The editors of Commonweal have posed a three-part question on the church and the confession of error. The nature of the answer depends on the meaning given to the noun "church." One assumes, first of all, that we are speaking of the Catholic church, and not the worldwide Body of Christ. If we are speaking, on the one hand, of the church as the people of God, at least portions of that church have confessed error, time and time again, often openly and without equivocation. And this continues today in the public statements of various Catholic organizations, in the writings of theologians and other Catholic scholars, and in editorials and articles published in journals like Commonweal itself.

If, on the other hand, "church" applies to the hierarchy, that is, those who exercise the official ministries of teaching and pastoral leadership, then three points need to be made by way of a reply: (1) The church can confess error. (2) While the Roman magisterium has been reluctant (to say the least) to admit error, the hierarchical magisterium more broadly understood has already begun to do so. (3) We have a model for the hierarchical magisterium’s admission of error in the statements of the German and French bishops on the Holocaust.

I will take up each of these points in turn.

1. The church (understood hereafter as the hierarchy) can confess error with regard to a particular teaching or disciplinary decree if none of these pertains to the deposit of faith, that is, if the charism of infallibility has not been engaged in their original promulgation. The reason is self-evident. If something is not infallible (literally, "immune from error"), it must be fallible (literally, "subject to error"). In fact, the number of infallible teachings and decrees is infinitesimally small in relation to the total corpus of teachings and decrees spread over the course of the church’s two-thousand-year history. Moreover, where there is a doubt about their infallible status, it must be assumed that they are not infallible. This is in accordance with the Code of Canon Law: "No doctrine is understood to be infallibly defined unless it is clearly established as such" (can. 749.3). The criteria for an infallible teaching were laid down by the First Vatican Council in its own dogmatic teaching on papal infallibility. Not even a high-level congregation of the Roman curia can make up new criteria as we go along.

Some have argued that the church cannot confess error because the church is a mystery, with divine as well as human elements. Individual members of the church may err, but not the church "as such." This argument rests on the fallacy of denying the human and pilgrim nature of the church. Indeed, Scripture discloses specific errors that Jesus himself made, notwithstanding the fact that he was completely free from sin (Hebrews 4:15). He was mistaken, for example, about the identity of the high priest at the time David entered the house of God and ate the holy bread which only the priests were permitted to eat (Mark 2:26); it was Ahimelech (1 Samuel 21:1–6) who did so, not Abiathar, as Jesus thought. He was in error, too, about the fact that Zechariah, son of Jehoiada, was killed in the Temple (2 Chronicles 24:20–22); it was not Zechariah, son of Barachiah, as Jesus said (Matthew 23:35).

What applies to Jesus applies a fortiori to the church. If the church can commit an error (where the charism of infallibility is not engaged), on what possible grounds-theological, doctrinal, or pastoral—can it not admit the error, correct it, and move on?

2A. The Roman magisterium, represented by the pope and the Roman curia, has been reluctant to admit error. Although the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom acknowledged that in the course of history "there have at times appeared patterns of behavior which were not in keeping with the spirit of the gospel and were even opposed to it" (n. 12), not even this forward-looking document could bring itself to an explicit admission of error in the Roman magisterium’s previous teachings on the subject of religious liberty. The document implicitly appealed instead to the development of doctrine, an issue, John Courtney Murray noted, "that lay continually below the surface of all the conciliar debates" and which was "the real sticking-point for many of those who opposed the Declaration even to the end." (See his brief introduction to the document in the Abbott-Gallagher edition of The Documents of Vatican II.)

The tendency within the Roman magisterium today is to blame sin and error on individual members of the church, and never on the church itself. Thus, Pope John Paul’s II apostolic exhortation on the coming jubilee year 2000, Tertio millennio adveniente (1994), calls upon the church to acknowledge the sins of intolerance and even the use of violence "in the service of truth." But the pope implies that those sins were committed by the church’s "sons and daughters," not by the church as such.

This same distinction has surfaced more recently in Cardinal Edward Cassidy’s defense of last year’s Vatican statement on the Holocaust, We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah. In a speech before the American Jewish Committee in Washington, D.C., in May 1998, this high-ranking (and justly respected) curial official said: "We do not speak of the church as sinful, but the members of the church as sinful." By contrast, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church had declared: "The church, however, clasping sinners to its bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of penance and renewal" (n. 8). The conciliar text clearly states that the church as such, not just its individual members, is "at once holy and always in need of purification," and that this purification involves "penance and renewal." The church as such is "always in need of purification" and "follows constantly the path of penance and renewal" because it is indeed a sinful church, not just in its members, but corporately and institutionally.

While sin cannot be attributed to Christ, not even in his human nature, because his human nature is hypostatically united to his divine person, there is no hypostatic union of the divine and the human in the church. Insofar as the church is divine, it is sinless. But insofar as it is human, it is sinful. A fortiori, if the church can sin, it can also err. Indeed, Jesus erred even though he was sinless.

2B. Happily, there is recent evidence of a readiness on the part of the hierarchical magisterium outside of Rome to confess error. By contrast with the distinction made by the pope and Cardinal Cassidy between the church and its individual members, both the German and French hierarchies have explicitly acknowledged the sinfulness of their own churches in their failure to speak out against, and even in their active complicity with, the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust. In a statement issued on January 23, 1995, the German bishops pointed out that "the failure and guilt of that time have also a church dimension." Despite the "exemplary behavior of some individuals and groups...we were nevertheless, as a whole, a church community...who looked too fixedly at the threat to their own institutions and who remained silent about the crimes committed against the Jews and Judaism." The bishops urged the German nation to confess its guilt and to willingly and "painfully learn from this history of guilt of our country and of our church as well" (my emphasis). The French bishops, in their turn, also acknowledged the culpability of the church of France. In their own statement of September 30, 1997, they conceded that the loyalism and docility of "those in authority in the church" (not just individual rank-and-file members, or "sons and daughters" of the church) went "far beyond the obedience traditionally accorded civil authorities [and] remained stuck in conformity, prudence, and abstention."

Church leaders, the French bishops continued, "failed to realize that the church, called at that moment to play the role of defender within a social body that was falling apart, did in fact have considerable power and influence, and that in the face of the silence of other institutions, its voice could have echoed loudly by taking a definitive stand against the irreparable." Their statement ended on a ringing note: "In the face of so great and utter a tragedy, too many of the church’s pastors committed an offense, by their silence, against the church itself and its mission....this failing of the church of France and of her responsibility toward the Jewish people are part of our history. We confess this sin. We beg God’s pardon, and we call upon the Jewish people to hear our words of repentance."

3. If the hierarchical church, including even the Roman magisterium, is to confess error, how is it to do so? Have not the German and French bishops already shown the way? And did not the Second Vatican Council itself set a new standard of honest self-criticism, in acknowledging, for example, that "both sides were to blame" for the disastrous ruptures of unity brought about at the time of the Reformation (Decree on Ecumenism, n. 3)?

It used to be argued in the preconciliar period that "error has no rights." The council corrected that view. Error may have no rights, but persons in error do. The question today in the Catholic church is not whether error has rights, but whether error has ecclesiastical parents.

Early in the next century the Roman magisterium and other segments of the Catholic hierarchy may well join with the church’s rank-and-file membership—its "sons and daughters"—in acknowledging at least some of the church’s past doctrinal and disciplinary errors. If done in a manner similar to that of the French and German bishops, the new posture will surely enhance rather than diminish the church’s global credibility and, therefore, its capacity for even more illuminating and compelling teaching in the future.


Read more: Can the Church Admit Error?

Published in the 1999-11-19 issue: View Contents
Rev. Richard P. McBrien, the Crowley-O’Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of Catholicism and The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism, both published by HarperOne.
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