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.

This distinction was a stumbling block for Jewish groups two years ago when the Vatican issued a document called "We Remember" that described itself as an "act of repentance" for the failure of Catholics to stop the mass killing of Jews during World War II. Some Jews said the document did not go far enough, precisely because it did not directly implicate the Church itself in the Holocaust. That position is not expected to change in the new document. Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews, who signed "We Remember" on the Vatican's behalf," later said, "The greatest difficulty was the fear that if you say the Church has been wrong in the past, then it can be wrong today and tomorrow."

Liberals everywhere, including many liberal Catholics, would like nothing more than to see the pope repudiate his predecessors in exactly this way. In looking back critically at the Crusades and the Inquisition, John Paul has come close to doing just that. Bishop Alessandro Maggiolini of Como, in Italy, another critic of the recent spurt of papal apologies, pointed out that Pope Pius V (reigned 1566-1572), who was later canonized, "was a zealous inquisitor before becoming pontiff."

John Paul II does seem aware that his apologies might provide theological fodder for the Church's liberal critics, and he has taken steps to avoid this. Because numerous medieval and Renaissance popes were directly involved in both Inquisitions and Crusades, he refers to these events only indirectly in his document. To do otherwise would involve "the unseemliness of a pope criticizing his predecessor," according to a Catholic News Service article that quoted the pope's personal theologian, the Rev. Georges Cottier, O.P.

Similarly, the 14th-century mystic St. Catherine of Siena supported the Crusades. John Paul II's way of getting around this was to note, in a 1995 statement, that "she was a daughter of her time."

But this raises another problem with apologizing for remote Church events. The standards that prevailed during the centuries when modern notions of religious freedom were unknown concepts. A group of Vatican-appointed historians reviewing the apology presented Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, with a study declaring that "you cannot apply a modern mentality to the actions of past centuries." In England, the conservative Catholic historian Paul Johnson was even less restrained, saying that "there is something repellant, as well as profoundly unhistorical, about judging the past by the standards and prejudices of another age." He criticized John Paul for participating in what Johnson characterized as charade of bogus apologies.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus