Are Church Authorities morally obliged to publicly beg for forgiveness for the sins committed by our ancestors in the Faith?
To ask for forgiveness for sins committed centuries ago is definitely open to misunderstandings and misinterpretations. But all Catholics of good faith should agree on two facts: first, that not only individual Catholics, but Catholics in positions of authority have, in the course of history, sinned gravely against Justice and Charity. To refuse to admit this sad fact is not a valid Catholic stance: Truth must be faced. But it must also be said emphatically that this in no way impugns the Holiness of the Church as Bride of Christ, for every sin committed by members of the Church is explicitly condemned by the Gospel that the Saviour gave us. The worst enemy of Christ will never find a single word in His teaching advocating violence, injustice and brutality. In other words, those who have sinned against their ‘enemies’ (atheists, heretics, etc.) have branded themselves as bad Catholics.
Secondly, can one obtain forgiveness by confessing to descendants of victims the sins committed by our ancestors against theirs? Can one objectively ask and obtain forgiveness for the sins of others, even if these others are related to us by Faith, or by blood? A sin is always an individual offense, There is only one case in which all of us are guilty of the same sin: the Crucifixion of our Saviour, the King of the Jews. In this unique case, nostra culpa (our fault) is also very specifically mea culpa (my fault). There is only one exception: His Holy mother, a young Jewish Virgin.
But is it not true that when grave evils have been committed by people close to us, it should affect us more deeply than if they were committed by people of other faiths, other countries, or different blood? The answer is ‘yes’. Granted that there should be a feeling of solidarity with people related to us – however, we should make a clear distinction between asking publicly for forgiveness for the faults committed by our ancestors and officially condemning their actions. These should be publicly anathematized, denounced, rejected, detested. By officially condemning horrors committed in the past, the Church exonerates Herself from the sins of her unworthy children, whose evil deeds are condemned by the Gospel. In other words, the Church – while condemning the sins of Her children – should publicly de solidarize Herself from sinners who betray her Holy Teaching.
We all know or have heard about fathers who declare that ‘he is no longer my son’, ‘I disown him because of what he has done’. But to disown him (that is to condemn his evil deeds) does not free a parent from the obligation to pray for him and to love him in Christ, in spite of his sinfulness.
This public condemnation would achieve what ‘asking for forgiveness’ intends to do – and at the same time it eschews possible misunderstandings, that is, the misinterpretation given by the news media that ‘the Church now finally acknowledges Her sins and therefore She cannot claim to be Holy and to have the fullness of Truth’!
It is the strict duty of the teaching Church to condemn heresies. This cannot be repeated enough in an age of ‘dictatorial relativism’ where every error is viewed as a legitimate ‘point of view’, an age in which Truth is viewed as ‘divisive’ and ‘opinions’ as a bridge of peace between people. The word anathema sit has rightly been used by St. Paul and in Councils, and I do not hesitate to write that these condemnations were ‘charitable anathemas’. They intended to warn God’s children of the poison of heresy. But has this justified condemnation always been coupled with charity for the person whose views have been rightly condemned? Charity and Truth essentially belong together. Some people can be ‘ferocious’ in their defence of truth. Fanatics are always Pharisaical, and unfortunately this danger is still very much alive. To proclaim Truth without love is to inject a subtle poison into its message. This is why Christ forbade a devil to proclaim that He was ‘the Christ, the Son of the Living God’ – the devil had spoken the Truth with hatred in his heart.
Should we expect Jews today to ask Christians for forgiveness for having persecuted them at the beginning of Christianity as related in the Acts of the Apostles? Are Anglicans to beg us for forgiveness for the murders of St. John Fisher, St. Thomas More, Edmund Campion and hundreds of others?
Moses transmitted to the Chosen people the Divine Message. He could not prevent them from adoring the golden calf. Let us not forget that one can only ask for forgiveness for the harm done to oneself – directly or indirectly, but one cannot repent for sins one has not committed and obtain absolution from men. God alone can forgive sins – hence the scandal that the words of Jesus triggered in the Jews when He declared: ‘Thy sins are forgiven thee’ – He was, in fact, declaring his Divinity.