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Teaching the Church's Mistakes: Historical Hermeneutics in Memory and Reconciliation: the Church and the Faults of the Past

  • Christopher M. Bellitto (a1)


How can church history help students and teachers make sense of what happens when the church makes mistakes? The Jubilee Year of 2000 represented a moment to think about the far past, but after January 2002, the revelations about priest-pedophiles and institutional cover-ups placed the topic of the church's errors squarely in the current daily life of the church. This essay explores the historical hermeneutics in the International Theological Commission's document, Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past, issued a few months before Pope John Paul II's Jubilee apologies in Lent 2000. The essay strives to identify and critique historical and theological concerns in this document while applying them not only to historical events, but to the more recent sex abuse revelations. Two topics serve as entry points to this discussion: purification of memory and the historian's role in discerning personal and corporate responsibility.



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1 All references to the text of MR come from the December 1999 English translation as found on, under the links associated with the documents of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. MR's full text was printed in Origins 29 (16 March 2000): 625–44. This essay began as a paper for the Catholic Theological Society of America meeting in Reston, VA, June 2004. I am grateful to Susan Wood for inviting me to offer it, to audience members for their comments, and especially to my fellow panelist Bernard P. Prusak for his insights.

2 Cardinal Cassidy's quotation is taken from Hinze, Bradford E., “Ecclesial Repentance and the Demands of Dialogue,” Theological Studies 61 (2000): 232, with original source identified in n. 67.

3 Ellis, John Tracy, “In Defense of the Church's Memory,” America, 9 October 1982, pp. 185–88.

4 Henri de Lubac preferred the phrase Ecclesia semper purificanda to Ecclesia semper reformanda. He was referring, however, not to the act of memory but to the act of reform: See Dulles, Avery, “True and False Reform,” First Things, August/September 2003, p. 17.

5 As quoted in John Borelli, “Catholic-Muslim Relations,”, accessed 12 December 2001.

6 John W. O'Malley's comment is insightful here: “… Church history and its uses must be conceived of as liberating. They liberate us from the limitations of the past at the same time that they enhance our appreciation of the past. Church history studies the contingencies of human existence in the past. Its task is to render past expressions of our tradition intelligible precisely as they are located in limited, unique, culturally conditioned, never-to-be-repeated situations. Its task is not, on the other hand, to render any of these contingencies sacrosanct and to insulate them from critical revision, especially insofar as they may still be operative in the Church today” (“Church History in the Service of the Church,” America, 9 October 1982, p. 190).

7 Hinze provides a helpful theological discussion of the sinfulness of the Church in “Ecclesial Repentance and the Demands of Dialogue,” 220–35. See especially his concise statement on the implications of social sin: “In light of the developing doctrine of social sin, and what it implies about collective responsibility and accountability, we are now being called upon to reconsider this ancient doctrine so that the communio sanctorum can be also recognized, in humility and with no malice implied, as a communio peccatorum” (232–33).

8 As reported by the Associated Press, whose item on the event appeared on, accessed 16 April 2004.

9 Avery Dulles quotes Georges Cottier to say that we can indeed judge past actions as objectively wrong even while remaining unable to pronounce on subjective guilt (“Should the Church Repent?” First Things, December 1998, p. 39.) Michael Seigel, in an article in which he otherwise generally misses MR's points and the larger exercise of seeking pardon, put the matter succintly: “The real problem that we have to deal with is not what has been done by people who knew they were doing wrong but what has been done by people who were convinced they were right” (“Beyond Sin and Begging Pardon,” The Month, March 2001, p. 112).

10 Sullivan, Francis A., “The Papal Apology,” America, 8 April 2000, p. 22; italics and quotation marks original.

11 Anderson, C. Colt, “Bonaventure and the Sin of the Church,” Theological Studies 63 (2002): 667–89, esp. at 668 and 678–85. On casta meretrix and related bibliography, see Forte, Bruno, “The Church Confronts the Faults of the Past,” Communio 27 (Winter 2000): 679, n.4 and 682, n.8; and Hinze, , “Ecclesial Repentance and the Demands of Dialogue,” 221, n.37. Forte's article is extremely sympathetic to, and uncritical of, John Paul II and MR, perhaps because Forte was a member of the International Theological Commission and participated in the document's drafting.

12 Rahner, Karl, “The Church of Sinners,” in Cross Currents: Exploring the Implications of Christianity for Our Times, ed. Birmingham, William (New York: Crossroad, 1989), 53.

13 For a further discussion along these lines, see Dulles, , “Should the Church Repent?3739.

14 MR was published before the sex abuse revelations of January 2002, but it is not at all a stretch to see the document's perspective being consistently applied to events after its appearance in December 1999.

15 Küng, Hans, “What Has the Council Done?” trans. Dwyer, J. and Bronk, H., Commonweal, 21 January 1966, p. 466.

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  • ISSN: 0360-9669
  • EISSN: 2050-8557
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