The Pope's Apology
Jude Wanniski
March 16, 2000


To: Ira Stoll, The Forward
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: The Debate Among Catholics

When you called the other day asking what Louis Farrakhan really said about Judaism, you will recall I just happened to be brooding about the arguments going on inside my own religion regarding the Pope's millennial apology for all sins committed during the last 2000 years by the sons and daughters of the church. The "politically" conservative Catholics, I said, were wringing their hands over whether he went too far, or not. I thought I'd share some of that discussion with you, as I assume there are no Roman Catholics on the Forward's staff. [Tell you the truth, I don't think there are currently any Catholics on the editorial pages of the NYTimes or WSJournal, but that is another matter.] What you should start with is an assessment from a church conservative who writes for a website,, that deals with religion, morality, and spirituality. You may even know Tom Bethell, who writes an excellent political column for the American Spectator, where there is an abundance of Catholics on the staff. When I read Tom's assessment, I e-mailed him this: "Why are you so hard on the Pope when you know he has no intention of doing the things you say the critics of his apologies say... Why couch the piece as a criticism of him instead of a defense?" To which he replied:

My point was not that he was embarking on a slippery slope that he would slide down himself. But in setting a precedent for apology he makes it likely that more apologies will be expected from his successors. In my view, it is not a good idea to apologize for the sins of others. In "Dangers of National Repentance," an essay in God in the Dock, C. S. Lewis called it the sin of detraction masquerading as the virtue of contrition. Paul Johnson was quoted as saying something similar in an essay by Rev. Avery Dulles in First Things (Dec. 1998) ("Our expression of repentance is really a disguised manifestation of pride.")

It is especially not a good idea when the events alluded to, such as the crusades and the inquisitions, were undertaken in good faith and with the direct involvement of previous popes. It is true that the use of force "in the service of truth" does not seem like a good idea to us now, but it did then. Now we prefer what the pope calls "dialogue." Who knows, in the ages to come that may well look like timidity and a desire to win applause from non-believers.

The pope has excused St. Catherine of Siena's involvement in the crusades by saying that she was a daughter of her times. Well, so is he of his, and his list of errors resembles nothing so much as a catalogue of the things that modern liberals accuse the Church of. They include, to quote yesterday's New York Times, "religious intolerance and injustice toward Jews, women, indigenous peoples, immigrants, the poor and the unborn."

We live in a licentious age, in which every opinion is accorded equal standing, and any practice whatever is tolerated as long as it is consensual and does not infringe upon the equivalent rights of others. Yet we are warned, constantly, of a tendency toward excessive zeal. In The New Republic in front of me there is a reference to "heavy handed evangelical moralism," for example. So the fashionable thing is to deplore religious zeal, and to some extent the pope has joined in that modern crusade. We now have bishops who have receded to a point where they are inconspicuous in national life, and the pope might apologize for that. Instead, he apologizes for a time when the Church tried to evangelize the world. But tried too hard.

This pope is often called a conservative, and one of the things I wanted to get across, in this and the earlier column on beliefnet, is that he is far from being that. It is true that he has maintained doctrinal orthodoxy, and for that we should be grateful. I certainly am. But his administration of the Church has been relaxed to the point of laxity. The clear air of Thomist reasoning has little appeal for him. He much prefers the Germanic fogbanks, where definitions disappear and all is oneness and commonality and solidarity and unity. His great enthusiasm for ecumenism seems to reflect this lack of interest in definition. A priest I spoke to in Washington D.C. the other day said that if the Pope is going to apologize, he should apologize to the elderly conservative priests and nuns who are living out their lives in the wreckage that they find around them.

The only criticism of the Pope that one sees comes from the Left. He won't ordain women, allow married priests, accept homosexuality as a valid "lifestyle." I saw a PBS documentary on the Pope not long ago, and it consisted entirely of criticisms that came from the side of heterodoxy. (The Vatican's responses were included, so it wasn't entirely unfair.) But what must the Vatican think? Maybe something like this: "Hmmm, the conservatives are happy. We never hear a peep from them . . . We must have been doing a lot for them. Maybe it's time to do more to placate the liberals."

What the effect of the apology will be it is impossible to say. I do acknowledge that it may indeed be fruitful for the Church in the long run. And I certainly hope so..... But the immediate reaction was predictable. Even then, the New York Times editorial (Mar. 14) lamenting that the apology "made no mention of discrimination against homosexuals," and finding it "difficult to square with [the pope's] continued opposition to abortion and birth control," came more swiftly and more fiercely than one might have expected.

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. That means they are likely to increase. You also asked how I would react to the rabbis who now demand that the Pope apologize for the Holocaust. I would tell them that it isn't going to happen. To the pope I would mention "the lesson of Munich": Appeasement doesn't work. Apologize, and they will only say, "Nice try, but you haven't gone far enough. Come back and try again next week." And that is what is happening. In its initial response to the apology, the Anti-Defamation League "welcomed" the new document, calling it a "step forward." (March 6). Six days later, however, Abraham Foxman was saying that John Paul II had "missed a historic opportunity to bring closure... " He added that the ADL was "saddened and disappointed." (March 12).

I hope this gives you a window into the discussion going on among Catholic intellectuals, Ira. Please share it with Seth Lipsky and the other folks on the Forward staff. It is only one dimension, though. I've asked Peter Signorelli of the Polyconomics staff to pick up where Tom Bethell left off, and even take issue with Tom where he thinks that might be appropriate. These are issues one normally cannot discuss in the news media, but which now become possible because of the openness of the Internet. All to the good, as long as we all stay civil.