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A Case Study in the Theology of Apology

The pundits have been busily dissecting Pope John Paul II’s long pontificate, sifting through statistics, charting his myriad foreign tours, parsing his every written word — all in an effort to determine John Paul’s proper place in ecclesial history. And some rather interesting angles have been taken in this regard.

Among those entering the fray is David Gibson, who, in a Religion News Service article printed in The Catholic Voice (April 11), the paper of the Diocese of Oakland, Calif., attempts to make sense of what he terms John Paul’s “theology of apology.” According to Gibson, John Paul made his first reference to the “errors and excesses” of the Church in 1982, in regard to the Inquisition, for which he officially apologized in 1983. Thus began a long string of apologies to various groups for various “offenses” (to Muslims in 1985, to Africans and Jews in 1986, to women for their “humiliation” and “marginalization” in 2000, again for the Inquisition in 2000, to the Orthodox in 2001, yet again for the Inquisition in 2004, etc.). Gibson quotes Vatican correspondent Luigi Accattoli, in his book When a Pope Asks Forgiveness, who figures that by 1998 there had been “no fewer than 94 occasions at which John Paul apologized for some past action of the Church, and their legacy in the present.” By the time of his death seven years later, one can safely assume that John Paul’s apologies numbered in excess of one hundred.

The intent of these apologies, however, is somewhat murky, and the results ambiguous. If they were intended to ingratiate the Church to her crotchety critics, they have largely not achieved their objective. “These papal acts of penance,” says Gibson, may in fact have “made matters worse,” particularly in the case of the ever-sensitive Jewish community, which “was disturbed” that John Paul would “apologize on the one hand and then promote sainthood” for such “controversial” figures as Pope Pius XII. Likewise, observes Gibson, many women felt that John Paul’s apologies to them were “empty” without subsequent “reforms” that would give women “a greater role and voice in the male-dominated leadership.”

Interestingly, among the groups not to receive a float in John Paul’s apology parade were homosexuals and the victims of clerical sexual abuse. As for the latter, John Paul did “strongly condemn such abuse,” reports Gibson, though he neglected to offer them a mea culpa on behalf of the Church, as he did for the indigenous people of Santo Domingo in 1984. Rather, this task was left to the U.S. bishops, collectively and individually, where specific bishops felt it necessary to do so.

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