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Catholic Dictionary




The special court or tribunal appointed by the Catholic Church to discover and suppress heresy and to punish heretics. The Roman Inquisition of the middle twelfth century, with its ecclesiastical courts for trying and punishing heretics, arose during the ravages of the anti-social Albigensian sect, whose doctrines and practices were destructive not only of faith but of Christian morality and public order. While Church authorities would condemn a person found guilty of heresy, it was the civil power that actually inflicted the penalty. The reformation of the heretic was first sought. By exhortations and minor punishments he was urged to give up his heresy. Many did. Only the relapsed heretics who were found guilty were turned over to the civil government for punishment required under civil law. The fact that secular law prescribed death must be understood in the light of those days when heresy was anarchy and treason and leniency in criminal codes was unknown. Like all institutions that have a human character abuses crept in.

The Spanish Inquisition, set up by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1478 and empowered by Pope Sixtus IV, was directed against the lapsed converts from Judaism, crypto-Jews, and other apostates whose secret activities were dangerous to Church and State. The civil government has great influence in the administration of this Inquisition, and the Spanish ecclesiastical tribunal accused of scandalous cruelty must share its condemnations with them. The latter worked during these days in defiance of the Holy See, which often condemned inquisitors because of their cruelties. Even so, these cruelties have been grossly exaggerated, and the fact that the Inquisition did tremendous good in saving the Latin countries from anarchy has been forgotten. Much falsehood surrounds the events of this period, which should be judged by the standards of those times, not by modern ideas of the human person and of religious freedom.