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New Powers for the Italian Inquisition

Paul III, who extended the power of the Italian inquisition.

POPE PAUL III extended the scope of the Roman Inquisition on this day, 21 July 1542 when he issued a bull (a papal document) known as Licet ab initio. For a time, it had seemed that the Roman Church under Pope Paul III might quietly adopt some of the more significant reforms advanced by Luther and other Protestant reformers. A number of influential Catholics, such as Bernardino Ochino, General of the Capuchins, and Peter Martyr Vermigli, a notable scholar, favored reform ideas such as justification by faith and giving laypeople both the bread and the wine during Eucharist. However, a backlash was soon to come. 

Pope Paul created in his bull what became known as the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, which stated: “We give to them [the inquisitors] the power to search those who leave the way of God and the true catholic faith, or who practice it in a mistaken way, or who are in a way under suspicion of heresy.” 

Heading this commission was Cardinal Carafa, who later became the cruel, persecuting pope Paul IV. He and five fellow cardinals had broad power to scrutinize faith “in each and every city of Christian kingdoms, towns, lands and places, whether this side or beyond the mountains, anywhere they please even in Italy.” The inquisition was even allowed to investigate the pope’s advisors. Although Licet did not mention capital punishment or censorship, both were soon employed. 

According to historian Philip Schaff, in a three year period, this Italian Inquisition tried over 800 individuals suspected of Lutheranism as well as Calvinists, Anabaptists, Jews, blasphemers, sorcerers, and the like, penalizing one hundred and eleven of them severely—many, with death. 

Thousands of reformation-minded Catholics fled Italy, most of them to Switzerland. Among these religious refugees were Bernardino Ochino and Peter Martyr. 

Carafa’s strategy worked. The Reformation never took hold in Italy. 

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