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Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition



The term Inquisition can refer to any one of several institutions charged with trying and convicting heretics within the Roman Catholic Church and sometimes other offenders against canon law.


It may refer to:

  1. an ecclesiastical tribunal

  2. the institution of the Roman Catholic Church for combating or suppressing heresy

  3. a number of historical expurgation movements against heresy (orchestrated by the Roman Catholic Church)

  4. the trial of an individual accused of heresy.



Inquisition tribunals and institutions

Before the 12th century, the Western Christian Church already suppressed what it saw as heresy, usually through a system of ecclesiastical proscription or imprisonment, but rarely resorting to torture or executions as this form of punishment had many ecclesiastical opponents, although some non-secular countries punished heresy with death penalty.

In the 12th century, in order to counter the spread of Catharism, prosecutions against heresy became more frequent. The Church charged councils composed of bishops and archbishops with establishing inquisitions.

In the 13th century, Pope Gregory IX (reigned 1227-1241) 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, a legal practice commonly used at the time. They judged heresy alone, using the local authorities to establish a tribunal and to prosecute heretics. After the end of the fifteenth century, a Grand Inquisitor headed each Inquisition. Inquisition in this way persisted until the 19th century.

In the 16th century, Pope Paul III established a system of tribunals, ruled by the "Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition", and staffed by cardinals and other Church officials. This system would later become known as the Roman Inquisition. In 1908 Pope Pius X renamed the organization: it became the "Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office".


This in its turn became the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1965, which name continues to this day.





A 1578 handbook for inquisitors spelled out the purpose of inquisitorial penalties:

... quoniam punitio non refertur primo & per se in correctionem & bonum eius qui punitur, sed in bonum publicum ut alij terreantur, & a malis committendis avocentur.

[Translation from the Latin: "... for punishment does not take place primarily and per se for the correction and good of the person punished, but for the public good in order that others may become terrified and weaned away from the evils they would commit."]



Historic Inquisition movements

Historians distinguish between four different manifestations of the Inquisition:

  1. the Medieval Inquisition (1184- )

  2. the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834)

  3. the Portuguese Inquisition (1536-1821)

  4. the Roman Inquisition (1542- ~1860 )

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 in Catholic countries). Secular courts could still try non-Christians for blasphemy. (Most of the witch trials went through secular courts.)

Different areas faced different situations with regard to heresies and suspicion of heresies. Most of Medieval Western and Central Europe had a long-standing veneer of Catholic standardization, with intermittent localized outbreaks of new ideas and periodic anti-Semitic/anti-Judaic activity.


Exceptionally, Portugal and Spain in the late Middle Ages consisted largely of multi-cultural territories fairly recently conquered from Muslim control, and the new overlords could not assume that all their newer subjects would suddenly become and remain compliant true-believer orthodox Catholics. So the Inquisition in Iberia had a special socio-political basis as well as more conventional religious motives.


With the rise of Protestantism and ideas of the Renaissance perceived as heretical by the Catholic church, the extirpation of heretics became a much broader and more complex enterprise, complicated by the politics of territorial Protestant powers, especially in northern Europe: war, massacres and the educational and propagandistic work of the Counter-Reformation became more common than a judicial approach to heresy in these circumstances.




Medieval Inquisition

Historians use the term 'Medieval Inquisition" to describe the various inquisitions that started around 1184, including the Episcopal Inquisition (1184-1230s) and later the Papal Inquisition (1230s).


These inquisitions comprised the legal 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.


Other Inquisitions followed after these first inquisition movements.

Legal basis for some inquisitorial activity came from Pope Innocent IV's papal bull Ad exstirpanda of 1252, which authorized and regulated the use of torture in investigating heresy.




Spanish Inquisition



Representation of an Auto de fe, (around 1495).
Many artistic representations depict torture and burning at the stake as occurring during the auto da fe.


King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile set up the Spanish Inquisition in 1478 with the approval of Pope Sixtus IV.


In contrast to the previous inquisitions, it operated completely under royal authority, though staffed by secular clergy and orders, and independently of the Holy See.


It targeted primarily converts from Judaism (Marranos or secret Jews) and from Islam (Moriscos or secret Moors) — both formed large groups still residing in Spain after the end of the Moorish control of Spain — who came under suspicion of either continuing to adhere to their old religion (often after having converted under duress) or of having fallen back into it.


Somewhat later the Spanish Inquisition took an interest in Protestants of virtually any sect, notably in the Spanish Netherlands. In the Spanish possessions of the Kingdom of Sicily and the Kingdom of Naples in southern Italy, which formed part of the Spanish Crown's hereditary possessions, it also targeted Greek Orthodox Christians. After the intensity of religious disputes waned in the 17th century, the Spanish Inquisition developed more and more into a secret-police force working against internal threats to the state.

The Spanish Inquisition also operated in the Canary Islands.

King Phillip II set up two tribunals (formal title: Tribunal del Santo Oficio de la Inquisición) in the Americas, one in Peru and another in Mexico.


The Mexican office administered the Audiencias of:

  • Guatemala (Guatemala, Chiapas, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica)

  • Nueva Galicia (northern and western Mexico)

  • the Philippines.

The Peruvian Inquisition, based in Lima, administered all the Spanish territories in South America and Panama. From 1610 a new Inquisition seat established in Cartagena (Colombia) administered much of the Spanish Caribbean in addition to Panama and northern South America.

The Inquisition continued to function in North America until the Mexican War of Independence (1810-1821).


In South America Simón Bolívar abolished the Inquisition; in Spain itself the institution survived until 1834.




Portuguese Inquisition



Copper engraving intitled "Die Inquisition in Portugall", by Jean David Zunner

from the work Description de L'Univers, Contenant les Differents Systemes de Monde,

Les Cartes Generales & Particulieres de la Geographie Ancienne & Moderne

by Alain Manesson Mallet, Frankfurt, 1685.


The Portuguese Inquisition formally started in Portugal in 1536 at the request of the King of Portugal, João III.


Manuel I had asked Pope Leo X for the installation of the Inquisition in 1515, but only after his death (1521) did Pope Paul III acquiesce. However, many place the actual beginning of the Portuguese Inquisition during the year of 1497, when the authorities expelled many Jews from Portugal and forcibly converted others to Catholicism.


The major target of the Portuguese Inquisition were mainly the Sephardic Jews that had been expelled from Spain in 1492 (see Alhambra decree); after 1492 many of these Spanish Jews left Spain for Portugal but were eventually targeted there as well.

The Inquisition came under the authority of the King. At its head stood a Grand Inquisitor, or General Inquisitor, named by the Pope but selected by the Crown, and always from within the royal family. The Grand Inquisitor would later nominate other inquisitors. In Portugal, the first Grand Inquisitor was Cardinal Henry, who would later become King. There were Courts of the Inquisition in Lisbon, Porto, Coimbra, and Évora.

The Portuguese Inquisition held its first auto da fé in Portugal in 1540.


It concentrated its efforts on rooting out converts from other faiths (overwhelmingly Judaism) who did not adhere to the strictures of Catholic orthodoxy; the Portuguese inquisitors mostly targeted the Jewish "New Christians," conversos, or marranos.

The Portuguese Inquisition expanded its scope of operations from Portugal to Portugal's colonial possessions, including Brazil, Cape Verde, and Goa, where it continued as a religious court, investigating and trying cases of breaches of the tenets of orthodox Roman Catholicism until 1821.

King João III (reigned 1521-1557) extended the activity of the courts to cover book-censorship, divination, witchcraft and bigamy. Book-censorship proved to have a strong influence in Portuguese cultural evolution, keeping the country uninformed and culturally backward. Originally oriented for a religious action, the Inquisition had an influence in almost every aspect of Portuguese society: politically, culturally and socially.

The Goa Inquisition, another inquisition rife with antisemitism and anti-Hinduism and which mostly targeted Jews and Hindus, started in Goa in 1560. Aleixo Dias Falcão and Francisco Marques set it up in the palace of the Sabaio Adil Khan.

According to Henry Charles Lea between 1540 and 1794 tribunals in Lisbon, Porto, Coimbra and Évora resulted in the burning of 1,175 persons, the burning of another 633 in effigy, and the penancing of 29,590. But documentation of fifteen out of 689 Autos-da-fé has disappeared, so these numbers may slightly understate the activity.

The "General Extraordinary and Constituent Courts of the Portuguese Nation" abolished the Portuguese inquisition in 1821.




Roman Inquisition

In 1542, Pope Paul III established the Congregation of the Holy Office of the Inquisition as a permanent congregation staffed with cardinals and other officials.


It had the tasks of maintaining and defending the integrity of the faith and of examining and proscribing errors and false doctrines; it thus became the supervisory body of local Inquisitions.


Arguably the most famous case tried by the Roman Inquisition involved Galileo Galilei in 1633. Because of Rome's power over the Papal States, Roman Inquisition activity continued until the mid-1800s.

In 1908 the name of the Congregation became "The Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office", which in 1965 further changed to "Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith", as retained to the present day.


The Congregation is presided by a cardinal appointed by the Pope, and usually includes ten other cardinals, 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.


List of Spanish Grand Inquisitors

  1. Tomás de Torquemada, prior of Santa Cruz 1483 - 1498

  2. Diego de Deza Tavera, prior of Santo Domingo 1499 - 1506

  3. Diego Ramírez de Guzmán, bishop of Catania, bishop of Lugo 1506 - 1507

  4. Francisco Ximénez de Cisneros, archbishop of Toledo 1507 - 1517

  5. Juan Enguera, bishop of Vich, bishop of Lleida, Tortosa 1507 - 1513

  6. Luis Mercader Escolano, bishop of Tortosa 1513 - 1516

  7. Adrian of Utrecht 1516 - 1522

  8. Alonso Manrique de Lara, archbishop of Seville 1523 - 1538

  9. Juan Pardo de Tavera, archbishop of Toledo 1539 - 1545

  10. García de Loisa, archbishop of Seville 1546

  11. Fernando de Valdés y Salas 1547 - 1566

  12. Diego de Espinosa, bishop of Sigüenza, bishop of Cuenca 1566 - 1572

  13. Pedro Ponce de León, bishop of Ciudad Rodrigo, bishop of Plasencia 1572

  14. Gaspar de Quiroga y Vela , archbishop of Toledo 1573 - 1594

  15. Jerónimo Manrique de Lara, bishop of Cartagena, bishop of Ávila 1595

  16. Pedro de Portocarrero, bishop of Calahorra, bishop of Cuenca 1596 - 1599

  17. Hernando Niño de Guevara, archbishop of Philipis, archbishop of Seville 1599 - 1602

  18. Juan de Zúñiga Flores, bishop of Cartagena 1602

  19. Juan Bautista de Acevedo, bishop of Valladolid and Patriarch of the Indias 1603 - 1608

  20. Bernardo de Sandoval y Rojas, archbishop of Toledo 1608 - 1618

  21. Luis de Aliaga Martínez 1619 - 1621

  22. Andrés Pacheco, bishop of Cuenca and Patriarch of the Indias 1622 - 1626

  23. Antonio de Zapata Cisneros y Mendoza, archbishop of Burgos 1627 - 1632

  24. Antonio de Sotomayor, prior of Santo Domingo 1632 - 1643

  25. Diego de Arce y Reinoso, bishop of Tuy, Ávila and Plasencia 1643 - 1665

  26. Pascual de Aragón y Fernández de Córdoba, archbishop of Toledo 1665

  27. Juan Everardo Nittard 1666 - 1669

  28. Diego Sarmiento de Valladares, bishop of Oviedo and Plasencia 1669 - 1695

  29. Juan Tomás de Rocaberti, prior of Santo Domingo and archbishop of Valencia 1695 - 1699

  30. Alonso Fernández de Córdoba y Aguilar 1699

  31. Baltasar de Mendoza y Sandoval, bishop of Segovia 1699 - 1705

  32. Vidal Martín, archbishop of Burgos 1705 - 1709

  33. Antonio Ibáñez de Riva Herrera, archbishop of Zaragoza and Toledo 1709 - 1710

  34. Antonio Judice, archbishop of Monreal 1711 - 1717

  35. José Molines 1717

  36. Felipe de Arcemendi 1718

  37. Diego de Astorga y Céspedes, archbishop of Toledo 1720

  38. Juan de Camargo y Angulo y Pasquer, bishop of Pamplona 1720 - 1733

  39. Andrés de Orbe y Larreategui, archbishop of Valencia 1733 - 1740

  40. Manuel Isidro Orozco Manrique de Lara, archbishop of Santiago 1742 - 1745

  41. Francisco Pérez de Prado y Cuesta, bishop of Teruel 1746 - 1755

  42. Manuel Quintano Bonifaz, archbishop of Farsalia 1755 - 1774

  43. Felipe Beltrán, bishop of Salamanca 1775 - 1783

  44. Agustín Rubin de Ceballos, bishop of Jaén 1784 - 1793

  45. Manuel Abad y Lasierra, archbishop of Selimbria 1793 - 1794

  46. Francisco Antonio Lorenzana y Butrón, archbishop of Toledo 1794 - 1797

  47. Ramón José de Arce y Rebollar, archbishop of Amida, Burgos and Zaragoza 1797 - 1798

  48. Francisco J.Mier y Campillo, bishop of Almería 1814 - 1818

  49. Jerónimo Castillón y Salas, bishop of Tarazona 1818 - 1820