On a hot fall day in Rome not long ago, I crossed the vast expanse of St. Peter’s Square, paused momentarily in the shade beneath a curving flank of Bernini’s colonnade, and continued a little way beyond to a Swiss Guard standing impassively at a wrought-iron gate, the Porta Cavalleggeri. He examined my credentials, handed them back, and saluted smartly. I hadn’t expected the grand gesture, and almost returned the salute, but then realized it was intended for a cardinal waddling into the Vatican behind me.

Just inside the gate, at Piazza del Sant’Uffizio 11, stands a Renaissance palazzo with the ruddy ocher-and-cream complexion of so many buildings in the city. This is the headquarters of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), whose job, in the words of the Apostolic Constitution Pastor bonus, promulgated in 1988 by Pope John Paul II, is “to promote and safeguard the doctrine on faith and morals in the whole Catholic world.”

The CDF, one of nine Vatican congregations, has been around for a very long time, although until the Second Vatican Council it was called something else: the Congregation of the Holy Office. From the lips of old Vatican hands and church functionaries everywhere, one still hears shorthand references to “the Holy Office,” much as one hears “Whitehall,” “Foggy Bottom,” or “the Kremlin.” But before the Congregation became the Holy Office, it went by yet another name: as late as 1908, it was known as the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Roman and Universal Inquisition. For understandable reasons, no one at the Vatican these days refers to the Congregation as “the Inquisition” except ironically. The members of the papal curia are famously tone-deaf when it comes to public relations, but even they came to appreciate that the term had outlived its usefulness.

It’s easy to change a name, not so easy to engage in genetic engineering (which the church would not encourage in any case). The CDF grew organically out of the Inquisition, and the modern office cannot escape the imprint. The palazzo that today houses the Congregation was originally built to lodge the Inquisition when the papacy, in 1542, amid the onslaught of Protestantism and other forms of heresy, decided that the church’s intermittent and far-flung inquisitorial investigations, which had commenced during the Middle Ages, needed to be brought under some sort of centralized control. Pope Paul III considered this task so urgent that for several years construction on the basilica of St. Peter’s was suspended and the laborers diverted, so that work could be completed on the palace of the Inquisition. At one time the palazzo held not only clerical offices but also prison cells. Giordano Bruno, the philosopher and cosmologist, was confined for a period in this building, before being burned at the stake in Rome’s Campo dei Fiori in 1600.

When I first set foot in the palazzo, a decade ago, it was somewhat shabby and ramshackle, like so much of Rome and, indeed, like more of the Vatican than one might imagine. Outside, Vespas tilted against kickstands. In a hallway beyond the courtyard, a hand-lettered sign pointed the way to an espresso machine. A telephone on the wall dated from the 1950s. Here and there, paint flaked from ceilings and furniture. But now the Congregation has a website, and e-mail, and a message from Piazza del Sant’Uffizio 11 can still fray nerves in theology departments and diocesan chanceries around the world.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith inherited more than the Inquisition’s institutional DNA and its place on the organizational charts. It also inherited much of the paper trail. The bulk of the Vatican’s records are part of the so-called Archivio Segreto, and are mainly stored in a vast underground bunker below a former observatory. (Segreto, though translated as “secret,” carries the connotation “private” or “personal” rather than “classified.”) But the Vatican’s holdings are so great—the indexes alone fill thirty-five thousand volumes—that many records must be squirreled away elsewhere.

Most of the Inquisition records are kept in the Palazzo del Sant’Uffizio itself, and for four and a half centuries—up until 1998—that archive was closed to outsiders. At the time of my first visit, the Inquisition archive—officially, the Archivio della Congregazione per la Dottrina della Fede—spilled from room to room and floor to floor in the palazzo’s western wing, filling about twenty rooms in all. It was under twenty-four-hour papal surveillance, watched over by a marble bust of Pius XII. Pius was assisted in his duties by the sixteenth-century cardinal-inquisitor and papal censor Robert Bellarmine, whose portrait dominated a nearby wall, larger in oil than he was in life. The rooms were bathed in a soft yellow light. A spiral staircase connected upper and lower levels. Dark bookshelves stood in tight rows, sagging under thick bundles of documents. Many were tied up with string in vellum wrappers, like so much laundry. Others were bound as books. The spines displayed Latin notations in an elegant antique hand. Some indicated subject matter: “De Spiritismo,” “De Hypnotismo,” “De Magnetismo Animale.” Most were something else entirely. They contained the records of individual cases and also the minutes of the Inquisition’s thrice-weekly meetings going back half a millennium. The meetings were held on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, and the pope himself presided once a week.

The atmosphere in the reading room is one of warmth and stillness. Hints of slowly crumbling leather hang in the air. A few scholars sit at tables. No one talks: silentio is the explicit rule. Espresso must be left outside. Smoking is prohibited. The physical experience is that afforded by any ancient library, enfolding and reassuring—which serves only to heighten a sense of psychic disconnection. When the Archivio was first opened, a Vatican official, Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, expressed the hope that it might contain “some pleasant surprises.” But the record preserved on the millions of pages in these rooms is mainly grim: a record of lives disrupted and sometimes summarily put to an end; of ideas called into question and often suppressed; of voices silenced, temporarily or forever; of blind bureaucratic inertia harnessed to moral certainty and to earthly and spiritual power. It is a record of actions taken in the name of religion, though the implications go beyond religion.

The speed limit for motor vehicles inside Vatican City is 20 miles an hour. The forward motion of the curial bureaucracy is slower, as you’d expect with gerontocrats at the wheel. The Holy See takes its time. In 1979, the historian Carlo Ginzburg wrote a letter to Karol Wojtyła, who had recently been installed as Pope John Paul II. Ginzburg, who is Jewish, had firsthand experience of hatred and persecution. His father, Leone, was an anti-Fascist agitator who was beaten to death by the Nazis, and young Carlo spent the war in hiding with his non-Jewish maternal grandmother, under the name Carlo Tanzi.

In his letter, Ginzburg petitioned the pope to open the Archivio to scholars. Ginzburg no longer has a copy of what he sent—it is probably under seal in the archives somewhere—but he remembers that it began like this: “Chi le scrivo e uno storico ebreo, ateo, che ha lavorato per molti anni sui documenti dell’Inquisizione”—“The writer of the present letter is a Jewish historian, an atheist, who has been working for many years on inquisitorial papers.” He heard nothing for nearly two decades, until, in 1998, he received a letter from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger inviting him to the opening of the Archivio. Ah, bad luck: he had a conflict, Ginzburg wrote back. Then came a phone call from a monsignor at the Vatican. Ginzburg again demurred. “That’s a pity,” said the monsignor, “because your letter played a role in the opening of the Sant’Uffizio archive.” “Which letter?” Ginzburg asked. The monsignor said, “Your letter to the pope.” “What a memory!” Ginzburg replied. He found a way to change his plans.

The man who today presides over the Archivio is Monsignor Alejandro Cifres Giménez, fifty-one, a diminutive Spaniard from Valencia (the city where, as it happens, the Spanish Inquisition’s last execution took place). Cifres is mild-mannered, genial, and competent. He sometimes displays a dry sense of humor. When I asked him whether the magazine I worked for was being considered for papal condemnation, he said, “Not yet.” He listens to country-and-western music, has a CD player in his car, and once revealed that among his favorite movies is Happy, Texas, a comedy about convicts on the lam who disguise themselves as gay beauty-pageant coaches, which would probably have earned two thumbs down from the Papal Index. Cifres is not a historian. He is by training a theologian, and also a certified archivist and paleographer. He was brought to the Archivio to be an administrator, his superiors recognizing that the superannuated clerics who had long overseen the Inquisition’s documents were not what an open archive demanded. Cifres obeyed the orders of his bishop and came to work at the Congregation, and directly for Cardinal Ratzinger. It was Cifres who made the call to Ginzburg.

The first time I met him, he led the way down a hall to his office near the stacks. I dawdled a little, to read the writing on the document boxes. The Archivio consists essentially of two parts. One is the historical archive, the Stanza Storica, which contains the old files of the Congregations of the Inquisition and the Holy Office. It also holds the files of the Congregation of the Index, which produced the Index of Forbidden Books. But the Congregation is also a living administrative entity—it does church business and generates paperwork every day, which becomes part of the active archive. A lot of that paperwork—about theological issues, about problems with the clergy—is highly sensitive. Theologians are still called to Rome, and are disciplined or silenced, sometimes after procedures akin to trials. Walking down the hall, I paused at a few shelves of modern files. Msgr. Cifres came back, took me by the elbow, and led me along. When I asked him what the files pertained to, he replied, “How do you say? Defrockings?”

Later, sitting behind his desk in Roman collar and black, short-sleeved clerical shirt, Cifres tried to convey a sense of how complicated his position is. To begin with, money is tight. In earlier times, the Inquisition could rely on a certain amount of revenue from confiscations (though not nearly as much, historians say, as has sometimes been alleged). Confiscation, happily, is no longer an option. Cifres had created a Friends of the Inquisition Archives program—Tabularii Amicorum Consociato, to give it the official name—to raise money from private donations. He also charges a modest fee for use of the Archivio. He did not mention plans for a gift shop.

The filing system also presents challenges. There is a logic to it, but it is not a familiar logic. Nothing is classified according to any modern category, much less arranged alphabetically. What you need to know in order to find something is the bureaucratic structure and mental map of the Vatican itself—less technocratic Dewey decimal system than intricate “memory palace” of Matteo Ricci. Pull down one bundle of documents and you may stumble on internal deliberations over the censorship of René Descartes. Pull down another and you may discover some Renaissance cardinal-inquisitor’s personal papers: the original handwritten records of all his investigations, chronologically arranged; a bureaucratic autobiography—he was proud of what he had achieved—with reflective comments scrawled in the margins and here and there a small black cross indicating that a sentence had been duly carried out. Pull down a third bundle and you may find an account of a routine meeting, the sudden insertion here and there of several black dots by the notary indicating that the inquisitors had gone into executive session and the notary had been dismissed from the room—a more reliable procedure than the modern practice, employed by intelligence and law-enforcement agencies, of “redacting” a sensitive document with heavy black bars. Documents dealing with defrockings are in the Sacerdotal section. Documents dealing with apparitions, revelations, and other extraordinary phenomena are in the Disciplinary section. Documents dealing with censorship are in the Doctrinal section. A huge category under the Doctrinal rubric is called simply Dubia (“Doubts”)—documents relating to intimate questions of faith as relayed by priests and bishops from around the world.

Until 1920, a placard over the doorway to the Vatican Archives threatened excommunication for anyone entering without permission. The Vatican is committed, it now says, to free inquiry in the archives. Access to the historical files of the CDF has gradually been expanded—scholars can now study materials dating up to the death of Pope Pius XI, in 1939. But you can’t escape the reminders of censorship and other controversies. Wandering among the shelves in sections where the archival materials remain off-limits, I noticed rows of fat document boxes labeled “Küng,” “Boff,” “Lefebvre,” “Greene.” The urge to reach out and pull one down was almost irresistible.

One day, among the stacks, I came across two polished wooden boxes, resembling old library card-catalogue drawers, with hinged wooden tops. The boxes rested one above the other on a wooden rack of Victorian vintage. The lower box was labeled “A–K,” the upper one “L–Z.” Inside each box, well-worn index cards ran its length, their upper edges velvety from use. I took one of the boxes down and flipped quickly through the cards, seeing citations for works by Sade, Sartre, Spinoza, and Swift, among hundreds of others. “What’s this?” I asked Msgr. Cifres, showing him the box. He took it from me, closed the top, and put it back on the rack. “That,” he said, “is the Index of Forbidden Books—the very last one.” I thought of the whispered horror from decades ago—the Papal Index!—and found it hard to imagine that it all came down to soiled cards in a shoebox. There is no longer a Congregation of the Index, once so closely associated with the Inquisition, and the much-feared Papal Index was discontinued in 1966. Its open coffin had rested briefly in my hands. The Index was not, however, completely repudiated; the very document that abolished the Index also reaffirmed its “moral value.” The CDF still looks closely at books and periodicals, and sometimes issues a monitum, or warning. The absence of an official Index does not mean the absence of things you should not read.

Though its influence waxed and waned, the Inquisition continued in one form or another for more than seven hundred years. It touched on episodes as diverse as the suppression of the Knights Templar and the siege of the heretic fortress at Montségur. Associated most commonly with the persecution of the Jews, the Inquisition was in fact far more wide-ranging in its targets, and initially was not much concerned with Jews at all. Indeed, the Inquisition’s specific warrant was to enforce discipline among members of the church, not those outside it: people who had fallen into error, who had embraced heretical movements, or who had in some other way loosened the bonds of faith.

In the year 1231, Pope Gregory IX appointed the first “inquisitors of heretical depravity” to serve as explicit papal agents. Thus began what is called the Medieval Inquisition, which was launched to deal with the menace posed to the church by Christian heretics, notably the Cathars of southern France. The newly established Dominican Order was instrumental in combating the Cathar heresy. The inquisitors solicited denunciations and, as their name implies, conducted interrogations. Their efforts were highly localized—there was no central command. The inquisitors were aided in their work by the papal bull Ad extirpanda, promulgated in 1252, which justified and encouraged the use of torture, wielding philosophical arguments that have never wanted for advocates and that would eventually echo in the White House and the U.S. Justice Department. Within a century, the work of the Medieval Inquisition was largely done. One modern writer, reflecting on what makes inquisitions come to an end, calls attention to a simple reason: an eventual shortage of combustible material. The Dominicans were nothing if not thorough. As a Catholic who grew up with many Jesuit friends, I remember hearing a comment about the difference between Dominicans and Jesuits: Both orders were created to fight the church’s enemies—Cathars in the one case, Protestants in the other. The difference: Have you ever met a Cathar?

A second chapter, the Spanish Inquisition, commenced in the late fifteenth century. As King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile consolidated their rule, the Inquisition in a recently unified Spain pursued its targets independent of Rome. It was effectively an arm of the government, and the monarchs appointed its personnel. The Spanish Inquisition was directed primarily at Jews who had converted to Christianity and whose conversions were suspect—in other words, who were thought (or said) to be secretly “Judaizing,” or reverting to Judaism. It also focused its efforts on the many Christianized Muslims, who might likewise be reverting to their original faith. The first inquisitor general in Spain, Tomás de Torquemada, a Dominican friar, embarked on a career that made his name synonymous with the Inquisition as a whole, sending some two thousand people to be burned at the stake within a matter of years. The Inquisition in Spain would lead to a cataclysm: the expulsion, in 1492, of unconverted Jews from the kingdom.

Because the domains of the Spanish sovereigns eventually extended to Asia and America, the Inquisition traveled far beyond Iberia. It was active in areas of what is now the United States—New Mexico, for instance. In Santa Fe, religious disputes in which the Inquisition played a role led to executions outside the Palace of the Governors, on the plaza, within sight of today’s boutique restaurants and upscale art galleries. From Spain the Inquisition spread to Portugal and thence to the Portuguese Empire. It could be found operating in Brazil and India, and in places between and beyond. The Spanish Inquisition ended at different times in different places. It survived in Mexico until 1820, when independence from Spain was just a few months away, and in Spain itself until 1834, when a royal decree abolished it once and for all. It conducted its last execution in 1826—the victim was a Spanish schoolmaster named Cayetano Ripoll, who had been convicted of heresy. He was hanged rather than burned at the stake.

The third but not quite final chapter of the Inquisition, the so-called Roman Inquisition, began in the sixteenth century with the advent of the Reformation. This is the inquisition for which the Palazzo was built. The main focus of the Roman Inquisition was Protestantism, but it did not spare Jews, homosexuals, people accused of practicing witchcraft, and certain kinds of quirky or annoying freethinkers and gadflies who might today be called “public intellectuals.” With the Roman Inquisition, the inquisitorial process was for the first time lodged in an organ of state under direct papal supervision. It was a centralized bureaucracy overseen by a papal inquisitor-general, whose job was often a stepping-stone to the papacy itself. In the latter half of the sixteenth century, no fewer than three grand inquisitors went on to become pope. The operations of the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition were entwined with those of the Congregation of the Index, which oversaw censorship efforts—this at a time when the diffusion of the printing press had made ideas more dangerous, and censorship more difficult, than ever before. It was the Roman Inquisition that put Galileo on trial for his arguments about the heavens. In some ways it behaved like a modern institution—its rhythms and procedures, and even its inanities, will be recognizable to anyone with experience of a large bureaucracy. But the chief target was modernity itself, and the ideas and cast of mind that underlay it.

In 1870, the unification of Italy brought about the demise of the Papal States, the domains where the pope ruled as a temporal monarch. Except for matters of purely internal church discipline, which carry no threat of secular penalty or physical harm but which can stifle intellectual life and dissent all the same, the Roman Inquisition was at an end. It would take almost sixty years for the pope’s dominion over the tiny walled 108-acre rump state of Vatican City to be recognized by Italy, in a concordat signed by Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XI. By then, the Congregation of the Inquisition had disappeared into the organizational charts of the Roman curia, though as one historian observes, “No death certificate has ever been issued.”

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith preserves the processes and functions of the Roman Inquisition in milder form. Until the 1960s, it remained in the business of censoring and banning books, though few took heed, and some of those who did pay attention did so for the wrong reasons. During my childhood, the relegation of a book to the Papal Index seemed to serve mainly as an inducement (though not always a reliable one, as those who tried reading Hobbes or Pascal under the covers with a flashlight will have discovered). It is to the Congregation that bishops, papal envoys, and others send complaints about teaching and theology.

In recent decades, using materials newly available in repositories outside the Vatican, and now including those of the Holy See itself, historians throughout Europe and the Americas have produced hundreds of studies that, seen as a whole, sharply revise some traditional views of the Inquisition.

To begin with, the notion of “the Inquisition” as a monolithic force with a directed intelligence—“an eye that never slumbered,” as the historian William H. Prescott once phrased it—is no longer tenable. Rather, it was an enterprise that varied in virulence and competence from place to place and era to era. “The Inquisition” remains a convenient shorthand term, but it should be understood as a collective noun. There were many inquisitions.

Another finding of modern research is that insofar as their procedures were concerned, Inquisition tribunals often proved more scrupulous and consistent than the various secular courts of the time. It probably used torture with less abandon than secular authorities did. Of course, the bar here is low, and in any case scrupulosity and consistency are no obstacle to cruelty or injustice. Nor is legality.

Contemporary scholarship has also revised the casualty figures. Some older estimates of the number of people put to death by the Inquisition range to upwards of a million; the true figure may be closer to several tens of thousands—perhaps 2 percent of those who came before the Inquisition’s tribunals for any reason. That said, arguments over body count quickly become pointless and distasteful. The former commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hess, presented with a copy of his confession in which it was stated that he had “personally arranged the gassing of three million persons,” took a fountain pen from a lawyer, crossed out “three million,” wrote in “two million,” and then signed the document. Whatever the number killed may be, the Inquisition levied penalties of some sort on hundreds of thousands of people, and the fear and shame instilled by any individual case, even a minor one, rippled outward to affect a wide social circle. This didactic effect, of course, was no small part of the purpose.

But from between the lines the new scholarship has some larger lessons to offer. The Inquisition can be seen as something greater and more insidious than a sustained effort pursued over centuries by a single religious institution. The conspiracy-theory view of history—that the ills of the world have been spawned by the Masons, the Illuminati, the Trilateral Commission, Opus Dei, Skull and Bones, or Goldman Sachs—represents the easy way out. If only the source of evil were so simple to identify, so easy to confront. Shift perspective slightly—turn the object in the light—and you can see that the Inquisition was enabled by some of the broader forces that brought the modern world into existence, and that make inquisitions of various kinds a recurring and inescapable feature of modern life.

Why was there suddenly an Inquisition? Intolerance, hatred, and suspicion of “the other,” often based on religious and ethnic differences, had always been with us. Throughout history, these realities had led to persecution and violence. But the ability to sustain a persecution—to give it staying power by giving it an institutional life—did not appear until the Middle Ages. Until then, the tools to stoke and manage those omnipresent embers of hatred did not exist. Once these capabilities do exist, inquisitions become a fact of life—standard operating procedure. They are not confined to religion; they are political as well. The targets can be large or small. An inquisition impulse can quietly take root in the very systems of government and civil society that order our lives.

The tools are these: There needs to be a system of law, and the means to administer it with a certain amount of uniformity. There needs to be a well-defined process for conducting interrogations and extracting information. Procedures must exist for record-keeping, and for retrieving information after records have been compiled and stored. An administrative mechanism—a bureaucracy—is required, along with a cadre of trained people to staff it. There must be an ability to send messages across significant distances—and also some capacity to restrict the communications of others. And there must be a source of power, to ensure enforcement.

The source of power can vary. From the outset, the religious aims of the Inquisition were enmeshed with the might of secular rulers. The relationship was sometimes symbiotic and always complicated, and it changed over time. With the Medieval Inquisition, the church sought to leverage secular power to achieve its ends (though the secular authorities had their own purposes in mind). The Spanish Inquisition threw this arrangement into reverse: the crown made the Inquisition an official component of the Spanish state. During the Roman Inquisition, the tribunal was controlled directly by the papacy, and within its own territories church and state were the same thing.

The twentieth century would bring a new evolutionary stage: inquisitions that lay fully in the hands of the state and required no religious dimension at all. Scholars may debate whether there truly is such a thing as a “totalitarian” state, and what its essential characteristics are, but the desire to control the thoughts of others—joined to the conviction that history itself will ultimately render an approving judgment—underlies much of the sad narrative of the past one hundred years. Some phenomena loom with menace because they seem so alien. The Inquisition does so because it seems so familiar.

Looking at the Inquisition, one sees the West crossing a threshold from one kind of world into another. Persecution acquired a modern platform—the advantages afforded by a growing web of standardized law, communications, administrative oversight, and controlled mechanisms of force. It was run not merely by warriors but by an educated elite; not merely by thugs but by skilled professionals. And in its higher dimensions it was animated not by greed or hope of gain or love of power, though these were never absent, but by the fervent conviction that all must subscribe to some ultimate truth. Every subsequent outbreak of persecution, whether political or religious, has been abetted by these same forces. They ensure that the basic trajectory of repression will always look remarkably the same. They suggest why persecution is so difficult to stop. And they help explain why the Inquisition template has translated so easily from the religious sphere into the world of secular governments and secular ideologies, where it has been primarily lodged for more than a century.

This article is adapted from the book God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World, published this month by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright 2012 by Cullen Murphy.

Cullen Murphy is the editor-at-large of Vanity Fair and the author of several books, including The Word According to Eve: Women and the Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own (Houghton Mifflin, 1998) and Are We Rome? The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America (Houghton Mifflin, 2007). He lives in Massachusetts.
Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the 2012-01-27 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.