The sins of the church

In 2000, Pope John Paul II confessed the sins of File:John Paul II Medal of Freedom 2004.jpgCatholics in the second millennium. What confessions did he make, and what did people say about them?

His was a confession to God, requesting God’s mercy. Here is the text of his homily and prayer. It was based on this document, a theological study of the Church and the faults of the past.

Because of the bond which unites us to one another in the Mystical Body, all of us, though not personally responsible and without encroaching on the judgement of God who alone knows every heart, bear the burden of the errors and faults of those who have gone before us.

Here is a paradox: we are not responsible for the sins of our predecessors, but insofar as we are identified with the institution with which they are identified, by themselves and others, we bear the burden of their faults. It is for God to judge, and not us.

Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Inquisition, tiptoed round the violence of his predecessors, saying only that they had sometimes used methods not in keeping with the Gospel in the solemn duty of defending the truth. Their aims were right, he says, and will not say which means were objectionable.

The Pope then said, truth can prevail only in virtue of truth itself.  The violence we use to enforce our beliefs cannot prevail to the extent that our beliefs are false: it only creates equal resistance.

The last part of this litany, on current sin, repels me. Let us pray for those who are most defenceless, the unborn killed File:John Paul II Brazil 1997 3.jpgin their mother’s womb or even exploited for experimental purposes by those who abuse the promise of biotechnology and distort the aims of science. Here they are condemning the “sins” of others, ignoring the helplessness of women who need abortions, and seeking to prevent cures for disease.

The Guardian called it an “apology”, which misses the point: it is a confession to God, not an apology to victims or to their successors. Biblelight said the Pope was the Antichrist because he wore purple.

America magazine asked whether the church itself can be held responsible for the sins of its members, and how the evident presence of sin in its history is compatible with the church’s holiness. For Francis Sullivan, outsiders find it difficult to distinguish the mystical, sinless Mother Church from the earthly Church whose official policy, set by its leadership, was to torture alleged heretics. His answer comes from Vatican II: the church is “the pilgrim people of God”, a human institution, always in need of reform, always in need of purification. For Tradition in Action, the possible implication from the Pope’s confession was that the Church could sin, a liberal plot to affirm a new conception of the Church, and also the Faith, one constantly reforming, changing, and evolving. See also Religious Tolerance.

The sins of violence are likely to continue, given the Pope’s statement of “the evils of today“: We must ask ourselves what our responsibilities are regarding atheism, religious indifference, secularism, ethical relativism, the violations of the right to life, disregard for the poor in many countries.

12 thoughts on “The sins of the church

  1. I find it interesting the way you speak of this as if it were genuinely ideological. From a historical perspective, I just can’t see it in those terms. Every church council was political. Have you ever read through cum nimis absurdum? Or Pius IXth’s flood of decrees?


    • God save me from an atheist historian- brought up Catholic? When I started on this, I wanted to consider the politics of apologies made: I had an idea the Pope had said something about Galileo, and was not sure what. No, I have not read Piux IX’s decrees, nor even the long document I link to here. I saw the politics: the conservative says there is Holy Mother Church, which is sinless, and the liberal says something different. I had difficulty seeing the politics because of my own radically liberal view. But I am within the argument- for me, “What is God’s relationship with God’s people?” is a meaningful question, because for me the concept of “God” is meaningful.


      • LOL 😀 Did the thurible give it away? I was never ideologically Catholic, although, yes, I was reared in a Catholic environment. My mother’s family was Catholic enough that they had Christmas mass ‘at home’ every year. Not sure how one manages to organize such a thing, but from what I understand it’s some sort of honour.
        I was quite interested in Catholicism from artistic, historical and political perspectives; All of which are extraordinary. Few political bodies in all history have managed their degree of power.


        • In Britain, the power of the church was neutralised. In England, the bishops were subordinated to the crown, which appointed them. In Scotland, no one was more senior than a parish minister. After all that bother with Thomas Beckett, and King Henry crawling round on his knees before the Shrine of the Martyr, it ceased to be a problem.


  2. Power & sin go together in the sect such as the Roman Catholic Church that hides the sins of their Priest’s by allowing them to carry on their sins, the murder of millions of innocent men, women and children under order from a series of Popes in the middle ages, condemned and put to death men of science as ‘God wouldn’t like it’ The same sect that had women give up their babies after they were put into homes run by the church and ruled over by wicked nuns, I know this for a fact because I sat in tears with a 87 year old woman who told me the torment of not even getting to see her baby before it was taken and given to a family who had been ‘chosen by God’ when they went to rich families who contributed to the church. She was also beaten daily, made to work sometimes 16 hours without pay in a laundry and she was made to admit that after her best friend hung herself with her friends wet sheets because her friend could no longer live with the beating for wetting the bed that her best friend was evil and hanging herself is evil.

    The power of one man who had been indoctrinated into this sect, had the hold of millions of people and they would follow on his every word as if he had a direct line to the Almighty, which we all know that we all have a direct connection to God and we can ask him for forgiveness, not sit in a box and confess your sins to a faceless person who then give you your ‘punishment’.

    Lets not forget how this head of the church who cares about the world and he people in it kept quiet as a deal by Hitler during WW2.

    I was at the funeral of the old woman I mentioned earlier and the Priest who I do know said while summing up her life said “The nuns will have a lot of explaining to do when they waiting to get to God, but they have already sorted their eternal life and its going to be hot”

    I am not saying all religions are sinless, but something as big the Roman Catholic Church and the power it weilds should not be allowed, if it was a country we would be worried, very worried indeed.


    • I find it more difficult to condemn the laundries as I sat with a woman who had suffered in an Episcopalian orphanage (my lot). Walter Scott saw the Reformers and the conservatives together in Heaven, but on Earth they were trying to save souls from Hell. On Hitler and Pius, Ina Vukic (see below) has written recently on how the historian’s view depends on the primary sources s/he sees.

      Pete, I am doing my thing. I respect the sincerity of your views, but try to see it from the point of view of the other.


  3. I personally do not agree with “collective” guilt for deeds of individuals who had strayed from the expected, the norm etc – so to me Church is not responsible for deeds of individuals because there are many more members of the Church who do not stray, commit atrocious acts against humans and humanity etc… if for instance sex-abuse occurs at a school have we EVER seen the whole school, indeed the whole education department responsible?! Don’t think so. I think the more we blame the Church (or any other institution) for deeds of individuals within in the further away we are from exterminating such deeds and ensuring they don’t occur in the future. As to abortion the Catholic church is against it but I do believe in cases of medical need for it the church adjusts its views. Mind you, although a Catholic, I do not frequent the church or masses a great deal – in fact I do that quite rarely as I believe that the Almighty is in me and that his church is everywhere we are – some church practices and views are utterly pathetic given reality we live in and that being the fact one needs to distinguish between religion and faith more than ever before


    • On child abuse, the allegation is that the abuse in the Catholic Church was worse because of failures in its systems, its conception of what a priest is, its secrecy, its absolution of sins, its conception of sexual temptation. Bishops moved priests around to abuse again, rather than turning them over to Caesar.

      On other collective guilt, here is one instance: the wealth of Bristol, Liverpool, and certain families grew massively from the slave trade. That (in the argument) means that there is a duty to pay reparations, because we still have those ill-gotten gains. The guilt of the present generation is not responsibility for sending slaving ships, but in seeking to retain profits from them. I am dimly aware of these arguments but have not formed a position on them.


      • I agree with the failure of the Church system to deal with sexual abuse of priests etc – but in the same move the guilt or mistrust has spread against all of the Church. I guess very similar to the instance of “ill begotten riches” through slave trade and reaping the fruits of lands colonised, mines worked etc…the issue is a difficult one but I do get annoyed, angry when for instance the latter preach morality to the former 😀


  4. “ignoring the helplessness of women who need abortions” Surprising that all those men who apparently have never had sex wouldn’t understand about this. Women can only be virgins or breeding machines – why else would the god God have made them?


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