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 in 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.