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In his 1994 apostolic letter “On The Coming of the Third Millennium,” Pope John Paul II said that while the great jubilee of the year 2000 is to be a time of joyful celebration, the joy should be based on forgiveness and reconciliation. It is therefore appropriate that the Church should prepare herself by recalling the sinfulness of her children. The Church, he said, cannot cross the threshold of the new millennium without encouraging them to repent and purify themselves of past errors and instances of infidelity, inconsistency, and slowness to act. He went on to speak of sins against Christian unity and of intolerance and violence in the service of truth. Turning to failures of our day, he asked Catholics to consider how much they had allowed themselves to be infected by the prevailing climate of secularism and relativism, thus contributing to the current crisis of obedience in the Church. He also called for an appraisal of the reception and implementation of the Second Vatican Council.

The Pope gathered up his thoughts on the theme most comprehensively in an unsigned twenty-three-page memorandum sent to the cardinals in the spring of 1994, in preparation for the consistory that met later in that year. This memorandumwhich may well have been written by the Pope himselfwas never published, but it was studied by all the cardinals and has been summarized and quoted in various places. It proposed “an attentive examination of the history of the second millennium in order to acknowledge the errors committed by its members and, in a certain sense, in the name of the Church.” “The Church,” it says, “should be aware with ever greater clarity of how much the faithful have proven to be unfaithful throughout the centuries, sinning against Christ and his gospel.”

The idea of acknowledging the faults of members of the Church, and especially of persons acting in the name of the Church, has been with John Paul II ever since his election to the papacy in the fall of 1978. Early in his pontificate he established a committee to reassess the condemnation of Galileo. This committee in 1984 reported its findings to the effect that Galileo’s judges committed an “objective error” in rejecting a theory that later proved to be sound. The memorandum of 1994, after alluding to this retraction, went on to speak of other cases in which the autonomy of the sciences might have been infringed. In addition, it declared, violence and undue pressure have been inflicted in the service of faith by the Inquisition, by religious wars, and by disregard of the rights of the human person. In his opening address at the consistory John Paul II expressed his intention in the following strong words:

With the approach of this Great Jubilee the Church needs a metanoia, that is, a discernment of the historical faults and failures of her members in responding to the demands of the gospel. Only the courageous admission of the faults and omissions of which Christians are judged to be guilty in some degree, and also the generous intention to make amends, with God’s help, can provide an efficacious initiative for the new evangelization and make the path to unity easier.

As a result of the Pope’s initiative an immense program for the coming jubilee has been put in place. The first international meeting of the Central Committee for the Great Jubilee was held at the Vatican in February 1996, with 107 delegates from national conferences of bishops and Catholic Eastern churches, and six additional delegates from sister churches. Of the eight commissions for the jubilee the one most directly concerned with the theme of repentance and conversion is the historico-theological commission, which is divided into the two sections suggested by its name. The historical section has chosen to concentrate for the present on anti-Semitism and the Inquisition, leaving other questions for later study.

The historical section convened an international symposium on “The Roots of Anti-Judaism in the Christian Milieu,” which met at the Gregorian University in the fall of 1997. The purpose of this symposium was not to make a final declaration but to study the facts and present them to the Pope. A month earlier the Gregorian University had hosted an international symposium on the theological aftermath of Auschwitz. Shortly after these two symposia the Holy See’s Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews released on March 16, 1998 its document “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah.” This document expressed deep sorrow and repentance for the sins and failures of Christians during that terrible crisis.

A similar symposium is planned on the theme of the Inquisition, or more correctly, the Inquisitions. The committee will have to face the delicate problem of evaluating the morality of judicial procedures that measured up, it would seem, to the standards of their day but failed to protect the rights of the accused and the freedom of consciences according to the standards of our own time.

In a third phase the Church’s official self-examination will focus on the reception of Vatican II, especially the major thrust of its four great constitutions. Many other themes, besides, could figure in the Church’s examination of conscience. Last year the Italian journalist Luigi Accattoli published When a Pope Asks Forgiveness, a book collecting no less than ninety-four statements of John Paul II expressing sorrow or repentance for corporate sins in which Christians and Catholics have been implicated. In addition to anti-Semitism and the Inquisition, this book deals with topics as diverse as the Crusades, dictatorships, divisions among Christians, discrimination against women, religious and secular wars, coercion of consciences, colonial oppression, black and Indian slavery, the Mafia, the genocide in Rwanda, and resistance to new scientific discoveries (Galileo, Darwin, and others). The Pope’s statements on these points are quite diverse in character, as might be expected because of differences in the Church’s relationship to each of these issues. It would be too much to say that in each case the Pope has pronounced a mea culpa on behalf of the Church.

Among the steps to be taken the Pope generally proposes one or more of the following: beseeching God’s forgiveness, asking forgiveness from others who have been injured, extending forgiveness to them for any harm they may have inflicted on Catholics, a firm purpose of amendment regarding the future, and what the Pope calls the “purification” or “healing” of memories, which would be hoped for as the result of all the preceding.

The Pope’s proposals for repentance raise some very difficult theological questions that are being debated by experts all over the world. At the consistory of 1994 many cardinals are said to have expressed misgivings. Shortly after the consistory Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, Archbishop of Bologna, detailed his reservations in a book, Christus Hodie, published in 1995. In this country Professor Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School has voiced some misgivings (“Contrition in the Age of Spin Control,” FT, November 1997), and in England the journalist-historian Paul Johnson has expressed his dismay that the Pope is taking part in what Johnson describes as the charade of bogus apologies. On the basis of these and other comments I should like to discuss under seven headings some common objections and some possible replies.

1. The Church, some contend, cannot repent, for it is always holy. According to Cardinal Biffi, the Church, considered in the very truth of its being, has no sins, because it is Christ’s Mystical Body. We belong to the “total Christ” insofar as we are holy, not insofar as we lack holiness. Our sins are, so to speak, “ontologically extra-ecclesial,” since they place us in opposition to the very nature of the Church.

The distinction between the Church as holy and its members as sinful has a long and venerable history. Biffi is able to quote from St. Ambrose the sentence: “The Church is wounded not in itself but in us” (“Non in se sed in nobis Ecclesia vulneratur”). Pius XII in his encyclical on the Mystical Body of Christ maintained that the Church is holy in her sacraments, her deposit of faith, her divinely given constitution, and the gifts and graces by which the Holy Spirit continues to work in her. “It cannot be laid to her charge,” he concluded, “if some members fall weak or wounded.” The Second Vatican Council, following Pius XII, carefully avoided speaking of the Church itself as sinful or as committing sins. The great ecclesiologist Charles Journet, in an article on the ecclesiology of Vatican II, pointed out that while from a purely empirical point of view the Church may appear to be sinful, the eye of faith is able to discern that the Church in its theological reality as Body of Christ is sinless, albeit not without sinners.

Some theologians respond to Cardinal Biffi’s position by contesting the distinction he is making. Joseph Komonchak, for example, contends that the distinction implies that the Church as sacrament of Christ is some vague transcendent reality, far off in the empyrean. But this charge is unfair, since Journet and Biffi are talking about the Church here on earth. They prefer to define it in terms of its formal principles and in terms of what its members are at their best and are called to become. But the Church may also be described more concretely and empirically as it actually exists in history, with its admixture of good and evil, saints and sinners. Although these two perspectives on the Church are different, neither can be called wrong.

Theologians of both groups can acknowledge that while sin is present in the Church, the Church is not related in the same way to holiness and sin. It exists most perfectly in Mary and the saints, who live according to the inner law of its being and exemplify its true nature. They are most receptive to the Church’s faith and sacraments, and to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who has been poured forth upon it. Members of the Church who fall into sin and error are less intimately united with the Church. Serious sin, indeed, erects a barrier between the sinner and the Church and may even in some cases result in excommunication. By obtaining absolution from their sins the members become reconciled and reunited not only with God but also with the Church.

John Paul II’s proposal does not require the attribution of sin to the Church. He seems, indeed, to concede what Cardinal Biffi asserts about the holiness of the Church. In the documents we are considering he takes pains to avoid saying that the Church itself has sinned. Although he has at least once spoken of the Church as “holy and sinful,” the Pope’s normal practice is to attribute sin more precisely to the “members” or “children” of the Church. In addressing the symposium at the Gregorian University on the roots of anti-Judaism in November 1997, he spoke of prejudices and erroneous views in the “Christian world” and explicitly declared that he was not ascribing them to the Church as such.

Even so, however, sin exists within the Church. Affected as they are by the secular culture of their day and by the weight of their own fallen humanity, the members resist the truth and goodness that the Church by its nature tends to instill in them. Whether they be Popes, bishops, priests, religious, or laity, they can be unfaithful not only individually but also corporately, and even sometimes when claiming to act in the name of the Church. The Church is injured and contaminated by their conduct. Vatican II could therefore declare that the Church, “embracing sinners in her bosom, is at the same time holy and always in need of being purified, and incessantly pursues the path of penance and renewal.” It does collective penance in seasons such as Lent. A corporate examination of conscience is therefore very much in order.

2. A second objection is that contrition on the part of the Church involves the concept of collective guilt, which is theoretically questionable and practically dangerous. According to the general teaching of Catholic theologians, sin in the proper sense of the word is always the choice of an individual, personal will, and therefore cannot be imputed to the Church or any other collective subject. In the words of John Paul II, “There is nothing so personal and untransferable in each individual as merit for virtue or responsibility for sin.”

The concept of collective guilt has been responsible for great evils in history, such as blaming the Jews as a people for the crucifixion of Jesus. Vatican II, attempting to overcome this misunderstanding, declared that the sufferings of Jesus could not be charged against all the Jews living at that time, still less against the Jews of today. Ed Koch, former mayor of New York City, recently wrote: “Blaming Christians for the Holocaust would be as unjustified as holding Jews accountable for the death of Jesus. Individuals were responsible in both situations.” Thus it must be asked: Is the Pope reintroducing the unfortunate concept of collective guilt?

As a first approach to an answer we may perhaps turn to the Bible. In certain texts God is apparently portrayed as punishing the whole people for the sins of a few. As David Klinghoffer noted in these pages (“Anti-Semitism Without Anti-Semites,” April): “God views the People Israel as an eternal community, not just as disconnected individuals. We are all responsible for all. . . . Maybe to emphasize our interconnectedness, the Lord does not practice precision bombing.” In the later books of the Old Testament, however, the prophets insist that the Israelites of their day are not being punished for sins they did not themselves commit. Jeremiah declares: “Each one shall die for his own sin” (Jeremiah 31:30). Ezekiel says still more explicitly: “The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezekiel 18:20).

In our eagerness to avoid the concept of collective guilt, we should be on guard against exaggerated individualism. Every sin has social ramifications. It lowers the moral level of the society to which the sinner belongs. In so doing it contributes to structural evils that afflict society at every level: families, neighborhoods, and nations. These “social sins,” as John Paul II teaches, are the result of the accumulation of many personal sins. We are all inclined to accept, support, and even exploit the structural evils of the society to which we belong. To a greater or lesser degree we are implicated in the materialism, consumerism, and prejudices of our culture and in its violent and discriminatory tendencies. Sins such as anti-Semitism have been more than merely individual aberrations.

Evils committed by Christians, especially if they are frequent or habitual and are done in the name of the Church, are very damaging to the Church’s mission. Vatican II in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World notes that believers, “to the extent that they neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral, or social life, . . . must be said to conceal, rather than reveal, the authentic features of God and religion.” The Decree on Ecumenism says that as a result of the failure of Catholics to live by the revealed truth and the sacraments, “the radiance of the Church’s face shines less brightly in the eyes of our separated brethren and of the world at large, and the growth of God’s kingdom is retarded.”

To regret the past and to ask pardon is not necessarily to judge oneself guilty. It is sufficient that we stand in some kind of solidarity with those who have done wrong. Thus parents can ask forgiveness for the misbehavior of their children, or children for that of their parents, and even be ashamed of it, without feeling culpable for that misconduct.

In the case of the Church we must recognize not only our moral solidarity with other members but also what may be called mystical solidarity. As fellow members of the one Body of Christ, we are bound together in a single organic whole. We benefit from one another’s merits and suffer from one another’s faults. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:2627: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” More than any merely social or political group, the Church retains its identity through time. Richard John Neuhaus has eloquently written (“Apologies on the Cheap,” FT, April): “In the Church, the dead are not dead; in Christ we live in communion with all who are in Christ-past, present, and future. We are implicated in the weakness of sinners as, happily, we are implicated in the holiness of the saints.”

3. Penitence for offenses committed long ago involves a further difficulty. We are in no position to judge the culpability of persons who lived in past centuries and in cultures foreign to our own. In the words of Paul Johnson, “There is something repellent, as well as profoundly unhistorical, about judging the past by the standards and prejudices of another age.” When we attempt such judgments, he says, we place ourselves in a position of moral superiority, and thus our expression of repentance is really a disguised manifestation of pride.

In responding to this difficulty we may follow the general line taken by the papal theologian, Georges Cottier, O.P. It is true, he says, that we cannot judge the subjective guilt of our predecessors centuries ago. But without pretending that we are morally superior, we can judge that they made certain mistakes. Their moral failures may have been extenuated or excused by their good faith. Nevertheless it is still proper for us, their successors, to express sorrow for the objective wrongness of what they did. Without judging the subjective guilt of our forebears we can say that some of their actions were objectively wrong and deserve to be disavowed.

4. Regardless of whether the evil actions were committed in our own or in another culture, say the objectors, it is artificial and insincere to apologize for the misdeeds of other persons. Paul Johnson says that the modern fashion of public breast-beating has not one iota of genuine sincerity in it. These “bogus apologies” in his judgment are “disguised attempts to gain moral kudos at the expense” of others. Regrettably, he remarks, even the Pope seems to be taking part in this charade.

Such apologies are very much in vogue among the politicians of our day. Mayor Rudolph Guiliani has recently apologized to the Jewish community of Crown Heights in Brooklyn for the failure of the city administration under Mayor David Dinkins to have prevented riots against them in 1991, and some blacks are asking him to apologize for the injuries they suffered in the same incident. President Clinton has come close to apologizing for the involvement of Americans in the slave trade. To whom are such apologies due? How far back in time should one go? Should the mayor of Milan, asks Cardinal Biffi, make amends for the misdeeds of the Sforzas in the fifteenth century? Or should the Spaniards apologize to the English for the Great Armada, to use one of Johnson’s examples?

In reply it must be said in the first place that apologies to other people are not the true intent of the Pope’s proposal. Declarations of repentance are quite another matter, since repentance is directed primarily to God, from whom forgiveness must ultimately come. Repentance would seem to be singularly appropriate for the Church as a people uniquely called to holiness. Commenting on the “Declaration of Repentance” issued late last year by a group of French bishops, Jean Duchesne observes (“Letter from Paris,” FT, February) that, because of misleading stories in the press, the Declaration was “interpreted as a purely human business, where God virtually need not have been mentioned, [with the result] that the fundamentally religious and spiritual substance has too often been overlooked.”

When we repent for corporate misdeeds, we acknowledge that we are not morally superior but are in some way implicated. Jesus indicated that the Pharisees of his day were guilty of the same faults as those who persecuted the prophets (Matthew 23:2933). In a similar way, we would do well to acknowledge that we are tempted to adopt the ecclesiastical narrowness and pride that have afflicted some Christians. Unless we disavow such attitudes explicitly, we can hardly avoid succumbing to them.

By concentrating on religious repentance it is possible to circumvent the complex problems involved in apologies. The further we go back in time, the more questionable apologies become. If the Inquisition violated the human rights of certain defendants, repentance may be in order even though we cannot identify any living person who could receive our apology or grant forgiveness. But if the offended parties still exist, there is nothing to prevent the Church from apologizing to them, making amends, and asking their forgiveness.

5. Cardinal Biffi and others object further that in calling for ecclesiastical penance, the faithful, especially those who are young or less educated, will be scandalized and confused. They might draw the conclusion that the Church is not holy and is not a reliable guide.

In reply it should be mentioned in the first place that the Pope is not proposing confessions of doctrinal error, but only confessions of failure to act according to the Church’s standards of belief and conduct. The proposal does not call into question the holiness of the Church or the reliability of its message. But the Church has always admitted that its members, whether ordained or lay, commit sins and practical blunders. Every Christian, even though he be a priest, a bishop, or a Pope, daily says the prayer “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

While some Catholics are perhaps scandalized by admissions of fault, others are scandalized by the refusal to admit such faults. They reproach their fellow Catholics for what they see as their tendency to justify everything that has been done by their coreligionists, especially by persons purporting to act in the name of the Church. The repentance proposed by the Pope can perhaps remove this source of scandal.

6. Others object that admissions of fault on the part of the Church would play into the hands of the Church’s enemies. At the consistory of 1994 some bishops from Eastern Europe are said to have remonstrated that the proposed declarations of contrition would support the charges made by atheistic communism to the effect the Church has consistently impeded human progress. Mary Ann Glendon warns of the danger that “sincere expressions of regret” on the part of Catholics may be “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.” “Let us be vigilant,” she writes, “to prevent [our public acts of repentance] from being hijacked or exploited.”

Thus far, in the statements dealing with matters such as the Galileo case and the Holocaust, Church officials have been careful to guard against exaggerations. In the case of the Holy See’s statement on the Holocaust, some were dissatisfied because it did not condemn the alleged failure of Pius XII to speak out with sufficient clarity on the subject. For some critics of the Church, as Professor Glendon says, “no apology will ever be enough until Catholics apologize themselves into nonexistence.”

Our aim cannot be to appease the implacable foes of the Church, who will complain no matter what is done. But the fear that they will take advantage of our repentance should not deter us from doing what is morally required of us. While hostile critics will be dissatisfied, many persons of good will will be appreciative.

7. Finally it is asked, what purposes would be achieved by such acts of repentance? Since there is no way of undoing the past, would it not be better to let bygones be bygones rather than dredge up painful memories? From a study of the documents I believe it is possible to distinguish a variety of benefits.

First, there is the purely religious goal of conversion and reconciliation with God. There can be no holiness without conversion and no conversion without acknowledgement of an unworthy and sinful past. In becoming aware that we belong to a community that has frequently failed its divine Lord, and in so doing failed other human groups, we are delivered from unwholesome pride. Relieved of the compulsion to defend the whole record of the past, we are less inclined to make scapegoats out of others. Freed from unrealistic perfectionism, we can turn humbly to God with the realization that His forgiving love is the only true source of our security.

In the second place, corporate penance has an ecumenical goal. Since the faults of Catholics have unquestionably contributed to Christian divisions, repentance may facilitate the path to reunion. In his encyclical on ecumenism, John Paul II speaks of the need to overcome our clannish exclusiveness, our reluctance to forgive, our pride, our presumptuous disdain, and our unevangelical proclivity to condemn the other side. By repentance and mutual forgiveness Christians of different ecclesial bodies can heal the smoldering resentments that derive from actions committed centuries ago, such as the mutual condemnations of Rome and Constantinople, the sack of Constantinople, the martyrdoms of the Reformation period, and the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day.

Thirdly, the proposed action would facilitate the new evangelization for which John Paul II has repeatedly called. Evangelization is not a matter of self-promotion on the part of the Church’s members. Far from seeking to persuade the world of their own perfection, Christians acknowledge that they are at best unprofitable servants. Like Paul, they proclaim not themselves but Christ and him crucified, to the glory of God most high. If any of us are inclined to boast, let us imitate Paul by boasting of our weakness so that the power of Christ may dwell in us (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:9). We do not ask others to join a flawless community but to enter into a vast company of sinners who find redemption and forgiveness in Christ. He, the treasure of the Church and the light of the world, deigns to speak and act in us and to incorporate us, unworthy though we be, in his body here below, his holy Church.

As the Church purifies herself from sin and the effects of sin, she grows into deeper union with her divine Lord and advances toward her heavenly goal, where Christ and the saints now dwell in glory. By putting off the encumbrances of worldly attachments, the Church makes herself ever more transparent to the Lord. The kingdom of God, already present in mystery, is obscured by tepidity and infidelity but is made powerfully present by penance and renewal. The program of contrition and reconciliation initiated by John Paul II is therefore charged with hope and promise. Faithfully carried out, it could usher in at the turn of the millennium a new springtime of Christian witness.

Avery Dulles, S. J., holds the Laurence J. McGinley Chair at Fordham University. This essay is adapted from the McGinley Lecture given at Fordham last spring.

Image by licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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