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The Pope's Nostra Culpa

The news that Pope John Paul II has expressed sorrow for past wrongs committed in the name of faith has startled everyone, even many Catholics. Some believe his actions go too far in conceding criticisms of the church. Others believe the pope hasn't gone far enough to admit that the church, and not just individuals within it, has done wrong.

It will take time for the full meaning of this Mass of Reconciliation to be absorbed into Catholic consciousness. But in the end, the pope's request for forgiveness will strengthen the church's moral authority. Unlike the political apologies that are so fashionable today, the holy father has attempted to set a true example. His contrition also is in keeping with the oldest traditions of the Catholic Church. The human dimension of the church must seek reconciliation if its divine dimension is to shine more fully.

In the past, some have sought to overlook blemishes in church history on grounds that it is holy and therefore beyond criticism. This was a mistake. The sons and daughters of the church, including its leaders, are human and prone to sin like everyone else.

The church may previously have needed a historiography to combat its mortal enemies, but, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger emphasizes, the collapse of atheistic communism has left the church “in a new situation of freedom to return to our sins.” The pope wants to use this freedom to undergo the preparation and purification necessary to usher in a new millennium in which Christianity is renewed.

Political apologies are, of course, very much in vogue. Both Tony Blair and Bill Clinton have publicly apologized for past errors of the nations they head. Yet these apologies are politically selective. For one, they are directed toward afflicted groups rather than God. It also isn't clear that these leaders speak for anyone but their own administrations. The apologies often seem little more than transparent attempts to make present officeholders look better by comparison with the misdeeds of their predecessors.

These attempts are in stark contrast to Sunday's mass. The pope can speak for the church of present and past. As with every priest, in his sacramental character he acts in the person of Christ. He is also the successor of St. Peter. This doesn't mean that his words are divine in character, but it does mean that he can authentically represent the human character of the church in divine actions. The pope's words were not selective but sweeping: “For the part that each of us with our own behavior played in these evils, contributing to stain the face of the church, we humbly ask for forgiveness”

The idea here is to wipe the slate clean, setting aside old errors and resentments. Such admission of sin is hardly unfamiliar to Catholics; confession is a central part of our sacramental life. The pope has simply done the same thing on behalf of his flock. While his actions may appear to represent innovation, they are thoroughly consistent with the tradition of holding ourselves accountable to the same morality as we hold the world.

Note that the pope did not invoke mitigating circumstances for the errors of the past. No excuses are given, though many might have been offered. Nor did he recount the manifest contributions the church has made to Western civilization. Instead, he placed the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the guilty.

In applying these teachings, the pope believes he must set a moral example.

This is particularly true with regard to relations between church and state. The idea of separation has a long history in Christian teaching, but the practice has been far from perfect in historical periods such as the Crusades and the Inquisition. These events harmed the Christian witness and became a stumbling block to evangelization. This is why the pope particularly emphasized “errors in the service of truth.” He has reinforced the teaching that the faith must engage the world not through imposition but by proposition.

What about the criticism that his apology does not eliminate the root cause of past wrongs, said to be aspects of the Catholic faith itself? The church is the model of holiness, for it was built upon the rock of Peter (a holy but thoroughly imperfect man). But it is not merely the sum of its parts, which is why the sins of its children can, and must, be seen as a contradiction to its divine nature.

Lord Acton, the great English historian of liberty, went to great lengths to defend contributions of the faith beyond the salvation of souls. Among the contributions of Catholicism he named the institution of the university, the flourishing of art and music, the idea of individual human rights, the separation of the ecclesiastical and civic functions of society, the rescuing of the wisdom of the ancients in the Middle Ages and even the idea of liberty itself.

In all these areas and a thousand more, the influence of the church on the world reflects its high calling. What this great pope has done is to remind Catholics that the great contributions of the faith are the work of a perfect God, while the mistakes of the past are the responsibility of imperfect human beings.