ROME– Almost 150 years ago, Pope Pius IX led the Catholic Church in declaring the dogma of papal infallibility applied to solemn declarations of faith and morals, according to which popes are preserved from the possibility of error. It was the culmination of centuries of mounting efforts to provide a sense of absolute certainty that popes won’t, even can’t, get it wrong when it comes to teaching.
Without quite saying it, what the last three popes have done is to pioneer a companion dogma of papal fallibility when it’s a question of practice.
For centuries, supreme pontiffs never publicly apologized for anything; quite literally, being pope meant never having to say you’re sorry. Certainly, this didn’t mean that they lacked reasons to do so, but it was considered unseemly, unregal. It was seen as a sign of weakness, unbecoming of the Successor of Peter.
Saint Pope John Paul II, however, broke the mold, getting the ball rolling when it comes to papal apologies. In 1998, Italian journalist Luigi Accattoli catalogued at least 94 apologies made by the Polish pope in the book When a Pope Asks Forgiveness.
During the 27 years of his pontificate, John Paul II delivered many apologies, speaking in the name of the Church. The wide range of mea culpas included specific people who were harmed by the Church, like Galileo Galilei, to groups of people such as those convicted by the Inquisition, Muslims killed in the Crusades and Africans enslaved with the help of the Church.
Going even further, in the year 2000, during the Great Jubilee, in a “Day of Pardon” John Paul II apologized in the name of the Church for the sins of its sons and daughters against Jews, heretics, women, Gypsies and native peoples.
Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would later become Pope Benedict XVI, helped provided a theological framework for the apology through a document called Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past.
The document served as a reminder that even though the apology was in the name of the Church, it was for the wrongdoings of individual Christians, because the Church itself is always holy.
One could argue that as revolutionary as these apologies were, John Paul II wasn’t apologizing for his personal failures. Instead, he was making the institutional decision to ask for forgiveness in the name of the Church for past sins and mistakes.
Pope emeritus Benedict XVI carried that tradition forward, issuing what at the time was defined as an historic apology to the victims of clerical sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland.
Addressing the victims and their families directly in an eight-page pastoral letter, Benedict wrote: “You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry.”
“I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured,” he wrote in 2010. “Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity violated.”
But the German pontiff didn’t apologize only for the Church’s institutional failures, but his own.
The first time he did so was in 2006, after a famous speech on the state of Christianity in the modern world that he delivered at the University of Regensburg in Germany. The lecture, titled Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections, was about the West’s tendency to separate reason and faith.
However, during his address he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who claimed Muhammad brought “things only evil and inhuman,” and that violence is “incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.”
Taken out of context, it was seen as an attack against Islam, which sparked wide protests across the Arab world. People were killed as a result.
Five days later, during his weekly Sunday Angelus address, delivered in the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, Benedict XVI apologized for his remarks, saying he was “deeply sorry” for the reaction some of its passages had caused.
“These in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought,” he said.
In 2009, as part of a broader effort from the man once dubbed “God’s Rottweiler” to reach out to all dissidents, including the traditionalist group known as the Society of Pius X, he lifted the excommunication of four bishops who’d been validly but not legitimately ordained.
Among them was Holocaust denier Bishop Richard Williamson. Headlines about the pope “rehabilitating a Holocaust denier” became the shot heard round the world.
Weeks later, Benedict issued an agonizing letter to all the bishops of the world apologizing for the hurt caused by the affair, expressing “deep regret” over the mistakes made in the process of reaching out to the Society and its members. He even admitted that much of the heartburn could have been avoided if the Vatican had used the Internet to research the four men in question.
Last week, with an apology to a group of Chilean survivors of clerical sexual abuse, Pope Francis moved the ball even further by institutionalizing the tradition of personal papal apologies.
“I recognize and I want you to communicate this accurately, that I have made serious errors of judgement and perception of the situation, especially due to lack of truthful and balanced information,” Francis wrote in a letter addressed to the Chilean bishops.
Later this month the pope is expected to meet with the three abuse survivors, James Hamilton, Juan Carlos Cruz and Jose Andres Murillo, who have been the most outspoken regarding clerical sexual abuse in Chile and the systematic cover-up, but the letter released on Wednesday included an apology “to all those whom I offended.”
In the words of Cruz, Francis appears to have “opened his eyes to a reality … about thousands of lives who have been crucified” by priests who rape and fondle children.
Although a humbling exercise, apologies can be void of meaning without a follow-through, and much remains to be done in the case of the Chilean Church and its response to clerical sexual abuse.
Those fighting to keep the Church accountable when it comes to the protection of minors do well to have high expectations but also reservations when it comes to next month’s meeting between Francis and the 32 Chilean bishops, whom he’s summoned to Rome to address the crisis.
In the future, most people would probably say, Francis and his successors should set themselves the goal of never having to apologize for such colossal mistakes again.
Humanity being what it is, however, there will undoubtedly be further need for a papal “I’m sorry.” But in a world where acknowledging mistakes is fast becoming a dying art, at least when it comes to the leader of the Catholic Church, by now there’s a blueprint for how to do it, and an expectation for it to be done.