Papal plea notable for vagueness

Confession: Specifics were sorely lacking in Pope John Paul II's speech in which he sought forgiveness for Catholicism's past sins.

March 19, 2000|By Colman McCarthy

ADULT Roman Catholics with sharp memories can recall the priests and nuns of their childhood offering advice on confessing sins -- "going into the box," as the phrase went. Be specific, be contrite, and promise to sin no more. Of those three standards for true repentance, Pope John Paul II, in his March 12 plea for divine forgiveness for sins committed by his church during the past 2,000 years, met only one. He was contrite.

On specific sins, the pope offered the incense of smoky generalities. Naming earlier sinner popes, most remembered only by hagiographers, or citing Catholicism's public crimes that were sanctioned by churchmen or doctrine, were not part of John Paul's confession. In the 19,000-word document "Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past" that accompanied the papal self-pardoning, specifics were also absent. "Past faults" and "scandals of the past" cover a multitude of undefined sins.

The pope's vagueness raises a question -- not about past sins but about possible current ones. For what sins of today's church might a pope in the year 4000 -- perhaps John Paul XXXIV -- be begging forgiveness? What policies of today's Vatican will be weepingly regretted 10 or 20 centuries from now? Start with violence. With some 35 wars or conflicts bloodying the earth, and with as many as 40,000 deaths a month -- mostly the poor killing the poor with weapons made in rich nations -- where is a statement by the pope calling on Catholics to refuse to cooperate in any way with military violence? It is accepted as normal that Catholic colleges in the United States have ROTC programs, that Catholic priests serve as military chaplains, that Catholics pay federal taxes guaranteeing the Department of Defense $700 million a day, that Catholics work for weapons companies, that Catholic pilots bomb people in Iraq or Kosovo.

In the early 1980s, Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle refused to pay that portion of his federal income taxes -- about 50 percent -- that went to the Pentagon. He received no personal or moral support from John Paul II or the Vatican. The opposite message came through. Around the time of the Hunthausen war tax revolt -- which philosophically aligned him with members of the three traditional peace churches, the Mennonites, Quakers and Church of the Brethren -- John Paul named John O'Connor the archbishop of New York and, soon after, consecrated him a cardinal. O'Connor had been a Navy chaplain -- rising to the rank of rear admiral -- during the Vietnam War. Hawkish, he wrote a 1968 book stoutly supporting U.S. military policies in Southeast Asia. At the time of O'Connor's appointment to the nation's richest diocese, the pope was widely reported to have said, "I want a man just like me in New York."

At no time in John Paul's papacy has he renounced the church's just-war theory. He has never wavered from Catholic teaching that violence can be used to repel violence. During World War II, Catholic bishops in Germany claimed their side was waging a just war. In June 1982, the pope visited Argentina, a nation then at war with Britain. The Argentine clergy supported their government's war making. On the pope's arrival at the Buenos Aires airport, they and the junta's generals piously surrounded John Paul, with banners in the background saying, "Holy Father, bless our just war" and "May God defend our cause because we defend His."

Catholics who reject church teaching on just war can expect no support from John Paul. Philip Berrigan is caged in the Baltimore County Detention Center awaiting a trial scheduled for tomorrow on charges of sabotage, conspiracy to commit sabotage, malicious destruction of property, conspiracy to commit malicious destruction of property, and trespassing. On Dec. 19, he and three other pacifists attempted to disarm two A-10 Thunderbolt warplanes at the Warfield Air National Guard facility in Essex, Md. The type of planes was the main delivery system for anti-tank shells used in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia.

Berrigan, his wife Elizabeth McAlister, his brother the Rev. Daniel Berrigan and a full cellblock of other pacifists who see Christianity as a religion of nonviolence, the love of enemies and resistance to the power of Caesar and pharaohs have been repeatedly imprisoned for their conscientious objection to U.S. militarism. A possible reason for John Paul's lack of support for these members of his flock is their refusal to support church leadership.

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