The Roman Inquisition: A Papal Bureaucracy and Its Laws in the Age of Galileo

The Roman Inquisition: A Papal Bureaucracy and Its Laws in the Age of Galileo

The Roman Inquisition: A Papal Bureaucracy and Its Laws in the Age of Galileo

The Roman Inquisition: A Papal Bureaucracy and Its Laws in the Age of Galileo

Synopsis

While the Spanish Inquisition has laid the greatest claim to both scholarly attention and the popular imagination, the Roman Inquisition, established in 1542 and a key instrument of papal authority, was more powerful, important, and long-lived. Founded by Paul III and originally aimed to eradicate Protestant heresy, it followed medieval antecedents but went beyond them by becoming a highly articulated centralized organ directly dependent on the pope. By the late sixteenth century the Roman Inquisition had developed its own distinctive procedures, legal process, and personnel, the congregation of cardinals and a professional staff. Its legal process grew out of the technique of inquisitio formulated by Innocent III in the early thirteenth century, it became the most precocious papal bureaucracy on the road to the first "absolutist" state.

As Thomas F. Mayer demonstrates, the Inquisition underwent constant modification as it expanded. The new institution modeled its case management and other procedures on those of another medieval ancestor, the Roman supreme court, the Rota. With unparalleled attention to archival sources and detail, Mayer portrays a highly articulated corporate bureaucracy with the pope at its head. He profiles the Cardinal Inquisitors, including those who would play a major role in Galileo's trials, and details their social and geographical origins, their education, economic status, earlier careers in the Church, and networks of patronage. At the point this study ends, circa 1640, Pope Urban VIII had made the Roman Inquisition his personal instrument and dominated it to a degree none of his predecessors had approached.

Excerpt

The Roman Inquisition belonged to the pope. Gregory IX originally created it, Paul III revived it, Paul IV and Pius V (both former Inquisitors, Pius also having served as commissary) made it a fearsome institution. It reflects better than any other papal institution the long-term tendency to concentrate power in the pope’s hands. It gave him his most effective institutional means of exercising that power. Unlike older central organs, the Inquisition could take cognizance of nearly any kind of case and be put to nearly any purpose. Its predecessors, especially the three papal courts of the Segnature di Grazia and Giustizia and the Rota as well as the once powerful consistory, the regular meeting of all the cardinals with the pope, had precise and complicated procedures and well-defined areas of competence. Perhaps for that very reason they had gone into eclipse in direct proportion to the expansion of papal prerogatives. The Inquisition’s constantly evolving procedures and jurisprudence instead of steadily ossifying it made it a more and more flexible instrument. Its powerful drive to centralization served the same end. Of course, as its processes, both administrative and judicial, became more complicated and its volume of business increased exponentially, it did slowly become more hidebound. But as a direct outgrowth of papal plenitudo potestatis it constantly underwent renewal through the pope’s personal intervention. If we can believe one avviso, Urban VIII had no doubt on this score. Citing his harsh treatment of Cardinal Pio as an example to those ministers of princes who would try to limit his authority, he laughingly continued that even without a formed process—which he acknowledged was probably impossible in Pio’s case—“it was enough for him [Urban] to know the truth of the facts, not caring that he [Pio] appear judicially.” Unlike in the case of many other central papal organs, we find little evidence of the Inquisition as a body resisting papal wishes. This may be in part an artifact of record keeping, combined with the strict secrecy the pope to a remarkable degree managed to impose. Still, the minute examination that ambassadors and newsletter writers applied to the Inquisition produced little sign of corporate objections to the papal will. Yes, they do report all the usual pressures—faction, personality, politics, economics—coming into play. Despite them, the record shows the popes remaining firmly in control and much more often than not getting their way. Conflagrations like those in the consistories of January 1615 that led Paul V to walk out after Inquisitor Paolo Emilio Sfondrato sharply criticized his building on the Quirinal seem only rarely to have happened in the Holy Office except during the period of tense relations with Spain beginning in late 1630. The nearest occasion otherwise was the probably spirited discussion over the new title of eminenza that Urban assigned to the cardinals in the same year. Again, the Roman Inquisition belonged to the pope.

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