Catholics Divided by Vatican's Mea Culpa

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Is the church itself above sin? That question forms the theological fulcrum of conflict within the Catholic Church over the mass of penitence to be delivered Sunday by Pope John Paul II.

The millennial lenten season has rung with Catholic apologies for all manner of past acts and omissions, with bishops and cardinals around America asking forgiveness for church attitudes over the years toward minority groups, other Christian denominations and alienated members of their own church. But the ur-apology will come Sunday, when Pope John Paul II delivers a mass at St. Peter's Basilica asking forgiveness for 2,000 years of sins committed in the name of the church — a mea culpa that already has its detractors both inside and outside the church.

The mass, based on the document "Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past," is expected to be an entirely unprecedented action by a remarkable pontiff, urging the faithful and the clergy to honestly face up to those moments in its history when, he believes, the church was not true to its own teachings. The Holocaust may be the most commonly discussed of these moments, but the church's collective mea culpa is expected to cover everything from the Crusades and the Inquisition to its attitude toward Christians of other denominations. Not that each of these sins and infractions will receive detailed treatment: "Given the number of sins committed in the course of 20 centuries, [reference to them] must necessarily be rather summary," explained Vatican official Bishop Piero Marini.

In fact, Sunday's mass may be less a cataloging of specific wrongs than a general framing of the context and meaning of the Catholic Church's acknowledgment of its own sins at the dawn of the third millennium. "Above and beyond giving a mea culpa, John Paul II will attempt to frame what the church means by a mea culpa," says TIME religion correspondent David Van Biema. "His belief that the church strengthens itself through a frank acknowledgment of past sins is a remarkable thing. But the Vatican is also being careful to make clear that this isn't simply a spectacular act of self-flagellation before hostile outsiders; it's about the church's need to express regret and ask for God's pardon rather than to satisfy outsiders."

Nonetheless, outsiders look set to take issue, particularly representatives of the Jewish community who have for decades pressed the Vatican to acknowledge its failures to adequately respond to — and, some would argue, even its complicity in creating the climate for — the Holocaust. "The Jewish Anti-Defamation League is unhappy with what's contained in 'Memory and Reconciliation,' because they believe it still fails to admit the church's corporate responsibility for any complicity in the Holocaust," says Van Biema. "It lays the blame on flawed humans — although the document uses the term 'generations' to imply this wasn't simply a few bad apples — rather than admitting any flaws on the part of the church itself."

The phrasing of the church's apology, however, has been the subject of fierce debate inside the Catholic hierarchy. "Even when they released the 'Memory and Reconciliation' document, the Vatican made clear that there were different camps inside the church, some of whom felt the church was going too far in its apology and others who believe it hadn't gone far enough," says Van Biema. The central point of contention is whether responsibility for sins rests with the church itself, or simply with its errant children. "Although this pope has gone a lot further than any in history toward acknowledging corporate responsibility on the part of the church, he's pushing against significant opposition, and the outcome will still be regarded as insufficient in some quarters."

The Vatican's 1997 document "We Remember," concerning the church's role during the Holocaust, was widely criticized by Jewish organizations for failing to go far enough in confronting the church's failures both during the Holocaust itself and in creating the cultural climate in Europe in which it occurred. Although the current document goes a little further than "We Remember," that's unlikely to be enough to satisfy Jewish critics.

Although the treatment of the Holocaust in "Memory and Reconciliation" is sure to attract the most attention, there is plenty more for observers to ponder. It questions some of the more important episodes of church history in the Middle Ages, such as the Crusades, in which military campaigns ordered by the Vatican resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Muslims, Jews and Orthodox Christians, and the Inquisition, in which the Vatican authorized torture as a means of extracting confessions from "heretics." The document challenges many of the practices of the church in the New World, by criticizing forced conversions and stressing the need to bring converts to Catholicism by the example of "living in a Christ-like way" rather than proselytizing. And it seeks forgiveness for "Catholic solidarity in the sin of division" among Christians, referring to the Vatican's conflicts with Protestant and Orthodox denominations, binding Catholics to find ways of overcoming such divisions.

What has led to this self-examination? John Paul II appears to be trying to reconfigure the church's thinking to confront a global reality absent from its core thinking at the start of the last millennium: That Catholicism will, for the foreseeable future, remain one faith among many, Christian and non-Christian, with which it must coexist. In many ways, it's an intensely personal mission of a pontiff nearing the end of his life as his church celebrates its Jubilee. "The pope has long promised to lead the church in coming to terms with some of its sins on the occasion of the Jubilee," says Van Biema. "For him, it's the culmination of many years of work, as a pontiff who lost a lot of his Jewish friends during the horror of the Holocaust and questioned the complicity of his own faith as a result."

The window of opportunity for such soul-searching is not simply the millennium itself, but the papacy of John Paul II. "This pope has an unusual propensity for reflection and penance, with which he has struggled hard to infuse the whole church," says Van Biema. "It's pretty unlikely that the next pope will share what in the end may be more John Paul II's personal peculiarity than a characteristic of the church he has built." That much was clear in comments last weekend by Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, 71, of Bologna, touted as a leading candidate to succeed John Paul II. In a theological discussion on the Antichrist, the cardinal opined that it was very likely that the beast was already among us, disguised as a philanthropist supporting creeds such as vegetarianism, animal rights or pacifism — or advocating Catholic dialogue with Orthodox or Anglican Christians, a longtime passion of John Paul II's. Cardinal Biffi's comments, perhaps, signal the extent of conservative opposition in John Paul II's path and therefore his extraordinary achievement in bringing his church this far. But even the fact that he has opened up such profound debate confirms the pontiff's simple exhortation to Catholics at the dawn of a new millennium: that their faith not be blind, but clear-sighted.