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A Roman Catholic apology for the past sins of its members

Scope, language, implications, reactions

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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:

bullet A visible church, made up of individuals, consisting of the pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, other religious persons, and the laity. 
bullet 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 report states:

"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 adveniente':

"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. 

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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:

bullet In an apparent reference to the instructions of church leaders and councils which 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. 
bullet In an apparent reference to:
bullet the jailing, torture, and burning alive of individuals such as outspoken scientists, people perceived to be heretics, natural healers, midwives and others, and to
bullet 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:
bullet Use of torture on prisoners, and the subsequent burning them alive, and
bullet Genocide against entire religious groups,

went well 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." 

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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 church.

There have been many dozens of reversals of church belief in the past: 2

bullet Leaders of the church once taught that slavery was acceptable under a wide range of situations. It has since reversed its stance.
bullet 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.
bullet 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.
bullet 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 teachings.

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. 

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Reactions to the document and papal apology:

bullet 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."

The 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 institution.

According to CNN, Israel's Chief Rabbi, Israel Meir Lau, described the latest reference to the Holocaust as:

"...quite 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." 3

The trip to Israel refers to his talk at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial on 2000-MAR-23.

bullet 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

Neither 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 murder.

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.

bullet 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. 6 Some events that he included are:
bullet The silence of Pope Pius XII during the Nazi holocaust
bullet Monsignor Tiso, head of the Slovak State who Murphy alleges "delivered the first trainload of Jews to Auschwitz."
bullet Hundreds of thousands of women burned alive as Witches in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. 
bullet 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."
bullet The Protestant Reformation and the "wars that followed wherein Germany lost half its population in a generation." 
bullet The "destruction, plunder, rape, and papal pillage of the people of the Americas and the eradication of their culture..."
bullet The extermination of the Huguenots in France.
bullet The issuing of Vatican passports to Nazi leaders after World War II so that they could escape prosecution for war crimes.
bullet The castration of boy singers in the church so that they could continue to sing in high pitch into adulthood.
bullet 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  

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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:

bullet An apparent reference to his opposition to Catholic cemetery workers joining a union in 1988.
bullet A failure of himself and his diocese; both remained silent while a state fair housing act was repealed in 1964.
bullet 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."
bullet 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:

bullet Jews who were often "made the object of insult, jokes and generalizations."
bullet Muslims and other unspecified groups subjected to "unfair characterization, often based on ignorance and prejudice."
bullet 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.
bullet People in the Archdiocese who felt like outsiders because of their culture, language, ethnic background or immigration status.
bullet 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.

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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. John Paul II, "Tertio Millennio Adveniente (As the Third Millennium Draws Near)," 1994-NOV-14, at:
  2. Maureen Fiedler & Linda Rabben, Eds., "Rome has spoken: A guide to forgotten papal statements, and how they changed through the centuries." Crossroad, (1998) Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store
  3. "ADL Reacts to Pope's Liturgy of Forgiveness," ADL news release, 2000-MAR-12.
  4. "The committee for the Pope's millennium apology," at:
  5. "Pagans call for apology from Catholics," EWTN News, 2000-FEB-11, at:
  6. John P. Murphy, "The apology of John Paul II," AANEWS, 2000-MAR-6
  7. Crispian Balmer, "Catholic Church establishes forgiveness framework," Reuters, 2000-MAR-1. See: This appears to be offline.

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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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