From the time of Charlemagne (800–814) and beyond, the peoples of Europe were united by the teachings and practices of the Western (Latin) Church. So deep and abiding was this consensus that any deviation from the common faith was felt to be a serious threat to the community itself. From time to time individuals rejected this heritage and preached separatist religious doctrines and canons. This break with the status quo would be seen as not only an attack on the church but also an attack on society.

Usually these individuals formed no organized sects and their followers dispersed after their deaths. To the extent that they denied articles of the Catholic faith they were termed “heretics.” By the early 12th century the Western Latin Church had a firm basis for definition of orthodox belief, and the laws of the state provided sanctions against those who deviated from it.

In the second half of the 12th century, however, there appeared two groups that seriously challenged the basic tenets of Christendom. The Albigensians, or the Cathari, believed in Christian dualism (gnosticism) where there were two gods, one good and one evil.

The good god made the spiritual world including the human soul and the evil god made the material world, including the human body. The group rejected certain basic institutions of the status quo, including the sacrament of penance, the liturgy, and prayers for the dead. A second group, the Waldensians, maintained basically a Christian position.

They were fundamentally interested in spreading Christianity, dedicated to living the Gospel in poverty. They did reject, however, prayers and liturgies for the dead and the authority of the Roman Church and taught that unordained people have the right to preach.

The Inquisition originated with Pope Gregory IX (1227–41). The Inquisition was an extraordinary court established by the papacy to investigate and adjudicate persons accused of heresy. The purpose was to bring order and legality to the procedure for dealing with heresy, since there was much inconsistency in the prosecution of religious scandals and misconduct.

On the one hand, the attitude in southern France was one of benign indifference or even approval of heresy, while in the north, on the other hand, particularly in Germany, there was the tendency for mobs to burn alleged heretics without the aid of a court.


In the course of their investigation of the presence of heresy in the regions designated by their appointment, the inquisitors interviewed literally thousands of people. After the actual trial had been completed, the evidence was weighed. The local bishop was given the record, and he and the inquisitor agreed on an appropriate penance, if the accused accepted it. If not, then the person was declared contumacious and his property was confiscated.

The penances handed down were such things as pilgrimage to a famous religious shrine, the wearing of yellow cloth crosses (the most used penance), ritual flagellation, fines, demolition of houses and confiscations, and imprisonment. Shame and humiliation were the preferred methods of discipline, though the death penalty was invoked in special cases.

The inquisitor tried to explain the true doctrine and to correct erring members. If, however, individuals refused to repent, the church formally recognized its inability to bring about change. Then it would declare erring members heretics, withdraw its judicial protection, and abandon them to the secular authority, which proceeded to apply its own law. This secular punishment involved mutilation and death in various forms.

The most extensive and influential inquisitorial investigation took place in Toulouse, France, 1245–46. Actions were drawn up against 5,471 men and women; only 207 verdicts were issued by the judge-delegates, of which 23 were given “life sentences” (usually seven years’ imprisonment), and the rest were given yellow crosses to wear on their clothing. No one was executed, and no property was confiscated. Toulouse served as model for later and more concentrated inquisitions.

Founded in 1542 by Pope Paul III with the Constitution Licet ab initio, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was originally called the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition as its duty was to defend the church from heresy. The congregation promotes in a collegial fashion encounters and initiatives to spread sound doctrine and defend those points of Christian tradition that seem in danger because of new and unacceptable doctrines.

Pope Pius X in 1908 changed the name to the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office. It received its current name, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in 1965 from Pope Paul VI. Its duty is to promote and safeguard the doctrine on the faith and morals throughout the Catholic world.