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Sunday Morning News

Pope John Paul II Makes Unprecedented Apology For Sins of Catholic Church

Aired March 12, 2000 - 9:01 a.m. ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: We begin this morning in Vatican City, where the infallible leader of the Roman Catholic Church has admitted the sins of his forebears and has asked for forgiveness. Pope John Paul II offered an unprecedented apology for the sins committed in the name of the church through the ages.

CNN's Jim Bittermann was there for the historic moment and he joins us on the phone from Rome -- Jim.

JIM BITTERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Miles, Pope John Paul II put it this way, "We forgive and we ask forgiveness." And with that, he led church leaders and followers in sweeping confession, seeking repentance for sins that may have been committed over the past 2,000 years in the name of the church.

They fell into seven general categories of wrongs which include, without being too specific, everything from the Crusades to the Inquisition, the forced conversions, to sins against women and anti- Jewish acts. It was a first for the church, which has only rarely and only in specific instances confessed errors in the past. The pope's sermon offered an explanation for today's day of pardon.


POPE JOHN PAUL II: We humbly ask for forgiveness for the part that each of us with his or her behaviors has played in such evils thus contributing to disrupting the face of the church. At the same time, as we confess our sins let us forgive the faults committed by others towards us.


BITTERMANN: The pope's penitence is not without controversy. Even before the ceremonies in St. Peter's, some were saying modern Catholics have nothing to confess for the actions of those in the past and others were saying the pope's mea culpa does not go far enough and is not specific enough. But it is something that has been on the pope's mind for at least the past six years when he first mentioned it and the timing of the general confession cannot hurt as he prepares to travel in just over a week to the Middle East, where at least some of the church's errors took place -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Jim, you mentioned the specifics in all of this. There were many Jews who had hoped the pope would have been specific in apologizing for the fact that many Catholics turned their back on the Holocaust. That was not specifically mentioned, was it?

BITTERMANN: It was not and already there are some criticisms here and there about the way the church handled the Jewish question. Although it was singled out as one of the sins being confessed today, there's already some criticism about the way the pope handled the confession over the church's wrongs against Jews over the centuries.

O'BRIEN: There was also some who had hoped that the pope would have said something about the way the church has treated homosexuals in the past and perhaps in the recent past.

BITTERMANN: Indeed, and, in fact, there are some homosexual leaders have, particularly here in Italy, have spoken out already on that subject and women's groups, too, have talked about the way the church dealt with the women's problems because in both of those areas it seems as if there's an ongoing problem to some people, particularly American Catholics, and in some cases some American Catholic church leaders who are following the pope have actually made their own confessions which are even broader than the kind of confessions that we heard today in the Vatican.

O'BRIEN: Jim, why now? Why did the people feel compelled to make this extraordinary apology at this moment in time?

BITTERMANN: Well, I think the timing is very interesting given the fact that the pope is heading off to the Middle East where a lot of these sins took place over the centuries. So at that, the timing there is perhaps very significant. The church leaders say it's an accident of the calendar. If the Vatican does anything it's planned out. So it sounds to me like as if it's probably more a planned accident than a sheer accident.

In any case, the other thing is the pope has from the beginning of his pontificate been very big on ecumenism, trying to get the church back together with itself, trying to get the church back together with itself, trying to get Christians from the Eastern rite and the Roman rite together, trying to get Christians from Protestant and Catholic churches together and also trying to get the Catholic church together with other religions.

So this has been something that this pope has talked about for years and sort of plays into that spirit of ecumenism.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Jim Bittermann on the line from Rome.

To err is human, to forgive divine, the words of Alexander Pope seem apt this morning as Pope John Paul II makes an unprecedented apology for a laundry list of transgressions. The pontiff apologized for the way the church has treated Jews, the use of violence under the guise of religion, the Crusades and the Inquisition and for the disrespect it has shown to women and minorities.

It is a reminder the Roman Catholic Church may be theologically infallible, but it is still populated by sinners. For more on why the pope felt compelled to make such an extraordinary confession we turn to Father John Haughey of Loyola University in Chicago. Good to see you, Father. Thanks for being with us.

FATHER JOHN HAUGHEY, LOYOLA UNIVERSITY: Good morning, Miles. Good to be here.

O'BRIEN: Why did the pope feel compelled to make this extraordinary apology now?

HAUGHEY: Well, I think there are two issues connected to the timing. One is the new millennium called for a jubilee and jubilee was a theme that came out of Old Testament texts and the Old Testament texts called for a periodic forgiveness of human beings one for another so that the antipathies that had been experienced in the previous years, in this case the previous thousand years, even 2,000 years, could be rolled back and we could begin again to be reconciled to one another as faiths, as peoples and as groups.

O'BRIEN: Well...

HAUGHEY: So I think the one had to do with the theme of jubilee and the need for reconciliation with one another and the other is that this is the first Sunday of Lent and Lent is also a time in which we seek God's forgiveness and we seek forgiveness of one another.

O'BRIEN: All right, well let me play devil's advocate, if you'll excuse the term in this context, for just a moment and let me ask you this, is it appropriate for the pope to be apologizing for things which had nothing to do with the current time and, in fact, wouldn't it be more courageous to apologize for current transgressions?

HAUGHEY: Well, there's a logic to your question but the church, and, of course, the pope as representative of the church sees itself as having the same reality as it had from the moment of the crucifixion on when the people of God was born of blood and water. So we see ourselves as one in identity with the people of God all the way back to the beginning of the birth of the church. And it says one that we're asking forgiveness of contemporary peoples and asking them to forgive us as we forgive them.

In other words, the issue here is reconciliation with one another in the new millennium.

O'BRIEN: Now, of course any time something like this happens, individuals will come forward and say hey, you didn't mention us and among the items not mentioned today specifically were homosexuals and the way the church has treated homosexuals over the years and specifically the role of the Roman Catholic Church during the Holocaust. Is it appropriate to be focusing on what was left out of this blanket apology?

HAUGHEY: No. I think that might be a little too picayune. The posture of this representative of the church, namely the pope, wants to go over the whole of the past and by going over the whole of the past it would seem inappropriate, it seems to me, to fasten on any one particular sin that has been committed by the church toward other faiths within the Christian church itself, all the ways in which we have divided and separated and hated one another and all the ways in which we have crushed the consciences of people by the use of force in the Inquisition and the Crusades.

So those are, it's a more generic posture that he's taking rather than a specific one. Any given group, like homosexuals or the Jews, can feel that it wasn't specific enough, but I mean it seems to me what the pope is doing here is going back to the text where it's saying if before you go to worship you find your brother not reconciled to you, leave the altar, leave your gift at the altar and go and be reconciled to your brother.

If it got into specifics, it seems to me, it would be endless.

O'BRIEN: Father John Haughey with Loyola University in Chicago. Thanks very much for being with us on CNN SUNDAY MORNING.

HAUGHEY: Thank you, Miles.


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