Magic, as we have seen, was by far the single largest heretical category handled by the inquisitions of Italy after the first waves of Protestantism had abated. But it was certainly not the only type of offense. Other significant categories showed considerable variation from place to place. Unlike the Spanish Inquisition, for example, where the prosecution of Judaizers continued at a high rate down to 1700, the Italian tribunals were much less preoccupied with this offense. […]

In the Spanish system, the single largest category of offenses, accounting for about 28 percent of its total activity, was the loosely defined cluster of doctrinal errors which had been labeled as proposiciones hereticas (including heretical blasphemy and many other crimes, such as the belief that sexual intercourse between married individuals was not sinful).

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)


Mexico’s Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition founded by Philip II in January 1569 had developed its bureacratic structure by the first decade of the seventeenth century. Spectacular autos de fe between 1574 and 1601 allowed the Tribunal to establish its reputation in the colony and to augment its financial base beyond the yearly 10,000 peso subvention provided by the Spanish monarchy. Trials of crypto-Jews in the 1590s netted considerable income and caused the king to cease his payment of inquisitional salaries for a time. During the first decade of the seventeenth century the Tribunal petitioned the crown to assign the income from a series of cathedral canonries for support of the Inquisition bureaucracy. Between 1629 and 1636 “reserved” canonries were established for Holy Office income and by 1650 nine of these were generating the Inquisition’s salary budget. It was always understood that royal subsidies were to decrease as canonry income paid salaries. All other expenses had to come from judicial fines.

After the flurry of Protestant and Jewish trials of the late sixteenth century, the Mexican Tribunal entered an era of relative inactivity and meager income. From the arrival of the Tribunal in 1571 a series of disputes with the ecclesiastical hierarchy and with civil government over jurisdiction, dignity and position in religious and civil affairs ensued. These abrasive relations accentuated in the first half of the seventeenth century and provided the background for vicious infighting after 1630. Viceroys, jealous of their prerogatives, treated the Holy Office with benign neglect causing the Tribunal to complain in February 1634 that edicts of faith had not been read for a decade. Civil government officials would not march in Inquisition processions or attend proclamations of edicts “owing to quarrels over the ceremonial aspects of the procedures,” and it was another decade “before questions of etiquette and precedence were settled” and edicts of faith were read in the cathedral. The Inquisition Tribunal had reported to the Council of the Suprema in Spain on July 12, 1638 “not a single case was pending.” This was the situation when the Mexican Holy Office used a perceived Jewish conspiracy to recoup its power, prestige, and financial position. Blatant disregard for prescribed inquisitorial procedures, rights of accused, peculation, and use of the Inquisition as a political instrument led to a full scale investigation of the Mexican Holy Office between 1645 and 1669.

Richard E. Greenleaf, “The Great Visitas of the Mexican Holy Office 1645-1669,” The Americas, vol. 44.4 (1988)

On Wednesday, the even of St. Vitus day…the wicked women [mothers of three of the nuns] sent word to me an hour before meal time that they would come before dinner and remove their children. […] Then the women used kind words and ordered the children to leave. If, however, they would not go willingly, they would be removed by force. Then the brave knights of Christ defended themselves by word and deed as much as they could with great weeping, screaming, pleading and begging, but there was less mercy there than in hell. […]

Every mother argued with her daughter. For a while they promised them a great deal and then for a while they threatened them a great deal. The children, however, continued to weep loudly. The arguing and shouting lasted a long time. Katherina Ebner spoke very courageously and constantly supported all her words with the Holy Scripture. She found errors in all their statements and told them how much their actions ran contrary to the Holy Gospel. Afterwards outside the men said they had never heard anything like that their whole lives. She had just spoken the whole hour without interruption. Not a word was wasted. Each word was so well chosen that it carried the weight of several words. […]

Katharina Ebner said, “Here I stand and will not yield. No one shall be able to force me out. If I am removed by force, however, it shall never be by my will in eternity. I will appeal to God in heaven and to all the world on earth.” When she was speaking Held took her under his arms and began to pull and drag her away. Then I ran away with the other sisters, for I could not watch this misery. Some sisters stopped at the chapel door. They heard the quarreling, shouting and dragging away amid the great screaming and weeping of the children. Four people grabbed each one with two pulling in front and two pushing from behind. And so the dear sisters Ebner and Teztel fell over each other at the threshold. Poor sister Teztel almost had her foot severed. The wicked women stood there and blessed their daughters as they came out in accordance to all their rituals.

Frau Ebner threatened her daughter that if she did not walk before her she would push her down the stairs to the pulpit. She threatened to throw her on the floor so hard that she would bounce. When they broke into the church amid much cursing and swearing, an incredible screaming, shouting and weeping began before they tore off the old garments of our order and dressed them with worldly clothes…The poor children cried out loudly to the people and complained that they were suffering abuse and injustice and that they had been taken from the cloister by force. Clara Nutzel called out loudly, “O beautiful Mother of God, you know this is not my will.” As they rode away many hundreds of boys and other people ran after each coach. Our children screamed and wept loudly. Frau Ebner struck her little Katharina on the mouth so that it began to bleed. When each coach arrived at her father’s house, each child began to scream and weep all over again so that the people had great pity for them.

Caritas Pirckheimer: A Journal of the Reformation Years 1524-1528, transl. by Paul MacKenzie (2006)

As we were coming out of Lent in misery and distress, things got much worse after Easter. On the Friday of Easter Week all the priests were summoned to the city hall and forbidden to celebrate the Latin mass…All lay priests and the priests in the monasteries with the exception of those in the parishes were forbidden to hear confession and to dispense the sacraments. […]

And so we were in great fear and distress and every day we expected even more misfortune. We crouched down and bent down so much that we could hardly hold divine services or ring the bells in the choir. Whenever they heard anything from us, cursing, shouting and abuse would start up in the church. They threw stones into our choir and smashed the windows in the church and sang slanderous songs in the churchyard. They frequently threatened that if we rang for Matins one more night they would do something terrible to us.

But we risked it, trusting in the Grace of God, and not for one night did we stop ringing the bells or holding Matins.

Caritas Pirckheimer: A Journal of the Reformation Years 1524-1528, transl. by Paul MacKenzie (2006)

Then he wanted to argue for a considerable time that we should receive the Holy Sacrament in both kinds in addition to other ideas. But I would not accede to him. I said we were simple, uneducated women and would leave such things to the learned men and until there was unity in the Church we preferred to stay with the old faith [Catholicism] and not be drive off by anyone [Protestant reformers]. Then he wanted to know how I liked his preacher from St. Giles. He could get no other answer from me but that I liked one as much as the other. (48) […]

I spoke again. We are Sisters of Saint Claire and not Carthusians. Therefore we want no Carthusians [who had become Lutherans], for we would probably have to accept his order too. Then the superintendent spoke. He would guarantee that he would not remain a Carthusian or a monk and would not keep his habit. Then I answered. Then let death confess to him! Are we to confess to a faithless apostate? If he does not keep his faith with God, how is he to display faith to us?

Footnote 48: Here Caritas is making a classic “left-handed compliment.” The truth was, of course, that she did not like any of them.

Caritas Pirckheimer: A Journal of the Reformation Years 1524-1528, transl. by Paul MacKenzie (2006)

Caritas attained a reputation as one of the most learned women of her time as a result of her study of the classics, the Church Fathers, the Bible and other works that often were made available to her by her brother Willibald, an avid bibliophile and translator with whom she carried on a life-long correspondence. Her letters (often in Latin) reflect the extent to which she devoted herself to the pursuit of knowledge, while at the same time performing her many duties as abbess of St. Clare’s. […]

The City Council [of Nurnberg] planned to replace the Franciscans who had been the preachers and confessors to St. Clare’s with different preachers who were proponents of the “new doctrine” of Lutheranism. What was probably imagined as a rather simple matter of persuading the nuns to accept the new scheme turned out to be more complicated and problematical than anticipated. Caritas Pirckheimer proved to be a thorn in the side of the City Council. She did not yield to the pressure that was exerted on the convent and showed remarkable courage and determination in defending her sisters’ rights to continue to practice their faith as they felt they were entitled to, having made oaths to God alone and not to men. This was a position of independence that was, after all, not to very far removed from some of the fundamental tenets of the new Protestant faith, although it was often clothed in theological language which served to obfuscate the issues rather than highlight their similarities.

Caritas Pirckheimer: A Journal of the Reformation Years 1524-1528, transl. by Paul MacKenzie (2006)

The therapeutic mentality has developed especially in post-Protestant America because the waning of an “ascetic” culture – a culture of authority, moral demands, and self-discipline – is its most fertile soil. It is a mentality which, virtually as a matter of principle, ceases even trying to resolve contradictions or opposing demands (the stuff of tragedy) and in effect tells people, “Live within your moral means.” Self-improvement, then, becomes the characteristic modern faith. “Prophets” arise who, unlike those who classically bore the name, preach the mechanisms of release rather than control, “liberating” people rather than placing greater responsibilities on them. […]

So complete was the intellectual victory of the therapeutic mentality that many in the Church are now unable even to conceive of renewal in any terms other than further acts of release from obligations.

James Hitchcock, Catholicism and Modernity (1979)

Traditional Catholicism is variously patronized , derided, condemned, or ignored by self-consciously modern Christians, on the equally various grounds that it is outdated, narrow, inhuman, or incredible. Yet behind these sundry forms of rejection lies an unacknowledged fact: a firmly transcendental religion, a deeply held belief in the eternal God, is a constant threat to the humanistic Catholicism so skillfully fashioned in the past twenty years. To take seriously the Absolute, to endeavor sincerely to see all of life under the aspect of eternity, is to impose great inconveniences on the comfortable arrangements which advanced modern Christians have made with the world. Thus the priest or the nun is tolerable in his or her role as “minister,” that is, as a professional specialist applying skills to the facilitation of community life. But the priest or the nun as representative of the sacred, as ambassador of God, cannot be tolerated. For the same reason not only are classic conversion stories no longer told, but those converts who entered the Church because they experienced the call of the absolute and unwavering God are sometimes the objects of hostility.

The “relevance” of Catholicism has always lain in its power, not its contemporaneity, that is, in its ability to communicate to the individual a sense of God’s majesty and unchanging will, along with the concomitant promise of eternal life. It is this which is now, under the misnomer of “triumphalism,” rejected by so many Churchman who enjoy strategic influence. The Church’s crisis is not primarily intellectual, as it is often stated, not primarily the question whether its doctrines are any longer credible. During the supposedly intellectually barren period between Modernism and the Second Vatican Council, the Church did not cease to attract or keep highly respectable individuals from the artistic and intellectual worlds – Maritain, Gilson, Claudel, Peguy, Waugh, Greene, Rouault, Mauriac, Marcel, and Chesterton, a few among the many, along with others like Bergson and Simone Weil who were attracted but never formally converted. There is no even remotely comparable record of distinguished adherents to liberal Protestantism, despite the most strenuous efforts to make Christianity intellectually respectable and up-to-date. The crisis of the Church is not primarily intellectual and probably never was. It is personal and spiritual, a crisis of fundamental self-understanding and will. It proceeds from the failure of nerve, not the perplexities of the intellect.

James Hitchcock, Catholicism and Modernity (1979)

Apart from Bologna (which saw seven protestants and saw one of the four executions on this list), protestants appear rarely in the figures from central and southern Italy: a conventicle of five women who celebrated their own communion at Ancona provided the only significant episode. From Tuscany southward, magic was the most common charge. Naples at self-reported only one sentence against a female Judaizer. Taken all in all, these documents add up to a tantalizing snapshot of the general activities of the Roman Inquisition moment when the holy office of the Venetian Republic resembled of those throughout northern Italy in their preoccupation with protestant heresies, while those in the duchies of the Po valley or Tuscany were already turning to the prosecution of illicit magic as their chief concern.

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)

The Roman Inquisition was reconstituted in 1542 to combat the menace of Protestantism in the Italian peninsula, where as the Spanish Inquisition had been created more than half a century earlier to deal with massive numbers of converted Jews. The nature of what was considered “heresy” in each system reflects these original concerns. In northern and central Italy, “Lutheranism “overwhelmingly dominated the first generation of inquisitorial activity, lasting until the 1580s. The venetian records offer a truly remarkable example: over its first 35 years (1547-1582) this holy office tried more than 700 “Lutherans” among its first 1,200 cases- plus 36 Anabaptists, 68 cases of “heresy in general,” 20 of eating meat during Lent, and almost 90 concerned with possession or reading of prohibited books. Approximately 80 percent of these early cases, therefore, concern protestant or crypto-protestant behavior. In the Venetian Terrafirma, Aquileia-Concordia showed a similar concentration on such offenses during its first 38 years (1557-1595); of its initial 380 cases, 200 or four suspected product to Paris sees and 74 for consuming meat during Lent (A possible indication of northern influences at work). In this rural area of low literacy there were only 12 cases of prohibited books. Again, over 75 percent of these cases may have involved Protestant sympathies. […]

In the Spanish portions of southern Italy our statistics suggest a different meaning in the holy office’s concern with heretics. Although a sizable share of the earliest preserved cases from Naples maybe classified as heresy trials, if you deal with protestants; in fact, through 1620 accused Mohammedans outnumbered reputed protestants by more than five to one. The diligent Spanish inquisitors uncovered large numbers of Protestants, but here too these were numerically swamped by the followers of Islam. Before 1560, the Sicilian Holy office tried more than 50 Protestants (more than any other tribunal in the Spanish system) and only eleven Moslems; but between 1560 and 1615, they judged nearly four Moslems for every protestant (471 and 138 respectively).

John Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy (1991)