The Pontifical Inquisition was a Church (ecclesiastical) court that was established by Pope Gregory IX in 1230 to root out heresy. The notorious Spanish Inquisition was created by Pope Sixtus IV at the request of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain in 1478. Pope Paul III founded the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition (called the Roman Inquisition) in 1542, which later became the Holy Office in 1908 and then the current Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1965.
Heresy is false teaching which can threaten the very foundation of the Church. Doctrinal error is the antithesis of a religion based on teaching divinely revealed truth. The Roman Inquisition was staffed by friars from the Franciscan or Dominican Orders and moved from town to town, setting up courts to try people accused of heresy. The accused were generally given a month to recant. If they did not, then a public trial was held, and if they were found guilty and still did not renounce their false teachings, they would be handed over to civil authority, which usually meant death.
In societies where church and state were one, heresy affected not only the church but also the good of society. Therefore, heresy became a crime of the state as well as of the church. Most people conjure thoughts about the Inquisition as agents of torture, and unfortunately, this is not far from the truth. The Inquisition existed in a period of time in which people were far more violent. It was not uncommon for secular society to punish with an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth. In other words, if a man was convicted of theft, his hand was cut off. Public hangings were seen as events to attend, much like the human sacrifices in the Roman Coliseum, in which countless Christians were fed to lions. Medieval society was only a few generations removed from barbarism. It was not unusual for the civil society to use means of torture to cleanse a criminal. Pope Innocent IV in a papal bull permitted torture as a last resort in extreme cases in order to smash the stubbornness of the heretic and force them to admit guilt. The painful extraction of confessions only occurred after a church tribunal had enough proof and evidence that the accused were in fact guilty. If they admitted or confessed their crime, they would be given a modest punishment. If they obstinately refused to admit their guilt despite witness testimony and corroborating evidence, then torture was used to get the truth out of them.
While today we would see this as cruel and inhumane, the Medieval concept was that the salvation of souls was in jeopardy. If heretics died unrepentant, they were considered damned for eternity. If they confessed and repented, they would be absolved and would save their souls from hell. Better to save one’s soul for eternity than to lose the immortal soul merely to save one’s mortal life—that was their perspective. So torture was seen as a last-resort medicinal means to get the guilty to confess and, thus, to save their souls. Of course, these measures were also at times used for political advantages. Saint Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake for being heretical and a witch, suffered from the lies of her enemies. The Catholic Church never imposed the death penalty, nor executed heretics or witches during the Inquisition. The trial was ecclesiastical and under the direction of religious orders, but the actual capital punishment and most of the torture occurred at the hands of the civil authorities under authority of the emperor, of the king, or of the local prince, baron, etc.
After the Protestant Reformation, countries which had suffered at the hands of the Inquisitions formed their own form of Inquisition, and would do much of the same in the name of God, religion, and country. Countless Catholics lost their lives because they would not convert to Protestantism. Mary, Queen of the Scots is a notable example. Queen Elizabeth I of England martyred more Catholics than her half sister before her, Queen Mary I, did Protestants. Even in the New World, the Salem witch trials were considered a type of Protestant Inquisition. Torture and the threat of death were used to obtain confession and conversion. Often the punishment for refusing to confess was burning at the stake.
After the Council of Trent with its sweeping reforms, the Inquisition was radically changed. It was made up of cardinals and became a final court of appeal. Torture was not used, and censures and excommunications would be the punishments.
In the twentieth century, the Inquisition’s name became the Holy Office, where doctrinal purity was the main intention of its existence. After the Second Vatican Council in 1965, the name finally became the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith with its primary purpose being to guarantee the correct teaching of faith and morals.