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The Pope has asked forgiveness for sins committed by Catholics over the last two millennia. He specifically mentions sins against Christian unity, the violation of conscience through the use of force (for example by the Inquisition and theCrusades), and the hostility of numerous Catholics toward Jews.

Although the response to this confession will be generally positive, someare confused by the pope's action. Some Catholics ask why are we confessingsins that were committed by earlier generations for which we are notresponsible? Many are confused by statements that while the children of thechurch can sin, the church is sinless. Others complain that the confessingsins of the past is easy, what about today's sins? Some are demanding alonger and more specific list of sins.

It is clear from Catholic theology that guilt for sin is not passed on fromone generation to another. A child is not responsible for the sins of herparents. But past sins do continue to have consequences today, as hatreds andprejudices are passed on from one generation to another. Acknowledging thesesins of the past can help us overcome their influence in our lives today.Denying their existence only perpetuates their continued influence.

Past sins also live on in the memory of the church and of those who werehurt by sin. These shared bad memories must be overcome by creating newpositive memories of confession, reconciliation and forgiveness. The mutualforgiveness and embrace of Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras ofConstantinople in 1966 became such a shared memory for Orthodox and Catholicbelievers. John Paul hopes that shared experiences of confession andreconciliation will create new memories that future generations can build onin improving relations. Future generations will look back at the JubileeYear confessions as a turning point in the church's relationship withothers.

Nor in this context should we talk about the "collective guilt" ofCatholics. The concept of collective guilt was once used to blame all Jewsfor the death of Jesus. It is as false for Catholics as it was for Jews. Notall Catholics were responsible for the Inquisition and some Catholics didrisk their lives to protect Jews. In addition, the subjective guilt of anyindividual (who is a product of his or her time and culture) is difficult tojudge. That is why the sins confessed will inevitably be more general thanspecific.

But some sins were either so common among Christians or so devastating onothers that they amount to a scandal or counterwitness to the Gospel ofJesus. These sins should be acknowledged and confessed for the sake ofreconciliation. "Taking responsibility for past wrong is a kind of sharingin the mystery of Christ, crucified and risen, who took upon himself thesins of all," writes the Vatican International Theological Commission.

Vatican comments about the church being sinless were neither helpful norwell understood. It should be emphasized that the "children" of the churchinclude popes, cardinals, bishops, clergy and not just the people in thepews. We are the church and we have sinned. The church as the "sinless brideof Christ" exists on a spiritual, mystical or eschatological level outsidehistory for which we can take no credit.

Finally, it is true that confessing other people's sins is easier thanfacing our own. The International Theological Commission points to currentevils worth confessing such as atheism, secularism, abortion, andindifference to the poor. But this comes across more as finger pointing thanconfessing. Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, caught thetrue spirit of the pope's intention in his "Lenten 2000 Message" by askingforgiveness from Catholic sisters, victims of clergy sexual abuse, Catholichomosexuals and lesbians, labor unions, Jews and Muslims who were offendedby him or Catholics of the archdiocese.

But while confession is good for the soul, it is not enough. We must alsohave a firm purpose of amendment. Repentance must bear fruit in innerconversion and in just action.

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