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Vatican deals with Inquisition and New Age in same breath

In one area of the Vatican yesterday twenty experts from around the world were gathering at a three-day symposium to discuss the challenge posed by New Age philosophies, spirituality and psychology to the Church.

The symposium has been called by the Interdicasterial Commission for Reflection on "Sects and New Religious Movements" as a follow-up to the February 3, 2003 provisional document entitled Jesus Christ Bearer of Living Water, A Christian Reflection on the 'New Age'. This document was prepared by the Pontifical Councils for Culture and for Inter-religious Dialogue.

Across in the Holy See Press Office, Cardinals Roger Etchegaray, former president of the Central Committee of the Grand Jubilee of the Year 2000, and Jean-Louis Tauran, archivist and librarian of Holy Roman Church and George Cottier, O.P., pro-theologian of the Pontifical Household, presented a much anticipated 800-page volume of learned papers on the Inquisition.

Largely as a result of a conference of scholars held at the Vatican in 1998 on the Inquisition, in the Jubilee Year Pope John Paul asked pardon of the world and of God on behalf of the whole Church "for errors committed in the service of truth through use of methods that had nothing to do with the Gospel". The volume that was published yesterday are the assembled papers from the 1998 Conference. The objective is that these papers serve as an honest "warts and all" understanding of the Inquisition.

Reuters reports "Pope Gregory IX created the Inquisition in 1233 to curb heresy, but Church officials soon began to count on civil authorities to fine, imprison, torture and kill heretics. It reached a peak in the 16th century to counter the Reformation."

The news agency goes on to say: "But the talk at the news conference was decidedly more, well, spell-binding."

"A chart showed that Germany was where more male and female "witches" were killed by civilian tribunals around the start of the 15th century. Some 25,000 people of the then population of 16 million, were killed. But the percentage record went to Lichtenstein, where 300 people, or some 10 percent of the tiny population of 3,000, were killed for convictions of witchcraft. Professor Agostino Borromeo, the book's editor, said fewer people were actually killed by the Inquisition than commonly believed."

Catholic News Service adds that at the conference to present the volume, "Swiss Cardinal Georges Cottier, the pope's in-house theologian and an organizer of the 1998 symposium, recalled that the pope's idea of examining the darker chapters of the church's past met with some resistance inside the church. Some were apprehensive that opponents of the church, including a 'nonbenevolent press', would exploit the request of forgiveness and use it to attack the church, Cardinal Cottier said."

"But the symposium proceeded in the conviction that while the church is holy, its members are sinners and can make serious mistakes, he said. In the end, he said, the symposium elicited a balanced account."

"'A request for forgiveness can only refer to facts that are true and objectively recognized. One does not ask forgiveness for some impressions widely held by public opinion, which contain more myth than reality,' he said."

Antonio Borromeo, who edited the new volume, is reported widely in the media carrying the story as saying that the scientific rigor shown during the symposium would modify some popularly held beliefs about the Inquisition. In particular, he said, the "recourse to torture and to the death penalty were not so frequent as was long believed," he said.

He said that out of approximately 125,000 cases tried by the Spanish Inquisition 1 percent resulted in the death penalty.

Citing statistics on the number of women burned at the stake during the European "witch hunts" over several centuries, Borromeo cited one study that showed that fewer than 100 were executed by the Inquisition, compared to approximately 50,000 executed on the order of civil tribunals.

VIS – Consultation on "New Age" underway in Vatican
Reuters – Talk of witches at Vatican
CNS – Vatican publishes historical volume on the Inquisition

16 Jun 2004