Pope John Paul II's much publicized apology for 2,000 years of the Catholic Church's sins was hailed as a landmark for the Church by many in the media.
But many of those affected by the Church's sins saw nothing but a publicity stunt by an institution incapable of backing up pious words with concrete actions. Apologies are only valid when the supposed contrition is reflected in a mending of the sinner's ways, but John Paul seems to be merely borrowing a page from the Book of Bill Clinton.
And to attempt an apology for crimes undertaken in the name of God is an affront to the very victims for whom the apology is supposedly meant (not to mention God), especially when one stops to consider that some of these crimes were carried out under the dogma of Papal Infallibility. If the Holy Father can never err when speaking ex cathedra on matters of faith and morals, then how can he have a need to apologize for anything?
The Popes reclaimed this divine right for themselves in 1870, after 546 years of teaching it as a heresy, a heresy manufactured to prevent one Pope from undoing the work of his predecessor. John Paul's mea culpa demonstrated no intent to renounce this claim, so what gives?
Can the Pope apologize for the tortures and murders of the Inquisition, yet maintain these were necessary at the time? Can he exonerate Galileo for teaching the Copernican theory, when as an article of faith he found such teachings heretical? Can he admit a mistake and still claim infallibility?
Can he mourn the wholesale slaughter of the Crusades or in the New World and claim deniability?
Can he stand for human rights when he has made it an article of faith that women can have no equality in the Church? Can he beg forgiveness for the complicity of Plus IX in the Holocaust, while, as an article of faith, he dehumanizes gays and lesbians as sinners, incapable of love and undeserving of either legal or liturgical recognition? Can he denounce crimes against children and steadfastly defend an article of faith which perverts healthy adult sexuality into a predation of the most vulnerable?
And as the ranks of the clergy continue to be ravaged by AIDS, can John Paul preach compassion and understanding of individual humanity, while, as an article of faith, he continues to deny such humanity to his priests? How can a priest counsel on the sacrament of marriage when it's a sacrament he's forbidden to experience?
It's hard to tell just what specific sins J.P. was sorry for. I doubt he rattled off a list like the rest of us in the confessional. His desire, his need to keep the apology general and not specific, is convenient in that it doesn't allow his moral authority to be undermined. This strategy is the common ploy of the criminal politician who gets caught and says, "Mistakes were made," revealing not a genuine remorse for the crimes but an attempt to improve his public image by "getting all the facts out." Otherwise, the whole power structure on which his authority rests might collapse if its faulted foundations were revealed.
Imagine if Hitler had surrendered at his general's urgings and apologized for starting World War II. The creepy thing is he very likely would have gotten away with it. The Allies knew what was happening to the Jews, and they didn't care. It was only when their national pride and prestige were at stake that the Allies bothered to fight.
Likewise, the Church had no interest in fighting fascism, because they both followed the same model! Popes are religious dictators, whose words are followed to the letter. The aforementioned Plus IX called Benito Mussolini "a gift of providence, a man free from the prejudices of the politicians of the liberal school."
Gregory XVI (1831-1846) declared, "From the polluted fountain of indifferentism flows that absurd and erroneous doctrine ... which claims and defends liberty of conscience for everyone. From this comes ... the worst plague of all, unrestrained liberty of opinion and freedom of speech. It is in no way lawful to demand, to defend, or to grant unconditional freedom of thought, or speech, of writing, or of religion, as if they were so many rights that nature has given to man." Put Hitler in a funny hat and an Érte gown, and you've got a great Pope.
Shocked? Offended? You should be. We have developed quite a willingness to swallow whatever is most convenient to avoid facing any unpleasant truth. As a Catholic boy growing up with a secret, the clergy was presented to me early on as an option for the purgation of sins, allowing a young man to be remade in the hands of God. And so, with wonder and mystery, I prepared for my confirmation at age 13, when I would meet the Bishop and take my baptismal vows on my own. Imagine my surprise when the anticipated model of holiness turned out to be a mincing, effeminate queen.
If such was the model of holiness, I figured I could just as well be Pope! But, thankfully, I chose to be myself instead. God must not have made too much of a mistake in me if a creature like that could be a Bishop.
It was a defining moment in my young life and began the long process of my separation from the Church. It ended the mystery, along with the fear.
But many still find comfort in the Church and the mystery of its contradictions. Like an overbearing father, the fear of Judgment is a comfort that at least we aren't alone, that someone will always be watching us. Many Catholics today, both at home and abroad, have found a way to reconcile the differences they have with the Church on their own terms. They cheer the Pope and practice birth control, subscribe to overseas missions as well as Penthouse, wear a pink triangle with their crucifix. Privately, after dinner when the kids are watching TV, they'll express their frustration to each other, sometimes even to their priest, who might express his own frustration in return.
The conversation always ends the same way, with one or the other saying, "It takes time for the Church to change." They hope they'll be around to see it. But the impact John Paul II has had on the Papacy isn't exactly an indication of reforms on a fast track.
The "Faith of Our Fathers" lingers still.