Papal apology for the Inquisition 20 years ago

Pope John Paul II in Brazil in 1997

2000 had been declared a Great Year of Jubilee in celebration of the new millennium by Polish Pope John Paul II (1920-2005). On March 12th, 2000, greeted by applause from the congregation upon arrival in the basilica Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Pope was wheeled to the altar. Wearing purple Lenten vestments, and fighting through trembles caused by Parkinson’s disease, John Paul II hold a historic penance service on the first Sunday of Lent.

On what became known as the Day of Pardon, the head of the Catholic Church for the first time apologized for the abuses committed during the Inquisition. This was an ecclesiastical tribunal under Papal control, first set up in 1184 to fight Catharism, a Christian gnostic revival movement in southern France. Still, the term itself refers more to a judicial process than to an organization.

Best known is probably the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in Spain, which existed from 1478 to 1834. Established by the Catholic Monarchs, who had unified Spain and finally expelled the Moor invaders after almost 800 years, it was intended primarily to identify heretics among those who had converted from Judaism and Islam to Catholicism, as many of these new Christians secretly retained their old faith. It was also active in Latin America, mostly in Peru and Mexico, and to a lesser extent in the Philippines.

In neighboring Portugal, the General Council of the Holy Office of the Inquisition was formally initiated in 1536 by King John III and subject to his authority. With basically the same goals as its Spanish counterpart, it expanded its scope of operations to the country’s colonial possessions around the world until being disbanded in 1821.

In 1542, the Roman Inquisition began as part of the Catholic Church’s Counter-Reformation against the spread of Protestantism. The Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, then the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, and currently the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is the body responsible for promulgating and defending Catholic doctrine.

John Paul II, who since his election in 1978 had been seeking forgiveness, in 1994 formed a commission consisting of prominent European as well as North American scholars and theologians, who were given complete freedom in their proceedings. After four years of research, the result demolished long-held beliefs about the Inquisition.

While in Portugal 5.7% of the more than 13,000 defendants in the 16th and early 17th century were condemned to death, only 1% of 125,000 suspected heretics in Spain were executed. In many cases, courts even ordered mannequins to be burned when the condemned had escaped capture. Assumed numbers had always been much higher.

The then Pope believed that before seeking pardon, it is necessary to have a precise knowledge of historical facts and create a narrative that tells the whole story, keeping in mind the dominant mentality in a determined era. Although the presented document emphasized a distinction between the sins committed by the Church’s followers and the Church itself, which remained holy and immaculate, John Paul II went so far as to make a comparison with “the crimes of Hitler’s Nazism and Marxist Stalinism.” For him, who experienced both totalitarian systems personally, that was indeed a very strong statement. In 1992 he had already apologized for the Church’s treatment of Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, who was put on trial in Rome in 1633 for his revolutionary scientific views.

This new far-reaching strategy somehow subjected the Catholic Church to the same standards to which business corporations are now held in civil law, whereby they take responsibility for the decisions of deceased officials.

John Paul II defied warnings that the unprecedented apology would undermine the authority pf the institution he represented and aid its longtime critics: Muslims would see it as a sign of weakness and secular enemies as an invitation to launch further attacks, as for them the Catholic hierarchy can do nothing right. Some conservative elements, which defend the position that the Catholic Church can never err, were worried about the doctrinal innovation it implied.

In Africa and Asia, its representatives mostly regarded the Inquisition as a truly European issue from the distant past that would only confuse people and weaken their beliefs.

In any case, the dominance of progressive, self-hating groups in Western media ensures that 20 years later a negative interpretation of Catholic history remains widespread and the perfect example of an obstacle to everything modern.

Nevertheless, such a bold penitential gesture deserves much respect and surely removed a huge skeleton from the Catholic closet. I’m afraid that we will have to wait forever and a day for non-Christian religious leaders to bring themselves to do the same.

P.D: In 2004, the papers from the 1998 conference about the Inquisition were published in a 783-page book.


  1. I don’t think the inquisition was a mistake per se – abuses are a normal part of human life. only a true humble person apologizes sincerely. that’s what made JPII a great pope.


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