In the first Sunday of Lent, Pope John Paul II asked forgiveness for sins committed by Catholics over the last two millennia. For 20 minutes he listed and prayed about sins against various groups, including Jews and Muslims. "Christians have often denied the Gospel; yielding to a mentality of power," he said, "they have violated the rights of ethnic groups and peoples, and shown contempt for their culture and religious traditions." Sins against women"who are too often humiliated and marginalized"were also mentioned, as were fellow Christians, "minors who are victims of abuse," the poor, the alienated, the disadvantaged and the unborn.
During the ceremony, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the institution that succeeded the Inquisition, acknowledged that "even men of the church, in the name of faith and morals, have sometimes used methods not in keeping with the Gospel in the solemn duty of defending the truth."
The response to the pope’s confession was overwhelmingly positive, but some Catholics ask why we are confessing sins that were committed by earlier generations for which we are not responsible? Many are confused by the statement that while people can sin, the church is sinless. Others complain that confessing sins of the past is easy; what about today’s sins? And some are demanding a longer and more specific list of sins.
It is clear from Catholic theology that guilt for sin is not passed on from one generation to another. A child is not responsible for the sins of her parents. But past sins do continue to have consequences today, as hatreds and prejudices are passed on from one generation to another. Acknowledging sins of the past can help us overcome their influence in our lives today. Denying their existence only perpetuates their continued influence.
Past sins also live on in the historical memory of the community and of those who were harmed by sin. These shared bad memories must be healed by creating new positive memories. John Paul hopes that shared experiences of confession and reconciliation will create new, good memories on which future generations can build.
Nor in this context should we talk about the "collective guilt" of Catholics. The concept of collective guilt was once used to blame all Jews for the death of Jesus. It is as false for Catholics today as it was for Jews in the past. Not all Catholics were responsible for the Inquisition, and some Catholics did risk their lives to protect Jews. Some Jewish leaders were understandably disappointed that the Holocaust was not specifically mentioned. The pope in the past has expressed sorrow that too few Christians helped Jews during the Holocaust and he will undoubtedly have more to say about the Holocaust in the future.
But those requesting lists of specific names and events must recognize that the subjective guilt of any historical figure (who is a product of his or her time and culture) is difficult to judge. Even the historical facts are sometimes hard to determine. That is why a confession covering 2,000 years of sins will inevitably be more general than specific, to say nothing of the fact that it would take 2,000 years to list all the sins of every Christian.
On the other hand, some sins were either so common among Christians or so devastating to others that they amount to a scandal or counterwitness to the Gospel. These sins should be acknowledged and confessed for the sake of reconciliation. "Taking responsibility for past wrong is a kind of sharing in the mystery of Christ, crucified and risen, who took upon himself the sins of all," writes the Vatican International Theological Commission.
Vatican comments about the church being sinless were not helpful, and the pope wisely did not use this language during the confession. Too many people think "church" means "the clergy." The church as the "sinless bride of Christ" exists on a spiritual, mystical or eschatological level outside history. The people in the church who are sinners include popes, bishops and members of the clergynot just the people in the pews. If we are the church, then the church has sinned. As Vatican II explained, the church as a human, earthly institution is always in need of reformation.
Although Catholics acknowledge their sinfulness every time they gather for the Eucharist, it was most appropriate for the pope to ask for forgiveness for past sins during the jubilee year celebrating 2,000 years of Christianity. Future generations may well mark this event as a turning point in relations between Catholics and people with whom we wish to be reconciled. But besides reciting sins, a "firm purpose of amendment" is necessary, lest 100 years from now another pope will have to confess similar transgressions.