It’s time to revisit a hoary chestnut within Pagandom, getting an apology from the Catholic Church for their role in the witch trials of Early Modern Europe (and for other ills against pre-Christian religious adherents). Some of you may remember that this was quite the big deal back in 2000, when the Catholic Church celebrated its Jubilee Year and then Pope John Paul II issued a series of apologies for sins committed by the Church.
“Christians have often denied the Gospel; yielding to a mentality of power, they have violated the rights of ethnic groups and peoples, and shown contempt for their cultures and religious traditions: be patient and merciful towards us, and grant us your forgiveness! We ask this through Christ our Lord … let us pray for women, who are all too often humiliated and emarginated, and let us acknowledge the forms of acquiescence in these sins of which Christians too have been guilty.”
In the lead-up to these apologies a group of prominent Pagans (including Selena Fox, Oberon Zell-Ravenheart, and Philip Carr-Gomm) asked the Pope to apologize to “Witches and Pagans” harmed by the Inquisition.
“…for more than a year now, the Vatican has publicly indicated that the Pope plans to make a broad-ranging international as well as interfaith apology for the Inquisition. According to press coverage, this Vatican-initiated apology is to be to Protestant Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others. Thus far, Pagans have not been specifically named, even though practitioners of Pagan folkways in Europe were prominent among those persecuted by the Inquisition—especially on charges of witchcraft. Pagans, scholars, Christian clergy, and others have joined together in writing the Pope with hopes that this historic international interfaith apology is indeed inclusive, and that the apology extends to Nature religions practitioners as well as to Christians, Muslims, and Jews.”
It is highly debatable that there were scores of “Witches and Pagans” (as we understand the term) still around during the time of the Inquisition to be tried for heresy so their “prominent” victim-hood is rather in doubt, but this was 1998-99 before the dramatic rise of (readily available) Pagan scholarship and books like “Triumph of the Moon” and various witch-hunt debunking books seeped into the general Pagan consciousness. Still, the group claimed a victory of sorts for the apology to “ethnic religions” and the whole issue generally faded into the background.
Now, flash forward to Pope Benedict XVI issuing recent apologies for clergy sex abuse scandals and promoting a Holocaust denier, prompting Pagan activist and On Faith panelist Starhawk to enter the apology queue.
“…if apologies are being given out, Witches would like one. It’s more than time that the Catholic and Protestant Churches both apologized for centuries of persecution of Witches, Pagans and those they deemed ‘heretics’ for believing something different than standard dogma. How about an apology for the Papal Bull of Pope Innocent the Eighth, in 1484, that made Witchcraft an heresy and unleashed the Inquisition against traditional healers, midwives, and any woman unpopular with her neighbors for being too uppity? It’s high past time to apologize for the Malleus Maleficarum, a vicious document written by two Dominican priests in 1486 that created a whole mythology of Satan worship, attributed it mostly to women, and unleashed a wave of accusations, torture, and judicial murder that have haunted us ever since. An apology won’t do much good, now, to those accused, tormented, and destroyed because someone coveted their property or needed a local scapegoat, nor to their children left motherless or fatherless centuries ago. But it might clear some air.”
This leads religion writer and Catholic convert (and Beliefnet blogger) David Gibson to accuse Starhawk of wrapping herself in a cloak of victim-hood, distorting history, and ignoring the Jubilee apologies. He also, strangely, makes this all about the witch-related killings in Africa (which Benedict XVI recently commented on).
“But it is also important to examine one’s own conscience before judging another. And while “witches” (or those who are slottled in various related categories) are too often victims, and the pope acknowledged that in Africa, the “imagination, intution, and magic” that Starhawk cites also fuel terrible abuses and horrific crimes against innocents in Africa and elsewhere. The pope also spoke against that. Did Starhawk? Perhaps she or her clan spoke out against abusive withcraft and superstition and neo-paganism during the papal visit to Africa, but I didn’t see it.”
Gibson making this about African witch-related killings when Starhawk never brings up the subject makes him seem a tad defensive (and he’s also wrong that modern Pagans haven’t addressed the issue), and his blog post prompts resident Beliefnet Pagan blogger Gus diZerega to weigh in on the subject.
“And so I am not convinced that the African examples Gibson would have us denounce are properly criticized. Maybe, maybe not. All I know of them is what their detractors have said. When those describing them are also associated with an institution having a long history of distorting and maligning indigenous spirituality, I’ll reserve judgment as to whether we are getting accurate information on those African examples … I think while we all must acknowledge the dark sides of our respective histories in order to inoculate ourselves against the disease of self-righteousness, the true task of our time today is to build our communities on what is best in our own traditions, and let others do the same in theirs, relying in Interfaith to promote mutual respect, while enabling friendly relations with different religions to marginalize those within any particular tradition who seek to gain power within their own community through sowing divisions and distrust towards others.”
Gus diZerega’s reasonableness seems to disarm Gibson a bit, making him take a more thoughtful tone.
“Beliefnet’s own Gus diZerega, author of “A Pagan’s Blog,” has a very thoughtful (he’s nicer than I am, that is) response to my post below on Starhawk calling on Pope Benedict XVI to apologize for the church’s persecution of witches. I appreciate his response, both spirit and in content … in his wrap up I was put in mind of how all religions can get tarred by the actions of the few, especially leaders, or the misdeeds (or worse) of those fringe or even mainstream few who claim to be acting in the name of their tradition. Even though they are hardly doing so.”
If I were to take a meaning from these recent exchanges, perhaps it would be that the age of Pagans demanding apologies from large Christian institutions should come to a close. Instead, we should take the example of Gus diZerega here and focus on mutual communication, responsiveness, and understanding (facilitated in part by a new-media paradigm that encourages more open discourse). Demanding respect and equal treatment because we exist here and now in secular societies that guarantee us religious freedom, not because we might have existed during a time of persecution hundreds of years ago. I’m far more worried about injustice now than whether some poor woman persecuted centuries ago was really a Witch or not. I don’t need a persecution narrative in my Paganism.