- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2000

Pope John Paul II made history this week with an unparalleled declaration of repentance for the sins of the Catholic Church over the past 2,000 years. Leading his church into the third millennium of Christianity, the 79-year-old pope is seeking what he calls a "purification of memory," hoping to begin a new age for the church with a sober reckoning of the errors and lapses of its past. To that end, the pope delivered an extraordinary homily on Sunday, deploring acts of injustice committed over two millennia against other Christians, Jews, women, native peoples, the unborn and the poor. He asked that the church "kneel before God and beg for forgiveness for past and present sins of her sons…"

This ongoing effort to cleanse the Catholic Church's conscience has stirred controversy from its first rumblings early in John Paul II's tenure. By the middle 1990s, after the fall of atheistic communism, the church, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger explained last week, was left "in a new situation of freedom to return to our sins." At that time, the pope began preparing in earnest for this nostra culpa, convening conferences and commissions to study and evaluate what would culminate in a jubilee-year project. Some feared the pope would repent too much, undermining people's very faith in Christianity; others that he would repent too little, failing to address specific grievances by name and in sufficient detail. In the end, the pope eschewed specifics, repenting sins that have led to human suffering rather than enumerating such historic examples as the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Holocaust. As Bishop Piero Marini said before the pope's homily, "Given the number of sins committed in the course of 20 centuries, it must necessarily be rather summary."

In the past few years, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair have given apologizing for the past, a cheap, political vogue, issuing chirpy sound bites of smug sorrow for national sins past judged by the standards of the present. What the pope did Sunday is a distinctly separate matter. For one thing and this has been widely misconstrued by the media the pope didn't apologize, as Messrs. Clinton and Blair have done on behalf of long-dead predecessors in order to make political amends with the descendants of afflicted groups. Instead, the pope repented, not to other people, but to God, asking for God's forgiveness for an array of historic wrongs committed by members of the Catholic Church, often in the name of the Catholic Church.

There is a significant difference. For one thing, as Father Richard John Neuhaus explains it, "The church is an instrument of grace, including forgiveness. The nation-state isn't." Nor was the pope confessing to any fundamental doctrinal error. As Father Avery Dulles has written in First Things, the pope's declaration of repentance was rather for the "failure to act according to the Church's standards of belief and conduct." In other words, the wrongs the pope alluded to in his homily are wrongs not only against the men and women of this world, but also against the teachings of the Catholic Church. Another misconstrual of the pope's message comes from misreading of the phrase, "the children of the church." It is on their behalf, of course, that the pope has repented.

This phrase includes all Catholics, from parishioners to clergy to cardinals to popes not, as the New York Times for example, would mistakenly have it, only laymen. Wrongly chiding the pope for omitting the hierarchy from his declaration of repentance, the newspaper also took exception to other "omissions," such as discrimination against homosexuals, the church's continued opposition to abortion and women in the priesthood. In essence, the pope fell short, the newspaper opined, for failing to "apologize" for Catholicism itself. But that, of course, is not at all what the pope set out to do. His intentions may be misunderstood, willfully or not, but, acting in the spirit of self-examination, confession and repentance, the pope has set an instructive example to encourage serious reflection on the ways in which all peoples fail to live up to the moral precepts they hold dear.

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