Since 2001, investigations of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy has also fallen under its competence.

Prominent Inquisition victims[edit]

  • Giordano Bruno (1548–1600): Scholar and philosopher, best known for his groundbreaking theories that the universe is infinite and may contain other inhabited worlds. Having a history of getting on the wrong side of ecclesiastical authorities, Bruno led an itinerant life, living and teaching in Italy, England, Germany and Bohemia. Eventually, he returned to Italy where he was arrested by the Roman Inquisition and executed for heresy.
Bruno is often presented as a martyr for science and humanism. This characterization tends to overlook that Bruno was hardly a scientist even by contemporary standards; rather, he was a philosopher and occultist, who believed that all matter is intelligent and possesses a spirit. Also, the heresy that led to his execution probably had more to do with his views on transubstantiation and the trinity than planets.[7]
  • Menocchio (1532–1599): Also known as Domenico Scandella, he was a miller in the Friuli region of northern Italy. He was accused of heresy by the Roman Inquisition on several occasions and eventually burned at the stake after relapsing. In 1976, he gained fame probably beyond his wildest dreams when prominent microhistorian Carlo Ginzburg made him the central character of his famous study The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller.

See also[edit]


  1. Voltaire's Candide comes to mind
  2. Marc BlochWikipedia and User:AKjeldsen.
  3. Incidentally also creating a magnificent corpus of source material for later historians.


  1. Page 188 ISBN 087220619X. Pegg, Mark Gregory (2008). A Most Holy War: The Albigensian Crusade and the Battle for Christendom. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-019988371-4.
  2. Jonassohn, Kurt; Björnson, Karin Solveig (1998). Genocide and Gross Human Rights Violations: In Comparative Perspective. Piscataway, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers. ISBN 978-1-4128-2445-3. Page 50.
  3. Lemkin, Raphael UN Refugee Agency (archived from November 29, 2014).
  4. Lemkin, Raphael (2012). Jacobs, Steven Leonard, ed. Lemkin on Genocide. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-0-7391-4526-5. page 71
  5. See for example the Fournier Register, compiled by the 14th century inquisitor Jacques Fournier: Duvernoy, J. (ed.): Le Registre de Jacques Fournier, évêque de Pamiers (1318-1325) (Toulouse, 1965). Also Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel: Montaillou, village occitan de 1294 à 1324 (1982)
  6. Second question down, note that he says his ancestor may have been forcibly converted, unsurprisingly.
  7. See the Wikipedia article on Giordano Bruno.
  8. Sanchez, Joseph P. "Nicolas de Aguilar and the Jurisdiction of Salinas in the Province of New Mexico, 1659-1662", Revista Complutense de Historia de América, 22, Servicio de Publicaciones, UCM, Madrid, 1996, 139-159


  • Duvernoy, J. (ed.): Le Registre de Jacques Fournier, évêque de Pamiers (1318–1325) (Toulouse, 1965)
  • Kamen, Henry: The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997)
  • Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel: Montaillou, village occitan de 1294 à 1324 (?, 1982)
  • Peters, Edward: Inquisition (New York: The Free Press, 1988)