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Apology a good break from business as usual

Among the salient features of the Roman Catholic church, the urge to apologize has never been high on the list. And if one were in search of an apologetic pope, the take-no-prisoners John Paul II, who helped bring communism to its knees and fostered fear in many a theologian would seem an unlikely candidate. Yet there he was, on the first Sunday of Lent, confessing the sins of the world’s Catholics living and dead.

There’s some change of heart in the air.

We were impressively humble as a church back in the early, catacomb days. Then we were emancipated and institutionalized and for centuries we became a worldly church, judging our success by the numbers, by our possessions, including empires at times, often reckoning even spiritual progress by numbers baptized or, on bad days, martyred. When, in the late 19th century, the last of our holy Roman empires collapsed, leaving us just a few Vatican acres, one way the pope of the day compensated was to stress his infallibility, even making a dogma out of it. The church is human, and it’s no surprise that its leaders seek all-too-human clout. Always for a good cause, which we often call, tellingly, the kingdom.

The more clout one has, the harder it is to apologize. Such is human nature.

Once we were stuck with official infallibility, it became harder to admit old or new wrongs. Even if formal inerrancy were not the issue, a church that leans as heavily on infallibility as this pontificate has done is naturally nervous about making mistakes or the appearance of mistakes. Thus, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said the pope’s word on women’s ordination was, so to speak, well nigh infallible, he was raising the stakes to a dizzy height: old-fashioned ecclesiastical hardball.

Now it’s the millennium, a special moment when the world, though hectic as ever, seems to have slowed down to take stock. The pope proclaimed a Jubilee year, which has given the church a higher Y2K profile than any other institution. This is a soft, gracious, giving, forgiving concept, and a big break with business as usual.

The March 12 plea for forgiveness caught the whole world’s attention. It is unusual, even for religious leaders, to make such a public act of humility. There have been critics, inevitably, but overall the reaction has been positive. Some complained about the lack of specificity, but everyone knows what the pope is talking about. And besides, our list of ecclesial sins, like everybody else’s, is much too long to get specific.

There has been extensive coverage in the secular media, most of it positive. “It is an ecumenical step that could well be taken elsewhere,” commented Bob Edgar of the National Council of Churches. “Let’s accept this as a challenge to examine our own histories.” Not all religious groups have so far been willing to turn the scrutiny back on themselves, happy for the moment to let Catholics wear the sackcloth and ashes. But there are enough historical sins to go around and include everybody.

Meanwhile, within the Catholic church, there has been a litany of similar apologies inspired by the papal pronouncement (NCR, March 24). They all add up to a less haughty church that’s easier to like, more of an inspiration. And echoes of the founder who, everyone agrees, was great at forgiving.

National Catholic Reporter, March 31, 2000