VATICAN CITY — The Inquisition was not nearly as bad as is commonly thought.
That's according to the findings of a six-year historical study released by the Vatican on June 15 that examined the trials of Jews, Muslims, Cathars, witches, scientists and other non-Catholics in Europe between the 13th and 19th centuries.
According to Agostino Borromeo, a professor who was responsible for creating the volume titled simply “The Inquisition,” “the recourse to torture and the death sentence weren't so frequent as it long has been believed.”
Previous estimates of the number killed by the Spanish Inquisition have ranged from 30,000 to 300,000. Other scholars are convinced millions died.
But notwithstanding the uncertainty of the final statistics of the phenomenon that spanned several centuries, researchers in this study discovered that among the 125,000 cases tried in the Spanish Inquisition, actually less than 1% ended with the death penalty.
“The Inquisition” includes essays by 31 scholars from Europe and North America who sought to examine the period objectively in a forum that was “exempt from controversy or any apologetic nature,” said Bor-romeo from Rome's La Sapienza University.
“The acts of the symposium are a point of reference,” he added.
The historians treated the Inquisition as a single phenomenon, although tribunals existed in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and Germany.
Know the Truth
In a written message to those charged with producing the 783-page document, Pope John Paul II praised the work and emphasized the reason for the study, stressing the importance of knowing “exactly what are the facts and to recognize the shortcomings with respect to the evangelical needs.”
“In public opinion,” the Pope continued, “the image of the Inquisition represents in some way the symbol of this counter-witness and scandal. In what measure is this image faithful to reality? Before asking for forgiveness, it is necessary to know exactly what are the facts and to recognize the shortcomings with respect to the evangelical needs in appropriate cases. This is why the committee referred to historians whose scientific competence is universally recognized.”
The Holy Father recalled that on March 12, 2000, a special service was held for a day of forgiveness and said the study of the Inquisition should be understood in that context of when the Church prayed and asked for pardon for the “errors committed in the service of truth, when unethical methods were used.”
Many Catholic scholars have welcomed the findings and found them unsurprising.
“In most cases, the Inquisition was not as extreme as novels and movies like to portray,” said Jesuit Father Brian Daley, a historical theologian at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “It's much more ambiguous and complicated than that.”
To begin with, a distinction needs to be made between the various Inquisitions. The Spanish court was not ecclesiastical in that it was set up by King Phillip II of Spain as a means of controlling his people and maintaining stability.
“There was a fear of instability in Spain,” Father Daley said. “There was also a great interest in conformity in the country.”
Retired Church history professor Michael Walsh has always understood that much of Inquisition history has been influenced by the “black propaganda” perpetrated by Protestants in Britain following the Reformation.
Certainly, few scholars deny the period's exaggerations were linked to Britain's antagonisms with Spain following the defeat of King Phillip's attempt to invade Britain with the Spanish Armada in 1588.
There is likewise little historical dispute that the Church, in fact, never officially sent anyone to the gallows during the Inquisition.
“Like Joan of Arc,” Walsh said, “those found guilty of heresy were not executed by the Church but handed over to the secular authorities” and then sentenced to death by the state.
But Walsh concedes there are “always renegades” in the Church and admits there were some Church authorities who were overzealous but who were also quickly removed from office when the Vatican heard of the abuses.
For example, while it is true that Pope Sixtus IV co-operated with the Inquisition's arch-perpetrators, King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile, he objected to what he perceived to be abuses committed in the name of the Spanish Inquisition.
“My impression has always been that torture was not, on the whole, something the Church would approve of,” Walsh said. “It has a long tradition of being opposed to violence.”
In his address to the authors of the document, John Paul cautioned that in discussions of the Inquisition, the modern world should be careful to distinguish “between the acts of certain members of the faith and the dominant mentality of the era.”
Walsh believes this to be central in reconciling the Church of history to the world of today.
“The Inquisition in Spain was the creation of having reduced the country to one country and one faith,” he explained; a pluralist society such as we have today “was unheard of.”
According to Lawrence Cunningham, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, torture during those times “was a common judicial procedure to get to the truth.”
Other forms of inquisition were also carried out by other rulers and denominations. For example, early Puritan colonies in the United States set up their own inquisitions, and nearly every denomination persecuted the Anabaptists for rejecting infant baptism.
There was also the English court of Star Chamber during the reign of King Henry VII that, although it imparted few sentences as harsh as the death penalty, ordered the practice of torture.
“How do we know the Inquisition was unjust?” Walsh asked. “Obviously it is indefensible to us and a great pity, but we cannot judge it by our own standards, and there is a great danger in doing so.”
So, in the light of history, do the Pope and the Church really need to apologize for the past? Some scholars and members of the Roman Curia think not and consider it unwise to do so. But others disagree.
“I think it shows a mark of humility and the people are reassured by it,” Father Daley said. “To the degree that the facts are true, it is right to confess and that is appropriate. But the truth must likewise be presented.”
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.