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Balanced History of the Inquisition Is Possible, Says Expert

Editor of the Minutes of International Symposium

VATICAN CITY, JUNE 16, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Researchers now have the necessary materials to write a history of the Inquisition without falling into negative prejudices or propagandist apologetics, says an expert historian.

Agostino Borromeo, the coordinator of the book “Minutes of the International Symposium ‘The Inquisition,'” gave that assessment Tuesday during a press conference to present the book.

In the volume, Borromeo gathers the addresses of a 1998 congress, which brought together renowned historians from around the world.

“Historians no longer use the topic of the Inquisition as an instrument to defend or attack the Church,” said Borromeo, a professor at Rome’s La Sapienza University. “The debate has moved to the historical level, with serious statistics.”

Borromeo said that the “black legend” begun in Protestant countries against the Inquisition was opposed by a propagandist Catholic apologetics that failed to obtain an objective view.<br>
He said a “great step forward” was made, in part, with the opening of the secret archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the former Holy Office, ordered by John Paul II in 1998. Borromeo illustrated some of the data found in the “Minutes of the International Symposium ‘The Inquisition.'”

Referring to the best-known tribunal, the Inquisition in Spain, Borromeo explained that between 1540 and 1700 it held 44,674 trials.

The accused who were condemned to death comprised 1.8%, including 1.7% condemned in “contumacy,” that is, they could not be executed as their whereabouts were unknown. In their stead, dummies were burned or hanged.

In regard to the famous “witch hunts,” the historian said that the ecclesiastical tribunals were much more indulgent than the civil. In the 125,000 trials held in the Spanish Inquisition’s history, 59 “witches” were condemned to death. In Italy, there were 36, and in Portugal 4, he added.

“If we add up this data, we do not even reach 100 cases, as opposed to the 50,000 people condemned to the stake, the majority by civil courts, out of a total of some 100,000 trials held in the whole of Europe during the modern age,” Borromeo said.

Proportionally, the most numerous killings of witches took place in Switzerland (4,000 were burned out of a population of about 1 million); Poland-Lithuania (some 10,000 out of a population of 4.4 million); Germany (25,000 out of a population of 16 million); and Denmark-Norway (some 1,350 out of a population of 970,000).

Borromeo explained that the term “Inquisition” was applied to the group of ecclesiastical tribunals that by express papal delegation had jurisdiction to judge the crime of heresy.

The first Inquisitors were appointed by Pope Gregory IX (1227-1241) to combat heresies in specific areas.

“Gradually, with the passing of time, the papacy endowed this institution with its own organization, bureaucracy and norms, which gave a specific face to the Inquisition,” Borromeo said.

“Particularly active in the 13th and 14th centuries to combat the medieval heretical movements, especially the Cathars and Waldensians, the Inquisition would experience a decline in its activity in the 15th century,” he added.

“But it would experience a resumption of activity in the 16th and 17th centuries with the establishment of the new tribunals in the Iberian peninsula — whose action was directed primarily against pseudo-converts from Judaism and Islam and with the creation of the Roman Holy Office, first conceived as an instrument of struggle against the spread of Protestantism,” Borromeo said.

“The tribunals were eliminated between the second half of the 18th century and first decades of the 19th century,” he said. “The last tribunal to disappear was the Spanish one, abolished in 1834.”

John Paul II sent a message for the presentation of the “Minutes,” in which he underlined the need for the Church to ask for forgiveness for the sins committed by her children in the course of history.

At the same time, the Holy Father clarified that “before asking for forgiveness, it is necessary to know the facts exactly and to recognize the deficiencies in regard to evangelical exigencies in the cases where it is so.”

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