Paul III Establishes the Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The successes of the Protestant Reformation led the Papacy to reinstate two related yet distinct instruments designed to stop the spread of heresy: the Inquisition and a system of strict censorship of printed material.

Summary of Event

Before the ascension of Alessandro Farnese to the papal throne as Pope Paul III in 1534, the Holy See all but ignored the advances of Lutheranism and other Protestant movements in the Holy Roman Empire and Italy. The new pontiff almost immediately appointed as cardinals men of both great learning and piety. He quickly created a committee to study weaknesses and abuses in the Church and to suggest courses of action. In March, 1537, this committee, led by three of the new cardinals, including Gian Pietro Carafa—the future Pope Paul IV—presented Paul with their report, “Recommendations on Church Reform.” Among many suggestions concerning clerical abuses, they wrote, “. . . all princes should be instructed by letter to be on their guard lest any books be printed indiscriminately under their authority. Responsibility in this matter should be given to the [local bishops].” Hoping for reconciliation, Paul delayed taking direct action against Protestants until the imperial Diet of Regensburg Regensburg, Diet of (1541) (1541) made it clear that no reconciliation was at all likely. Catholicism;church reform Index of Prohibited Books Paul III Paul IV Pius IV Pius V Paul IV Sixtus V Pius IV Pius V Gregory XIII Paul III

On July 15, 1542, Paul III issued Licit ab Initio Licit ab Initio (Paul III) , the bull establishing the Sacred Congregation of the Inquisition Inquisition;Italy into Heretical Depravity, also known as the Holy Office Holy Office . Its charge was to investigate and punish heretics and, initially at least, to root out and destroy heretical literature. The Holy Office was the creature of Cardinal Carafa, who sat as its president until he became pope in 1555. Six cardinals generally headed this institution, though the actual number varied with later popes’ preferences. They served as the real judges of the accused. At the outset, they were aided by twenty-seven counselors and three theologians. Carafa was a Dominican priest, and Dominicans dominated the Inquisition both in Rome and in the field, except in Venice and Florence, where a Franciscan had traditionally taken the role of inquisitor.





Ecclesiastical tribunals of inquisition had a long history by the 1540’, and at the time of Paul’s bull they were currently active in Spain (since 1478), Portugal (since the 1530’), and the Netherlands (since 1522). In Rome, the Sacred Congregation continued under that name until Pope Sixtus V renamed it the Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition or Congregation of the Holy Office when he reorganized the Papal Curia in 1588 with the constitution Immensa Aeterna.

Lists of prohibited books were also an established institution. Such lists had been compiled locally by bishops or civic authorities since the dawn of printing, and they were then current in Louvain, Paris, Lucca, Venice, and Florence. In his bull Inter Multiplices (1487), Pope Innocent VIII had given bishops and the Master of the Sacred (Papal) Palace in Rome the right to act as censors of printed materials. Their authority was further confirmed by Pope Alexander VI in 1501, and by the Fifth Lateran Council in 1515, all before Luther ever posted his Ninety-five Theses.

In Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands, enforcement of the ecclesiastical tribunals’ decisions was supported by the authority of the state. The bishops in Italy, however, lacked such a resource of temporal power to aid in the execution of their duty. On July 12, 1543, Paul III’s decree Animadvertentes Animadvertentes (Paul III) removed the duty of censorship from bishops. He placed enforcement instead in the hands of the Holy Office, giving its members the sole right of granting licenses of imprimatur—“it may be printed.” After 1543, no book in Italy was to be produced without such a license. There was as yet, however, no list of prohibited books.

It was under Paul IV that the first papally approved lists of prohibited books appeared. A tentative catalog of sixty-one works was produced in 1558, and this was followed by the Inquisition’s grand Index librorum prohibitorum (Index of Prohibited Books), which condemned the complete works of nearly 550 writers and a host of individual titles. These included all of the works of Desiderius Erasmus, a man Paul III had invited to join the College of Cardinals. Though most of the works or authors were Protestant and thus heretical, others were merely obscene or critical of the Church.

The Index was widely criticized as draconian and largely ignored after Paul’s death in August, 1559. It drew fire from early Jesuit scholars like Peter Canisius (“it is a stumbling block”) and Diego Laínez, who declared that even very orthodox Catholics found it too severe. Pius IV issued the decree “Moderation of the Index” in 1561, spreading enforcement among the inquisitors and the—presumably more tolerant—bishops.

The formal inquisitorial process was laid out by canon law in the late Middle Ages and had changed little by the sixteenth century. Studies of the Roman practice are few, since the records of the Holy Office have been open to all scholars only since 1998. Nonetheless, it appears that in Roman trials the use of torture was less barbaric, and the procedures resulted in far fewer executions, than in the trials of the Spanish Inquisition. Nevertheless, under Pope Paul IV there was such egregious abuse of the tribunals that even such a champion of Catholicism as the French historian Henri Daniel-Rops was led to characterize them as “an appalling reign of terror.” Under Paul’s chief inquisitor, the rigid Dominican cardinal Antonio Ghislieri, the procedures were harsh and the punishments brutal. Paul liked to attend the weekly meetings and called the Holy Office the “apple of my eye and favorite of my heart.”

In 1566, Cardinal Ghislieri ascended to the papacy as Pope Pius V. In his first year as pope, he had the ominous Palazzo dello Santo Uffizio (Palace of the Holy Office) built near the Spanish steps in Rome. Here the activities and records of the Inquisition were sacrosanct from all save its own officers. Indeed, no one, except perhaps the pope himself, was outside its jurisdiction. Like the other, national inquisitions, the tribunals’ Roman and local trials were held in secret, giving rise to all sorts of gothic imaginings. In fact, the Holy Office had to use diplomatic channels with various Italian states, for example in obtaining extradition of major heretics.

During the eighteenth session of the Council of Trent, beginning in February, 1562, the Augustinian Girolamo Seripando began revising Paul’s Index. The twenty-fifth session of 1563 produced “Ten Rules Concerning Prohibited Books” as part of its “Decree Concerning Reform.” The Index was now in the hands of reformist bishops. They produced a more moderate document that addressed many of the criticisms of Paul’s list and allowed for expurgation (removal) of objectionable parts of otherwise meritorious works. A third list was conceived in 1572, when Pope Gregory XIII established the Congregation of the Index, a standing committee specifically dedicated to censorship. This version of the Index remained hidden until March 27, 1596, when it was promulgated by Pope Clement VIII.


The Index continued in use through thirty-two editions, until it was suppressed in 1966 after the Second Vatican Council. It had the immediate effect of driving printers out of Rome and into the more liberal Venice, which retained its position as Italian center of progressive publishing. In general, the Index was only as effective as those enforcing it, and this differed widely over the centuries and from place to place in Italy. In the twentieth century, the Inquisition evolved into the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, its official name after December, 1965. The Holy Office and the Index together served to dampen the spirit of exploration and innovation that had made Italy the front-runner of the Renaissance, as they turned against heliocentric astronomers, “immoral” authors, and even artists such as Tintoretto. The Counter-Reformation Papacy’s successes against heresy in Italy were bought at the high cost of Italy’s place in the intellectual and cultural circles of early modern Europe.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Del Col, Andrea. Domenico Scandella Known as Menocchio: His Trials Before the Inquisition, 1583-1599. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1996. Following a long introduction, Del Col prints the transcripts, in English, of this accused man’s two trials, the second of which ended in his execution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fragnito, Gigliola, ed. Church, Censorship, and Culture in Early Modern Italy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Collection of articles written since the opening of the Archive of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1998. General introduction to the Congregation in Fragnito’s Introduction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ginzburg, Carlo. The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller. New York: Penguin Books, 1985. A close study of a single case tried before the Roman Inquisition, that of Scandella (see Del Col above). Provides excellent insights into the inquisitorial process in a provincial area.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Godman, Peter. The Saint as Censor: Robert Bellarmine Between Inquisition and Index. Boston: Brill, 2000. Extended introduction to Cardinal Bellarmine and the roles of inquisitor and censor, with ninety documents in original Italian or Latin.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Grendler, Paul F. The Roman Inquisition and the Venetian Press, 1540-1605. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977. The Inquisition and Index had an odd pair of effects on Venetian publishing: printers had to be more careful, but they now got the business previously in the hands of Roman printers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tedeschi, John A. The Prosecution of Heresy: Collected Studies on the Inquisition in Early Modern Italy. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1991. A widely ranging collection of short papers, each of which focuses on inquisitorial processes in Italy during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wright, A. D. The Counter-Reformation: Catholic Europe and the Non-Christian World. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982. Discussion of the Index and Inquisition embedded in broader context of minority religious populations in Europe and in Spanish and Portuguese colonies.

1456: Publication of Gutenberg’s Mazarin Bible

1473-1600: Witch-Hunts and Witch Trials

Nov. 1, 1478: Establishment of the Spanish Inquisition

1492: Jews Are Expelled from Spain

1494: Sebastian Brant Publishes The Ship of Fools

Oct. 31, 1517: Luther Posts His Ninety-five Theses

Mar., 1536: Calvin Publishes Institutes of the Christian Religion

1543: Copernicus Publishes De Revolutionibus

1545-1563: Council of Trent

1550’s: Tartaglia Publishes The New Science

1550’s-c. 1600: Educational Reforms in Europe

1583-1600: Bruno’s Theory of the Infinite Universe

Categories: History