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Friday, August 18, 2017
Date Posted:

Rome's Inquisition is Alive and Well

Chief Inquisitor Cardinal Ratzinger – Putting the smack down on heresy
Dr. Clive Gillis

Our illustration shows an aerial view of the Roman Inquisition.

Yes! In its heyday, this building really was Rome’s Inquisition. It evokes awful visions of dark, basement dungeons, torture, pain, starvation, and an endless stream of broken hapless souls, the terrified playthings of inscrutable and sanctimonious Inquisitors.

The photograph was taken from the dome of St Peters. A group of visitors were puzzled as to why the author was grappling with a telephoto lens in the most awkward position to shoot a dull administrative block in Vatican City when so much of Rome’s grandeur stood majestically around. The answer is that people need to know that the days of this building’s usefulness are far from over.

The Cruel Pope Paul IV

The Inquisition was set up in the City of Rome by the cruel Pope Paul IV when he was still Cardinal Carafa, because he was peeved at the success of the Spanish Inquisition. He realised it was time to give some teeth to the Italian tribunal. He persuaded his predecessor, Paul III, to institute the Roman Inquisition with the papal bull of 1542 Licet ab init.

The tribunal constituted by that bull was the Sacra Congregation Romanae et Universalis Inquisitionis seu Sancti Officii – the Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition or Holy Office. Later, as pope, he oversaw it with a rod of iron.

And so it remained until 1911 when Pius X changed it – in name only – to Congregatio Sancti Officii, the Congregation of the Holy Office.

In 1965, amidst the liberal atmosphere of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI changed its name again, to Congregatio pro Doctrina Fidei or Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – a title better suited to an enlightened age. Meanwhile he jettisoned only such powers as the times made it impossible to retain. So readers might be tempted to think that although the building still stands, its activities must have changed. Surely Rome cannot get away with that kind of thing these days?

Garibaldi’s Republic

This question has been asked before. When papal power was curtailed on 8th February 1849, during the brief Roman Republic established by Garibaldi, the Constituent Assembly declared the awful reign of the popes and their fearsome inquisition over, Giacinto Achilli, a Roman priest on a journey of conversion was overjoyed. He wrote, "The Rome of the Popes became the Rome of the People. The papal arms were torn down, ecclesiastical rights and privileges abolished, onerous (papal) taxes done away with – everything was altered."

Or was it? A fortnight later Achilli went with friends to St Peters, now the people’s church, to thank God for the overthrow of popery. His prayer finished with the petition, "And let us pray that the Holy Word, the Gospel of the Redeemer, be no longer persecuted in Rome and incarcerated in the Inquisition". After the service their thoughts turned to the Inquisition.

"What has become of it?"
"Is it shut up?"
"I imagine so."
"Let us go and see…"

The building is close by, hard on the left of St Peter’s and when the friends arrived it seemed deserted. Suddenly a Dominican monk appeared, the assistant to the Commissioner General. Achilli recognised him, because Achilli had himself been a prisoner of the Inquisition a few years earlier. Achilli expressed surprise that despite the new Roman Republic the Inquisitors, far from fleeing, were still running the place. The Inquisitor’s reply was astounding. "All," replied he, "are here at present who were here originally. There are the same number of officials, and they occupy their usual quarters. The head commissioner is in yonder apartment, with his whole suite, and at this very moment they are at table."

The "head commissioner" today is Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is there along "with his whole suite". The staff of the Inquisition are still inside "their usual quarters".

Ratzinger’s autobiography Milestones – Memoir; 1927-1977 published in 1998 covers the period before November 25 1981 when he became Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Although the book is full of facts, we learn little about the real Ratzinger. The BBC television series Absolute Truth and the subsequent book by presenter Romanist Edward Stourton, published in 1998, were also both full of interesting material. Learned Jesuit Fr. Stephen Schloesser of Boston College reviewed the book for Rome. He said, "Although Stourton has produced an enormously engaging book, readers will have seen much of this material before … Stourton’s narrative lacks … First … explanatory power … Second … vision"

The canny Jesuit had spotted that Rome had once more tamed the media, including Stourton.

Mind like mantrap

When Harold Macmillan visited pope Pius XII, in his Vatican lair after World War II, he described his man thus, "at the centre of it all … sits the little saintly man, rather worried and obviously quite selfless and holy, at once a pathetic and tremendous figure". He could not believe that such a little man could have wielded such power. When Stourton visited Ratzinger in the Inquisition, the same thing happened. Stourton said, "When I visited Joseph Ratzinger it was an altogether more mundane experience. I cannot think of any other public figure who arouses quite the same intensity of feeling in so many parts of the world; from El Salvador to Sri Lanka people utter his name with a mixture of fear, respect, awe and loathing … I was quite unprepared for the rather slight hesitant figure … with the manner of a genial grandfather … who appeared in one of the reception rooms of the third floor of what is still referred to as the Palace of the Holy Office". Only when the interview began did Stourton discover Ratzinger’s "piercing eyes" and awesome "mind like a man trap". Ratzinger is the second most powerful man in the Vatican. He has great influence on the present pope who is actually more liberal than his Inquisitor. Ratzinger is probably too old to be the next pope but is potentially pope-maker-number-one in the coming Conclave. His tough stance has won him huge popularity amongst conservative Romanists everywhere. He has sold "thousands of books in dozens of languages" and been profiled by every major TV and radio station, newspaper and magazine in the world. He has a worldwide fan club complete with merchandising section. Ratzinger tea shirts bear some of his memorable inquisitorial quotes. "Truth is not determined by a majority vote," and, "Unlimited trust should only be placed in the real Word of the Revelation that we encounter in the faith transmitted by the Church," are just two of them. Caps, cups, mugs and for his fellow countrymen, the Bavarians, a beer stein, all carry the logo, "I put the smack down on heresy since 1981".

Amusingly, remembering Ratzinger’s tough image, the liberals dented sales by putting about the rumour these cups and mugs, stamped "made in China", were the produce of a forced labour camp!

Exasperated insiders

Far from the Inquisition withering. Ratzinger has manipulated the present pope’s conservatism to strengthen it. In the papal bull Pastor Bonus 1988 (see box) its wide powers were re-affirmed and somewhat strengthened. Authoritative Jesuit Reese describes the reality of today’s Inquisition. No documents "that touch on matters of doctrine" move in the Vatican without Ratzinger’s approbation. The Inquisition is "always consulted" acting as "the gatekeeper on doctrinal questions reviewing everyone else’s documents …. On the record everyone says how helpful it is … off the record there are complaints of excessive delays and nit-picking about doctrinal issues". Well informed insiders, clearly exasperated by the Inquisition, told Reese nobody likes them or they way they work …They do a lot of stupid things … they insist on adding redundant qualifying phrases throughout their documents to make sure no-one could interpret the text in an unorthodox manner".

All the important works on the Inquisition from its earliest days, such as Lea, Limborch, Llorente, Rule and the others stress these same things. Superiority, secrecy, delay, a nightmare bureaucracy, fastidiousness and "nit-picking". This same spirit of Inquisition is alive in the Vatican today. And just as the Roman Inquisition of the 16th century or indeed of the 19th century had its spies everywhere – which in Achilli’s case led to his re-imprisonment in the Inquisition when the French put Pius IX back on the throne – so does the Inquisition of the 21st Century. Besides all Vatican documents being subjected to Inquisitional review before release, giving Ratzinger a stranglehold upon other Vatican departments, he has got his spies throughout the world. Apparently "Ratzinger has encouraged the doctrinal commissions of national bishop’s conferences to play a similar gatekeeper role with respect to the documents of that conference". Beware! The mighty Ratzinger, dubbed "the Enforcer" sees and knows all. But people are not always all they seem. In the next article we shall discover more about this feared inquisitor, DV.

There is a heartening postscript concerning the Inquisition building in Rome. We know from Achilli that when he was re-arrested, before his transfer to the long stay Castel St Angelo he succeeded in converting the two Roman priests imprisoned with him. "My two fellow prisoners soon became on friendly terms with me … they were famishing after the doctrines of the Truth of the Word of God. I had not been allowed to bring one … but I cited passages from memory. First one and then the second, the least docile of my new friends yielded … both were now converted". Within hours Achilli was taken away, but two souls had been saved within the Inquisition itself. Praise God. The Inquisition can never extinguish the flame of the True Gospel.

The Holy Roman Inquisition or Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as laid down in

Pastor Bonus 28 June 1988

Art.48 – The … duty of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is to promote and safeguard the doctrine on faith and morals in the whole Catholic world … in any way.

Art.49 – Fulfilling its duty of promoting doctrine, the Congregation (monitors) … new questions arising from the progress of the sciences or human culture.

Art.50 – It helps the bishops … in carrying out their office as authentic teachers and doctors of the faith … with it the duty of promoting and guarding the integrity of that faith.

Art.51 – To safeguard the truth of faith … the Congregation takes care lest faith or morals suffer harm through errors that have been spread in any way whatever.


1 … it has the duty of requiring that books and other writings touching faith or morals, being published by the Christian faithful, be subjected to prior examination by the competent authority;

2 … it examines carefully writings and opinions that seems to be contrary or dangerous to true faith, and, if it is established that they are opposed to the teaching of the Church, reproves them in due time … and … it brings suitable remedies to bear, if this be opportune.

3 … finally, it takes good care lest errors or dangerous doctrines, which may have been spread among the Christian people, do not go without apt rebuttal.

Art.52 – The Congregation examines offences against the faith and more serious ones both in behaviour or in the celebration of the sacraments which have been reported to it and, if need be, proceeds to the declaration or imposition of canonical sanctions …

Art.53 – It is to examine whatever concerns the privilege of the faith, both in law and in fact.

Art.54 – Documents being published by other dicasteries (‘dicasteries’ comes from ‘deacons’ and simply means other sections of the Vatican) … insofar as they touch on the doctrine of faith or morals, are to be subjected to its prior judgement.

Art.55 – the Pontifical Biblical Commission and the International Theological Commission … are presided over by the cardinal prefect of this Congregation.

From British Church Newspaper 4 April 03

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