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Vatican Archives Show a Just & Good Inquisition

Marian T. Horvat, Ph.D.
Twenty years ago, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, decided to open up to scholars the secret Vatican archives on the Inquisition, including records of the Index of Forbidden Books. It was the last Vatican secret archive never opened, supposedly because it was filled with many “bogeymans” the Church was hiding.

Vatican archives

Vatican secret archives on the Inquisition were opened to scholars in 1998

What courage and openness on the part of the Church! This is how the news media raved back then in 1998 over the decision to make this ominous chest of bad deeds public. For the results would undoubtedly reveal the abuses of power, arbitrary judgments and cruel unjust sentences made by fanatical Inquisitors . Research would divulge a shameful past demanding reparation, which would justify the formal apologies for the Inquisition issued by John Paul II, along with the many informal ones made by the Popes after him.

The decision to open the 4,500 volumes of documents dating from 1542-1903 was also made as one way to repair the Vatican's supposed suspect image of secrecy . "We know all the sins of the Church,'' Card. Ratzinger dryly said at the time. ''And I hope more will not be added to them."

The clear insinuation was that, to the known “sins of the Inquisition,” others would be added, no doubt shaming the Church but also showing the Church's willingness to undertake the general "examination of conscience" that John Paul II had demanded. Another step in a "purifying the Church" and bringing her up to date with the modern world. When the news was released that the archives would be opened, there was little doubt in the mind of most churchmen and scholars that the investigation would produce a dismal fallout for the Vatican.

A fake picture depicting torture during the inquisition

Melodramatic pictures of torture chambers were spread everywhere by Protestants

Since the 16th century, the Inquisition in genere, with no objection from the Vatican II Church, has been presented unrelentingly by Protestants, Illuminati and their cohorts as a Church organ with enormous powers that tortured its victims to get forced confessions and then burned those she called heretics at the stake. According to this Black Legend the main targets of this monstrous institution were Protestants, Jews and scientists like Galileo.- The invention of the printing press came at the right time to facilitate the spread of this harmful reputation everywhere.

The recently opened archives of the Inquisition concerned primarily the Holy Office of the Roman Inquisition founded in 1542 by Pope Paul III to be a central organ of the Holy See to battle the Protestant Revolution. Since it was pontifical, it had universal jurisdiction, although it allowed the Spanish Inquisition to exercise its own powers. For the Conciliar Church the very name Inquisition was so reprehensible that the name Holy Office was replaced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Now finally, after 20 years of meticulous study, the results of 40 scholars delving into the archives of the real, not imaginary, Inquisition were released in an 800-page tome. The startling news published in a discreet article in L'Osservatore Romano (May 19, 2018, p. 5) was that the Inquisition was in fact a good and fair tribunal, not the dark horror chamber invented by the Black Legend.

After 20 years, a praiseful verdict

Twenty years of studies on the central archives of the Holy Office have shown that in fact the Church has nothing to apologize for.

Panel of the inquisition congress at the Vatican

Opening panel of the Inquisition conference at the Vatican

In the concluding reports of the three day Congress of studies (May 15-17), the participating scholars declared that the evidence of the Inquisition's history did not correspond to the negative image presented by 19th century romantic novels, 20th century cinematography and the general media of our days. The legend that has become the mandatory “objective history” presented by almost all school history books was effectively debunked.

Following its progressivist orientation, the article in the Vatican organ reporting on the Congress tried to sidestep these stupendous results. It emphasized instead the historic method the scholars employed to analyze the data. But it is clear that this group was unable to report cases of injustices, abuses, arbitrary actions and tortures. If they could have found such incidents of prejudice and cruelty, I have no doubt the report of their conclusions would have been on the front page of the Vatican newspaper to confirm the constant remorse the progressivist Popes have shown for the Inquisition.

What the scholars found, however, was that the Roman Inquisition was rightly considered the fairest and most balanced court of its day, prefiguring in many ways the modern court system. It was born not from a cruel and unjust intolerance, but from the need to provide fair trials for persons accused of heresy using laws of evidence and presided over by highly qualified judges. For example, any defendant could have an attorney, a right not yet introduced in secular courts at the time.

This favorable view had already being presented by many modern scholars like John Tedeschi, whose research had led him to the conclusion that the Roman Inquisition was "actually a very advanced tribunal and dispensed a very high level of law in 16th century terms."

satire of John Paul II pointing fingers at the inquisition

JPII accused the Inqusition of cruelty.
Will there be an apology for this injustice?

The scholars who entered the Vatican archives came to much the same conclusion. As this new report confirms, most persons accused of heresy by the Inquisition were either acquitted or their sentences suspended. Those found guilty of grave error were allowed to confess their sins, do penance and be readmitted to the Sacraments. Unrepentant or obstinate heretics were excommunicated and handed over to secular authorities. It was the secular authorities that held heresy to be a capital offense and issued the final sentence, not the Catholic Church.

The images of witch-hunting are caricatures and lies. Now, whoever goes to the archives, instead of relying on Black Legend fabrications, will find an unexpected truth: The real Inquisition was a praiseworthy judicial institution. By the way, serious historians did not need to wait for the archives to be opened: Even the BBC (as you can read here) has had the honesty to present a new notion of the Inquisition based on already available evidence.

One would expect that these unexpected good results of 20 years of meticulous research on the Inquisition would be a hot topic in the Catholic press. The truth is that the thee-day Symposium held in Rome was summarized in a short article on page 5 in the L'Osservatore Romano; nothing more. No exultant titles in the Catholic organs "Inquisition vindicated!"

Also, I doubt we should expect Pope Bergoglio to nullify the past ecclesial apologies for sins the Church did not commit. If he were a just man, he would do so. But I am betting he will ignore the findings and say nothing. Let us wait and see.

I hope, however, that these new conclusions will encourage honest scholars to deepen their research on the topic so that the myth of a cruel and unjust Inquisition will be put to rest once and for all . Let the real Inquisition emerge into the light to show a balanced and enlightened tribunal, a model even for a future more glorious era in the Church and History.

Posted May 25, 2018

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