The FORWARD (formerly the Jewish Daily Forward)

JUNE 28, 2002

Inquisition's Isabella Is Sized Up For Sainthood


Spain's Roman Catholic bishops are reviving an old effort to canonize Queen Isabella, in a move that worries Jewish and Catholic groups. Opponents say the woman who engineered the Spanish Inquisition, expelling Spain's thriving Muslim and Jewish communities, is not saint material.

The move, thought to be a trial balloon, advances the cause of Isabella's sainthood in Spain, but not necessarily within the Vatican, where such determinations are made, observers said. Another push was made on Isabella's behalf a few years ago, but was shot down by protests.

Jewish groups roundly denounced the effort.

"For a Jew, what's there to say about Queen Isabella?" said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. "She changed Jewish history and set the stage for a lot worse. Whatever level of piety and contributions she made to Christendom, the horrific decision to force the Jews out should be the deal breaker."

The Church bestowed the title "the Catholic" on Queen Isabella in 1496 and opened the case for her canonization in 1974, when it gave her the honorary title "servant of God." Individual Spanish bishops and the cardinal of Puerto Rico have lobbied on behalf of Isabella's sainthood, but not as an organized force. Observers speculate that the renewed efforts at canonization may be a way for the Spanish church to deflect attention from recent scandals and are also in line with campaigns spearheaded by Spanish conservatives to promote national heroes.

Advocates for Isabella's canonization point to her success at spreading Christianity and her role in unifying Spain. They say the torture and murder that went on during the Inquisition shouldn't be judged by modern standards. Many offer a bit of revisionist history.

"A lot of that was done without her knowledge or approval," said Frances Sheltra, the international regent of the Daughters of Isabella, a Catholic women's organization with 70,000 members in the United States and Canada. The Daughters of Isabella recite a daily prayer for her canonization, as do members of Miles Jesu, an international Catholic lay organization. The prayer begins, "Almighty Father, in Your infinite goodness, You made Queen Isabel the Catholic, a model for young ladies, wives, mothers, women leaders and Government rulers."

The National Committee of Queen Isabella, which has chapters in Rome, Spain and Chicago, offers lectures and conferences and publishes books and a bimonthly magazine promoting the "true history" of the Inquisition in the hopes of winning more followers to the cause.

Maire Duggan, a staff member of the National Committee of Queen Isabella, said that the Inquisition was "the most just tribunal of its time" and compared favorably to the Protestant revolt in which witches were burned at the stake. Referring to one of her organization's books about the Inquisition, "Why Ask Forgiveness?", she said, "If someone wants to talk about human rights, Isabella was way ahead of Martin Luther King."

Many groups, in fact, do want to talk about human rights.

The Rev. John Pawlikowski, director of Catholic-Jewish studies at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, said he worried that the opening of the case would damage bilateral relations as well as the moral standing of the church.

"It would hardly be a gesture of good will or humanitarianism to recognize her with sainthood," he said, adding that many leaders involved in Catholic-Jewish relations nationally have raised deep concerns about the possibility. "Given her record, her canonization would cause significant difficulties with our major partner religious communities," he said.

Cooper of the Wiesenthal Center said granting Isabella sainthood would undercut the efforts made by the Royal Family of Spain to apologize and make amends to the Jewish people for the Inquisition.

Although decisions on canonization are made at the Vatican, Cooper said, the "moral responsibility for the decision lies in Spain's clerics and king and queen, considering the key role in Spanish history Queen Isabella played."

A spokesman for the Spanish embassy, who declined to give his name, said he didn't see it that way. "We have no official opinion about canonizing Queen Isabella," he said. "That's something concerning the Catholic church. It's a religious subject, and we are not a religious country. The canonization has nothing to do with the nation of Spain."