Infallible Apologies
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Infallible Apologies

Pope John Paul II issued nearly 100 apologies during his pontificate. He offered these statements on behalf of the Catholic Church for those who had sinned in its name, from the paedophilia of U.S. priests to the misdeeds of the church in its earliest days. Like the number of saints he canonized, this quantity of apologies was unprecedented and similarly drew on the supratemporal authority of the church to fortify its contemporary relevance. While most of these admissions of error attracted little attention, the 1992 lifting of the edict of Inquisition against Galileo Galilei and the sweeping Jubilee apology of 2000 attracted a great deal of publicity and revealed the contradictions of the papal mea culpa.

In removing the edict against Galileo, the pope acted on the findings of an 11-year investigation that he had commissioned in 1981. Long preoccupied with the affair, the pope said at the time:

From the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment down to our own day, the Galileo case has been a sort of "myth" . . . the symbol of the Church's supposed rejection of scientific progress, or of "dogmatic" obscurantism opposed to the free search for truth . . . in which the image fabricated out of the events was quite far removed from reality.1

John Paul II appears to have been motivated largely by a desire to clear the Church's name rather than to make amends with Galileo's memory. The pope's statement made no mention of the Inquisitors' treatment of the 69-year-old astronomer, which included a forced recantation under threat of torture and death and denial of medical care during his imprisonment. Instead, the pope had urged the commission to discover "the wrongs, from whatever side they may have come" and deemed the affair a "tragic mutual incomprehension" between Galileo and "theologians of that age," who could not reconcile heliocentrism and scripture. Since Galileo could deduce but not prove that the earth moved around the sun, the commission found that both parties had acted in good faith; to the pope, the investigation showed that a belief in the "fundamental opposition between science and faith . . . now belongs in the past." Strictly understood, it was less apology than apologia.

Later, in 2000, the pope sought to "purify the memory" of the church in a grand public apology for all the sins committed in its name. Accompanied by five bishops and two cardinals, he asked forgiveness for sins "in the service of truth, against Christian unity, against the Jews, against respect for [End Page 67] love, peace and cultures; against the dignity of women and minorities, and against human rights," among others.2 A dramatic act without precedent, it was, as Leon Wieseltier wrote, also "an apology that [was] not apologetic,"3 and in that sense much like the Galileo rehabilitation—intended more to absolve the church according to its own standards than to right past wrongs.

"Purifying the memory," after all, according to a Vatican document, means

eliminating from personal and collective conscience all forms of resentment or violence left by the inheritance of the past . . . the remembrance of scandals of the past can become an obstacle to the Church's witness today, and the recognition of the past faults of the Church's sons and daughters of yesterday can foster renewal and reconciliation in the present.4

In modern parlance, "forgive and forget." Yet who was to be forgiven, and who was to do the forgiving? According to Catholic doctrine, the church itself can never sin, as it is a creation and the inheritance of Christ, but its servants can. The church's liability is limited to "assuming the weight of her children's faults in maternal solidarity."5 Moreover, the pope did not seek the forgiveness from those whom the church had wronged, but from God, who in the eyes of Catholicism is the only one with the power of pardon. Finally, the same document stated that "reciprocity—at times impossible because of the religious convictions of the dialogue partner—cannot be considered an indispensable condition, and that the gratuity of love often expresses itself in unilateral initiatives."6 In other words, this was...


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