A Roman Catholic apology for the past sins of its members
Scope, language, implications, reactions
Scope of the report:
The report refers to various past admissions of error, such as that
made by Pope Hadrian VI, Pope Paul VI and Vatican II. But it emphasizes that
Pope John Paul II's latest apology is unique in church history because "...he
also extended a request for forgiveness..."
The subtitle of the document "The church and faults of the past"
would seem to imply that the Commission was apologizing for past errors,
faults, abuses, criminal acts, immoral acts, etc. by the church.
However, the document takes a different approach; it is individuals, not the
church itself, who are blamed for the misdeeds. The Roman Catholic church teaches
that the church is composed of two components:
A visible church, made up of individuals, consisting of the pope,
cardinals, bishops, priests, other religious persons, and the
The "Church's Spirit," referred to as the "Spotless
Bride of Christ."
The Church as an institution is viewed as pure, without fault. It is maintained by God
to be free of
error, both in the past and in the present. It is only individual members of
the Church who bear responsibility for past horrors and inhumanities. The
"From a theological point of view, Vatican II
distinguishes between the indefectible fidelity of the Church and the
weaknesses of her members, clergy or laity, yesterday and today."
The document quotes Pope John Paul's 1994 Apostolic Letter 'Tertio millennio
"Hence it is appropriate that as the second
millennium of Christianity draws to a close the Church should become ever
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 her faith, indulged in ways of thinking and
acting which were truly forms of counter-witness and scandal. Although she
is holy because of her incorporation into Christ, the Church does not tire
of doing penance. Before God and man, she always acknowledges as her own
her sinful sons and daughters." 1
Many observers believe that both individuals within the
church, and the institution of the church itself should have born
responsibility at the time of the massacres of Jews, Muslims,
heretics, and members of various breakaway religious sects.
Language of the apologies:
The language used in both Pope John Paul II's apology and the "Memory and
Reconciliation" seems to downplay the seriousness of the sins
and errors committed:
In an apparent reference to the instructions of church leaders and
resulted in burning hundreds of thousands of
Jews alive, in exiling them from entire countries, in forcing them
into ghettos, the document said that "The hostility and wariness of
numerous Christians toward Jews over the course of time is a painful
historic fact." In the pope's homily, he referred to "attitudes
of mistrust and hostility assumed towards followers of other
religions." Some might think that the church's actions went
well beyond simple "hostility," " wariness" and
" mistrust" to include mass
murder and perhaps even genocide.
the wars of extermination committed by the Church against the
Cathars, Knights Templars and other break-away Christian groups,
the pope referred to "the use of violence that some have
committed in the service of truth.." The report refers
"to intolerance and even the use of force in the service of
truth." It also discusses the past "lack of
discernment by many Christians in situations where basic human rights
were violated." Some might think that the church's:
torture on prisoners, and the subsequent burning them alive, and
Genocide against entire religious groups,
beyond simple violence and lack of appreciation of human rights. Fr. "Brugues was more direct in his language. According to Reuters, he "said this was a reference to the Inquisition, which was marked by the
torture and killing of people branded as heretics, and the enforced
conversion of non-believers."
Present and future implications of the apology:
The pope has documented some of the past faults and errors by the church. Not covered
is the possibility that some present policies
by the hierarchy are also in error, and will have to be the subject of
future apologies. If so, then any Roman Catholic who follows controversial
church teachings may well be contributing to present-day errors within the
There have been many dozens of reversals of church belief in the past: 2
Leaders of the church once taught that slavery was
acceptable under a wide range of situations. It has since reversed its
The church has taught a range of beliefs
about abortion. St. Augustine wrote that only abortion of a more
fully developed "fetus animatus" (animated fetus) was
punished as murder. At the present time, the church equates abortion
with murder at all stages of pregnancy.
The church placed under house arrest or
burned alive a number of scientists and philosophers, such as Galileo and Bruno. Their
"crime" was to promote concepts which conflicted with
church beliefs -- beliefs which have since been modified.
The church once taught that parents must not give their children inoculations
against disease because it would thwart God's will. God was seen as
expecting a certain percentage of children to die; inoculations would
have prevented those deaths. The church has since reversed its
There is every likelihood that the church will reverse some of its
current teachings as well. There are many current controversies in which the church is opposed by
both religious and secular forces. Some examples in the area of human sexuality are: Priestly celibacy,
female ordination, use of most methods of birth control, equal rights for homosexuals, including
the right to marry, pre-marital sex,
in-vitro fertilization, abortion, emergency contraception, a.k.a.
"the morning after pill." It quite possible that these
controversies will be settled in favor of secular ideas, and that the
church will eventually admit its errors. One might envision a scenario in
which a pope in the year 3000 issues a similar "Memory and
Reconciliation" document, recognizing past errors and apologizing for past
sins, some committed at this time.
Reactions to the document and papal apology:
By Jews: According to Associated Press, the document
did not mention:
"what many Jews say they are waiting to hear:
an apology by the church for its actions as an institution during the
Nazi persecution of the Jews during [the] last century."
document did refer to "a lot of Christians [who] risked their life
to save and lend assistance to the Jews they knew." It quotes
from a papal document of 1998 that:
"the spiritual resistance
and the concrete action of other Christians weren't what one could
have expected from disciples of Christ."
But it made no
apologies for the actions and inactions of the church as an
According to CNN, Israel's Chief Rabbi, Israel Meir Lau,
described the latest reference to the Holocaust as:
disappointing...It adds nothing to the low-key statements made in the
past. It is impossible to correct a crime of the past without any
mention, for example, of Pius XII, when he stood on the blood of the
victims and did not say a word." (Pius XII is currently being
considered by the church for beatification, one step below sainthood.)
Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League
issued the following news release on 2000-MAR-12:
"Pope John Paul II has missed an historic opportunity to bring
closure to Christian responsibility for specific sins against the Jewish
people over the past 2,000 years. We are saddened and disappointed that
this pontiff, who has done so much to further Catholic-Jewish relations,
stopped short in addressing specific Catholic wrongs against the Jewish
people, especially the Holocaust."
"Since the beginning of Christianity and over two millennia, Jews
have suffered as a result of the church's teaching of contempt, which
created the anti-Semitic environment that made the Holocaust possible.
Because Pope John Paul II has been so courageously outspoken on behalf
of the Jewish people and the legitimacy of Judaism, we are especially
disheartened that there was no specific mention of the greatest sin of
this century tolerated by Christianity and committed by many
Christians -- the Holocaust."
"We hope the Holy Father,
during his historic trip to Israel, will seize the opportunity to
address the matters missed in today's Liturgy of Forgiveness."
The trip to Israel refers to his talk at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial on 2000-MAR-23.
By Neopagans: Before the report was issued, an
Alabama-based coalition of Neopagan groups
called Pagans in Action: Council for Truth asked the pope to
apologize specifically for injustices suffered by their spiritual
ancestors. The petition was signed by 1,641 Neopagans, scholars,
Christian clergy, Neopagan organizations and others; it was dated
1999-Samhain (OCT-31). 4 The coalition describes
Neopaganism as "a global spiritual movement that draws its
inspiration and traditions from indigenous pre-Christian religions."
According to EWTN News, these attacks included:
"... forcing pagans
to convert, desecrating their sacred sites, and collaborating with
states to persecute and execute pagans during the Inquisition which
began during the 13th century." 5
the Pope's verbal apology nor the report addressed the past maltreatment and
executions of Pagans specifically. However, it did make a vague reference to
activities which might be interpreted as including Pagan abuse and
The "Memory and Reconciliation" report calls Nazism a
pagan ideology. Some will probably interpret this as
implying that the Holocaust and the other activities of World War II
were planned and executed by Pagans. The term "Pagan" is
frequently defined as persons who do not follow an Abrahamic religion.
i.e. people who do not follow the Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. The 47% of the
world's population who follow Buddhism, Hinduism, Neopaganism and many
other non-Abrahamic religions may well object to this interpretation of history.
By an Atheist: John Patrick Murphy criticized the report in
advance for not dealing specifically with many of the Church's criminal acts and
injustices. 6Some events that he included are:
The silence of Pope Pius XII during the Nazi holocaust
Monsignor Tiso, head of the Slovak State who Murphy alleges
"delivered the first trainload of Jews to Auschwitz."
Hundreds of thousands of women burned alive as Witches in the
late Middle Ages and Renaissance.
Saint Cyril and some monks who burned the great Library at
Alexandria, "destroying 600,000 volumes of knowledge of
the ancient world - the greatest property crime of all time."
The Protestant Reformation and the "wars that followed
wherein Germany lost half its population in a generation."
The "destruction, plunder, rape, and papal pillage of
the people of the Americas and the eradication of their culture..."
The extermination of the Huguenots in France.
The issuing of Vatican passports to Nazi leaders after World War
II so that they
could escape prosecution for war crimes.
By Roman Catholics and other Christians: A report by Reuters states that:
"The requests for forgiveness made by
the Bishop of Rome in this spirit of authenticity and gratuitousness have
given rise to various reactions. ... Many have noted the increased
credibility of ecclesial pronouncements that has resulted from this way of
acting. Some reservations, however, have also been voiced, mainly
expressions of unease connected with particular historical and cultural
contexts in which the simple admission of faults committed by the sons and
daughters of the Church may look like acquiescence in the face of
accusations made by those prejudicially hostile to the Church."
Father Jean-Louis Brugues noted that Roman Catholics from outside
the United States and Europe had expressed discomfort at atoning for the
sins of past church leaders. He said: "There was also concern,
especially in areas where Christians are in a minority, that seeking
forgiveness might be seen as a sign of weakness.'' 7
Apology by Cardinal R.M. Mahony:
Cardinal Mahoney issued a public apology on 2000-MAR-7 on the eve
of Ash Wednesday. He apologized on behalf of himself and the Roman
Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, CA which he leads. Some of the topics
included in his apology were:
An apparent reference to his opposition to Catholic cemetery workers joining a union in 1988.
A failure of himself and his diocese; both remained silent while a state fair housing act was repealed in 1964.
Clergy sexual abuse, which Mahoney called "one of the more tragic scourges afflicting the church in the
latter part of the past century." He apologized to "individuals, families and parish communities
who have suffered."
An dispute three decades ago between his two predecessors and the Immaculate Heart Sisters. This ended
when the sisters disbanded and reorganized as an independent lay community.
He made apologies to specific groups:
Jews who were often "made the object of insult, jokes and generalizations."
Muslims and other unspecified groups subjected to "unfair characterization, often based on ignorance and prejudice."
Gays and lesbians, towards whom he admitted that the church seemed to be unsupportive and homophobic in the past. He made no mention
of the California bishop's recent $300,000 financial support to help pass the anti-gay-marriage Proposition 22.
People in the Archdiocese who felt like outsiders because of their culture, language, ethnic background or immigration status.
Divorced and remarried Roman Catholics, towards whom the church had often been insensitive. He did not mention any effort on his part
to change those church policies which deny the sacraments to most remarried Catholics.
This apology is notable because Cardinal Mahony accepted personal
responsibility for his errors, and apologizes on behalf of the Archdiocese
for its failings. He identifies specific groups and describes how they
were harmed by himself and the archdiocese. However, he does not make any
indication that he will work within the worldwide church to promote policy
changes towards groups who are still suffering -- notably gays, lesbians,
women seeking ordination, and remarried Catholics.
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.
John Paul II, "Tertio Millennio Adveniente (As the Third
Millennium Draws Near)," 1994-NOV-14, at: http://www.cin.org/