The Churches Confess
“Pope Puts the Church on Trial.” “Inquisition and Anti-Semitism —The Church Is Preparing Her Mea Culpa.”* “Mea Culpa for the Holocaust.” “Methodists Apologize to the Indians of the Far West.”
HAVE you read headlines like these? It seems that with increasing frequency, churches are accepting blame and are apologizing for what they have done over the centuries. The media are constantly highlighting new mea culpas by the pope.
When the Pope Asks Forgiveness
Between 1980 and 1996, John Paul II ‘recognized the Church’s historic faults or asked forgiveness’ at least 94 times, says Vatican commentator Luigi Accattoli in his book Quando il papa chiede perdono (When the Pope Asks Forgiveness). According to Accattoli, “in the Catholic Church, only the pope can rightly make a mea culpa.” And this he has done, referring to the most controversial pages of Catholic history—the Crusades, wars, support of dictatorships, division in the churches, anti-Semitism, the Inquisitions, the Mafia, and racism. In a memorandum sent in 1994 to the cardinals (which is considered by some to be the most important document of the pontificate), John Paul II proposed “a general and millennial confession of sins.”
Several prelates have followed the pope’s example. In December 1994 the Italian newspaper Il Giornale reported: “Many American bishops appeared on television and publicly asked forgiveness.” For what? For underestimating the problem of pedophile priests, to the detriment of many young victims. In January 1995 the newspaper La Repubblica reported on “a gesture unprecedented in the history of contemporary Catholicism”—the problem of Pope Pius XII’s silence in connection with the Holocaust was addressed. In January 1995 the same newspaper reported that the German episcopate asked forgiveness for the “many faults” of Roman Catholics who supported the crimes of the Nazis. Various Protestant churches have also subjected themselves to self-criticism.
The Bible encourages us to ask forgiveness when we are at fault, and many applaud the churches when they subject themselves to self-criticism. (James 5:16) But why are the churches doing this? How should it affect the way we view them?
Why Are They Asking Forgiveness?
THE idea that the churches should repent of their faults and reform themselves is not new. Religioni e miti (Religions and Myths), a dictionary of religion, says that the supposed integrity of the early church fascinated people during the Middle Ages and led many to call for reform.
In 1523, after Martin Luther’s break with Rome, Pope Adrian VI attempted to heal the split by sending this message to the Diet of Nuremberg: “We know well that for many years things deserving of abhorrence have gathered round the Holy See . . . We shall use all diligence to reform before all things the Roman Curia, whence, perhaps, all these evils have had their origin.” That admission, however, did not succeed in healing the schism nor in countering corruption in the papal Curia.
More recently the churches have been criticized for their silence in the face of the Holocaust. They have also been accused of not discouraging their members from taking part in wars. In 1941, as World War II was raging, a priest named Primo Mazzolari asked: “Why has Rome not reacted strongly to the breakdown of Catholicity as she used to do, and is still accustomed to do, in the case of less dangerous doctrines?” Doctrines less dangerous than what? The priest was speaking of the warmongering nationalism that at the time was tearing civilization apart.
The fact is, though, that until quite recently, admission of guilt by religions was the exception rather than the rule. In 1832, in response to some who were urging the Catholic Church to ‘regenerate itself,’ Gregory XVI said: “It is obviously absurd and injurious to propose a certain ‘restoration and regeneration’ for [the church’s] safety and growth, as if she could be considered subject to defect.” What of defects that were too blatant to be denied? Various strategies were adopted to explain them away. For example, some theologians have maintained that the church is both holy and sinful. The institution itself is said to be holy—preserved from error by God. Still, its members are sinful. Thus, when atrocities are committed in the name of the church, the institution itself should not be held responsible, but individuals within the church should be. Does that sound logical? Not to Roman Catholic theologian Hans Küng, who wrote: “There is no ideal Church floating above the human world.” He explained: “The Church which has no sins to confess does not exist.”
Ecumenism and Moral Standing
You might wonder what developments have led the churches to ask forgiveness now. At first, Protestants and Orthodox admitted responsibility for “past divisions” among different denominations. They did this at the “Faith and Order” ecumenical conference held in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1927. The Roman Catholic Church eventually followed suit. Especially since Vatican II,* high prelates, including popes, have with increasing regularity asked forgiveness for divisions within Christendom. For what purpose? Apparently, they want more unity in Christendom. Catholic historian Nicolino Sarale stated that in John Paul II’s “project of ‘mea culpas,’ there is a strategy, and that is ecumenism.”
However, more than ecumenism is involved. Today, the far from exemplary history of Christendom is widely known. “The Catholic can’t just shrug off all this history,” says theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. “The very Church he belongs to has done or allowed to be done things that we certainly can’t approve of nowadays.” Hence, the pope has appointed a commission to “throw light on the church’s dark pages so that . . . forgiveness may be asked.” Another reason, then, for the church’s willingness to engage in self-criticism appears to be a desire to regain its moral standing.
In a similar vein, historian Alberto Melloni, when commenting on the church’s requests for forgiveness, writes: “In reality, what is sometimes asked for is a reprieve from accusations of responsibility.” Yes, the Catholic Church seems to be trying to shrug off the burden of past sins in order to regain its credibility in the court of public opinion. In all honesty, though, it must be said that it seems more concerned with making peace with the world than with God.
Such behavior reminds us of Saul, the first king of Israel. (1 Samuel 15:1-12) He committed a grievous error, and when this was exposed, he first tried to justify himself—explain away his error—to Samuel, a faithful prophet of God. (1 Samuel 15:13-21) Finally, the king had to acknowledge to Samuel: “I have sinned; for I have overstepped the order of Jehovah.” (1 Samuel 15:24, 25) Yes, he admitted his fault. But his next words to Samuel reveal what was uppermost on his mind: “I have sinned. Now honor me, please, in front of the older men of my people and in front of Israel.” (1 Samuel 15:30) Evidently, Saul was more concerned with his standing in Israel than with being reconciled with God. This attitude did not result in God’s forgiveness of Saul. Do you think a similar attitude will result in God’s forgiveness of the churches?
Not All Agree
Not all agree that the churches should publicly ask forgiveness. For example, a number of Roman Catholics feel uneasy when their pope asks forgiveness for slavery or rehabilitates “heretics” like Hus and Calvin. According to Vatican sources, the document sent to the cardinals proposing an “examination of conscience” over the history of the past millennium of Catholicism was criticized by cardinals attending a consistory held in June 1994. When the pope nonetheless wanted to include the substance of that proposal in an encyclical, the Italian cardinal Giacomo Biffi released a pastoral note in which he affirmed: “The Church has no sin.” Nevertheless, he allowed: “Asking forgiveness for ecclesiastical errors of past centuries . . . may serve to render us less disagreeable.”
“The confession of sin is one of the most controversial subjects within the Catholic Church,” says Vatican commentator Luigi Accattoli. “If the pope acknowledges the errors of the missionaries, there are missionaries who in good faith resent it.” Further, a Roman Catholic journalist wrote: “If the pope really has such a fearsome idea of Church history, it is hard to understand how he can now present this selfsame Church as the paladin of ‘human rights,’ the ‘mother and teacher’ that can alone guide humanity toward a truly bright third millennium.”
The Bible warns against an appearance of repentance that is motivated by no more than the embarrassment of being caught in a wrong. That kind of repentance rarely leads to a long-term change in the one repenting. (Compare 2 Corinthians 7:8-11.) Repentance that has value in God’s eyes is accompanied by “fruits that befit repentance”—that is, evidence of the sincerity of the repentance.—Luke 3:8.
The Bible says that the one repenting and confessing must leave the wrong acts, stop doing them. (Proverbs 28:13) Has this happened? Well, after all the confessions of wrong by the Roman Catholic Church and other churches, what happened in recent civil strifes in central Africa and Eastern Europe, where large populations of “Christians” were involved? Did the churches act as a force for peace? Did all their leaders unitedly speak out against the atrocities that their members were committing? No. Why, some religious ministers even took part in the slaughter!
When speaking of the pope’s repeated mea culpas, Cardinal Biffi ironically asked: “For historical sins, wouldn’t it be better for us all to wait for the universal judgment?” Well, the judgment of all mankind is imminent. Jehovah God knows well all the dark pages of the history of religion. Soon enough, he will call the guilty ones to account. (Revelation 18:4-8) In the meantime, is it possible to find a form of worship untainted by the bloodguilt, the murderous intolerance, and the other crimes that Christendom’s churches are apologizing for? Yes.
How can we do that? By applying the rule stated by Jesus Christ: “By their fruits you will recognize them.” The record of history, which some religions would like to be forgotten, helps us to identify not only those whom Jesus called “false prophets” but also those who have produced “fine fruit.” (Matthew 7:15-20) Who are these? We invite you to find out for yourself by examining the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses. See who today is really trying to follow God’s Word rather than seeking to preserve a position of influence in the world.—Acts 17:11.
The 21st ecumenical council that met in four sessions in Rome from 1962-65.
[Picture on page 5]
The churches are apologizing for atrocities like this
The Complete Encyclopedia of Illustration/J. G. Heck
Why Do They Do It?
EACH year Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world gather by the thousands at conventions. There, they enjoy fellowship and hear an excellent program of Bible instruction. Some make great efforts to attend these conventions. Last year, for example, in Malawi a couple in their mid-60’s, along with their son and his wife and baby, traveled 50 miles [80 km] by bicycle to attend a convention. They left their village at six in the morning and arrived at the convention grounds 15 hours later.
In Mozambique, a group traveled three days by bicycle to get to a convention. One night, as they camped in the open, they heard lions roaring close by. Although they threw firewood in the direction of the animals, the lions stayed around until daybreak. Another Witness traveling to the same convention came face-to-face with a lion on the road. He stood quietly without moving until the lion went away. At the convention these Witnesses cheerfully told how they had been “delivered from the lion’s mouth.”—2 Timothy 4:17.
Many of Jehovah’s Witnesses make great efforts to attend conventions or even weekly congregation meetings for worship. Why? The following articles will help you to understand why gathering together is so important.