Signs of the Times

Examination of Conscience Culminates in Pope’s Mea Culpa

Pope John Paul II made an unprecedented apology for the sins of Christians through the ages, the culmination of the church’s examination of conscience for the jubilee year. The pope’s long-awaited mea culpa on March 12 was echoed by local churches in the United States and elsewhere and generally welcomed by non-Catholics around the world. The pope’s idea for a day of atonement, which met some resistance even inside the Vatican, was designed to acknowledge shortcomings in the church’s past in order to give Catholics a sense of reconciliation and make future evangelization more credible.

We forgive and we ask forgiveness! the pope said during a historic Lenten liturgy in St. Peter’s Basilica. He and seven top Vatican officials pronounced a request for pardon for sins against Christian unity, the use of violence in serving the truth, hostility toward Jews and other religions, the marginalization of women and wrongslike abortionagainst society’s weakest members.


The pope said the church has had many saints, but some of its members have shown disobedience to God and inconsistency with the faithin the past and present. For the part that each of us, with his behavior, has had in these evils that have disfigured the face of the church, we humbly ask forgiveness, he said.

Pronouncing the apology for Christian intolerance in the past was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was created more than 450 years ago under a different name to conduct the Inquisition. Even men of the church, in the name of faith and morals, have sometimes used methods not in keeping with the Gospel in the solemn duty of defending the truth, the cardinal said.

Other Vatican officials expressed regret for actions by Christians that have aggravated ecumenical divisions, increased discrimination against minority and ethnic groups, humiliated and marginalized women, and shown contempt for local cultures and religious traditions.

The pope called for genuine brotherhood between Christians and Jews, praying to God that we are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer. At the conclusion of the apology liturgy, the pope embraced and kissed the crucifix and, in a final blessing, declared that never again should such sins be committed.

Commentators inside and outside the church hailed the event as a historic step, and the pope was described by one Italian newspaper as a voice in the wilderness for his willingness to ask forgiveness publicly. Jewish leaders also praised the pope, but some said he should have been more specific about the Holocaust. In Israel, where the pope was to visit later in the month, Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau welcomed the pope’s words but said the church needs to apologize for the actions of Pope Pius XII during World War II. Many Jews think the wartime pope did not speak out strongly enough against Nazi persecution of Jews.

In the United States, local bishops took their cue from the pope and conducted Lenten services with public apologies for church actions against Jews, women, native peoples and other groups:

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, in a Lenten message, asked forgiveness for any of his own actions or those of the archdiocese and its Catholics that have offended or hurt others. He made specific apologies to Jews, Muslims, women, ethnic and cultural minorities, organized labor, divorced and remarried Catholics and victims of clergy sex abuse. To gay and lesbian Catholics he apologized for when the church has appeared to be nonsupportive of their struggles. He also apologized to women religious, especially the Immaculate Heart Sisters, who were in conflict with his predecessor Cardinal James McIntyre after Vatican II.

Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston led a prayer service on March 12 asking forgiveness for the faults of local Catholics throughout history, specifically regarding slavery, racism, anti-Semitism, sex abuse by priests and the treatment of women.

Bishop John S. Cummins of Oakland, Calif., invited survivors of clergy sexual abuse to a service of apology and reconciliation on March 25.

Bishop Joseph L. Imesch of Joliet, Ill., presided over an atonement service, apologizing for the sins of church leaders. Those attending were asked to express their own forgiveness by writing down names or situations of sin involving the church; the forms were then ritually burned to symbolize atonement.

Similar services were held in other dioceses. In Australia, bishops asked forgiveness for their failures in dealing with such issues as church unity, care for aborigines and sex abuse. Swiss bishops acknowledged that Catholics did too little to prevent persecution of Jews by Nazis.

Vatican officials emphasized that the church’s apology was not a political but a religious act, addressed first of all to God. On March 7 the International Theological Commission presented a 19,000-word document titled Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past, which examined several difficult theological questions and tried to eliminate some misperceptions about the apology movement.

The church’s mea culpa cannot be seen as a form of self-flagellation performed in public for the benefit of others, said French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, president of the Vatican’s jubilee committee. Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the commission that prepared the document, said the church was not setting itself up as a tribunal to judge the actions of past Christians. The aim was to know ourselves and open ourselves to the purification of memories and to our true renewal, he said.

The document said the church was holy and cannot sin, but that its members have sinned through the ages. Acknowledging these faults can foster renewal and reconciliation in the present, it said. The document, however, rejected any notion of collective guilt by Christians, saying that would be as unfair as blaming all Jews for Christ’s death. Sin is ... always personal, even though it wounds the entire church, it said.

The church officials also said that the pope’s unprecedented gesture of confessing past sins could set a precedenttoday’s Christians and church leaders can also expect to have their actions closely judged. What will the men and women of tomorrow think of us? asked Dominican Father Georges Cottier, the pope’s personal theologian.

On more than 100 separate occasions during his 21-year pontificate, the pope has publicly apologized for the shortcomings of Christians through the ages, on topics ranging from slavery to the Inquisition. He has asked forgiveness from groups, including indigenous peoples, other Christian churches and women.

The media has focused on whether the pope was specific enough in his apology. But a look at what the pope has already said reveals plenty of specifics:

On the Inquisition, the pope in 1982 referred to its errors of excess,’’ and on several occasions since then he has condemned the Inquisition’s use of intolerance and even violence in the service of truth.’’

On the Holocaust, in 1997 the pope expressed regret that Christians’ consciences were lulled under Nazism and that Christians showed inadequate spiritual resistance’’ to Nazi persecution of the Jews. In 1998 a Vatican document on the Shoah, the Hebrew word for the Holocaust, expressed repentance for the same moral shortcomings.

On the Crusades, the pope in 1995 characterized these armed Christian expeditions as mistakes. He praised the zeal of medieval Crusaders, but said today we should give thanks to God’’ that dialogue, not recourse to weapons, was recognized as the right way.

On native peoples, the pope in 1985 asked forgiveness from Africans for the way they were treated in recent centuries. In North America in 1984 he apologized for the blunders’’ of missionaries and in 1987 acknowledged that Christians were among those who carried out the cultural oppression of native peoples and the destruction of their way of life.

On ecumenism, the pope has several times called for mutual forgiveness among separated Christian churches. In 1995, he bluntly asked forgiveness, on behalf of all Catholics, for the wrongs caused to non-Catholics in the course of history.’’

On women, in a 1995 letter that examined in brief the historical discrimination against women, the pope said that if not just a few’’ members of the church were to blame, for this I am truly sorry.’’

The pope has made similar pronouncements on the church’s past actions regarding slavery and racism, acquiescence to political dictatorship, and scientific theories like those of Galileo, who was condemned for saying the earth revolved around the sun.

Cooperate, Chilean Bishops Tell Pinochet

Health permitting, Chile’s ex-dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, should cooperate with authorities investigating human rights lawsuits against him, said the Chilean bishops. Such cooperation would help heal many of the wounds in our country,’’ they said, referring to the deep divisions that still exist over Pinochet’s 1973-90 military government. The bishops reject and lament all past violations of human rights’’ and denounce the hatred which also kills and destroys those who wrap themselves in it,’’ they said in a statement on March 6.

Nearly 60 Percent of Israelis Welcome Pope’s Visit

Nearly 60 percent of Israelis view Pope John Paul II’s visit to Israel as positive, while 12 percent view it negatively, according to a Gallup poll. These findings contradict the conventional wisdom’ that Israelis are either negative to or apathetic about the pope, Christianity and related matters,’’ said Ron Kronish, director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, which commissioned the poll, released on March 8.

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