Scrutinizing the Inquisition; "Mind-meld" on Trafficking

Volume Doesn't Spare Popes

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By Delia Gallagher

ROME, JUNE 24, 2004 ( Those who claim the Vatican tries to hide behind a veil of secrecy should read its newly published 783-page book on the Inquisition.

The "Minutes of the International Symposium 'The Inquisition'" is a remarkably candid exposé of the tortures and injustices committed by various national Inquisitions (in England, Portugal, Spain, France, Goa) and the Roman one, under the guidance of several Popes and the auspices of the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas. The symposium was held in October 1998.

It is a tribute to the visionary leadership of Pope John Paul II that the Church opened up its archives on this period to Catholic and non-Catholic historians and published their findings. The findings do not shy away from strong criticism of Catholic leadership of the time.

Consider these excerpts:

"In 1559, on express desire of Paul IV, in a systematic and detailed way, all Christians who went to confess their sins were first interrogated about their criminal offences, or their knowledge of crimes of heresy or reading of prohibited books; and if something emerged, they were sent to the tribunal of the inquisition to make a formal denouncement ... if the violence of torture and the gallows broke the body, the moral violence exercised by the subordination of confession to the inquisition broke consciences ... the profound effects of this choice still need to be evaluated in full" (p. 761).

"The largest spurt in executions by the Roman Inquisition occurred shortly after the Council of Trent, during the pontificate of an ex-Inquisitor General. Because of the Roman Inquisition, Pius V has more legal murders staining his record than any other 16th century pope, including Paul IV and Sixtus V. Nevertheless, he has become the only one of this group to be canonized, while the other two remain bywords for bigoted ferocity" (p. 545).

"That the wisest and saintliest among the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, through their personal authority, gave credence to this 'communal doctrine' [of torture and death] to the point of seeming to imbue it with a quasi-Magisterial authority, necessitates that the authentic Magisterium of the Church make honorable amends" (p. 767).

Not a few at the Vatican were concerned that the publication of such details would give ammunition to those who wished to attack the Church.

Yet the Pope insisted on this research as part of his Jubilee Year "purification of memory," which required a scholarly investigation into the truth of what happened during the Inquisition -- not simply to set the record straight, but to ask for forgiveness for the injustices that occurred.

Now it is a tricky theological question how, and indeed why, one can ask for forgiveness on behalf of Popes who have been canonized, and doctors and saints of the Church whose teachings encouraged injustice.

I spoke to the theologian of the Papal Household, Cardinal Georges Cottier, who headed the commission that published the work on the Inquisition.

"The Church does not ask forgiveness for the Inquisition as a whole," Cardinal Cottier clarified. "She asks forgiveness for the fact of the violence employed during the Inquisition."

"The individual guilt of saints or Popes involved in the Inquisition is not judged by the Church; it is a secret of God," he said.

In any moral act, the cardinal explained, there are different levels of responsibility. So, for example, the use of drugs may mitigate the responsibility of an individual who sins under their effect.

Likewise, given the mentality of the age of the Inquisition, when the use of torture and burning was widely accepted, the responsibility of those involved must be considered in this light.

So while the conscience of say, St. Pius V, may have been deficient, it must be considered against the "communal conscience" of the time, said Cardinal Cottier.

"Communal conscience evolves," the cardinal said. "What was considered acceptable for a certain time, may be seen later as unjust."

The cardinal cited the death penalty as a modern example of the evolution of communal conscience.

And just as there can be a progression of conscience, so can there be a regression of communal conscience, as is the case with abortion, said the cardinal.

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Fighting the Trafficking of People

The Vatican and the U.S. government did not see eye to eye on the question of the Iraq war. But there is another issue to which the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See has been devoted that has the full support of the Vatican: combating trafficking in human persons.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell referred to the cooperation between Congress and the administration on opposing trafficking as an example of "complete institutional mind-meld."

The "mind-meld" on human trafficking between the Holy See and the U.S. government is important because much of the frontline work in combating the issue of human trafficking is done by Catholic organizations that assist immigrant women and children and direct them to the relevant government programs.

Vatican officials, including Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and Monsignor Pietro Parolin, undersecretary for relations with states, joined with the U.S. Embassy in a June 17 conference on human trafficking, to meet international experts on the topic.

Trafficking refers to the illegal buying, selling and transportation of mostly women and children across borders for purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation.

The U.S. government estimates that 600,000 to 800,000 women and children are trafficked across borders each year, and this doesn't include those who are illegally exploited within their own country.

The U.S. Department for Health and Human Services in the last three years has directed $8.1 million to nongovernmental organizations in the fight against trafficking.

The difference dollars can make was evidenced by two of the speakers at the conference: Sister Mary Ellen Dougherty and Sister Eugenia Bonetti.

Sister Dougherty works under the auspices of the U.S. bishops' Office of Migration and Refugee Services, which deals with the 18,000 people trafficked to the United States (mainly from Central America) each year.

"In my building I have access to all of the dioceses, international networks and refugee services," said Sister Dougherty.

"We have workshops to educate the staff of the USCCB and give semiannual reports at the meetings of the U.S. bishops," she said.

Sister Bonetti in Italy fights trafficking without such sophisticated networks or the support of the Italian bishops' conference, she said.

Named as a "hero" in the U.S. government's 2004 report on trafficking, Sister Bonetti has a team of 250 Italian nuns who "leave their convents, even at night, to reach out to prostitutes."

They staff 100 centers that offer shelter, language courses, vocational training and most importantly, assistance with legal paperwork, for women and children who "no longer know who they are."

Sister Bonetti's funds are scarce, but she said, "We have a special bank that never goes bankrupt: That is Providence."

Monsignor Parolin reiterated the Holy See's commitment to the issue of human trafficking and applauded those Catholic institutions that work in the sector.

The problem, however, cannot be solved solely through direct initiatives, he said, but by confronting the greater problem of poverty with solutions for economic and social justice.

"Our world has not been capable of defeating prostitution, pedophilia or pornography," Monsignor Parolin said, "not even in Western society. John Paul II has encouraged the study of this problem and the search for concrete answers."

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Readers may contact Delia Gallagher at