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Imperfect Contrition

(Reprinted from SOBRAN’S, May 2000, page 2)

The Pope’s recent “apology” for the sins of Catholics seems to be having the direct opposite of the effect he intended. There must be a way to oppose anti-Semitism without fostering anti-Catholicism.

Catholics should, and do, regret many things their ancestors have done over the centuries. But our forebears — including Popes — have to do their own repenting, just as we do. Their sins are not necessarily ours, and their offenses against non-Catholics, however deplorable by today’s standards, weren’t necessarily sins in their own minds. In the Middle Ages and long afterward, just about everyone regarded atheism, heresy, and apostasy as criminal; rulers were expected, as a matter of course, to protect the religion of the community. The “great religions,” as we now call them, regarded each other as enemies — God’s enemies — not as brothers under the skin or valid alternative lifestyles.

The New Testament condemns “those of the synagogue of Satan, who say they are Jews and are not”; these words and others like them are ascribed to Christ, who apparently said nothing about “pluralism,” “tolerance,” “dialogue,” or “the Judaeo-Christian tradition.” The Jews are bluntly accused of crucifying Christ and persecuting Christians, and are warned that they must repent and convert. The Talmud is no more ecumenical, condemning all gentiles and Christians in particular, with obscene curses against Christ and the Blessed Virgin. Islam merely brought another fighting faith into the world, which sought to impose itself wherever it could: that, everyone agreed in principle, was what the True Religion was supposed to do. Immortal souls were at stake. Of course persuasion was the ideal, but, since human nature was obstinate, force was sometimes necessary. The early Protestants saw it the same way and acted accordingly.

Is the Pope “repenting” because twelfth-century men weren’t twentieth-century men? (As if we can safely assume that that would have been an improvement.) And his penitence seems to extend only to those putative sins that the twentieth century condemns, ignoring all manner of other things that are sinful by traditional Catholic standards. This is very much in the spirit of modern man, who condemns earlier generations for not having been modern men.

So the papal statement, far from correcting the sins of the modern world, had the effect of seeming to justify every modern prejudice against Catholicism. Of course the Pope distinguished carefully between the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, which can never sin, and the Church as a human institution. But since only Catholics accept this distinction — anyone who does accept it is almost by definition a believing Catholic — the qualification seemed Pickwickian to non-Catholics, who generally took the view that the Catholic Church had finally, belatedly, though imperfectly, admitted that it is, after all, the source of most of the great evils of history.

In short, the Pope seemed to be validating every familiar anti-Catholic canard. Even ordinary Catholics of this generation, who are woefully weak in theological and historical understanding (a fact for which the hierarchy of today’s Church really should repent), took the impression that the modern calumnies must be true after all. Since John Paul II is a man of considerable intellect and diplomatic skill, it’s amazing that he didn’t foresee this natural and predictable interpretation of his gesture. His successors will have a lot of explaining to do.

[Breaker quote: The Pope's 
apologies have backfired.]The reaction was fascinating. To a purely rational unbeliever, it might be as if the current mayor of Athens had apologized for the execution of Socrates, or as if the House of Windsor had apologized for the depredations of Henry VIII (without, however, offering to return England’s great cathedrals to the Church of Rome). How can people who reject the concept of apostolic succession — the principle that the Church inherits the authority of Christ — believe that today’s Church can inherit guilt from the medieval Church? And if guilt is hereditary, why not also blame today’s Jews for the Crucifixion? Can we now expect rabbis to apologize for the role of Jews in Communism and for their own “silence” during Soviet mass murders of Christians? There are interesting possibilities here. And does today’s Church get credit for creating Western civilization? Or is her uniquely continuous moral identity over two millennia recognized only for the purpose of heaping accusations on her?

For whatever reason, everyone seemed to assume that the present Pope could somehow take responsibility for all the sins of Catholics throughout history, should take responsibility for them, and yet had failed to do so adequately. Jews objected (again) that the Pope had failed to apologize specifically for the you-know-what and demanded that he condemn the “silence” of Pius XII; homosexuals complained that he hadn’t expressed remorse to gays and lesbians; the New York Times noted sorrowfully that he hadn’t repudiated Catholic teaching on contraception and abortion. Liberal Catholics found fault with him too, on similar grounds. As for believing Catholics, most of them saw the futility of trying to appease the insatiable.

In short, if you’re going to apologize to the modern world, you have to do it on the modern world’s terms. Technically, of course, the “apology” was a prayer addressed to God, not to the Anti-Defamation League; but it was clearly designed to be overheard, as it were, by secular ears. The free-for-all of faultfinding was only to be expected.

We must ask: What is the fruit of the hundred or so apologies this Pope has now uttered? Is there any evidence that they have drawn any souls to the Church? Do they not, on the contrary, confirm every malicious common belief about the Church, while discouraging faithful Catholics and confusing weak ones? What on earth is the point?

Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League complains that the Pope had “stopped short in addressing specific Catholic wrongs against the Jewish people, especially the Holocaust.” This is now a tenet of Holocaust-centered secular Jewish ideology: that the Catholic Church bears guilt for the Holocaust, not only because Pius XII was “Hitler’s Pope,” but because the Church is the historic mother of anti-Semitism. This attitude has been reinforced, not softened, by the papal statement.

It would have been only fair if Jews like Foxman had communicated their view to Catholic soldiers in the Allied armies early on, so that those boys would have had some inkling of what they were being sent to fight for: a postwar world in which countless of their fellow Catholics and other Christians were subjugated and persecuted by Communism, while Jewish propaganda blamed the crimes of the Axis on their Church. Probably not the sort of victory they had in mind.

But the Foxmans maintained a discreet silence on the subject as long as they needed those Catholic boys to do the fighting. Now that the war has long since ended favorably, they’ve sized up today’s Catholic Church as soft, and they deem it safe to insult the dead as well as the Church with their measureless libels. They can be confident that a Church that craves their pardon won’t give them any backtalk. As for the young Christians who died fighting Hitler, well, who cares? They’ve served their purpose; did they expect to be thanked?

Speaking as a convert, I am deeply grateful that the Catholic Church of my boyhood — the Church of Pius XII — evangelized in a different spirit, claiming, and proclaiming, the authority of Christ. Nobody dreamed of demanding apologies from that Church, and none were forthcoming. The message was simple, unclouded by equivocation: the Catholic Church was the way to salvation. To reject Christ and his One True Church was to incur damnation.

There were, to be sure, qualifications. We were taught that people might guiltlessly reject Catholicism out of “invincible ignorance”; but they were still in danger of damnation as the natural result of original and actual sin, and they still needed the Church, even if they didn’t know it. Catholic teaching covered everything with majestic common sense; the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas merely took common sense to sublime heights. The simple old widows I saw at daily Mass and the sophisticated scholars from whom I sought answers were in this thing together, and they understood each other as members of the same divine family. We were American and French and Filipino and African and everything else. Every Catholic priest in the world spoke Latin. Catholicism was universal in a way that was far more real and resonant than today’s abstract “universalism” and “multiculturalism” can ever be.

[Breaker quote: Should 
Athens apologize for Socrates?]It all revolved around the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. Christ had instituted the Eucharist, turning bread and wine into his body and blood and telling us to do likewise. He called himself “the bread of life” and said that eating his flesh was necessary for salvation. The Mass, reenacting his sacrifice at Calvary, was our essential rite. The Mass necessitated a priesthood, which in turn necessitated a hierarchy to ordain priests and, in time, a magisterium to keep doctrine pure. The Holy Inquisition followed eventually, and was essentially legitimate in spite of any abuses that might befall it. Within this framework, the notorious Index of Forbidden Books didn’t trouble me at all. The infallibility of the Pope, our supreme shepherd in the line of St. Peter, the rock on which Christ built his Church, was my assurance that I could trust the Church’s teaching authority not to mislead me. Devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints, prayers for the poor souls in Purgatory, the rosary, the Stations of the Cross, all this seemed to offer a wealth of spiritual opportunities. The Latin liturgy exuded holiness and mystery; it also signified the unity and ancient continuity of the Church. Catholic morality was unchanging and uncompromising. In all this I saw nothing that called for improvement as of the commencement of the Second Vatican Council in 1962; I was confident that the Council would merely continue what had already existed, making some parts of the Deposit of Faith more explicit, leaving intact everything that was already established.

I understood the logic of Protestantism too. It issued from the rejection of the Eucharist: the words “This is my body” and “This is my blood” were only figurative, even to “fundamentalists” who took the Bible literally! But if Christ had been speaking figuratively, why had so many disciples deserted him when he announced that eating his flesh and drinking his blood were necessary for salvation (John 6: 53–66)? When they left, saying, “This is a hard saying; who can accept it?” he could easily have said, “Wait, come back! I was just using a metaphor!” Instead, he rebuked them for not believing.

Once the Eucharist was demoted to a mere symbol, there was no need for a priesthood to consecrate bread and wine, no need for a hierarchy, et cetera. The “priesthood of all believers” became the papacy of each believer, with no cohesive authority to ensure unity. Freedom of conscience, permitting each believer to interpret Scripture for himself, seemed to me anarchic; and Protestantism seemed doomed to dissolve into countless sects, creating a centrifugal culture that would terminate in unbelief and sensuality. Some Protestants held firm to as much of the Deposit of Faith as they had received; such people were faithful to Christ by their lights, though they lacked the blessings of the Sacraments they had rejected and had cut themselves off from the graces they might have received through Our Lady and the saints. I considered Protestants of this kind better “Catholics,” as it were, than those nominal Catholics who picked and chose among the Church’s teachings and therefore essentially rejected the authority of the Church.

Today, whether because of the Council I don’t know, many Catholics as well as Protestants have committed apostasy while continuing to call themselves Christians. The “dissident” Catholic insists that he is as good a Catholic as the faithful members of the Church, even if he denies the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and therefore rejects the very rationale of Catholicism. But the usual motive for this internal apostasy isn’t specifically theological; it is sexual. The defector claims a “right” to sexual freedom — fornication, contraception, sodomy, divorce, and remarriage; nominally Catholic voters and politicians even treat abortion as a right. I can only wonder why these virtual Unitarians insist on identifying themselves as Catholics.

But such dissidence suffers no penalty in today’s Church. If the Pope seeks matter for repentance — sins he can actually do something about — he should look to the failure of the Church under recent papacies, very much including his own, to teach and discipline Catholics properly. The Eucharist itself is constantly abused, even to sacrilege, in the Novus Ordo Mass, which permits the Body of Christ to be treated with contempt.

Do I exaggerate? Not long ago I saw a young man take Communion while wearing a T-shirt that read “PARTY NAKED.” Nobody in the Church is apologizing for letting that sort of thing happen. But then, the Anti-Defamation League isn’t complaining.
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