2016-06-30
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 the Crusades), and the hostility of numerous Catholics toward Jews.

Although the response to this confession will be generally positive, some are confused by the pope's action. Some Catholics ask why are we confessing sins that were committed by earlier generations for which we are not responsible? Many are confused by statements that while the children of the church can sin, the church is sinless. Others complain that the confessing sins of the past is easy, what about today's sins? Some are demanding a longer and more specific list of sins.

It is clear from Catholic theology that guilt for sin is not passed on from one generation to another. A child is not responsible for the sins of her parents. But past sins do continue to have consequences today, as hatreds and prejudices are passed on from one generation to another. Acknowledging these sins 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 were hurt by sin. These shared bad memories must be overcome by creating new positive memories of confession, reconciliation and forgiveness. The mutual forgiveness and embrace of Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople in 1966 became such a shared memory for Orthodox and Catholic believers. John Paul hopes that shared experiences of confession and reconciliation will create new memories that future generations can build on in improving relations. Future generations will look back at the Jubilee Year confessions as a turning point in the church's relationship with others.

Nor in this context should we talk about the "collective guilt" of Catholics. The concept of collective guilt was once used to blame all Jews for the death of Jesus. It is as false for Catholics as it was for Jews. Not all Catholics were responsible for the Inquisition and some Catholics did risk their lives to protect Jews. In addition, the subjective guilt of any individual (who is a product of his or her time and culture) is difficult to judge. That is why the sins confessed will inevitably be more general than specific.

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

Vatican comments about the church being sinless were neither helpful nor well understood. It should be emphasized that the "children" of the church include popes, cardinals, bishops, clergy and not just the people in the pews. We are the church and we have sinned. The church as the "sinless bride of Christ" exists on a spiritual, mystical or eschatological level outside history for which we can take no credit.

Finally, it is true that confessing other people's sins is easier than

facing our own. The International Theological Commission points to current evils worth confessing such as atheism, secularism, abortion, and indifference to the poor. But this comes across more as finger pointing than confessing. Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, caught the true spirit of the pope's intention in his "Lenten 2000 Message" by asking forgiveness from Catholic sisters, victims of clergy sexual abuse, Catholic homosexuals and lesbians, labor unions, Jews and Muslims who were offended by him or Catholics of the archdiocese.

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

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