Papal 'Sorry': A Mixed Blessing

When a Pope asks for Forgiveness: The Mea Culpas of John Paul II

By Luigi Accattoli

(Alba House, 1998, 257 pp., $16.95)

On the eve of the millennium, Pope John Paul II is calling the Church to a general examination of conscience. It's a dicey business. Wise pastors are disinclined to propose such a taxing measure to the scrupulous. The unscrupulous, for their part, pay little heed to conscience, much less to wise pastors. Perhaps the Pope finds most of the flock gathering between the two extremes. Luigi Accattoli, a Vatican correspondent for Corriere Della Sera, has collected nearly a hundred citations from John Paul. Again and again, the Pope admits to the Church's moral failures and seeks pardon for them. In gathering these statements, Accattoli does us both a service and a disservice. Indeed, from start to finish he exhibits the curious hyper-ventilation of certain Vatican correspondents.

But let's begin with the positive. Why does the Pope ask for forgiveness? Why does he ask us to join him? Scripture is blunt. “If we say we have not sinned, we make [God] a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 Jn 1:10). Because we are the prodigal sons, we pray “forgive us our sins.”

The plea for forgiveness shapes Catholic life. Even from the cross, Jesus forgave us. For our part, we're to leave the altar if we've neglected to beg, or to grant, forgiveness. Vatican II teaches that we are “always in need of purification” (Lumen Gentium, 8). Saints and martyrs lead the way. Mother Teresa confessed daily. And how piercing are the words of the Trappist superior murdered, in 1996, by Algerian terrorists: “I have lived long enough to consider myself an accomplice in the evil which [prevails] in the world … I would like to have the spark of lucidity … to ask pardon of God … and at the same time with all my heart to pardon him who has struck me.”

Catholic thinkers have tried to understand just what forgiveness means. Aquinas, for example, says that forgiveness is the finest expression of God's power. Our own experience, no doubt, says that forgiveness can seem impossible. No wonder that John Paul II often speaks of the “courage to forgive.”

There's also a “logic” of forgiveness. You can't forgive without judging that a wrong has been done. There must also be a taking responsibility for the wrong and sense of remorse. Yes, we can extend forgiveness to the unrepentant, and others might extend it to us when we are unrepentant. But isn't it also true that a forgiveness that we cannot accept, because we have no sorrow, cannot heal us?

Logic, of course, becomes twisted. For example, forgiveness sometimes is supplanted by a peculiar rhetoric of forgiveness. This phenomenon ignores both the courage of forgiving and the remorse that opens us to forgiveness. Its practitioners refuse to judge others and insist that none judge them. The result? All are forgiven even though no one has sinned. Such rhetoric of course, is virtue “on the cheap.”

Accattoli recognizes the distinctive courage, and discernment, of forgiveness. He gives us a sense, too, of how the Church struggles with Catholic sins, including failures to ask and to give forgiveness. (His account of Catholics busy at slaughter in Rwanda is heartbreaking.)

Accattoli's disservice lies in his intimating that the Church should ask forgiveness for not advancing his theological agenda. His intimations take various forms. Overstatement is a favorite, and it frames his own brand of feminism. Had we realized that the Holy Father, in his 1988 apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women), allegedly “corrects St. Paul?” That he hints at “doctrinal revision?”

If he finds that the Pope can correct St. Paul, Accattoli finds it easier still to show that John Paul II corrects earlier popes. To be sure, some corrections are in order. But how Accattoli muddies the water. First he declares that “no one can pit one pope against another pope.” Then, with relish, he pits John Paul II against the “many popes” who silenced earlier admissions of guilt, against the popes who supported the Crusades, and against popes who discriminated against the Jews. But Accattoli has still another ax to grind.

The Church, he suggests, should ask forgiveness for the papacy itself. Why so? There's quite a list: it's too rich; the Swiss Guard is out of place; and we oughtn't to think of the Pope as Sovereign Pontiff. (Following Mt 23:9, he adds, we should drop the titles of “abbot” and “father.”)

But there's more. We also need “to some extent” to repent “the doctrine on papal infallibility.” Perhaps this simply means that we be clear that infallibility doesn't extend to “contingent matters” that surround questions of faith and morals. But by now what's most clear is that Accattoli's contortions need unraveling.

He needs, at a minimum, to address two points. The first is that we all sin, but this is hardly news. The second is that, as John Paul II teaches, “The Church as such cannot be held responsible for the faults of her members who acted against the law of the Gospel….” Here the Holy Father does not correct, but rather affirms, the language of St. Ambrose: “We wound not the Church but ourselves.”

Contributing writer James Hanink is a professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and associate editor of New Oxford Review.