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It can hardly have escaped the notice of persons interested in religion and public life that there has been a good deal of public sorrow expressed lately concerning errors or misdeeds committed by representatives or members of the Catholic Church at various times in history. Recently, a diligent Italian journalist counted no less than ninety-four instances where the Pope himself has acknowledged the mistakes and sins of Christians in connection with, among other things, the Crusades, the Inquisition, persecution of the Jews, religious wars, Galileo, and the treatment of women.

This penitential activity is linked to Pope John Paul II’s 1994 apostolic letter, Tertio Millennio Adveniente, where he suggests that the period leading up to the Third Millennium be regarded as “a new Advent,” a time for examination of conscience: “It is appropriate that, as the Second Millennium of Christianity draws to a close, the Church should become more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children, recalling all those times in history when they departed from the spirit of Christ and his Gospel, and, instead of offering to the world the witness of a life inspired by the values of faith, indulged in ways of thinking and acting that were truly forms of counterwitness and scandal.”

The Pope’s own evocations of historical wrongdoing have been instructive. They are direct, to-the-point, and aimed toward what he sometimes calls the “healing of memories.” In every way, they reflect the wisdom and largeness of spirit that are characteristic of his writings and speeches.

Yet, when the Pope presented his plan for a premillennial public expression of sorrow to the College of Cardinals, some news stories reported that many cardinals had grave misgivings about the idea. Whether or not that rumor is well-founded, the Pope did anticipate possible criticisms of his plan. He pointed out in Tertio Millennio Adveniente that while the Church “is holy because of her incorporation into Christ,” she is “always in need of being purified,” and thus “does not tire of doing penance.” He reminded his readers that “acknowledging the weaknesses of the past is an act of honesty and courage which helps to strengthen our faith, which alerts us to face today’s temptations and challenges.”

It would be hard to dispute those propositions. So why should anyone be nervous about a program of purification aimed at healing historical resentments and evangelizing contemporary men and women? My own uneasiness has nothing to do with what the Pope has said, and everything to do with the way in which the expressions of regret he calls for may be manipulated by spin doctors who are no friends of the Church; indeed by persons for whom no apology will ever be enough until Catholics apologize themselves into nonexistence.

My anxiety level escalates when I think of these acknowledgments of past sins in the light of Gertrude Himmelfarb’s chilling account of the current state of historical scholarship. History is always an amalgam of fact and myth. But historians seem increasingly to have turned from the search for fact toward freewheeling, imaginative reconstructions of events. All too many are strategically reinventing history in the service of various agendas. As an elderly Boston lawyer recently remarked to me, “It’s getting to be tough times for the dead.”

As for the popular image of the Church in history, it must be hard for Catholics brought up on movies and TV to avoid the impression that their Church holds a special niche in some historical hall of shame.

Add to this that most people hear of official expressions of regret as filtered through the news media. Thus, though the Pope himself is careful to speak of sin or error on the part of the Church’s members or representatives, rather than the Church in its fullness, that important theological distinction is almost always lost in the transmission.

Sometimes the distinction is deliberately obscured, as in the article on the papacy and the Holocaust in the April 7, 1997 New Yorker magazine. Author James Carroll begins with what at first appears to be an appreciation of John Paul II’s special relationship with the Jewish people. He recounts the well-known facts: Wojtyla’s bravery as a young man in Nazi-occupied Poland, his grief over the Holocaust, his denunciations of anti-Semitism, his establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel, his historic visit to the Rome synagogue, his sympathy to demands for withdrawal of the convent at Auschwitz, and his sorrowful admissions that “many Christians” were responsible for Jewish suffering.

Acknowledging John Paul II’s exemplary record and enormous popularity, Carroll pretends to lament that the present pontificate is nevertheless “tainted.” The “tragedy” of the present pontificate, according to ex-priest Carroll, is that the Pope stopped short of “indicting the Church itself.” He quotes dissenting theologian Hans Küng’s dismissive remark on the Pope’s expressions of sorrow: “This Pope likes to make some kind of confession.” For Küng, no confession will do until the Pope endorses the bizarre view that Küng himself holds, namely, that “it [is] no longer possible to say the Nazis were responsible without saying the Church is co-responsible.” Carroll also complains that John Paul II has not condemned Pius XII by name, as Carroll does in a simplistic, selective account of the role of the papacy during the Holocaust.

Not only is it not enough for the Pope to admit that “many Christians” sinned against Jews—nor that he has said the Church “always acknowledges as her own her sinful sons and daughters”—Carroll even objects to the Pope’s mention of acts of heroism by individual Catholics in saving Jews. As for the New Yorker, it published this one-sided attack without requiring Carroll to give so much as a hint of the case against ascribing collective guilt to the entire mystical body of Christ. Did it occur to them that they might not get the whole story from one of the corps of Catholics and ex-Catholics who specialize in sniping at the Church? Did it raise any editorial eyebrows that Carroll relied so heavily on a notoriously disgruntled theologian?

Carroll’s (and Küng’s) real target seems to be the institution of the papacy, and their point of entry the doctrine of papal infallibility. If it was “the Church” and Pius XII that erred or sinned, they suggest, the doctrine cannot stand. But surely both of them recall enough theology to know that none of the historical errors or misdeeds of which they complain falls within the scope of the infallibility doctrine. As Flannery O’Connor once succinctly put it:

Christ never said that the Church would be operated in a sinless or intelligent way, but that it would not teach error. This does not mean that each and every priest won’t teach error, but that the whole Church speaking through the Pope will not teach error in matters of faith.

Whether that crucial point is intentionally obscured, or simply overlooked, the effect is apt to be the same. Some of the faithful begin to wonder: “If the Church was wrong about so many things in the past, maybe she’s wrong about what she’s teaching now.” This is another reason why public acknowledgments of past errors have given rise to anxiety in some quarters of the Church.

Consider, in that connection, the apology contained in the Pope’s 1995 Apostolic Letter to Women. There, after deploring various affronts to women’s dignity throughout the ages, John Paul II says, “If objective blame, especially in particular historical contexts, has belonged to not just a few members of the Church, for this I am truly sorry.”

I think it is fair to say that that gracious apology has not met with an equally gracious reception in circles wedded to the idea that the Church is a sexist institution. I was surprised, when I took the job of heading the Holy See delegation to the Beijing women’s conference, at the number of people who asked me how I could represent an institution that treats women as second-class citizens. When I hear these knee-jerk accusations of sexism in the Church, I always want to ask: “Compared to what other institution?” Wasn’t it the Church that gained wide acceptance for the novel idea that marriage was indissoluble”in societies where men had always been permitted by custom to put aside their wives? That fostered the rise of strong, self-governing orders of women religious in the Middle Ages? That pioneered in women’s education in countries where most other institutions paid scant attention to girls’ intellectual development? No one with the slightest knowledge of history could deny that the advance of Christianity has strengthened the position of women.

In recent years the Holy See has emerged in international settings as one of the world’s most vigorous proponents of social and economic justice for women. The Church has been one of the very few international actors to insist both on respect for women’s roles in the family, and on support for women’s aspirations for full participation in economic and social life.

To all this, the gender police think they have a slam-dunk response: the Church is sexist because it refuses to ordain women. This is not the place for a full discussion of complementarity and the universal call to holiness in relation to ordination. Let’s just ask: How does the position of women in the Catholic Church compare with the position of women in churches that ordain women? Strangely, many people who are obsessed with the ordination issue seem uninterested in the vast and increasing array of pastoral and ministerial roles, once reserved to priests, that are now being performed by women. As for the gender police, who make no bones about being preoccupied with power, these expanded opportunities for service do not signify. They want to know about “leadership” positions. Leaving aside the inappropriateness of analogizing the Church to business or governmental institutions, let us consider that question on its own terms. Who runs the second largest health care system in the world? Has it not long been managed almost entirely by dynamic Catholic women executives (mainly religious sisters)? Who runs the world’s largest system of private elementary and secondary education? Has it not long been largely run by Catholic women, religious and lay, as teachers, principals, and superintendents? (Incidentally, where did the idea come from that you have to be ordained to be a leader? I expect that the Archbishop of Calcutta is a very capable administrator, but was Mother Teresa less a leader than he?)

Moreover, John Paul II seems determined to push the Church further and faster along these lines. He has repeatedly appealed to women “to assume new forms of leadership in service . . . and to all institutions of the Church to welcome this contribution of women.” Practicing what he preaches, he has made an unprecedented number of appointments of lay and religious women to pontifical councils and academies.

If the question is whether the Catholic Church has done enough to conform her own structures to the principle that men and women are equal partners in the mystery of redemption, it is clear from his writings that John Paul II would be the first to say no. My point here is that though the Church may fall short of her own aspirations, she can hold her head high in comparison to other institutions so far as her long record for respect for the dignity and freedom of women is concerned.

That journalists turn a blind eye to this record brings me back to the general problem of public expressions of contrition in the age of spin. It seems to me that Catholic laypeople have a significant responsibility to help make sure that public penitential activities are kept in proper perspective. Often it is the laity who will be in the best position to see when sincere expressions of regret are being opportunistically exploited by persons or groups who are only too eager to help the Church rend her garments and to heap more ashes on the heads of Catholics. Often it will be the laity who are in the best position to set the record straight.

That means, for one thing, recalling that when we sinners ask forgiveness, we are addressing ourselves, first and foremost, to God. (As we say in the Act of Contrition, “but most of all because I have offended Thee, my God.”) Expressions of sorrow over past shortcomings do not require abasing ourselves before others, and certainly not before persons who are unwilling to admit any misdeeds of their own. Many historical memories will not be healed until there has been mutual forgiveness.

Setting the record straight also means challenging those who, innocently or deliberately, seek to erase the distinction between the Church and her sinful children. When Flannery O’Connor ran into the likes of Carroll and Küng in the 1950s, she pointed out:

What you actually seem to demand is that the Church put the kingdom of heaven on earth right here now. Christ was crucified on earth and the Church is crucified by all of us, by her members most particularly, because she is a church of sinners . . . . The Church is founded on Peter who denied Christ three times and couldn’t walk on the water by himself. You are expecting his successors to walk on the water.

Truly, it is right that we confess our sins and do penance. We never “tire of repenting” because we and our pilgrim Church are on a trajectory”climbing Jacob’s Ladder, striving to “put on the new man,” trying to be better Christians today than we were yesterday. Probably the best way to show that we are moving forward on that trajectory is simply, as the Pope says, to “offer to the world the witness of a life inspired by the values of faith.”

But so far as our public acts of repentance are concerned, let us be vigilant to prevent them from being hijacked and exploited. Let us join with our sisters and brothers of other faiths to resist all those who peddle the poison of collective guilt. Let us make sure our expressions of sorrow are never permitted to denigrate the role of the Church in history as an overwhelmingly positive force for peace and justice. And above all, let us remember what they are not: they are not apologies for being Catholic.

Mary Ann Glendon, a member of the Editorial Board of First Things, is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University.

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