A ROMAN CATHOLIC APOLOGY FOR THE PAST SINS OF ITS MEMBERS
"The document acknowledges sins only by those acting in the name of the
church. It does not acknowledge any sins by the church itself or those who
have served as its popes..." CNN.com, 2000-MAR-7 10
"John Paul II wanted to give a complete, global vision, making reference to
circumstances of the past, but without focusing on details out of respect
for history." Archbishop Rino Fisichella of Rome
"It is quite a remarkable and admirable thing that a church that considers
itself holy, that believes its popes are guided by the hand of God, would
acknowledge and ask forgiveness for mistakes of the past. But what about the
mistakes of the present? Let's hope acknowledgment of today's exclusion and
rejection of women won't have to wait for whoever is pope during the next
Jubilee." Joan Ryan, San Francisco Chronicle. 15
The past decade has seen many statements of repentance by religious groups:
The Southern Baptist Conference repented of their past support for slavery
and racial segregation. The asked Afro-Americans for forgiveness of the
denomination's past actions and for any residual racism left today.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America apologized for the viciously
anti-Jewish statements by Martin Luther, a leader of the Protestant
The United Methodist Church apologized for the brutality of a lay Methodist
preacher who led a massacre of Natives during the Civil War.
The Roman Catholic Church issued a "call to penitence" in 1998 in
recognition the relative inactivity and silence of many Roman Catholics
during the Nazi Holocaust.
However, the a new apology at the start of Lent in the year 2000 by the Pope
John Paul II on behalf of the Roman Catholic church has received much
greater attention worldwide.
The Catholic apologies of 1998 and 2000 are different from the others. They
apologize on behalf of some of its unidentified "sons and daughters" of the
church, but not on behalf of the church itself. 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.
Release of the apology document:
On 2000-MAR-1, in Paris, representatives of the Roman Catholic Church held a
press conference which, according to Reuters, "outlined a framework for
seeking forgiveness for past errors without necessarily admitting
responsibility for them." 1 The French translation of a new church document:
"Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past" was
released. It had been prepared over a three year interval by a papal
commission, the International Theological Commission, under the auspices of
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. It contains "some 90 pages, divided into 6
chapters." 8 The document was published in time for the church's ''Request
for Forgiveness'' theme day on 2000-MAR-12. This was synchronized with the
first Sunday in Lent, a traditional time of penitence. This is one of many
special observances associated with the Church's millennium celebration in
the Jubilee year, 2000.
"Memory and Reconciliation" acknowledges that individuals within the Church
have committed serious errors in the past. Father Jean-Louis Brugues, one of
the report's authors stated: "We have mentioned a few errors, but we could
have had a very long list, too long a list. I fear the list will never be
finished." He continued: "The Christians of today are not responsible for
the errors of the 19th or 16th century. We are not responsible for errors we
did not commit...We have had to find a way to liberate and purify memory
without talking about responsibility.''
The Holy See Press Office held a press conference on 2000-MAR-7 in the
Vatican to formally release the document to the public. It was originally
written in Latin. Translations are available in English, French and Spanish.
Pope John Paul II's verbal apology
Bishop Piero Marini, the official in charge of papal ceremonies, described a
series of apologies which were to be made from Roman Catholic pulpits around
the world during the Day of Pardon mass, Sunday, 2000-MAR-12. He explained
that "The reference to errors and sins in a liturgy must be frank and
capable of specifying guilt; yet given the number of sins committed in the
course of 20 centuries, it must be necessarily be rather summary. [sic]" 3
The Pope delivered a homily during the in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. He
included an apology for wrong done to "women, Jews, Gypsies [Roma], other
Christians and Catholics." 4,13 Some excerpts from Pope John Paul II's
Referring to the church's relationship to Jews, the pope said: "We are
deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have
caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness, we
wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood."
In an apparent reference: to the treatment of individuals that the church
to the various schisms within Christianity, and
for manifestations of religious intolerance,
the pope said: "We are asking pardon for the divisions among Christians, for
the use of violence that some have committed in the service of truth and for
attitudes of mistrust and hostility assumed towards followers of other
According to the Toronto Star: "Though broadly worded, the petitions made
reference to the historic mistreatment of women 'who are too often
humiliated and marginalized;' to 'contempt for [other] cultures and
religious traditions;' and to hatred for society's weakest members."
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 laity.
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
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
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
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.
In an apparent reference to: the jailing, torture, and burning alive of
individuals such as outspoken scientists, people perceived to be heretics,
natural healers, midwives and others, and to
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: Use of torture on prisoners,
and the subsequent burning them alive, and
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."
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: 5
Leaders of the church once taught that slavery was acceptable under a wide
range of situations. It has since reversed its stance.
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
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
effective 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." 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
"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
The pope will have an opportunity to make another apology on behalf of the
church as an institution. He will be visiting Israel and will give a talk at
the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial on 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). 6The
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." 7 Neither the Pope 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
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 Abramic
religion. i.e. people who are not Jewish, Christian or Muslim. The 47% of
the world's population who follow Buddhism, Hinduism, Neopaganism and many
other non-Abramic religions may well object to this interpretation of
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.
9 Some events that he included are: The silence of Pope Pius XII during the
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.
The castration of boy singers in the church so that they could continue to
sing in high pitch into adulthood.
By Roman Catholics and other Christians: The report 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
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.'' 1
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 event 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 accepts 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,
and remarried Catholics.
Crispian Balmer, "Catholic Church establishes forgiveness framework,"
Reuters, 2000-MAR-1. See: http://dailynews.yahoo.com/h/nm/20000301/ts/
"Memory and reconciliation: The church and faults of the past," EWTN News
V.L. Simpson, "Pope plans historic apology for sins of Catholic Church,"
Associated Press, 2000-MAR-7.
Steve Kloen, "Pope repents, seeks forgiveness for social sins through the
ages," The Toronto Star, 2000-MAR-13.
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 Amazon.com online book
"The committee for the Pope's millennium apology," at:
"Pagans call for apology from Catholics," EWTN News, 2000-FEB-11, at:
"Publication of document on church's past faults," EWTN News, at:
John P. Murphy, "The apology of John Paul II," AANEWS, 2000-MAR-6
"Pope to apologize for sins committed by Roman Catholics," CNN.com,
2000-MAR-7, at: http://www.cnn.com/2000/WORLD/europe/03/07/
L.B. Stammer, "Mahony offers apology for his, Church's failings," LA Times,
John Paul II, "Tertio Millennio Adveniente (As the Third Millennium Draws
Near)," 1994-NOV-14, at: http://www.cin.org/jp2ency/tertmill.html
John Paul II et al., Text of the "Universal prayer: Confession of sins and
asking for forgiveness," 2000-MAR-12, is at:
"ADL Reacts to Pope's Liturgy of Forgiveness," ADL news release,
Joan Ryan, "A partial confession from the pope," San Francisco Chronicle,
2000-MAR-14, at: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/
Copyright © 2000
Originally written: 2000-MAR-8
Latest update: 2000-MAR-15
Author: B.A. Robinson