Can the church confess error? Of course we can.
Whenever a human community realizes that its beliefs or practices have wreaked harm, then love of the truth and commitment to what is right and good urges such a confession in the public arena. Indeed, admitting error, acknowledging shame for past misdeeds, and even apologizing for them put the community’s firm purpose of amendment into a strong and clear light. It cleanses the corporate soul and gives a new direction to behavior.
This, of course, is the genius of the sacrament of reconciliation which works to put individuals right with God. Its dynamic works no less effectively with a community as a whole. As the pilgrim people of God journeying through history, the church is not perfect but liable to sin in word and deed—ecclesia semper reformanda. The very fact that we confess belief in the church’s holiness in the creed indicates that it is a matter of faith, proclaimed in the teeth of evidence to the contrary. When the Spirit moves the community to grow and learn in a particular area of doctrine or ethics where error has been harmful, then part of responding to the Spirit’s promptings entails honest admission of what went wrong. This clears the deck for embracing the gospel vision of the reign of God more full-heartedly in the future.
Those who oppose the church’s confession of error inhabit a different model of the church. Theirs is an institutional model wherein the church is a perfect society whose essence or core remains untouched by intellectual failure or moral fault. I make no judgment about personal motives. But at least part of what is happening here is illumined by social analysis, which makes clear that such a position aims at maintaining a rather imperious style of church leadership. For if the church of the past could err, then the church of the present could too, a possibility that would mandate wide consultation, dialogue, and openness to correction on the part of institutional leaders. Preferring a more top-down, even autocratic exercise of authority, critics of public confession place the magisterium on the side of the angels. They act in defense of the power of a clerical elite.
Some seek a middle ground on this issue, not admitting that the institutional church can sin and err but recognizing that individual members do. A good example is John Paul II’s letter to women written at the time of the UN Beijing Conference on Women (1995). After acknowledging the unfortunate history that has disrespected the dignity of women, relegated them to the margins, and even reduced them to servitude with great impoverishment resulting for women and the whole of humanity, the pope writes, "And if objective blame, especially in particular historical contexts, has belonged to not just a few members of the church, for this I am truly sorry."
The problem here is not the apology, which the pope rightly hopes will be transformed on the part of "the whole church" into renewed fidelity to the gospel vision on women’s behalf. Rather, the difficulty resides in the failure to grasp that prejudice against women is a structural sin that pervades the history of "the whole church," not just many of its members. Similar to the structural sin the pope discerns in certain of the world’s economic and political systems, this bias has conditioned ecclesial culture, life, and practice to its roots, continuing to our own day, to the "exploitation and domination" (the pope’s words) of half the church’s members. The failure to grasp that structural sin operates within the institutional church, and thus must to be confessed as such, all but ensures that the hoped-for transformation will be inadequate, as indeed has been the case up until now.
In the spirit of this reflection, I would like to muse about an ecclesial confession of error regarding women that I hope will be forthcoming in the near future. I imagine it to be modeled on the words said during the exoneration of Galileo, with the addition of an admission of the structural sin present in the theoretical and practical subordination of women in church history.
The Galileo case functions in the modern Western imagination as the paradigm of how in the name of God powerfully entrenched leaders silence rather than dialogue with new insights that challenge their world view. Three hundred and fifty years after the death of this scientist, the Vatican completed a review of his (in)famous trial. During a solemn ceremony, the head of the papal investigating team announced its conclusion that Galileo’s judges had been wrong (the individual rather than institutional position again), while John Paul II spoke about lessons that might be learned from the case. At the heart of the conflict, the pope suggested, was the fact that to church leaders of the time "geocentrism seemed to be part of scriptural teaching itself." Wedded as they were to a literal interpretation of Scripture, they thought that since the Bible assumes the earth to be the center of the universe, this was a doctrine of the faith. In order to deal with Galileo’s new discovery, they would have had to revise their method of biblical interpretation. But "most of them did not know how to do so."
This difficulty was compounded by the way that church leaders just assumed the "common sense," geocentric view of their culture to be correct. Rather than examine or question it, they took it as self-evident. To avoid the conflict, "it would have been necessary all at once to overcome habits of thought, and to devise a way of teaching capable of enlightening the people of God." This they were also unable to do.
In a word, church leaders clung to traditional religious and cultural assumptions despite new evidence to the contrary. As the papal commission noted, "Galileo’s judges, incapable of dissociating faith from an age-old cosmology, believed quite wrongly that the adoption of the Copernican revolution, in fact not yet definitively proven, was such as to undermine Catholic tradition, and that it was their duty to forbid its being taught. This subjective error of judgment, so clear to us today, led them to a disciplinary measure from which Galileo had much to suffer. These mistakes must be frankly recognized."
What should we learn from this case? The pope draws pastoral conclusions. Ecclesial teachers should keep abreast of advances in scholarship and culture "in order to examine, if such be necessary, whether or not there are reasons for taking them into account in their reflection or for introducing changes in their teaching." Furthermore, in so doing, pastors "ought to show genuine boldness, avoiding the double trap of a hesitant attitude and of hasty judgment, both of which can cause considerable harm."
There is no little irony in the fact that a Vatican postage stamp honoring the newly rehabilitated Galileo was issued at the same time in May 1994 that the pope issued an apostolic letter rejecting the idea that women might be ordained in the Roman Catholic church and clamping down on further dissension about the issue. This barring of women from a sacrament by which they would receive grace and become ministers of grace to others is not the totality of women’s issues in the church, but it is the most symbolically and practically powerful one, a touchstone for all the rest. Could it not be that in the rush to negative judgment and the effort to block further ripening of the issue in the church the judges are once again making a serious mistake?
Throughout the church, the gospel vision of a community of the discipleship of equals is as compelling to persons converted from sexism as the centrality of the sun was to Galileo—neither men nor the earth can claim to be the center of the system. The literal interpretation of texts about Jesus choosing only twelve male apostles is as archaic as biblical descriptions of the geocentric structure of the universe. The inability of the judges to revise their methods of biblical interpretation in the case of women is less excusable, for biblical scholarship, including the Pontifical Biblical Commission, has shown that the New Testament offers no impediment to and many promptings toward women’s full participation in ministry. Incapable of dissociating faith from an outdated, patriarchal anthropology, church leaders believe quite wrongly that the adoption of the women’s revolution would undermine Catholic tradition, and so they turn a blind eye to the new sky of moons around Jupiter and star-birthing nebulae, for example, women’s competencies and hearts full of call. This subjective error of judgment, so clear to us today, leads them to take measures from which women and the whole church have much to suffer. These mistakes must be frankly recognized. One day another confession of error will be in order.
Legend has it that at the end of his trial, having accepted silencing in lieu of torture, Galileo committed an act of resistance by whispering an endorsement of his own vision. Women and men, who have glimpsed the gospel vision of a community of equals where "there is no more Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28), and whose spirits have been set on fire by its beauty, join Galileo’s spirit in uttering an affirmation of a vision that cannot be quenched: "Nevertheless, it moves."
Read more: Can the Church Admit Error?
About the Author
Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ, Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University, is the author of Quest for the Living God, She Who Is, and several other books.