Witch hunts


Did witches exist and do they now? A pope issued a bull that encouraged all to hunt down witches. ??

Also, in the past the church supported the death penalty, now not so. Whats the deal? Mistake?


:hmmm: Define “witch”. There are people today who practice something called “wicca”, who claim to be descended from witches. Are they who you mean?

And when you say “the church supported the death penalty” – Are you speaking of the death penalty for witchcraft, or the death penalty in general?


The witches mentioned in Summis desiderantes affectibus


Death penalty, as in stoning to death in the bible, burning heretics at th stake, etc.

I’ve heard that only the late Pope John Paul II made capital punishment bad.

"The Roman Catholic Church traditionally accepted capital punishment as per the theology of Thomas Aquinas (who accepted the death penalty as a necessary deterrent and prevention method, but not as the means of vengeance; see also Aquinas and the death penalty). Under the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, this position was refined. "


Persecution of witches as in “the crucible” was a Protestant affair. The persecution of witches by Catholics is often linked to a book called the Malleus Maleficarum written by Kramer and Sprenger. They submitted the Malleus Maleficarum to the University of Cologne’s Faculty of Theology on May 9, 1487, hoping for its endorsement. Instead, the faculty condemned it as both unethical and illegal (History of the Malleus Maleficarum by Jenny Gibbons). Nervertheless, Kramer inserted an endorsement from the University into subsequent editions. The Catholic Church banned the book in 1490, placing it on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

Despite this, however, it became the handbook for witch-hunters and Inquisitors throughout Late Medieval Europe. Between the years 1487 and 1520, the work was published thirteen times. It was again published between the years of 1574 to 1669 a total of sixteen times. The papal bull and endorsements which appear at the beginning of the book contributed to its popularity by giving the illusion that it had been granted approval.

The late fifteenth century was also a period of religious turmoil, for the Protestant Reformation was only a few decades in the future. The Malleus Maleficarum and the witch craze that ensued took advantage of the increasing intolerance of the Reformation an Counter-Reformation in Europe where the Protestant and Catholic camps each zealously strove to maintain the purity of faith (Henningsen 1980. page 15).

The whole period is of particular interest to me. There was a papal bull issued in 1484 by Pope Innocent VIII. Called Summis desiderantes affectibus, or the famous “witch-bull” it became the basis for the *Malleus Maleficarum.
Pope Innocent VIII is, I think, one of my least favourite Church figures in a time of abuse of the papacy. In 1487 he made the brilliant decision of appointing Tomas de Torquemada to be grand inquisitor of Spain. He was a strong supporter of the Spanish Inquisition; he also urged a crusade against the Waldensians, offering plenary indulgence to all who should engage in it. In 1486, he prohibited, on pain of severe ecclesiastical censures, the reading of the nine hundred propositions of Pico Mirandola. He virtually institutionalised the sin of simony at the papal court, creating new titles of offices that were discreetly auctioned. When he died he left numerous children, of whom only two were publicly acknowledged. Not much of a pope really.


This is a question of societal right and wrong. The Church position is that the innocent cannot be allowed to be killed. It’s become more possible to incarcerate them for their whole lives these days so the death penalty is not necessary.


Yes, there are many people, both men and women, who identify as witches.

As fare as the bull that says to hunt them down, I would take it with a grain and refer to our most recent Popes have said. Remember the time frame in which the original document was written…very, very different from now.


Remember the time frame in which the original document was written…very, very different from now.

What do you mean by this? Do you mean that the hunting of witches was suited for thoses times or the belief in witches?


There was a real thing going on at that time, people were more superstitious and had genuine fear of witches. The Church has been battling this superstition all through it’s history because it leads to hysteria.


That’s what I meant. I’m sorry, I should have elaborated.


I think I remember C.S. Lewis commenting on this, and he said you have to put things in the context of the times. If a society, backward though they may be, to the best of their ability sincerely believed that there were such things as witches, and that these presumed witches were among them and really commiting the horrible and inhuman things that witches were thought to be doing, not only could they be excused for taking action against these monsters, but they would have been totally irresponsible and craven to NOT do something about it.

I suspect many people in the future will look at many things our current society accepts, believes and does with equal sentiments of horror fed by 20/20 hindsight.


Like abortion for example!




Yes, there is such a thing as magic and witchcraft. Nowadays it is not even kept particularly secret.
The Englishman John Dee was a good example of a magician. He tried to communicate with the angels, and to transmute base metals to gold. He was a competely historical character. However a lot of accusations were made in the seventeenth century which were baseless, leading to an overreaction and and assumption in the eighteenth century that witchcraft never occured.


Wicca is Old English for “witch”. By using that word, modern witches avoid the negative association with the word witch, and try to indicate a connection to pagans of ancient times. (Which is specious.)



Regarding the Catholic Church and witchcraft, the Catholic Encyclopedia is an excellent source:



Wicca and Witchcraft is not the same thing and are not interchangable.

There may be similarities be in beliefs and practices, but it really boils down to this: Witchcraft is actively manipulating the world, energy, herbs, whatever to achieve a desired result. While this may have spiritual overtones, witchcraft, by this definition is not a religion. However, some followers of Wicca incorrectly use this word to denote their religion.

 Wicca is a contemporary Pagan religion with spiritual roots in Shamanism and the earliest expressions of reverence of nature.      

Among Wicca’s calling cards are: reverence of the Goddess and the God (though some worship solely a goddess); reincarnation; magick; ritual observance of the Full Moon; astronomical and agricultural phenomena; spheroid temples, created with personal power, in which rituals occur.

In the modern day, some folks have taken to using the word Witch to help open lines of communication between them and the new-age / fluffy community.

Those that call themselves witches do so purposely and conscientiously. Additionally, not all witches are Wiccan, and not all Wiccans are witches, as witchcraft by itself is not a religion, and not all Wiccans practice magick.

end mini-dissertation



For an interesting look at current knowledge about the witch hunts during the Middle Ages and Reformation, take a look at chass.colostate-pueblo.edu/natrel/pom/old/POM5a1.html written by an MA in history who minored in the study of the Great Hunt.

The best resource on the history of Wicca is by British historian Ronald Hutton, “Triumph of the Moon,” which traces the origins of Wicca in the early 20th century as well as the societal and philosophical trends of the previous century that paved the way for it and other movements to develop.

And to add to Jessica’s post, not all Neopagans are Wiccan.


In other words: “Are there people who believe in spirits and engage in magical thinking and mysterious rituals?”

Yes. Just about every person who follows a religion today can be described this way, I suppose. Using this definition, one person’s witch is another person’s catholic.

Were there ever witches in the sense of a person who believed they were in league with the devil, who thought they could fly through the night air, and meet to celebrate a Black Mass? I doubt such tales are any more than fanciful stories intended to frighten the ignorant, or at the worst, frightened lies offered as a result of torture.

A pope issued a bull that encouraged all to hunt down witches. ??

The papal bull, Summis desiderantes affectibus, was essentially a letter of support for the Inquisitors Institoris and Sprenger (both of the Dominican order) to help them with their work in Germany, where they were facing opposition from both secular and clerical officials. It was intended to quiet any complaints from those parties. Unfortunately, it also had the consequence of “establishing once and for all that the Inquisition against witches had full papal approval” (Russell, 1972). The (no-doubt) unintended result of this approval was the introduction of a general sanction in the minds of many for all kinds of bloodletting and torture in the years to come.

The papal bull had little direct connection to the book, Malleus Maleficarum, since it was issued 2 years prior to the publication of the book, but by its very nature lended credibility to the awful tome.

While the papal bull of Innocent VIII stood out as the most emphatic statement in support of the fight against witches, it was only the last in a long line of papal bulls that set the stage for increasingly severe actions against heretics, sorcerers, and practitioners of black magic, which the Church apparently suspected, lurked behind every corner.

But would it be considered authoritative today? Hardly. So put down your thumbscrews, sell your rack, and maybe consider a more sedate hobby, like pinning live butterflies to styrofoam.


Thank you for this information.

For balance, after reading the above, view these articles from the Catholic Educator’s Resource website:



The second is by Sandra Miesel, a highly regarded medieval scholar.

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