VATICAN CITY, March 2--In a move unprecedented in two millennia of Roman Catholic history, Pope John Paul II will open Lent by offering a sweeping apology for sins committed by Catholics over the centuries.
But while the Roman Catholic pontiff will accept responsibility for the actions of the "sons and daughters" of the church, he will make no apology for the church itself, which is considered "holy and immaculate," church theologian explained. The key distinction is contained in a 90-page document prepared by an international panel of seven theologians under the guidance of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and president of the International Theological Commission.
Through an apparent misunderstanding, church officials in France and Germany made the document public Wednesday, although the Vatican will not issue it until next Tuesday. Vatican publication originally was scheduled for today, but was delayed for technical reasons, officials said.
John Paul has made repentance and reconciliation a theme of Holy Year observances. He told pilgrims at a general audience in September that he wanted to start the third millennium of Christianity by asking pardon for past mistakes.
"With a penitential spirit and on the threshold of a new millennium, the church is willing to acknowledge past mistakes, when they are confirmed by serious investigation, and to ask pardon for the historical offenses of its sons," he said.
The Vatican has said the pontiff will make the apology on a "day of repentance," scheduled for March 12, the first Sunday of Lent, the 40-day season of fasting, prayer and almsgiving in preparation for Easter.
"Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Mistakes of the Past," the document explaining the theological framework for the papal statement, lists as sins divisions among Christians; the "use of violence in the service of the truth," an apparent reference to the Crusades and Inquisition; and relations with Jews.
Past errors by Catholics also are at the root of such "evils of today" as the spread of atheism, indifference, ethical relativism, the failure to oppose abortion laws and neglect of the poor, the document says.
By issuing the theological document in advance of the pope's statement, the Vatican sought to dispel what the document calls "reservations" by some Catholics, who fear the apology will provide ammunition to "those who are hostile" to the church.
John Paul already has apologized for the failure of many Catholics to oppose the Nazi extermination of the Jews during World War II. But Jewish leaders contended that the Vatican's 1998 document on the Holocaust, "We Remember: Reflections on the Shoah," did not go far enough.
The latest papal statement comes ahead of the pope's scheduled late-March trip to the Holy land, where issues concerning church actions involving Jews, Muslims and Orthodox Christians are sure to surface.