Paul IV and the Heretics of His Time


The Conclave that opened on November 30th 1549, after the death of Paul III, was certainly one of the most dramatic in the history of the Church. The English Cardinal, Reginald Pole (1500 – 1558) was indicated by everyone as the great favourite.  The Pontifical robes were prepared for him and he had already shown someone his thanksgiving speech.

On December 5th, Pole was short of  only one vote to attain the Pontifical Tiara, when Cardinal Gian Pietro Carafa, rose to his feet, and, in front of the astonished assembly, accused him publically of heresy, rebuking him, among other things, of having supported the crypto-Lutheran double justification, rejected by the Council of Trent in 1547.  Carafa was known for his doctrinal integrity and pious life. The support for Pole collapsed, and, after lengthy disputes, on February 7th 1550 Cardinal Giovanni del Monte was elected, taking the name of Julius III (1487-1555).

The accusation of heresy which was launched for the first time in a conclave against a cardinal, reflected the divisions among Catholics faced with Protestantism (cfr. Paolo Simoncelli, The Case of Reginald Pole. Heresy and Holiness in 16th Century Polemics, Editions of History and Literature, Rome 1977).  Between the 30s and 50s of the 16th century heretical tendencies were being spread in the Roman ecclesiastical world and the party of “Spirituali” had come into existence, represented by ambiguous figures, like Cardinals Reginald Pole, Gasparo Contarini (1483-1542) and Giovanni Morone (1509-1580). They cultivated an Irenist Christianity and intended to propose the reconciliation of Lutheranism with the institutional structure of the Roman Church.

Pole had created a heterodox circle at Viterbo; Morone, while he was Bishop of Modena,  between 1543 and 1546, had chosen preachers who were subsequently all placed under process for heresy. The acts of the inquisitorial processes of Cardinal Morone (1557-1559),  Pietro Carnesecchi, (1557-1567) and Vittore Soranzo (1550-1558), (all of whom were part of the circle of “Spirituali”)  published by the Italian Historical Institute for the Modern and Contemporary Age and  the Vatican Secret Archives, between 1981 and 2004, reveal just how thick this network of complicity was – but  vigorously fought by two men, both destined to become Popes, Gian Pietro Carafa, the future Paul IV, and Michele Ghislieri, the future Pius V.  Both were convinced that the “Spirituali” were in reality, crypto-Lutherans.

Gian Pietro Carafa  along with Gaetano di Thiene (St. Cajetan) had founded the Theatines Order, and had been chosen by Adrian VI to collaborate in the universal reform of the Church, interrupted by the premature death of the Pontiff from Utrecht. We owe the institution of the Holy Office of the Roman Inquisition most of all to Cardinal Carafa. The Bull Licet ab initio of July 21st 1542, with which Paul III had instituted this organism, in accord with Carafa’s suggestion, was a declaration of war on heresy. There were those who wanted to continue this war even to the extirpation of every error  and those who wanted to end it for the sake of religious peace.

At the death of Julius III, in the Conclave of 1555, the two parties clashed once again and on May 23rd 1555, Cardinal Gian Pietro Carafa was elected Pope overtaking Cardinal Morone by a hairbreadth. He was seventy-nine years old at the time and took the name of Paul IV. He was a Pope without compromise, who had the battle against heresies and true reform of the Church as his primary objectives. He combated simony, imposed the residency of bishops in their own dioceses, reestablished monastic discipline, imparted a vigorous impetus to the Tribunal of the Inquisition and instituted the Index of Forbidden Books. His right-hand man was a humble Dominican Friar, Michele Ghislieri, whom he nominated Bishop of Nepi and Sutri (1556), cardinal (1557) and Grand Inquisitor for life (1558) thus opening the way to the papacy.

On June 1st 1557, Paul IV, conveyed to the cardinals the he had ordered the incarceration of Cardinal Morone, under suspicion of heresy. He had charged the Inquisition to carry out the process, and to bring the results of it before the Sacred College. Paul IV directed the same accusation to Cardinal Pole, who was in England and was removed from his office as legate. Cardinal Morone was imprisoned in Castel Sant’Angelo and freed only in August 1559, when, on the eve of his sentence, at the death of the Pope, he regained his freedom and participated in the subsequent conclave.

In March 1559, a few months before his death, Paul IV, published the Bull Cum ex apostolato officio in which he confronted the problem of possible heresy in a Pope (cfr. Bullarium diplomatum et privilegiorum sanctorum romanorum pontificum, S. e H. Dalmezzo, Augustae Taurinorum, 1860, VI, pp. 551-556).

In it we read: “…even the Roman Pontiff, who is the representative upon earth of God and Our Lord Jesus Christ, who holds the fullness of power over peoples and kingdoms, who may judge all and be judged by none in this world, may nonetheless be contradicted if he be found to have deviated from the Faith” and “if this should ever happen in some time (…) prior to his promotion or his elevation as Cardinal or Roman Pontiff, he has deviated from the Catholic Faith or fallen into some heresy or incurred schism, [then]:  the promotion or elevation, even if it shall have been uncontested and by the unanimous assent of all the Cardinals, shall be null, void and worthless.”

This Bull re-proposes the Medieval canonical principle almost to the letter, according to which the Pope cannot be contradicted nor judged by anyone, “ nisi deprehandatur a fide devius” unless he deviates from the faith (Ivo di Chartres, Decretales, V, chap. 23, coll. 329-330). There is debate on whether Paul IV’s Bull is a dogmatic decision or a disciplinary act;  whether it is still in vigor or if it has been implicitly abrogated by the Code of 1917; whether it applies to the Pope who incurs heresy ante o post electionem, and so on. We shall not address these issues. The Cum ex apostolato officio is still an authoritative pontifical document, that confirms the possibility of a heretical Pope, even if it gives no indication on the concrete procedure through which he might lose the pontificate.

After Paul IV, a political Pope, Pius IV was elected on December 25th 1559 (Giovanni Angelo Medici di Marignano – 1499-1565). On January 6th 1560, the new Pontiff ordered the annullment of the process against Morone, re-installing him in his former office and clashing seriously with Cardinal Ghislieri, whom he considered a fanatic of the Inquisition.  The ‘Inquisitor maior et perpetuus was deprived of the exceptional powers conferred on him by Paul IV and transferred to the  secondary dioceses of Mondovi.  However, at the death of Pius IV, on January 7th 1566,  Michele Ghislieri was unexpectedly elected taking the name of Pius V. His pontificate was placed in complete continuity with  Paul IV’s, resuming inquisitorial activity again. Cardinal Morone, who, as pontifical legate had been charged  by Paul III to open the Council of Trent and at the mandate of Pius IV had directed the last sessions of the same, obtained the suspension of his sentence.

The history of the Church, even in times of her most bitter internal clashes is much more complex than many think. The Council of Trent, which is a monument to the Catholic Faith, was inaugurated and then closed by a man gravely suspected of the Lutheran heresy.  When he died in 1580, Giovanni Morone was buried in Santa Maria sopra Minerva (his tomb today is not to be found), the same Basilica in which St. Pius V wanted to elevate a mausoleum to Morone’s accuser and which initiated the process in support of the canonization for the champion of orthodoxy –  Gian Pietro Carafa, Pope Paul IV.