The Pope's Apology II
Jude Wanniski
March 23, 2000


To: Ira Stoll, The Forward
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Another Catholic on Memory and Reconciliation

As promised, Ira, here is another Catholic view on Pope John Paulís "apology." Last week I sent you Tom Bethellís comments, which seemed to fret a bit about the apology as inviting a liberal shift in the Vaticanís political direction. The following is by Peter Signorelli, a colleague at Polyconomics for the past 17 years. Although he is a member of Opus Dei, the only personal prelature to ever have been given that status with the Roman Catholic Church by Pope John Paul II, his views are his own and not those of Opus Dei itself. You will find his comments illuminating, I think, as well as provocative. Please share them with Seth Lipsky and the other Forward staffers.

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Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, president of the Committee for the Great Jubilee, in remarks to the press regarding the Vaticanís Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past notes that "a penitential act, however public it may be, must not appear as a form of spectacular self-flagellation....only those who deeply love the Church are capable of clearly and forcefully examining her. Those on the outside are at risk of not understanding the religious meaning of a penitential act."

This is proving to be true with a vengeance in some circles, as Tom Bethelís concern contains some validity: That "hostility toward the Church will probably only increase because there is bound to be a sense that the pope has internally accepted many of the modern complaints about the Church." Joe Sobran also writes convincingly of the potential for enemies of the Church to use the Popeís universal call for forgiveness against the Church. Many very loyal and orthodox Catholics see the Church as surrounded and besieged by enemies -- some of whom even have gained entrance -- and, they believe, that to acknowledge any shortcomings or failures or even wrongs could undo or overturn all the work of the Church. But that is a profane view of the Church, as if it were a mere worldly institution engaged in a propaganda war with its adversaries. As Professor Mary Ann Glendon, editorial board member of First Things so eloquently puts it, "Our aim cannot be to appease the implacable foes of the Church, who will complain no matter what is done. But the fear that they will take advantage of our repentance should not deter us from doing what is morally required of us. While hostile critics will be dissatisfied, many persons of good will be appreciative." And this is the case.

The response -- especially of Muslims -- is overwhelming from those who see in the Pontiffís call the purely religious goal of repeated cleansing of self, of repeated conversion to God necessary for reconciliation with Him. Some two million Muslims on the recent hadj to Mecca did precisely that, asking His forgiveness for their sins, and for His mercy and compassion. Bishops of the Romanian Orthodox have asked Godís forgiveness for their sins against Byzantine-rite Catholics and for the terrible schism that exits in Christendom. Schisms in Christianity that are 1500 years old are being healed, in Armenia and in Egypt, for example. Various Protestant denominations are taking to heart the Popeís appeal to God for forgiveness and for restoring Him to the center of human activity. These are good times, full of the good news.

As John Paul II so frequently advised us during his pontificate "Be not afraid." There always will be men of ill will, who despise the Catholic Church and seek to do it harm. There also are those who simply may be confused or who can think only in secularized terms. The NYTimes criticism of the popeís message and the editorís demand that he repudiate fundamental tenets of Catholic faith is one such example, missing entirely the point that it is of God, and not the liberal establishment, that the Pope is asking forgiveness. Issuing his sniffy dismissal of the Popeís call for forgiveness and reconciliation with God, Leon Wieseltier in a New Republic column, "Sorry" (3-27-00), declares that the popeís words are not enough for Wieseltier to absolve the Catholic Church (Thanks, but I think the Holy Father was asking Godís forgiveness, not your absolution Leon). Wieseltier even refers to John Paul II as tovel vísheretz bíyado (even when immersed in purifying waters, he is internally unclean.) Of course, the Pope greatest crime in WieseltierĎs eyes is that the Vatican has dared to question and criticize Israelís policies at times.

Abraham Foxman of the Defamation League and Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center have been proclaiming the same litany for ages as Wieseltier now does: The pope must acknowledge as true the slander that Pope Pius XII was a moral coward if not an outright Nazi sympathizer and the Vatican must open its wartime archives to so the world determine for itself if Pius XII and the Church were pro-Nazi sympathizers. However, eleven volumes of documents from the Vaticanís wartime archives have long been available under title Actes et documents du Saint-Siege relatifs a la Seconde Guerre mondiale. The volumes establish, for example, that Pius XII actively worked to protect Jews from the Nazis, made clear to U.S. Catholics they could support Lend-Lease aid to anti-Catholic USSR in WWII and that he acted as intermediary between the allies and a group of German generals who wanted to remove Hitler and overturn the Nazis. (Britain, however shut down that initiative, opting for a longer war and the total prostration of Germany).

Joining in this disinformation campaign is the seriously confused John Cornwell, a favorite Catholic of those who are into Catholic-bashing. Cornwell had full access to those volumes when he wrote Hitlerís Pope and the most with which he could produce from all those volumes was a note Eugenio Pacelli (later Pius XII) wrote as a papal official in Munich about the appearance of a communist leader there who was Jewish: "pale, dirty with drugged eyes...vulgar, repulsive, with a face that is both intelligent and sly." Cornwell was invited on to 60 Minutes to peddle the nonsense that this "anti-Semitic" description is not unlike the passages in Adolph Hitlerís own Mein Kampf.

Foxman himself is alive today only because a Polish Catholic family risked their lives to protect him during the Nazi occupation. For Foxman, et al. only if John Paul II condemns Christianity as intrinsically anti-Semitic and if he apologizes for being a Catholic would they be satisfied. They are without question intellectually dishonest and men of malice. But these types will always be with us, and surely of them we ought not be afraid. Their "disappointment" we can readily recognize for its hypocrisy. But Tom Bethel and other orthodox Catholics can not use the offensive by men of ill will against the Church as a reason to back off from what all of us are called do on behalf of Christian witness.

Pope John Paul II is seeking to confront the problem of evil at its roots, to vigorously reinforce the call to combat sin, and to inspire all Catholics (and others) to interior conversion. This continual conversion is a process of returning to God, of reconciliation with Him. Sin jeopardizes that unity. So how appropriate that as we enter the Third Millennium, the Roman Pontiff asks forgiveness of God for the failing of His children, and that he calls upon his flock to go to the Father in the same way the Prodigal Son went to his father, repentant and asking forgiveness for his offenses.

There can be no holiness without conversion nor any conversion without dealing with what is unworthy and sinful, and asking forgiveness. In no way, however, does the Vatican document Memory and Reconciliation [link] suggest any confession of doctrinal error. It only confesses of failure to act according to the Churchís standards of belief and conduct. And in no way does it question the holiness of the Church. The Pope is asking forgiveness of God for the moral errors and shortcomings of Catholics over centuries -- but he also stated in his Ash Wednesday Mass in Rome that "Mankind, every person, is called to conversion and penance and is drawn to friendship with God that they may be gifted with the supernatural life that fills the deepest desire of their hearts....[believers] must allow themselves to be transformed by the grace of conversion and penance in order to reach the challenging and peaceful heights of supernatural life."

The recent Vatican document really contains little new. John Paul II has been engaged in efforts at penance and reconciliation since the beginning of his pontificate. The pope is not proclaiming a mea culpa. He is calling upon us to engage in a serious examination of conscience. In Tertio Mellennio Adveniente (1994) he wrote, "The sons and daughters of the Church must return with a spirit of repentance...[for] acquiescence intolerance and even to violence in the service of truth." In his Memorandum to Cardinals in 1994, he reflected on the "violence perpetrated in the name of faith: religious wars, the courts of Inquisition, and other forms of violation of the rights of individuals." He acknowledges that the defense of the teaching of Jesus Christ is valid and necessary, but the instruments involved were wrong, contrary to what it is that may unite us to Christ. In France he asked forgiveness of God for the infamous St. Bartholomew Dayís massacre of Huguenots, and in Czech Republic for the execution of John Hus. And in Shoah: We Remember, he re-emphasized that anti-Semitism is a grievous sin.

John Paul II remains keenly aware that sin itself is an active choice of the individual free will. "There is nothing so personal and untransferable in each individual as merit for virtue or responsibility for sin." Thus, ultimately we become who we are along the path of truth, which can only be traversed by continual inner conversion. Repentance and conversion re-center our self on what it is that transcends us. This is not a call that Catholics should ignore or avoid.