On the first Sunday of Lent of this jubilee year, Pope John Paul II celebrated a solemn liturgy in which he and the cardinals of the Roman Curia who joined him offered a "universal prayer," which had the title: "Confession of Sins and Asking for Forgiveness." This solemn act was the fulfillment of an intention the pope had expressed in the papal bull Incarnationis mysterium (1994), with which he had formally declared the year 2000 to be a Great Jubilee. In that document he had proposed the "purification of memory" as "an act of courage and humility in recognizing the wrongs done by those who have borne or bear the name of Christian."
The pope’s intention to make such an "act of courage and humility" in the name of the Catholic Church during the jubilee year had raised questions about the theological grounding of such a confession of sins and request for forgiveness. In particular, it was asked whether this implied that the church as such shared the guilt of those sins and, if so, how this was compatible with the church’s holiness. The members of the International Theological Commission were asked to prepare a text that would give an answer to such questions. Their text, which does not have the official character of a document of the magisterium, was published last month under the title Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past. Its purpose is to clarify the presuppositions that ground such an official expression of repentance for faults and sins that have marked the history of the Catholic Church.
The I.T.C. document, which takes up 33 pages, followed by seven pages of notes, is divided into six chapters. The first chapter looks for historical precedents for such an expression of repentance on the part of church authorities. It finds them to be quite rare. It next seeks for light from the documents of Vatican II and quotes the sentence in which the council describes the church as "at the same time holy and always in need of purification" and says that it "incessantly pursues the path of penance and renewal." Coming to the "problem today," it lists the many questions that have been raised by the unprecedented step Pope John Paul has taken in asking forgiveness for the ways in which members of the Catholic Church have offended others during the past millennium.
In the second chapter the theologians of the I.T.C. examined the scriptural background for such a confession of past faults, and in the third they summarized the theological foundation for the pope’s initiative. Four ecclesiological themes are developed here: the mystery of the church, the holiness of the church, the necessity of continual renewal and the motherhood of the church. The key question is whether the church itself can be held responsible for the sins of its members, and how the evident presence of sin in its history is compatible with the church’s holiness. I shall return to these questions after giving a brief summary of the rest of the document.
In Chapter Four the I.T.C. takes up the complex questions involved in arriving at sound historical and theological judgments about events of the past. It points out that a correct reading of the past must avail itself of all possible contributions by the historical sciences. At the same time, the exercise of historical hermeneutics must lead to a theological evaluation in the light of the distinctive nature of the church.
In the fifth chapter the I.T.C. first proposes some ethical criteria for assessing the responsibility of today’s church for the sins and faults of the past. It then describes different areas in which such faults can be found.
The last chapter offers some pastoral reasons for acknowledging the faults of the past, along with some practical suggestions as to how and by whom this should be done.
I return now to the matter treated in the third chapter of this text, to offer some comments on the way the theologians of the I.T.C. handled the problem of reconciling the holiness of the church with the sins and faults for which the pope has expressed repentance and has asked forgiveness.
For the solution to this problem, they invoked an image that was dear to many fathers of the church, that of the church as mother. This image was most often explained on the grounds that the church constantly brought new children of God to birth in the sacrament of baptism. It was also related to the Pauline image of the church as the bride for whom Christ handed himself over, "to sanctify her...that she might be holy and without blemish" (Eph. 5:25-27). The solution the members of the commission offer, then, is to distinguish between Holy Mother Church and her sinful children. They also distinguish between the holiness of the church (the holiness of the mother) and holiness in the church (the holiness of her children). It is only the latter holiness that is mixed with imperfection and sin.
On the basis of this distinction, the theologians of the I.T.C. consistently speak of faults and sins as having been committed by the church’s "children," or by her "sons and daughters." The question, then, is whether the holiness of mother church is in any way affected by the sins of her children.
At one point, the document does speak of the church as sinner, saying: "She is holy in being made so by the Father through the sacrifice of the Son and gift of the Spirit. She is also in a certain sense sinner, in really taking upon herself the sin of those whom she has generated in Baptism. This is analogous to the way Christ Jesus took on the sin of the world."
While the comparison with Christ is presented as an analogy, and not a perfect likeness, it does suggest how the commission intended the expression: "in a certain sense sinner" to be understood. Several times the authors return to the notion of the church as a mother who takes responsibility on herself for the sins of her children. For example, they say: "The conviction that the Church can make herself responsible for the sin of her children...is expressed in a particularly effective way in the idea of Mother Church." They also write: "The Church, as a true Mother, cannot but be wounded by the sin of her children of yesterday and today, continuing to love them always, to the point of making herself responsible in all times for the burden carried by their sins." And finally they observe: "She confesses herself a sinner, not as a subject who sins, but rather in assuming the weight of her children’s faults in maternal solidarity, so as to cooperate in overcoming them through penance and newness of life."
Now there is no doubt about the fact that a "subject who sins" is always an individual person who alone incurs the guilt of his or her sinful act. In that sense one cannot speak of the church as a "subject who sins." On the other hand, the hierarchical structure of the church is such that there have always been those who were authorized to act and speak "in the name of the church," and in her name have proclaimed the church’s doctrine, enacted its laws and determined its official policy. The I.T.C. text recognizes the possibility that what was done "in the name of the church" could have been done "in contradiction to the Gospel." However, even those who have done such things "in the name of the church" are described simply as "certain of her sons and daughters."
No doubt, in a theological sense popes, cardinals and bishops are all "sons of Mother Church," but I think few people would realize that they were the ones being referred to here in the phrase: "certain of her sons and daughters" (especially in the daughters!) But obviously, it is only members of the hierarchy who have been authorized to act and speak "in the name of the church," and only they could be meant as those who, in doing so, have acted in contradiction to the Gospel. I think, therefore, that it is problematic that in this document those who have committed sins and faults in the history of the church are consistently described as the "children" or "sons and daughters" of the church, with no explicit mention of the fact that those "sons of the church" who did things "in contradiction to the Gospel" in the name of the church were members of the hierarchy.
This leads to another consequence of relying on the distinction between "Holy Mother Church" and her "sinful children" to solve the problem of how the sins for which John Paul II asked forgiveness are compatible with the church’s holiness. I think that what most people would identify as things in the history of the church that call for repentance and a request for forgiveness are the official policies and practices that were established or sanctioned by those who were authorized to act and speak in the name of the church, but that were objectively "in contradiction to the Gospel."
I think also that most people would describe these as policies and practices of the Catholic Church. They are not likely to be satisfied with the admission that such things were done by "certain of her sons and daughters." What is needed is the frank recognition that some official policies and practices of the church have been objectively in contradiction to the Gospel and have caused harm to many people. No doubt, insofar as those policies and practices involved actual sin, the guilt of such sin lies on the individuals who knowingly did what was evil. But what was objectively wrong and harmful in the officially sanctioned policies of the church calls for repentance, and this is rightly expressed by those who are authorized to speak and act in the name of the church. And if it is correct to say that on the first Sunday of Lent, when the pope and the cardinals of his Curia recited that "universal prayer," it was the Catholic Church that asked for forgiveness, I think there is also reason to say, as most people would, that it was not merely "certain of her sons and daughters," but some official policies of the Catholic Church, that had been in contradiction to the Gospel.
I would have preferred, then, that instead of the image of the "holy mother with sinful children," the theologians of the International Theological Commission had invoked Vatican II’s notion of the church as the "pilgrim people of God," to explain why it needs to repent and ask forgiveness for its past faults. As a "people," the church is, as Vatican II says, a "human institution, always in need of reform, always in need of purification." It is a people led by human leaders, who are fallible in every decision they make except when they solemnly define a doctrine of faith or morals. As a people on pilgrimage, the church, while it has a divine guarantee of arriving at the kingdom of God at the end of its journey, inevitably takes many a wrong path along the way. And yet, as God’s people, it has a holiness given to it by the abiding gift of the Holy Spirit, which it cannot lose. It is a people consecrated to God in baptism, "a royal priesthood, a holy nation" (1 Pt. 2:9). And just as it is the holiness of the saints that has always moved them to confess themselves sinners in need of God’s pardon, it is in no way a denial of its God-given holiness that the pilgrim people of God should confess its faults and ask forgiveness of those whom it has offended along the way.
Francis A. Sullivan, S.J., was a professor of ecclesiology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome from 1956 to 1992 and is currently a professor of theology at Boston College. His most recent book is Creative Fidelity: Weighing and Interpreting Documents of the Magisterium (Paulist, 1996).