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Murphy considers the long shadow the Inquisition has had on our modern world @ New Humanist
On a hot autumn day in Rome not long ago, I crossed the vast expanse of St Peter’s Square, paused momentarily in the shade beneath a curving flank of Bernini’s colonnade and continued a little way beyond to a Swiss Guard standing impassively at a wrought-iron gate. He examined my credentials, handed them back and saluted smartly. I hadn’t expected the gesture and almost returned the salute instinctively, but then realised it was intended for a cardinal waddling into the Vatican from behind me.

Just inside the gate, at Piazza del Sant’Uffizio 11, stands a Renaissance palazzo with a ruddy ochre-and-cream complexion. This is the headquarters of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose job, in the words of the Apostolic Constitution Pastor bonus, promulgated in 1988 by Pope John Paul II, is “to promote and safeguard the doctrine on faith and morals throughout the Catholic world”. Pastor bonus goes on: “For this reason, everything which in any way touches such matter falls within its competence.” It is an expansive charge. Every significant document or decision emanating from anywhere inside the Vatican must get a sign-off from the CDF. The Congregation has been around for a very long time, although until the Second Vatican Council it was called something else: the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office. From the lips of old Vatican hands, one still hears shorthand references to “the Holy Office”, much as one hears “Whitehall”, “Foggy Bottom” or “the Kremlin”.
But before the Congregation became the Holy Office, it went by yet another name: as late as 1908, it was known as the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition. Lenny Bruce once joked that there was only one “the Church”. The Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition was the headquarters of the Inquisition – the centuries-long effort by the Church to deal with its perceived enemies, within and without, by whatever means necessary, including the most brutal ones available.
The palazzo that today houses the Congregation was originally built to lodge the Inquisition when the papacy, in 1542, amid the onslaught of Protestantism and other noxious ideas, decided that the Church’s intermittent and far-flung inquisitorial investigations needed to be brought under some sort of centralised control – a spiritual Department of Homeland Security, as it were. The Inquisition had begun in the Middle Ages, to deal with Christian heresies, and been revived in Iberia, under state control, to deal with Jews and Moors. Pope Paul III considered the task of his new papal Inquisition so urgent that construction on the basilica of St. Peter’s was suspended and the labourers diverted so that work could be completed on its headquarters. At one time the palazzo held not only clerical offices but also prison cells.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith inherited more than the Inquisition’s DNA and its place on the organisational charts. It also inherited much of the paper trail. The Inquisition records are kept mainly in the palazzo itself, and for four and a half centuries that archive was closed to outsiders. Then, in 1998, to the surprise of many, the Vatican decided to make the archive available to scholars.
Any archive is a repository of what some sliver of civilisation has wrought, for good or ill. This one is no exception. The archive may owe its existence to the Inquisition, but it helps explain the world that exists today. In our imaginations, we offhandedly associate the term “inquisition” with the term “Dark Ages”. But consider what an inquisition – any inquisition – really is: a set of disciplinary procedures targeting specific groups, codified in law, organised systematically, enforced by surveillance, exemplified by severity, sustained over time, backed by institutional power and justified by a vision of the one true path. Considered that way, the Inquisition is more accurately seen not as a relic but as a harbinger.
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