The editors of Commonwealhave 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.
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.