From Torquemada to the ‘War on Terror’

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...

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About the Author

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.