International Theological Commission
December 1999


The study of the topic “The Church and the Faults of the Past” was proposed to the International Theological Commission by its President, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in view of the celebration of the Jubilee Year 2000. A sub-commission was established to prepare this study; it was composed of Rev. Christopher BEGG, Msgr. Bruno FORTE (President), Rev. Sebastian KAROTEMPREL, S.D.B., Msgr. Roland MINNERATH, Rev. Thomas NORRIS, Rev. Rafael SALAZAR CARDENAS, M.Sp.S., and Msgr. Anton STRUKELJ. The general discussion of this theme took place in numerous meetings of the sub-commission and during the plenary sessions of the International Theological Commission held in Rome from 1998 to 1999. The present text was approved in forma specifica by the International Theological Commission, by written vote, and was then submitted to the President, Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who gave his approval for its publication.



1. The Problem: Yesterday and Today

1.1. Before Vatican II
1.2. The Teaching of the Council
1.3. John Paul II’s Requests for Forgiveness
1.4. The Questions Raised

2. Biblical Approach

2.1. The Old Testament
2.2. The New Testament
2.3. The Biblical Jubilee
2.4. Conclusion

3. Theological Foundations

3.1. The Mystery of the Church
3.2. The Holiness of the Church
3.3. The Necessity of Continual Renewal
3.4. The Motherhood of the Church

4. Historical Judgement and Theological Judgement

4.1. The Interpretation of History
4.2. Historical Investigation and Theological Evaluation

5. Ethical Discernment

5.1. Some Ethical Criteria
5.2. The Division of Christians
5.3. The Use of Force in the Service of Truth
5.4. Christians and Jews
5.5. Our Responsibility for the Evils of Today

6. Pastoral and Missionary Perspectives

6.1. The Pastoral Aims
6.2. The Ecclesial Implications
6.3. The Implications for Dialogue and Mission




The Bull of Indiction of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, Incarnationis mysterium (November 29, 1998), includes the purification of memory among the signs “which may help people to live the exceptional grace of the Jubilee with greater fervor.” This purification aims at liberating personal and communal conscience from all forms of resentment and violence that are the legacy of past faults, through a renewed historical and theological evaluation of such events. This should lead - if done correctly - to a corresponding recognition of guilt and contribute to the path of reconciliation. Such a process can have a significant effect on the present, precisely because the consequences of past faults still make themselves felt and can persist as tensions in the present.

The purification of memory is thus “an act of courage and humility in recognizing the wrongs done by those who have borne or bear the name of Christian.” It is based on the conviction that because of “the bond which unites us to one another in the Mystical Body, all of us, though not personally responsible and without encroaching on the judgement of God, who alone knows every heart, bear the burden of the errors and faults of those who have gone before us.” John Paul II adds: “As the successor of Peter, I ask that in this year of mercy the Church, strong in the holiness which she receives from her Lord, should kneel before God and implore forgiveness for the past and present sins of her sons and daughters.”(1) In reiterating that “Christians are invited to acknowledge, before God and before those offended by their actions, the faults which they have committed,” the Pope concludes, “Let them do so without seeking anything in return, but strengthened only by ‘the love of God which has been poured into our hearts’ (Rom 5:5).”(2)

The requests for forgiveness made by the Bishop of Rome in this spirit of authenticity and gratuitousness have given rise to various reactions. The unconditional trust in the power of Truth which the Pope has shown has met with a generally favorable reception both inside and outside the Church. Many have noted the increased credibility of ecclesial pronouncements that has resulted from this way of acting. Some reservations, however, have also been voiced, mainly expressions of unease connected with particular historical and cultural contexts in which the simple admission of faults committed by the sons and daughters of the Church may look like acquiescence in the face of accusations made by those who are prejudicially hostile to the Church. Between agreement and unease, the need arises for a reflection which clarifies the reasons, the conditions, and the exact form of the requests for forgiveness for the faults of the past.

The International Theological Commission, in which a diversity of cultures and sensitivities within the one Catholic faith are represented, decided to address this need with the present text. The text offers a theological reflection on the conditions which make acts of “purification of memory” possible in connection with the recognition of the faults of the past. The questions it seeks to address are as follows: Why should it be done? Who should do it? What is the goal and how should this be determined, by correctly combining historical and theological judgement? Who will be addressed? What are the moral implications? And what are the possible effects on the life of the Church and on society? The purpose of the text is, therefore, not to examine particular historical cases but rather to clarify the presuppositions that ground repentance for past faults.

Having noted the kind of reflection which will be presented here, it is important also to make clear what is referred to when the text speaks of the Church: it is not a question of the historical institution alone or solely the spiritual communion of those whose hearts are illumined by faith. The Church is understood as the community of the baptized, inseparably visible and operating in history under the direction of her Pastors, united as a profound mystery by the action of the life-giving Spirit. According to the Second Vatican Council, the Church “by a strong analogy is compared to the mystery of the Incarnate Word. In fact, as the assumed nature is at the service of the divine Word as a living instrument of salvation, indissolubly united to him, so also in a not dissimilar way, the social structure of the Church is at the service of the Spirit of Christ which vivifies it for the building up of the body” (cf. Eph 4:16).(3) This Church, which embraces her sons and daughters of the past and of the present, in a real and profound communion, is the sole Mother of Grace who takes upon herself also the weight of past faults in order to purify memory and to live the renewal of heart and life according to the will of the Lord. She is able to do this insofar as Christ Jesus, whose mystical body extended through history she is, has taken upon himself once and for all the sins of the world.

The structure of the text mirrors the questions posed. It moves from a brief historical revisiting of the theme (Chapter 1), in order to be able to investigate the biblical foundation (Chapter 2) and explore more deeply the theological conditions of the requests for forgiveness (Chapter 3). The precise correlation of historical and theological judgement is a decisive element for reaching correct and efficacious statements that take proper account of the times, places, and contexts in which the actions under consideration were situated (Chapter 4). The final considerations, that have a specific value for the Catholic Church, are dedicated to the moral (Chapter 5), pastoral and missionary (Chapter 6) implications of these acts of repentance for the faults of the past. Nevertheless, in the knowledge that the necessity of recognizing one’s own faults has reason to be practiced by all peoples and religions, one hopes that the proposed reflections may help everyone to advance on the path of truth, fraternal dialogue, and reconciliation.

At the conclusion of this introduction, it may be useful to recall the purpose of every act of “purification of memory” undertaken by believers, because this is what has inspired the work of the Commission: it is the glorification of God, because living in obedience to Divine Truth and its demands leads to confessing, together with our faults, the eternal mercy and justice of the Lord. The “confessio peccati,” sustained and illuminated by faith in the Truth which frees and saves (“confessio fidei”), becomes a “confessio laudis” addressed to God, before whom alone it becomes possible to recognize the faults both of the past and of the present, so that we might be reconciled by and to him in Christ Jesus, the only Savior of the world, and become able to forgive those who have offended us. This offer of forgiveness appears particularly meaningful when one thinks of the many persecutions suffered by Christians in the course of history. In this perspective, the actions undertaken by the Holy Father, and those requested by him, regarding the faults of the past have an exemplary and prophetic value, for religions as much as for governments and nations, beyond being of value for the Catholic Church, which is thus helped to live in a more efficacious way the Great Jubilee of the Incarnation as an event of grace and reconciliation for everyone.

1. The Problem: Yesterday and Today

1.1 Before Vatican II

The Jubilee has always been lived in the Church as a time of joy for the salvation given in Christ and as a privileged occasion for penance and reconciliation for the sins present in the lives of the People of God. From its first celebration under Boniface VIII in 1300, the penitential pilgrimage to the tombs of the Apostles Peter and Paul was associated with the granting of an exceptional indulgence for procuring, with sacramental pardon, total or partial remission of the temporal punishment due to sin.(4) In this context, both sacramental forgiveness and the remission of temporal punishment have a personal character. In the course of the “year of pardon and grace,”(5) the Church dispenses in a particular way the treasury of grace that Christ has constituted for her benefit.(6) In none of the Jubilees celebrated till now has there been, however, an awareness in conscience of any faults in the Church’s past, nor of the need to ask God’s pardon for conduct in the recent or remote past.

Indeed, in the entire history of the Church there are no precedents for requests for forgiveness by the Magisterium for past wrongs. Councils and papal decrees applied sanctions, to be sure, to abuses of which clerics and laymen were found guilty, and many pastors sincerely strove to correct them. However, the occasions when ecclesiastical authorities – Pope, Bishops, or Councils – have openly acknowledged the faults or abuses which they themselves were guilty of, have been quite rare. One famous example is furnished by the reforming Pope Adrian VI who acknowledged publicly in a message to the Diet of Nuremberg of November 25, 1522, “the abominations, the abuses...and the lies” of which the “Roman court” of his time was guilty, “deep-rooted and extensive…sickness,” extending “from the top to the members.”(7) Adrian VI deplored the faults of his times, precisely those of his immediate predecessor Leo X and his curia, without, however, adding a request for pardon. It will be necessary to wait until Paul VI to find a Pope express a request for pardon addressed as much to God as to a group of contemporaries. In his address at the opening of the second session of the Second Vatican Council, the Pope asked “pardon of God…and of the separated brethren” of the East who may have felt offended “by us” (the Catholic Church), and declared himself ready for his part to pardon offences received. In the view of Paul VI, both the request for and offer of pardon concerned solely the sin of the division between Christians and presupposed reciprocity.

1.2 The Teaching of the Council

Vatican II takes the same approach as Paul VI. For the faults committed against unity, the Council Fathers state, “we ask pardon of God and of the separated brethren, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”(8) In addition to faults against unity, it noted other negative episodes from the past for which Christians bore some responsibility. Thus, “it deplores certain attitudes that sometimes are found among Christians” and which led people to think that faith and science are mutually opposed.(9) Likewise, it considers the fact that in “the genesis of atheism,” Christians may have had “some responsibility” insofar as through their negligence they “conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion.”(10) In addition, the Council “deplores” the persecutions and manifestations of anti-Semitism “in every time and on whoever’s part.”(11) The Council, nevertheless, does not add a request for pardon for the things cited.

From a theological point of view, Vatican II distinguishes between the indefectible fidelity of the Church and the weaknesses of her members, clergy or laity, yesterday and today,(12) and therefore, between the Bride of Christ “with neither blemish nor wrinkle...holy and immaculate” (cf. Eph 5:27), and her children, pardoned sinners, called to permanent metanoia, to renewal in the Holy Spirit. “The Church, embracing sinners in her bosom, is at the same time holy and always in need of purification and incessantly pursues the path of penance and renewal.”(13)

The Council also elaborated some criteria of discernment regarding the guilt or responsibility of persons now living for faults of the past. In effect, the Council recalled in two different contexts the non-imputability to those now living of past faults committed by members of their religious communities:

  • “What was committed during the passion (of Christ) cannot be imputed either indiscriminately to all Jews then living nor to the Jews of our time.”(14)
  • “Large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church – at times not without the fault of men on both sides. However, one cannot charge with the sin of separation those who now are born into these communities and who in these are instructed in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church embraces them with fraternal respect and love.”(15)

When the first Holy Year was celebrated after the Council, in 1975, Paul VI gave it the theme of “renewal and reconciliation,”(16) making clear in the Apostolic Exhortation Paterna cum benevolentia that reconciliation should take place first of all among the faithful of the Catholic Church.(17) As in its origin, the Holy Year remained an occasion for conversion and reconciliation of sinners to God by means of the sacramental economy of the Church.

1.3. John Paul II’s Requests for Forgiveness

Not only did John Paul II renew expressions of regret for the “sorrowful memories” that mark the history of the divisions among Christians, as Paul VI and the Second Vatican Council had done,(18) but he also extended a request for forgiveness to a multitude of historical events in which the Church, or individual groups of Christians, were implicated in different respects.(19) In the Apostolic Letter Tertio millennio adveniente,(20) the Pope expresses the hope that the Jubilee of 2000 might be the occasion for a purification of the memory of the Church from all forms of “counter-witness and scandal” which have occurred in the course of the past millennium.(21)

The Church is invited to “become more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children.” She “acknowledges as her own her sinful sons and daughters” and encourages them “to purify themselves, through repentance, of past errors and instances of infidelity, inconsistency and slowness to act.”(22) The responsibility of Christians for the evils of our time is likewise noted,(23) although the accent falls particularly on the solidarity of the Church of today with past faults. Some of these are explicitly mentioned, like the separation of Christians,(24) or the “methods of violence and intolerance” used in the past to evangelize.(25)

John Paul II also promoted the deeper theological exploration of the idea of taking responsibility for the wrongs of the past and of possibly asking forgiveness from one’s contemporaries,(26) when in the Exhortation Reconciliatio et paenitentia, he states that in the sacrament of Penance “the sinner stands alone before God with his sin, repentance, and trust. No one can repent in his place or ask forgiveness in his name.” Sin is therefore always personal, even though it wounds the entire Church, which, represented by the priest as minister of Penance, is the sacramental mediatrix of the grace which reconciles with God.(27) Also the situations of “social sin” - which are evident in the human community when justice, freedom, and peace are damaged – are always “the result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins.” While moral responsibility may become diluted in anonymous causes, one can only speak of social sin by way of analogy.(28) It emerges from this that the imputability of a fault cannot properly be extended beyond the group of persons who had consented to it voluntarily, by means of acts or omissions, or through negligence.

1.4. The Questions Raised

The Church is a living society spanning the centuries. Her memory is not constituted only by the tradition which goes back to the Apostles and is normative for her faith and life, but she is also rich in the variety of historical experiences, positive and negative, which she has lived. In large part, the Church’s past structures her present. The doctrinal, liturgical, canonical, and ascetical tradition nourishes the life of the believing community, offering it an incomparable sampling of models to imitate. Along the entire earthly pilgrimage, however, the good grain always remains inextricably mixed with the chaff; holiness stands side by side with infidelity and sin.(29) And it is thus that 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.

The difficulty that emerges is that of defining past faults, above all, because of the historical judgement which this requires. In events of the past, one must always distinguish the responsibility or fault that can be attributed to members of the Church as believers from that which should be referred to society during the centuries of ‘Christendom’ or to power structures in which the temporal and spiritual were closely intertwined. An historical hermeneutic is therefore more necessary than ever in order to distinguish correctly between the action of the Church as community of faith and that of society in the times when an osmosis existed between them.

The steps taken by John Paul II to ask pardon for faults of the past have been understood in many circles as signs of the Church’s vitality and authenticity, such that they strengthen her credibility. It is right, moreover, that the Church contribute to changing false and unacceptable images of herself, especially in those areas in which, whether through ignorance or bad faith, some sectors of opinion like to identify her with obscurantism and intolerance. The requests for pardon formulated by the Pope have also given rise to positive emulation both inside and outside the Church. Heads of state or government, private and public associations, religious communities are today asking forgiveness for episodes or historical periods marked by injustices. This practice is far from just an exercise in rhetoric, and for this reason, some hesitate to do so, calculating the attendant costs – among which are those on the legal plane - of an acknowledgement of past wrongs. Also from this point of view, a rigorous discernment is necessary.

Nevertheless, some of the faithful are disconcerted and their loyalty to the Church seems shaken. Some wonder how they can hand on a love for the Church to younger generations if this same Church is imputed with crimes and faults. Others observe that the recognition of faults is for the most part one-sided and is exploited by the Church’s detractors, who are satisfied to see the Church confirm the prejudices they had of her. Still others warn against arbitrarily making current generations of believers feel guilty for shortcomings they did not consent to in any way, even though they declare themselves ready to take responsibility to the extent that some groups of people still feel themselves affected today by the consequences of injustices suffered by their forbears in previous times. Others hold that the Church could purify her memory with respect to ambiguous actions in which she was involved in the past simply by taking part in the critical work on memory developed in our society. Thus she could affirm that she joins with her contemporaries in rejecting what the moral conscience of our time reproaches, though without putting herself forward as the only guilty party responsible for the evils of the past, by seeking at the same time a dialogue in mutual understanding with those who may feel themselves still wounded by past acts imputable to the children of the Church. Finally, it is to be expected that certain groups might demand that forgiveness be sought in their regard, either by analogy with other groups, or because they believe that they have suffered wrongs. In any case, the purification of memory can never mean that the Church ceases to proclaim the revealed truth that has been entrusted to her whether in the area of faith or of morals.

Thus, a number of questions can be identified: Can today’s conscience be assigned ‘guilt’ for isolated historical phenomena like the Crusades or the Inquisition? Isn’t it a bit too easy to judge people of the past by the conscience of today (as the Scribes and Pharisees do according to Mt 23:29-32), almost as if moral conscience were not situated in time? And, on the other hand, can it be denied that ethical judgement is always possible, given the simple fact that the truth of God and its moral requirements always have value? Whatever attitude is adopted must come to terms with these questions and seek answers that are based in revelation and in its living transmission in the faith of the Church. The first question is therefore that of clarifying the extent to which requests for forgiveness for past wrongs, especially if addressed to groups of people today, are within the biblical and theological horizon of reconciliation with God and neighbor.

2. Biblical Approach

The investigation of Israel’s acknowledgement of faults in the Old Testament and the topic of the confession of faults as found in the traditions of the New Testament can developed in various ways.(30) The theological nature of the reflection undertaken here leads us to favor a largely thematic approach, centering on the following question: What background does the testimony of Sacred Scripture furnish for John Paul II’s invitation to the Church to confess the faults of the past?

2.1. The Old Testament

Confessions of sins and corresponding requests for forgiveness can be found throughout the Bible – in the narratives of the Old Testament, in the Psalms, and in the Prophets, as well as in the Gospels of the New Testament. There are also sporadic references in the Wisdom Literature and in the Letters of the New Testament. Given the abundance and diffusion of these testimonies, the question of how to select and catalogue the mass of significant texts arises. One may inquire here about the biblical texts related to the confession of sins: Who is confessing what (and what kind of fault) to whom? Put in this way, the question helps distinguish two principal categories of “confession texts,” each of which embraces different sub-categories, viz., a) confession texts of individual sins, and b) confession texts of sins of the entire people (and of those of their forebears). In relation to the recent ecclesial practice that motivates this study, we will restrict our analysis to the second category.

In this second category, different expressions can be found, depending on who is making the confession of the sins of the people and on who is, or is not, associated with the shared guilt, prescinding from the presence or absence of an awareness of personal responsibility (which has only matured progressively: cf. Ez 14:12-23; 18:1-32; 33:10-20). On the basis of these criteria, the following rather fluid cases can be distinguished:

  • A first series of texts represents the entire people (sometimes personified as a single “I”) who, in a particular moment of its history, confesses or alludes to its sins against God without any (explicit) reference to the faults of the preceding generations.(31)
  • Another group of texts places the confession - directed to God - of the current sins of the people on the lips of one or more leaders (religious), who may or may not include themselves explicitly among the sinful people for whom they are praying.(32)
  • A third group of texts presents the people or one of their leaders in the act of mentioning the sins of their forebears without, however, making mention of those of the present generation.(33)
  • More frequent are the confessions that mention the faults of the forebears, linking them expressly to the errors of the present generation.(34)

We can conclude from the testimonies gathered that in all cases where the “sins of the fathers” are mentioned, the confession is addressed solely to God, and the sins confessed by the people and for the people are those committed directly against him rather than those committed (also) against other human beings (only in Nm 21:7 is mention made of a human party harmed, Moses).(35) The question arises as to why the biblical writers did not feel the need to address requests for forgiveness to present interlocutors for the sins committed by their fathers, given their strong sense of solidarity in good and evil among the generations (one thinks of the notion of “corporate personality”). We can propose various hypotheses in response to this question. First, there is the prevalent theocentrism of the Bible, which gives precedence to the acknowledgement, whether individual or national, of the faults committed against God. What is more, acts of violence perpetrated by Israel against other peoples, which would seem to require a request for forgiveness from those peoples or from their descendants, are understood to be the execution of divine directives, as for example Gn 2-11 and Dt 7:2 (the extermination of the Canaanites), or 1 Sm 15 and Dt 25:19 (the destruction of the Amalekites). In such cases, the involvement of a divine command would seem to exclude any possible request for forgiveness.(36) The experiences of maltreatment suffered by Israel at the hands of other peoples and the animosity thus aroused could also have militated against the idea of asking pardon of these peoples for the evil done to them.(37)

In any case the sense of intergenerational solidarity in sin (and in grace) remains relevant in the biblical testimony and is expressed in the confession before God of the “sins of the fathers,” such that John Paul II could state, citing the splendid prayer of Azaria: “‘Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of our fathers... For we have sinned and transgressed by departing from you, and we have done every kind of evil. Your commandments we have not heeded or observed’ (Dn 3:26,29-30). This is how the Jews prayed after the exile (cf. also Bar 2:11-13), accepting the responsibility for the sins committed by their fathers. The Church imitates their example and also asks forgiveness for the historical sins of her children.”(38)

2.2. The New Testament

A fundamental theme connected with the idea of guilt, and amply present in the New Testament, is that of the absolute holiness of God. The God of Jesus is the God of Israel (cf. Jn 4:22), invoked as “Holy Father” (Jn 17:11), and called “the Holy One” in 1 Jn 2:20 (cf. Acts 6:10). The triple proclamation of God as “holy” in Is 6:3 returns in Acts 4:8, while 1 Pt 1:16 insists on the fact that Christians must be holy “for it is written: ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (cf. Lv 11:44-45; 19:2). All this reflects the Old Testament notion of the absolute holiness of God; however, for Christian faith the divine holiness has entered history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Old Testament notion has not been abandoned but developed, in the sense that the holiness of God becomes present in the holiness of the incarnate Son (cf. Mk 1:24; Lk 1:35; 4:34; Jn 6:69; Acts 3:14; 4:27,30; Rev 3:7), and the holiness of the Son is shared by “his own” (cf. Jn 17:16-19), who are made sons in the Son (cf. Gal 4:4-6; Rom 8:14-17). There can be no aspiration to divine sonship in Jesus unless there is love for one’s neighbor (cf. Mk 12:29-31: Mt 22:37-38; Lk 10:27-28).

Love of neighbor, absolutely central in the teaching of Jesus, becomes the “new commandment” in the Gospel of John; the disciples should love as he has loved (cf. Jn 13:34-35; 15:12,17), that is, perfectly, “to the end” (Jn 13:1). The Christian is called to love and to forgive to a degree that transcends every human standard of justice and produces a reciprocity between human beings, reflective of the reciprocity between Christ and the Father (cf. Jn 13:34f; 15:1-11; 17:21-26). In this perspective, great emphasis is given to the theme of reconciliation and forgiveness of faults. Jesus asks his disciples to be always ready to forgive all those who have offended them, just as God himself always offers his forgiveness: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Mt 6:12; 6:12-15). He who is able to forgive his neighbor shows that he has understood his own need for forgiveness by God. The disciple is invited to forgive the one who offends him “seventy times seven,” even if the person may not ask for forgiveness (cf. Mt 18:21-22).

With regard to someone who has been injured by another, Jesus insists that the injured person should take the first step, canceling the offense through forgiveness offered “from the heart” (cf. Mt 18:35; Mk 11:25), aware that he too is a sinner before God, who never refuses forgiveness sincerely entreated. In Mt 5:23-24, Jesus asks the offender to “go and reconcile himself with his brother who has something against him” before presenting his offering at the altar. An act of worship on the part of one who has no desire beforehand to repair the damage to his neighbor is not pleasing to God. What matters is changing one’s own heart and showing in an appropriate way that one really wants reconciliation. The sinner, however, aware that his sins wound his relationship with God and with his neighbor (cf. Lk 15:21), can expect pardon only from God, because only God is always merciful and ready to cancel our sins. This is also the significance of the sacrifice of Christ who, once and for all, has purified us of our sins (cf. Heb 9:22; 10:18). Thus, the offender and the offended are reconciled by God who receives and forgives everyone in his mercy.

In this context, which could be expanded through an analysis of the Letters of Paul and the Catholic Epistles, there is no indication that the early Church turned her attention to sins of the past in order to ask for forgiveness. This might be explained by the powerful sense of the radical newness of Christianity, which tended to orient the community toward the future rather than the past. There is, however, a more broad and subtle insistence pervading the New Testament: in the Gospels and in the Letters, the ambivalence of the Christian experience is fully recognized. For Paul, for example, the Christian community is an eschatological people that already lives the “new creation” (cf. 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15), but this experience, made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus (cf. Rom 3:21-26; 5:6-11; 8:1-11; 1 Cor 15:54-57), does not free us from the inclination to sin present in the world because of Adam’s fall. From the divine intervention in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus, it follows that there are now two scenarios possible: the history of Adam and the history of Christ. These proceed side by side and the believer must count on the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus (cf., for example, Rom 6:1-11; Gal 3:27-28; Col 3:10; 2 Cor 5:14- 15) to be part of the history in which “grace overflows” (cf. Rom 5:12-21).

A similar theological re-reading of the paschal event of Christ shows how the early Church had an acute awareness of the possible deficiencies of the baptized. One could say that the entire “corpus paulinum” recalls believers to a full recognition of their dignity, albeit in the living awareness of the fragility of their human condition. “For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). An analogous reason can be found in the Gospel narratives. It arises decisively in Mark where the frailties of Jesus’ disciples are one of the dominant themes of the account (cf. Mk 4:40-41; 6:36-37, 51-52; 8:14-21,31-33; 9:5-6,32-41; 10:32-45; 14:10-11, 17- 21, 27-31,50; 16:8). Even if understandably nuanced, the same motif recurs in all of the Evangelists. Judas and Peter are respectively the traitor and the one who denies the Master, though Judas ends up in desperation for his act (cf. Acts 1:15-20), while Peter repents (cf. Lk 22:61) and arrives at a triple profession of love (cf. in Jn 21:15-19). In Matthew, even during the final appearance of the risen Lord, while the disciples adore him, “some still doubted” (Mt 28:17). The Fourth Gospel presents the disciples as those to whom an incommensurable love was given even though their response was one of ignorance, deficiencies, denial, and betrayal (cf. Jn 13:1-38).

This constant presentation of Jesus’ disciples, who vacillate when it comes to yielding to sin, is not simply a critical re-reading of the early history. The accounts are framed in such a way that they are addressed to every other disciple of Christ in difficulty who looks to the Gospel for guidance and inspiration. Moreover, the New Testament is full of exhortations to behave well, to live at a higher level of dedication, to avoid evil (cf., for example, Jas 1:5-8, 19-21; 2:1-7; 4:1-10; 1 Pt 1:13-25; 2 Pt 2:1-22; Jude 3:13; 1 Jn 5-10; 2:1-11; 18-27; 4:1-6; 2 Jn 7-11; 3 Jn 9-10). There is, however, no explicit call addressed to the first Christians to confess the faults of the past, although the recognition of the reality of sin and evil within the Christian people – those called to the eschatological life proper to the Christian condition – is highly significant (it is enough to note the reproaches in the letters to the seven Churches in the Book of Revelation). According to the petition found in the Lord’s Prayer, this people prays: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Lk 11:4; cf. Mt 6:12). Thus, the first Christians show that they are well aware that they could act in a way that does not correspond to their vocation, by not living their Baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus.

2.3. The Biblical Jubilee

An important biblical precedent for reconciliation and overcoming of past situations is represented by the celebration of the Jubilee, as it is regulated in the Book of Leviticus (Ch. 25). In a social structure made up of tribes, clans, and families, situations of disorder were inevitably created when struggling individuals or families had to “redeem” themselves from their difficulties by consigning their land, house, servants, or children to those who had more means than they had. Such a system resulted in some Israelites coming to suffer intolerable situations of debt, poverty, and servitude in the same land that had been given to them by God, to the advantage of other children of Israel. All this could result in a territory or a clan falling into the hands of a few rich people for greater or lesser periods of time, while the rest of the families of the clan came to find themselves in a condition of debt or servitude, compelling them to live in total dependence upon a few well-off persons.

The legislation of Leviticus 25 constitutes an attempt to overturn this state of affairs (such that one could doubt whether it was ever put into practice fully!). It convened the celebration of the Jubilee every fifty years in order to preserve the social fabric of the People of God and restore independence even to the smallest families of the country. Decisive for Leviticus 25 is the regular repetition of Israel’s profession of faith in God who had liberated his people in the Exodus. “I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God” (Lv 25:38; cf. vss 42,45). The celebration of the Jubilee was an implicit admission of fault and an attempt to re-establish a just order. Any system which would alienate an Israelite – once a slave but now freed by the powerful arm of God – was in fact a denial of God’s saving action in and through the Exodus.

The liberation of the victims and sufferers becomes part of the much broader program of the prophets. Deutero-Isaiah, in the Suffering Servant songs (Is 42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12) develops these allusions to the practice of the Jubilee with the themes of ransom and of freedom, of return and redemption. Isaiah 58 is an attack on ritual observance that has no regard for social justice; it is a call for liberation of the oppressed (Is 58:6), centered specifically on the obligations of kinship (v.7). More clearly, Isaiah 61 uses the images of the Jubilee to depict the Anointed One as God’s herald sent to “evangelize” the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, and to announce the year of grace of the Lord. Significantly, it is precisely this text, with an allusion to Isaiah 58:6, that Jesus uses to present the task of his life and ministry in Luke 4:17-21.

2.4. Conclusion

From what has been said, it can be concluded that John Paul II’s appeal to the Church to mark the Jubilee Year by an admission of guilt for the sufferings and wrongs committed by her sons and daughters in the past, as well as the ways in which this might be put into practice, do not find an exact parallel in the Bible. Nevertheless, they are based on what Sacred Scripture says about the holiness of God, the intergenerational solidarity of God’s people, and the sinfulness of the people. The Pope’s appeal correctly captures the spirit of the biblical Jubilee, which calls for actions aimed at re-establishing the order of God’s original plan for creation. This requires that the proclamation of the “today” of the Jubilee, begun by Jesus (cf. Lk 4:21), be continued in the Jubilee celebration of his Church. In addition, this singular experience of grace prompts the People of God as a whole, as well as each of the baptized, to take still greater cognizance of the mandate received from the Lord to be ever ready to forgive offenses received.(39)

3. Theological Foundations

“Hence it is appropriate that as the second millennium of Christianity draws to a close the Church should become ever more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children, recalling all those times in history when they departed from the spirit of Christ and his Gospel and, instead of offering to the world the witness of a life inspired by the values of faith, indulged in ways of thinking and acting which were truly forms of counter-witness and scandal. Although she is holy because of her incorporation into Christ, the Church does not tire of doing penance. Before God and man, she always acknowledges as her own her sinful sons and daughters.”(40) These words of John Paul II emphasize how the Church is touched by the sin of her children. She is holy in being made so by the Father through the sacrifice of the Son and the gift of the Spirit. She is also in a certain sense sinner, in really taking upon herself the sin of those whom she has generated in Baptism. This is analogous to the way Christ Jesus took on the sin of the world (cf. Rom 8:3; 2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:13; 1 Pt 2:24).(41) Furthermore, in her most profound self-awareness in time, the Church knows that she is not only a community of the elect, but one which in her very bosom includes both righteous and sinners, of the present as well as the past, in the unity of the mystery which constitutes her. Indeed, in grace and in the woundedness of sin, the baptized of today are close to, and in solidarity with, those of yesterday. For this reason one can say that the Church – one in time and space in Christ and in the Spirit – is truly “at the same time holy and ever in need of purification.”(42) It is from this paradox, which is characteristic of the mystery of the Church, that the question arises as to how one can reconcile the two aspects: on the one hand, the Church’s affirmation in faith of her holiness, and on the other hand, her unceasing need for penance and purification.

3.1. The Mystery of the Church

“The Church is in history, but at the same time she transcends it. It is only ‘with the eyes of faith’ that one can see her in her visible reality and at the same time in her spiritual reality as bearer of divine life.”(43) The ensemble of her visible and historical aspects stands in relation to the divine gift in a way that is analogous to how, in the incarnate Word of God, the assumed humanity is sign and instrument of the action of the divine Person of the Son. The two dimensions of ecclesial being form “one complex reality resulting from a human and a divine element,”(44) in a communion that participates in the Trinitarian life and brings about baptized persons’ sense of being united among themselves despite historical differences of time and place. By the power of this communion, the Church presents herself as a subject that is absolutely unique in human affairs, able to take on the gifts, the merits, and the faults of her children of yesterday and today.

The telling analogy to the mystery of the incarnate Word implies too, nevertheless, a fundamental difference. “Christ, ‘holy, innocent, and undefiled’ (Heb 7:26), knew no sin (cf. 2 Cor 5:21), but came only to expiate the sins of the people (cf. Heb 2:17). The Church, however, embracing sinners in her bosom, is at the same time holy and always in need of purification and incessantly pursues the path of penance and renewal.”(45) The absence of sin in the Incarnate Word cannot be attributed to his ecclesial Body, within which, on the contrary, each person – participating in the grace bestowed by God – needs nevertheless to be vigilant and to be continually purified. Each member also shares in the weakness of others: “All members of the Church, including her ministers, must acknowledge that they are sinners (cf. 1 Jn 1:8-10). In everyone, the weeds of sin will still be mixed with the good wheat of the Gospel until the end of time (cf. Mt 13:24-30). Hence the Church gathers sinners already caught up in Christ’s salvation but still on the way to holiness.”(46)

Already Paul VI had solemnly affirmed that the Church “is holy, though she includes sinners in her bosom, for she herself has no other life but the life of grace... This is why she suffers and does penance for these faults, from which she has the power to free her children through the blood of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit.”(47) The Church in her “mystery” is thus the encounter of sanctity and of weakness, continually redeemed, and yet always in need of the power of redemption. As the liturgy – the true “lex credendi” – teaches, the individual Christian and the community of the saints implore God to look upon the faith of his church and not on the sins of individuals, which are the negation of this living faith: “Ne respicias peccata nostra, sed fidem Ecclesiae Tuae”! In the unity of the mystery of the Church through time and space, it is possible to consider the aspect of holiness, the need for repentance and reform, and their articulation in the actions of Mother Church.

3.2. The Holiness of the Church

The Church is holy because, sanctified by Christ who has acquired her by giving himself up to death for her, she is maintained in holiness by the Holy Spirit who pervades her unceasingly: “We believe that the Church…is indefectibly holy. For Christ, the Son of God, who with the Father and the Spirit is praised as being ‘alone holy,’ loved the Church as his bride and gave himself up for her, so that she might be made holy (cf. Eph 5: 25), and has united her to himself as his body and has filled her with the gift of the Holy Spirit, to the glory of God. For this reason, everyone in the Church…is called to holiness.”(48) In this sense, from the beginning, the members of the Church are called the “saints” (cf. Acts 9:13; 1 Cor 6:1; 16:1). One can distinguish, however, the holiness of the Church from holiness in the Church. The former - founded on the missions of the Son and Spirit – guarantees the continuity of the mission of the People of God until the end of time and stimulates and aids the believers in pursuing subjective personal holiness. The form which holiness takes is rooted in the vocation that each one receives; it is given and required of him as the full completion of his own vocation and mission. Personal holiness is always directed toward God and others, and thus has an essentially social character: it is holiness “in the Church” oriented towards the good of all.

Holiness in the Church must therefore correspond to the holiness of the Church. “The followers of Christ, called by God not according to their works, but according to his own purpose and grace, and justified in the Lord Jesus, have been made truly children of God in the Baptism of faith and sharers in the divine nature, and thus are really made holy. They must therefore hold on to and perfect in their lives that sanctification which they have received from God.”(49) The baptized person is called to become with his entire existence that which he has already become by virtue of his baptismal consecration. And this does not happen without the consent of his freedom and the assistance of the grace that comes from God. No one becomes himself so fully as does the saint, who welcomes the divine plan and, with the help of grace, conforms his entire being to it! The saints are in this sense like lights kindled by the Lord in the midst of his Church in order to illuminate her; they are a prophecy for the whole world.

3.3 The Necessity of Continual Renewal

Without obscuring this holiness, we must acknowledge that due to the presence of sin there is a need for continual renewal and for constant conversion in the People of God. The Church on earth is “marked with a true holiness,” which is, however, “imperfect.”(50) Augustine observes against the Pelagians: “The Church as a whole says: Forgive us our trespasses! Therefore she has blemishes and wrinkles. But by means of confession the wrinkles are smoothed away and the blemishes washed clean. The Church stands in prayer in order to be purified by confession and, as long as men live on earth it will be so.”(51) And Thomas Aquinas makes clear that the fullness of holiness belongs to eschatological time; in the meantime, the Church still on pilgrimage should not deceive herself by saying that she is without sin: “To be a glorious Church, with neither spot nor wrinkle, is the ultimate end to which we are brought by the Passion of Christ. Hence, this will be the case only in the heavenly homeland, not here on the way of pilgrimage, where ‘if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves’...”(52) In reality, “though we are clothed with the baptismal garment, we do not cease to sin, to turn away from God. Now, in this new petition [‘forgive us our trespasses’], we return to him like the prodigal son (cf. Lk 15:11-32) and, like the tax collector, recognize that we are sinners before him (cf. Lk 18:13). Our petition begins with a ‘confession’ of our wretchedness and his mercy.”(53)

Hence it is the entire Church that confesses her faith in God through the confession of her children’s sins and celebrates his infinite goodness and capacity for forgiveness. Thanks to the bond established by the Holy Spirit, the communion that exists among all the baptized in time and space is such that in this communion each person is himself, but at the same time is conditioned by others and exercises an influence on them in the living exchange of spiritual goods. In this way, the holiness of each one influences the growth in goodness of others; however, sin also does not have an exclusively individual relevance, because it burdens and poses resistance along the way of salvation of all and, in this sense, truly touches the Church in her entirety, across the various times and places. This distinction prompts the Fathers to make sharp statements like this one of Ambrose: “Let us beware then that our fall not become a wound of the Church.”(54) The Church therefore, “although she is holy because of her incorporation into Christ, … does not tire of doing penance: Before God and man, she always acknowledges as her own her sinful sons and daughters”(55) of both yesterday and today.

3.4. The Motherhood of the Church

The conviction that the Church can make herself responsible for the sin of her children by virtue of the solidarity that exists among them through time and space because of their incorporation into Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit, is expressed in a particularly effective way in the idea of “Mother Church” (“Mater Ecclesia”), which “in the conception of the early Fathers of the Church sums up the entire Christian aspiration.”(56) The Church, Vatican II affirms, “by means of the Word of God faithfully received, becomes a mother, since through preaching and baptism she brings forth children to a new and immortal life, who have been conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of God.”(57) Augustine, for example, gives voice to the vast tradition, of which these ideas are an echo: “This holy and honored mother is like Mary. She gives birth and she is a virgin, from her you were born - she generates Christ so that you will be members of Christ.”(58) Cyprian of Carthage states succinctly: “One cannot have God as a father who doesn’t have the Church as a mother.”(59) And Paulinus of Nola sings of the motherhood of the Church like this: “As a mother she receives the seed of the eternal Word, carries the peoples in her womb and gives birth to them.”(60)

According to this vision, the Church is continually realized in the exchange and communication of the Spirit from one believer to another, as the generative environment of faith and holiness, in fraternal communion, unanimity in prayer, solidarity with the cross, and common witness. By virtue of this living communication, each baptized person can be considered to be at the same time a child of the Church, in that he is generated in her to divine life, and Mother Church, in that, by his faith and love he cooperates in giving birth to new children for God. He is ever more Mother Church, the greater is his holiness and the more ardent is his effort to communicate to others the gift he has received. On the other hand, the baptized person does not cease to be a child of the Church when, because of sin, he separates himself from her in his heart. He may always come back to the springs of grace and remove the burden that his sin imposes on the entire community of Mother Church. The Church, in turn, as a true Mother, cannot but be wounded by the sin of her children of yesterday and today, continuing to love them always, to the point of making herself responsible in all times for the burden created by their sins. Thus, she is seen by the Fathers of the Church to be the Mother of sorrows, not only because of persecutions coming from outside, but above all because of the betrayals, failures, delays, and sinfulness of her children.

Holiness and sin in the Church are reflected therefore in their effects on the entire Church, although it is a conviction of faith that holiness is stronger than sin, since it is the fruit of divine grace. The saints are shining proof of this, and are recognized as models and help for all! There is no parallelism between grace and sin, nor even a kind of symmetry or dialectical relationship. The influence of evil will never be able to conquer the force of grace and the radiance of good, even the most hidden good! In this sense the Church recognizes herself to be holy in her saints. While she rejoices over this holiness and knows its benefit, she nonetheless confesses herself a sinner, not as a subject who sins, but rather in assuming the weight of her children’s faults in maternal solidarity, so as to cooperate in overcoming them through penance and newness of life. For this reason, the holy Church recognizes the duty “to express profound regret for the weaknesses of so many of her sons and daughters who sullied her face, preventing her from fully mirroring the image of her crucified Lord, the supreme witness of patient love and humble meekness.”(61)

This expression of regret can be done in a particular way by those who by charism and ministry express the communion of the People of God in its weightiest form: on behalf of the local Churches, Bishops may be able to make confessions for wrongs and requests for forgiveness. For the entire Church, one in time and space, the person capable of speaking is he who exercises the universal ministry of unity, the Bishop of the Church “which presides in love,”(62) the Pope. This is why it is particularly significant that the invitation came from him that “the Church should become more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children” and recognize the necessity “to make amends for… [the sins of the past], and earnestly beseech Christ’s forgiveness.”(63)

4. Historical Judgement and Theological Judgement

The determination of the wrongs of the past, for which amends are to be made, implies, first of all, a correct historical judgement, which is also the foundation of the theological evaluation. One must ask: What precisely occurred? What exactly was said and done? Only when these questions are adequately answered through rigorous historical analysis can one then ask whether what happened, what was said or done, can been understood as consistent with the Gospel, and, if it cannot, whether the Church’s sons and daughters who acted in such a way could have recognised this, given the context in which they acted. Only when there is moral certainty that what was done in contradiction to the Gospel in the name of the Church by certain of her sons and daughters could have been understood by them as such and avoided, can it have significance for the Church of today to make amends for faults of the past.

The relationship between “historical judgement” and “theological judgement” is therefore as complex as it is necessary and determinative. For this reason, it is necessary to undertake it without falsehoods on one side or the other. Both an apologetics that seeks to justify everything and an unwarranted laying of blame, based on historically untenable attributions of responsibility, must be avoided. John Paul II, referring to the historical-theological evaluation of the work of the Inquisition, stated: “The Church’s Magisterium certainly may not intend to perform an act of natural ethics, which the request for pardon is, without first being exactly informed concerning the situation of that time. But, at the same time, neither may it rely on images of the past steered by public opinion, since these are frequently highly charged with passionate emotion which impedes serene and objective diagnosis… This is the reason why the first step consists in asking the historians, not to furnish a judgement of natural ethics, which would exceed the area of their competence, but to offer help toward a reconstruction, as precise as possible, of the events, of the customs, of the mentality of the time, in the light of historical context of the epoch.”(64)

4.1. The Interpretation of History

What are the conditions for a correct interpretation of the past from the point of view of historical knowledge? To determine these, we must take account of the complexity of the relationship between the subject who interprets and the object from the past which is interpreted.(65) First, their mutual extraneousness must be emphasized. Events or words of the past are, above all, “past.” As such they are not completely reducible to the framework of the present, but possess an objective density and complexity that prevent them from being ordered in a solely functional way for present interests. It is necessary, therefore, to approach them by means of an historical-critical investigation that aims at using all of the information available, with a view to a reconstruction of the environment, of the ways of thinking, of the conditions and the living dynamic in which those events and those words are placed, in order, in such a way, to ascertain the contents and the challenges that - precisely in their diversity - they propose to our present time.

Second, a certain common belonging of interpreter and interpreted must be recognized without which no bond and no communication could exist between past and present. This communicative bond is based on the fact that every human being, whether of yesterday or of today, is situated in a complex of historical relationships, and in order to live these relationships, the mediation of language is necessary, a mediation which itself is always historically determined. Everybody belongs to history! Bringing to light this communality between interpreter and the object of interpretation – which is reached through the multiple forms by which the past leaves evidence of itself (texts, monuments, traditions, etc.) – means judging both the accuracy of possible correspondences and possible difficulties of communication between past and present, as indicated by one’s own understanding of the past words and events. This requires taking into account the questions which motivate the research and their effect on the answers which are found, the living context in which the work is undertaken, and the interpreting community whose language is spoken and to whom one intends to speak. For this purpose, it is necessary that the pre-understanding – which is part of every act of interpretation – be as reflective and conscious as possible, in order to measure and moderate its real effect on the interpretative process.

Finally, through the effort to know and to evaluate, an osmosis (a “fusion of horizons”) is accomplished between the interpreter and the object of the past that is interpreted, in which the act of comprehension properly consists. This is the expression of what is judged to be the correct understanding of the events or words of the past; it is equivalent to grasping the meaning which the events can have for the interpreter and his world. Thanks to this encounter of living worlds, understanding of the past is translated into its application to the present. The past is grasped in the potentialities which it discloses, in the stimulus it offers to modify the present. Memory becomes capable of giving rise to a new future.

This fruitful osmosis with the past is reached through the interwovenness of certain basic hermeneutic operations, which correspond to the stages of extraneousness, communality, and understanding true and proper. In relation to a “text” of the past (understood in a general sense as evidence which may be written, oral, monumental, or figurative), these operations can be expressed as follows: “1) understanding the text; 2) judging how correct one’s understanding of the text is; and 3) stating what one judges to be the correct understanding of the text.”(66) Understanding the eviden

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