Memory and Reconciliation

INTERNATIONAL THEOLOGICAL COMMISSION

The following are extracts from Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past, published by the international Theological Commission in December 1999. President of the Commission is Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

Introduction

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 fervour.” 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 recognising 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.” In re-iterating 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).” ...

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 structure of the text mirrors the questions posed. It moves from a brief historical revisiting of the theme in order to be able to investigate the biblical foundation and explore more deeply the theological conditions of the requests for forgiveness. 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 . ...

The problem: Yesterday and today

... 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.” 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 . . ..

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, 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.” ...

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 . ...

Biblical approach

... 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 11 could state, citing the splendid prayer of Azariah: “`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.” ...

Love of neighbour, 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; 17:2126). In this perspective, great emphasis is given to the theme of reconciliation and forgiveness of faults . ...

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 . ...

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 baptised, to take still greater cognisance of the mandate received from the Lord to be ever ready to forgive offences received.

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.” ...

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. “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.” ...

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 baptised 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.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

"Memory and Reconciliation" was published by the International Theological Commission in December 1999.

Copyright © 1999 International Theological Commission


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