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A Roman Catholic apology for the past sins of its members

Overview, the document, verbal apology

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The past decade has seen many statements of repentance by religious groups:

bullet The Southern Baptist Convention repented of their past support for slavery and racial segregation. The asked African-Americans for forgiveness of the denomination's past actions and for any residual racism left today.
bullet The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America apologized for the viciously anti-Jewish statements made by Martin Luther, the main leader of the Protestant Reformation.
bullet The United Methodist Church apologized for the brutality of a lay Methodist preacher who led a massacre of Natives during the Civil War.
bullet The Roman Catholic Church issued a document "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah" in 1998-MAR-16. 1 It recognized the relative inactivity and silence of many Roman Catholics during the Nazi Holocaust.

However, the new apology at the start of Lent in the year 2000 by Pope John Paul II received much greater attention worldwide. 

The Catholic apologies of 1998 and 2000 are different from those of other denominations:

bullet Apologies are made on behalf of some unidentified "sons and daughters" of the church, but not on behalf of the church itself. 
bullet The apologies are vaguely worded so that it is sometimes difficult to identify which past atrocity is being referred to -- whether it be genocide against the Cathars, burning "Witches" and other heretics at the stake, castrating boy singers so that they would preserve their soprano voice into adulthood, etc. 
bullet It does not include any mention of present behavior that is sinful or deficient.
bullet It does not describe any plan to prevent the recurrence in the future of past crimes against humanity.

The Church teaches that, as an institution, it is pure and without fault. It was created by Christ and is maintained by God to be free of error, in the past, present, and future. It is only individual church members and leaders who are capable of sin.

Pope John Paul II's apology was opposed by many leaders of the Vatican curia. Some church leaders felt that a confession of past errors might cause many Roman Catholics to wonder whether the church is currently engaged in sinful behavior that will require some future pope to apologize for sins committed by the church leadership today. Most often, policies that are directly or indirectly linked to human sexuality are mentioned, including the church's:

bullet Ban on divorce,
bullet Ban on contraception,
bullet Ban on in-vitro fertilization, and
bullet Treatment of homosexual orientation as an objectively disordered state.

However, John Paul believed that repentance will transform the church and enable it to lead the world into a "new springtime of Christianity." He was able to overrule the Vatican Curia. 

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Release of the apology document:

On 2000-MAR-1, in Paris, representatives of the Roman Catholic Church held a press conference which, according to Reuters, "outlined a framework for seeking forgiveness for past errors without necessarily admitting responsibility for them." 2 The French translation of a new church document: "Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past" was released. It had been prepared over a three year interval by a papal commission, the International Theological Commission, under the auspices of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. It contains "some 90 pages, divided into 6 chapters." 3 The document was published in time for the church's ''Request for Forgiveness'' theme day on 2000-MAR-12. This was synchronized with the first Sunday in Lent, a traditional time of penitence. This is one of many special observances associated with the Church's millennium celebration in the Jubilee year, 2000. 

"Memory and Reconciliation" acknowledges that individuals within the Church have committed serious errors in the past. Father Jean-Louis Brugues, one of the report's authors stated:

"We have mentioned a few errors, but we could have had a very long list, too long a list. I fear the list will never be finished. The Christians of today are not responsible for the errors of the 19th or 16th century. We are not responsible for errors we did not commit...We have had to find a way to liberate and purify memory without talking about responsibility.''

The Holy See Press Office held a press conference on 2000-MAR-7 in the Vatican to formally release the document to the public. It was originally written in Latin. Translations are available in English, French and Spanish. 4  

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Pope John Paul II's verbal apology

Bishop Piero Marini, the official in charge of papal ceremonies, described a series of apologies which were to be made from Roman Catholic pulpits around the world during the Day of Pardon mass, Sunday, 2000-MAR-12. He explained that:

"The reference to errors and sins in a liturgy must be frank and capable of specifying guilt; yet given the number of sins committed in the course of 20 centuries, it must be necessarily be rather summary. [sic]" 5

The Pope delivered a homily during the in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. He included an apology for wrong done to "women, Jews, Gypsies [Roma], other Christians, and Catholics." 6,7 Some excerpts from Pope John Paul II's speech are:

bullet Referring to the church's relationship to Jews, the pope said:

"We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood."

bullet In an apparent reference:
bullet to the mass murder of individuals that the church considered heretics,
bullet to the various schisms within Christianity, and
bullet for manifestations of religious intolerance.

the pope said:

"We are asking pardon for the divisions among Christians, for the use of violence that some have committed in the service of truth and for attitudes of mistrust and hostility assumed towards followers of other religions." 

According to the Toronto Star:

"Though broadly worded, the petitions made reference to the historic mistreatment of women 'who are too often humiliated and marginalized;' to 'contempt for [other] cultures and religious traditions;' and to hatred for society's weakest members." 

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare the above report in the year 2000, and update it since. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "The Catholic Church and the Holocaust," First Things magazine, at:
  2. Crispian Balmer, "Catholic Church establishes forgiveness framework," Reuters, 2000-MAR-1. See: This appears to be offline.
  3. "Publication of document on church's past faults," EWTN News, at:
  4. "Memory and reconciliation: The church and faults of the past," EWTN News at: This was a temporary listing
  5. V.L. Simpson, "Pope plans historic apology for sins of Catholic Church," Associated Press, 2000-MAR-7.
  6. Steve Kloen, "Pope repents, seeks forgiveness for social sins through the ages," The Toronto Star, 2000-MAR-13.
  7. John Paul II et al., Text of the "Universal prayer: Confession of sins and asking for forgiveness," 2000-MAR-12, is at:

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Copyright 2000 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-MAR-8
Latest update: 2007-FEB-07
Author: B.A. Robinson

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