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Ivan J. KauffmanDecember 10, 2007
With its vividly re-enacted scenes of torture, book burning and violence, the PBS series “Secret Files of the Inquisition” made clear that stereotypical views of the Inquisition are not going away anytime soon. It also ensured that a negative interpretation of this Catholic history will be embedded in popular culture, the history as told by those who view the Catholic Church as the foremost obstacle to everything modern and progressive.

Although advertised as based on recently opened Vatican archives, the series contained little that is new. Despite the interviews with Catholic historians, it ignored virtually all the recent scholarship that could have produced a much more complete view of the Inquisition. Its biggest omission, though, was ignoring the story of Pope John Paul II’s efforts to bring the Inquisition into the open. That effort constituted a major chapter in John Paul’s long, eventful papacy, yet it is little known even within Catholic circles.

Finding the Facts

When John Paul II came to Rome in 1978, he brought with him a deep awareness that two historical events—the condemnation of Galileo and the Inquisition—were essential to anti-Catholicism, and he was determined to deal with both.

In the first year of his papacy, the pope formed a commission to study the Galileo incident, asking the group to tell the church: “What happened? How did it happen? Why did it happen?” The commission issued a report 14 years later supporting neither the ecclesiastical right, which seems to hold that the Catholic Church can never err, nor the secular left, which seems to hold that the Catholic Church can do nothing right. John Paul said of the report, “Often, beyond two partial and conflicting perceptions, there exists a wider perception which includes them and goes beyond both of them.”

He addressed the Inquisition in the same way in 1994, including an inquiry into its history among the preparations for the Jubilee year 2000. In a memo outlining the plans, John Paul told the world’s cardinals that confessing institutional sin would be a prominent part of the event. “How can we be silent about so many kinds of violence perpetrated in the name of the faith?” he asked, specifically mentioning “religious wars, courts of the Inquisition, and other violations of the rights of the human person.” He went so far as to compare them to “the crimes of Hitler’s Nazism and Marxist Stalinism.”

“The church must on its own initiative examine the dark places of its history and judge it in the light of Gospel principles,” he wrote to the cardinals. “The church needs a metanoia,” he added, “a discernment of the historical faults and failures of her members in responding to the demands of the Gospel.” The memo was an internal document, which allowed John Paul to speak more directly than he would have in public, but it was leaked to the press—a rather rare event in Vatican circles—giving the public an uncommon glimpse into the pope’s thinking.

John Paul’s 1994 proposal did not meet with an enthusiastic reception by all the cardinals. Many Europeans saw it as aiding their longtime critics; many from Africa and Asia regarded the Inquisition as a European issue from the distant past that would only confuse their people and give ammunition to their enemies if an apology were aired at the papal level. Some more conservative cardinals were troubled by the doctrinal innovation it seemed to involve.

Despite these objections, voiced with unusual openness by several cardinals, John Paul proceeded. When the program for the Jubilee 2000 was announced later that year in the apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, the issue of confessing the church’s past sins was prominent. “Acknowledging the weaknesses of the past,” it said, “alerts us to face today’s temptations and...prepares us to meet them.”

A Meeting of Minds

Georges Cottier, O.P., then the pope’s personal theologian, was asked to form a historical commission on the Inquisition modeled after the Galileo commission. He enlisted prominent scholars, Catholic and not, who were given complete freedom in their proceedings. The commission included 30 scholars from nine European nations and the United States and Canada.

When the commission met at the Vatican in October 1998, John Paul told members he could not take “an action based on ethical norms, which any request for pardon is, without first being informed of exactly what happened.” His first step was to ask historians to reconstruct the events of the Inquisition “within the context of that historical period.”

The appointment of the commission was largely ignored in the U.S. press, and even in those Catholic areas of Europe where it was reported, it was soon forgotten. For the next six years the effort appeared to have been quietly shelved. In 2004, however, the Vatican held a heavily promoted press conference, which included three cardinals, to announce that the papers from the 1998 conference had been published by the Vatican Press in its prestigious series Studi e Testi. To demonstrate that his Inquisition project had not been forgotten, John Paul issued a personal statement strongly supporting the publication. The overall tone of his message made rather clear that he regarded the actions of the Inquisition as contrary to the Gospel.

The book itself was a collection of papers written by experts, largely for other experts, and typical of the results of a scholarly conference. Its editorial matter and 10 of the 30 papers were in Italian, with other papers in French (11), Spanish (6) and English (3). The authors were major authorities in their fields. The papers ranged across the entire history of the Inquisition, from its origins in southern France in the 13th century to the development of the Spanish Inquisition in the 16th century, its institutionalization in Rome and its post-Reformation history.

The volume also included an effort by several Catholic scholars to acknowledge the essential sinfulness of the Inquisition. The commission included scholars who maintained the traditional belief that the negative effects of heresy on civil society were so great that capital punishment was justified, but on the whole the revolution in Catholic doctrine that took place at Vatican II when the “Declaration on Religious Liberty” was adopted prevailed in the reports. One author, for example, referred to the execution of heretics under Pope Pius V as “legal murder.” Jean-Miguel Garrigues, O.P., a member of the Pontifical Theological Academy, took both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas to task in no uncertain terms for having provided the theological rationale for the Inquisition, and called their justification of religious coercion a prime example of the “ways of thinking and acting which were truly forms of counter-witness and scandal,” quoting John Paul’s words in Tertio Millennio Adveniente.

Despite all this, the book was virtually ignored in the United States. And while it received widespread coverage in Europe, a headline in the British paper The Guardian was typical: “Historians Say Inquisition Wasn’t That Bad.” That report claimed that Agostino Borromeo, the volume’s editor (and a Catholic commentator for the PBS series), had told reporters that “many executions attributed to the church ‘were in fact carried out by non-church tribunals.’” Of course, to many historians the distinction between declaring someone a heretic, knowing that doing so will result in her or his death, and actually executing that person might seem insignificant.

But the book’s primary significance lay less in its contents, valuable as they are, than in its history. That the Vatican would initiate an open-ended process in which previous popes and other high-ranking clerics would almost certainly be condemned—as indeed they were—was surely a historic event. In the 19th century, Pope Gregory XVI had called it “insulting” to “infer that the church could be subject to any defect.” Pope John Paul II obviously had a somewhat different perspective.

The Church’s Mea Culpa

In fact the Inquisition project was part of a larger effort that seems likely to gain significance in Catholic history as we acquire perspective on John Paul’s papacy. Almost from the start of his pontificate, John Paul began asking, in the name of the church, for forgiveness for actions taken by his predecessors. These included the role of Catholics in dividing Christianity, in promoting hatred of Jews, in mistreating Native Americans and in enslaving Africans, to mention only a few cases. The public apologies were chronicled by Luigi Accattoli, the Italian reporter who covered the pope for the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera, and published in 1998 with the English title When A Pope Asks Forgiveness: The Mea Culpas of John Paul II.

John Paul’s apologies in effect subjected the Catholic Church to the same standards to which business corporations are now held in civil law, whereby corporations take responsibility for the decisions of officials no longer living and who had no way to know their actions would cause grave damage in the future.

This admission of fault stirred much controversy. In response John Paul asked Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to form a theological commission to study the issues involved. It was this commission’s report which provided the theological foundations for a historic penance service known as the Day of Pardon, which took place at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome on the first Sunday of Lent 2000.

At the press conference beforehand, the Vatican announced that “the church today, through the Successor of Peter,” would name and confess “the errors of Christians in every age,” including “acts of violence and oppression during the Crusades,” and the “methods of coercion employed in the Inquisition.”

John Paul was willing to admit that the sins of intolerance committed by Christians “in the name of faith and morals” had “[sullied] the face of the church.” Such an admission does not require acknowledging doctrinal error, since the Inquisition was never formally approved either by a council or an infallible papal declaration. It does, however, require abandoning dogmatic triumphalism. It also necessitates learning from the past. That requires us to face the facts, all the facts, fearlessly and honestly, and to ask why actions were taken by our predecessors which now shame us so deeply.

John Paul’s penitential initiative provides a way for Catholics to create a narrative of the Inquisition that tells the whole story, as opposed to any selective, biased account that Catholicism’s severest critics have fashioned or might fashion. That is the road John Paul has set us on, and surely it is the way to free us from this ghost in the Catholic closet.

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lLetha Chamberlain
16 years 4 months ago
This gorgeous article so illustrates a point I made on my Amazon.com blog site in a poem that said, "we haven't arrived until we've died!" because the most holy and scholarly of us are subject to deception and fall until our deaths. I have often wondered what happened to the old adage "a righteous man falls seven times a day" that prompted frequent use of the confessional. I see such a slackening of the Sacrament of Penance these days--and know that these then do not understand the towering love attendant in God's mercy or the ordinariness of sin! How we long for leaders who will publicly proclaim their sins like the tax collector in the Gospels--as did our wonderful Bl. John Paul II, a model of courage and divine LOVE! We must be the first to declare these--and I, myself, who fell to temptation of impatience yesterday again say loudly, "WE WHO WOULD BE PERFECT ARE IN MOST NEED!"

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