The Inquisitions

By the thirteenth century, the heresy of Catharism, a sect similar to Manicheism, had spread across Europe. In response, the church appointed special councils, called Inquisitions, to investigate all offenses against the church, but especially to root out heresies like Catharism and punish them. Heretics convicted by an Inquisition could confess and spend time in prison or remain obstinate and be burned at the stake. In the latter case, the secular authorities stepped in to carry out the sentence.

The Spanish Inquisition was separate from the more general papal Inquisitions. There were violent persecutions of Jews and Muslims in Spain who were forced to convert to Catholicism in large numbers. In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella issued the Alhambra decree that ordered all of some 40,000 Jews to convert or leave their kingdom. Once they had converted, they might be accused of having pretended to convert for political expediency when in reality they were continuing to practice their own religions. These false converts were called conversos, "new Christians." The Inquisition set about identifying the conversos by compiling a list of signs. These signs, such as refusing to prepare food on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, indicated which conversos had lapsed back into Judaism. Like the Jews, Muslims were exiled or forced to convert, and like the Jews, if they did convert they were regarded with great suspicion. By some estimate the number of Muslims and Jews forced to migrate was more than a million.

In 1542, the pope established the Congregation for the Doctrine ofFaith to supervise the Inquisitions. It was this body that censured Copernicus for his heliocentric theory (that the earth is one of a group of planets that revolves around the sun) and, in 1633, banned Galileo's works for suspicion of heresy. Pope John Paul II, in 1992, publicly apologized for the Inquisition's condemnation of Galileo, but as we have seen, violent persecution and martyrdom were regrettable signifiers even of the early church, from the Maccabees to Diocletian.

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