Is the Pope Overdoing the Apologies?
He may be providing ammunition to critics who would like the Church to dismantle core doctrines.
BY: Tom Bethell
This column first appeared on Beliefnet in 2000.
On no fewer than 94 occasions, according to a the Italian journalist Luigi Accattoli, Pope John Paul II has publicly admitted that the Catholic Church was guilty of errors in the past. Now, in what Religion News Service calls "a move unprecedented in two millenniums of Roman Catholic history," John Paul has issued a summation of all these apologies. He read the document, "Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Mistakes of the Past," at a "solemn ceremony" on March 12, the first Sunday of Lent. A preparatory document, outlining the conditions and limits of the forthcoming apology, was also issued by the Vatican.
Among the Church's errors for which John Paul apologized are divisions within Christianity, forced conversions, ecclesiastical use (and approval) of violence, and anti-Jewish prejudice. The document also says that past errors by Catholics lie at the root of such "evils of today" as the spread of atheism and ethical relativism.
John Paul's inclination to apologize, although obviously well intentioned, puts the Church into a theological and historical quandary. For one thing, although its individual members, including popes themselves, may well be and often have been sinners, Catholic teaching has traditionally held that the Church itself--the "bride of Christ" in the language of the New Testament--has a supernatural dimension that renders it incapable of sin or error.
Furthermore, John Paul's apology puts him in the position of condemning such institutions as the Inquisition and the Crusades, which many of his papal predecessors and even some great saints endorsed.
The Crusades in particular, although periodically marked by unbecoming religious violence against Jews and Eastern Orthodox Christians, did succeed for a time in protecting Christian holy places, and Christians themselves, from aggressive Islamic regimes in the eastern Mediterranean. Indiscriminately apologizing for the Church's past actions may provide ammunition to liberal critics who would like to see the Church retract some of its core teachings--such as its prohibitions against artificial birth control and female priests--as mistakes of the past.
For this reason, some members of the Catholic hierarchy have been openly critical of John Paul's binge of apologizing. "As regards the sins of history," Cardinal Giacomo Biffi of Bologna wrote in a 1995 book, "would it not be better for all of us to wait for the Last Judgment?" Biffi also drew attention to the theological distinction between sins committed by individual members of the Church, and the sinless Church itself. John Paul usually makes this distinction clear, and a recent preparatory document for the apology refers to the Church as "holy and immaculate," despite the sins of its members.