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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > I > Canonical Inquisition

Canonical Inquisition

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Canonical Inquisition is either extra-judicial or judicial: the former might be likened to a coroner's inquest in our civil law; while the latter is similar to an investigation by the grand jury. An extra-judicial inquiry, which is recommended in civil cases, is absolutely necessary in criminal matters, except the case be notorious. A bishop may not even admonish canonically a cleric supposedly delinquent without having first instituted a summary inquest — "summaria facti cognitio"; "informatio pro informatione curiæ" — into the truth of the rumours, denunciations, or accusations against said cleric. This examination is conducted by the bishop personally, or by another ecclesiastic, prudent, trustworthy, and impartial, deputed by the bishop, as secretly and discreetly as possible, without judicial form. This, however, does not preclude the examination of witnesses or experts, for example, to discover irregularities in the records or accounts of the Church. Great caution is to be observed in this preliminary inquiry, lest the reputation of the cleric in question suffer unnecessarily, in which case the bishop might be sued for damages. The acts with the result of the inquisition, if any evidence has been found, should be preserved in the archives; if evidence is wanting or is only slight, the acts should be destroyed.

The outcome of the preliminary investigation will be to leave matters as they are; or to proceed to extra-judicial corrective measures; or to begin a public action, when the evil cannot be otherwise remedied. The bishop's judgment in this matter is paramount; for, even when a crime may be satisfactorily proven, it may be more beneficial to religion and the interests at stake not to prosecute. In matters of correction proper, in which medicinal penalties are employed, judicial action is barred by limitation in five years. The second inquisition is for the information of the auditor or judge, a judicial inquiry, being the beginning of the strictly judicial procedure — "processus informativus"; "inquisitio pro informando judice". If sufficient warrant for a judicial trial exist, the bishop will order his public prosecutor (procurator fiscalis) to draw up and present the charge. Having received the charge, the bishop will appoint an auditor to conduct the informative procedure, in which all the evidence bearing on the case, for the defence as well as for the prosecution, is to be obtained. This inquest consequently comprises offensive and defensive proceedings, for the auditor is to arrive at the truth, and not conduct the inquiry on the supposition that the defendant is guilty.

When the auditor, assisted by the diocesan prosecutor, has procured all the evidence available for the prosecution, he will open the defensive proceedings with the citation of the accused. The accused must appear in person (see CONTUMACY) for examination by the auditor: the fiscal prosecutor may be present. He is not put under oath, and is granted perfect freedom in defending himself, proving his innocence, justifying his conduct, alleging mitigating or extenuating circumstances. All declarations, allegations, exceptions, pleas etc., of the defendant are recorded by the clerk in the acts. They are read to the defendant and corrected, if necessary, or additions made. Finally, the accused, if willing, the auditor, and the secretary should sign the acts. A stay must be granted the accused if he demand it, to present a defence in writing. This inquiry may open up new features, to investigate which stays may be necessary. The accused must be heard in his own defence after this new inquiry. When satisfied that the investigation is complete, the auditor will declare the inquest closed, and make out an abstract of the results of same. This abstract together with all the acts in the case are given to the diocesan prosecutor. Thus ends the judicial inquisition.


Instructio S. C. EE. RR., 1880; Instructio S. C. de Prop. Fide pro Statibus Fæderatis Americæ Septentrionalis, 1884; MEEHAN, Compendium juris canonici (Rochester, 1899), p. 241 sqq.; DROSTE-MESSMER, Canonical Procedure in Disciplinary and Criminal Cases of Clerics (New York, 1886).

About this page

APA citation. Meehan, A. (1910). Canonical Inquisition. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Meehan, Andrew. "Canonical Inquisition." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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