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The Papal Inquisition

By the 13th century, the dream of a lasting Crusader kingdom in the Holy Lands was starting to fade. Pope Innocent III then turned the zeal of the Crusaders against fellow Christians. In 1202, the Fourth Crusade was launched which later captured Constantinople. Next, in 1209, Innocent III launched a Crusade against the Cathars in southern France (Languedoc region). This bloody action, known to history as the Albigensian Crusade, would directly lead to the establishment of the first Inquisition.

The Albigensian Crusade (so named, because the French city of Albi was a Cathar stronghold), lasted for 20 years, from 1209 to 1229. While authorized by the pope, the actual fighting was carried out primarily by secular forces, especially under Simon de Montfort. The suppression of the Cathar heresy established new “standards” for ferocity for the Roman Church in dealing with its own flock. Perhaps the most famous example was on July 22, 1209, when the city of Beziers was sacked, with over 20,000 men, women and children killed by crusaders. The event will forever be framed in history by the words of papal legate Arnaud, whom, when asked if Catholics should be spared during the assault, answered “Kill them all, for God knows His own”.

Wholesale burnings of Cathars were carried out during the Crusade, including 400 burnt after the fall of Lavaur in 1211, and 94 burnt after the fall of Casses in the same year. It was against this backdrop that Pope Gregory IX instituted the Papal Inquisition in 1227/31. While the Albigensian Crusade had wiped out most of the Cathar strongholds, there were still heretics to be hunted down and burned – many of whom had gone into hiding during the years of the Crusade. Examples of post-Crusade slaughter of the Cathars include 183 burned in Montwimer (Marne) in 1239, and the burning of 215 Cathar perfecti at the Castle of Montsegur in 1244 (sometimes referred to as the Massacre at Montsegur.)

And while the Cathars were the initial targets of the Inquisition (so much so that, for many years, the term “Cathar” was used synonymously with “heretic”), the scope of the Papal Inquisition would eventually range much wider and further than the Cathars. Ultimately, it would include victims such as the Waldensians, Fraticelli (a splinter group of the Franciscans), the Knights Templar, and (much later) – Protestants.

By 1233, the Dominicans (the order founded by St. Dominic in 1217) were given the primary charter to act as Inquisitors, joined shortly after by the Franciscans (founded by St. Francis of Assisi in 1209-10). Curiously, the first 100 years of the Papal Inquisition could be said to have been a battle between ascetic groups. Many of the members of these groups were referred to as mendicant friars, meaning they received sustenance by begging.

By the 12th-13th centuries, many members of the Roman Catholic clergy were known for their rather profligate living styles, including many monastics. A number of groups rose up during this period that believed that the church should return to the example set by the apostles in Acts – the church should own no possessions. Further, they believed that clergy should earn the respect of the people by giving up worldly goods, and going out into the world to preach the gospel. (The argument between the ascetics and the status-quo-Church is well laid out in the book (and resulting movie) The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco).

Today, it can initially be difficult to understand why some ascetic groups (such as the Dominicans and Franciscans) were openly welcomed by the church (and indeed, were the first Inquisitors), while other ascetic groups (the Waldensians, the Cathars, the Fraticelli) were hunted down and burned at the stake. The answer, though, is rather clear – the former groups submitted to the authority of the Church, while the latter groups ultimately rejected the authority of pope and clergy.

It should be noted that prior to the institution of the Papal Inquisition in 1227-31, local bishops had the authority to investigate, and try heretics in local ecclesiastical courts. What made the Inquisition distinctive is that the Inquisitors theoretically answered only to the pope – not to the local bishop, nor even to the heads of their Order. This autonomy allowed the Inquisition to act as an independent tribunal, able to go where it wanted, when it wanted, and try whom it wanted – with no interference allowed from local secular or ecclesiastical authorities. (Those that tried to interfere with the autonomy of the Inquisition were, of course, branded as heretics themselves).

By end of the 15th century, the original Papal Inquisition (created, remember, to eradicate the Cathars) had pretty much run its course (no one left to burn!). However, the flames of the Inquisition would receive new life in the mid-16th century, as the Papal Inquisition was reconstituted to fight a new perceived enemy of the Roman Church – the Protestants.

By the 1540s, the Roman Catholic Church was reeling from the affects of Protestantism all through Europe. While once the Pope reigned supreme over all of Western Christendom, by 1540, whole countries had been lost to Protestant usurpers, including England (Henry VIII), Germany (Luther) and Switzerland (Calvin). France, too, was starting to look shaky, as a growing community of Calvinists (Protestant Huguenots) were asserting their rights there. And (unthinkably!) Protestantism was even making inroads into Italy itself! The Roman Church viewed that something must be done to stem the tide of defections. The set of methodologies employed to do so is collectively known as the Counter-Reformation.

The Counter Reformation used several methods to attempt to save the church. One was to call a great church council - the Council of Trent met from 1545–1563, and enacted many church reforms, and restated basic Catholic beliefs. Other methods included the creation of a new militant religious order (the Jesuits), and open warfare against Protestant strongholds (The 30 Years War, in Germany). And one more tool was used with ruthless efficiency – the Inquisition.

On June 21, 1542, Pope Paul III reconstituted the Papal Inquisition (in the Licet ab initio Bull) as the “Congregation of the Inquisition”, or the “Holy Office” (Sanctum Officium). The Pope appointed a commission to administer the Inquisition, and made Cardinal Giovanni Caraffa the Grand Inquisitor. Caraffa made his intentions clear with statements such as the following:

“No man must debase himself by showing toleration toward heretics of any kind, above all toward Calvinists” – Cardinal Caraffa (later Paul IV), 1542 (Durant, “The Reformation”, p. 925)

In 1555, the Grand Inquisitor became Pope Paul IV. Paul IV increased the power of the Inquisition in both Italy and Spain. In 1559, he published the first Index of Forbidden Books (Index auctoreum et librorum prohibitorum). Eventually, the works of all of the major Reformers would appear on the list – Calvin, Zwingli, Luther, etc. Paul IV was also noted for charming sentiments such as the following “Even if my own father was a heretic, I would gather the wood to burn him”.

After the death of Paul IV in 1559, Europe received a respite from the Inquisition for several years. However, in 1566, Grand Inquisitor Michele Ghislieri (so appointed by Paul IV) became Pope Pius V (1566-1572) – the second time in little over a decade that a Grand Inquisitor became Pope (in 1585, a former inquisitor again became pope as Sixtus V). Under Pius V, torture again became a common weapon in the Papal Inquisition. On June 23, 1566, Pius V organized the first of what were to be many public auto-da-fés (“acts of faith”) in Rome itself - beheadings and burnings became common occurrences.

The reconstituted Papal Inquisition was especially successful in Italy – almost all vestiges of incipient Protestantism were wiped out by the end of the 16th century.

The most famous victim of the reconstituted Papal Inquisition, though, would come in the 17th century. Galileo Galilei was brought up on charges before the court of Inquisition in February of 1633, for publishing The Great Systems of the Universe, which backed the Copernican-Kepler views of the movement of the planets (i.e. that the Earth revolved around the Sun). Unfortunately, Galileo had been warned in 1616 by Cardinal Bellarmine to stay out of the debate regarding whether the earth orbited the sun. Thus, when brought before the Inquisition in 1633, he was determined to be a recidivist, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. The sentence was later softened by the pope to be house arrest. Like Joan of Arc before him, the Inquisitorial charge and sentence against Galileo was eventually overturned when it was too late to help – in October 1992, by Pope John Paul II.

So when did the Papal Inquisition officially end? The Congregation of the Holy Office was officially supplanted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith during Vatican II – in 1962-65.

Timeline Of The Papal Inquisition



385 Spanish heretic Priscillian executed by Emperor Maximus
529 Justinian code against heretics
1022 King of France condemns unrepentent “heretics” to burning at the stake
1028 Mob in Milan burn unrepentant heretics, over objections of local bishop
1143 In Cologne, Cathars are burned at the stake by the populace
1170 Dominic Guzman born
c. 1173 Peter Waldo founds the Waldensians
1184 Bull of Pope Lucius III against heretics; followers of Peter Waldo and the Cathars excommunicated
1199 Bull of Innocent III specifies that lands of convicted heretics could be confiscated
1209 Innocent III launches the Albigensian Crusade in Languedoc against the Cathars; Beziers is destroyed by crusaders – 20,000 men, women and children massacred
1209/10 Franciscan order founded
1215 Fourth Lateran Council in Rome declares that unrepentant heretics should be excommunicated, and turned over to secular authorities for punishment. Property could be confiscated
1217 Honorius III licenses Order of Preachers, later known as the Dominicans
1220 Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, makes canon laws against heresy the law of Europe – heretics to be burnt, or have their tongues cut out
1227/31 Gregory IX launches Papal Inquisition
1229 Albigensian Crusade ends
1229 Council of Toulouse declares that no lay people should possess scripture except for the Psalms and Hours – and those must be in Latin!
1233 Dominic Guzman canonized
mid-1200s Domicans (1233) and Fransciscans given task of running the courts of the Inquisition
1252 Bull of Innocent IV (Ad Extirpanda) authorizing torture
1244 Cathar stronghold at Montsegur falls to secular forces – 215 Cathar perfecti burned
1262 Urban V appoints Cardinal Orsini as the Grand Inquisitor
1307 Knights Templar accused of heresy; charged by the Inquisition
c. 1323 Inquisitor Bernard Gui publishes handbook for inquisitors
1398 Theology faculty of the University of Paris decides that sorcery is heresy – witchcraft comes under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition
1415 John Hus burned at the stake in Constance
1426 The Inquisition, led by Franciscans (along with secular authorities) lay waste to 31 villages, to root out heretical group known as the Fraticelli
1431 Joan of Arc condemned by the French Inquisition and burned at the stake in Rouen
1498 Savonarola burned at the stake
1516 Fifth Council of Lateran orders that no books should be printed without Church approval
1532 The Waldensians, long victims of the Inquisition, merge with the Protestants
1542 Pope Paul III reconstitutes the Papal Inquisition as the “Congregation of the Inquisition”, or the “Holy Office”
1550 Inquisition orders trial of any Catholic cleric who doesn’t preach against the Protestants
1559 First Papal Index auctoreum et Librorum Prohibitorum published by Paul IV
1566 Michele Ghislieri, former Grand Inquisitor, becomes Pope Pius V
1572 The St. Bartholemew Day Massacre begins the French Wars of Religion
1585 Former inquisitor Felice Peretti becomes Pope Sixtus V
1633 Galileo Galilei brought before the court of the Inquisition
1655 During Easter week, 1,712 Waldensians are massacred by French troops
1962/65 Congregation of the Holy Office supplanted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (Vatican II)
October, 1992 Galileo pardoned by Pope John Paul II

Note: The later Spanish Inquisition is not dealt with in detail here. The Jesuits were also established in 1540 as part of the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation against the Protestant faith.

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