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John Paul’s Historic Apology

Kris Schnee

Last Sunday in Vatican City, Pope John Paul II took a historic step towards a “purification of memory” in the reform of the Roman Catholic Church. The 79-year old pontiff gave a public address in which he apologized for the historic sins of Christians everywhere, mentioning seven categories of wrongs committed in the Church’s nearly 2000-year history. Among others, he confessed sins “committed in the service of truth,” and against “the rights of peoples,” “the dignity of women and the unity of the human race,” and “the fundamental rights of the person.”

The Papal event was a fascinating one because of the significance of the Pope’s words and their surprising implications. He spoke out against intolerance against other religions, resolving “to seek and promote truth in the gentleness of charity,” instead of using violence to enforce belief. (Deuteronomy 13) He condemned the times when people “have violated the rights of ethnic groups and peoples, and shown contempt for their cultures and religious traditions.” (Deuteronomy 7) He denounced the historic mistreatment of women, declaring “the equality of [God’s] sons and daughters.” (Exodus 21:7) On all of these issues, John Paul has adopted a system of morality based on human wants and needs instead of divine authority.

E. O. Wilson defined “transcendentalist” ethics as a moral system based on the belief that there are moral absolutes in the world -- that some acts are inherently morally right or wrong. Belief in any God is a separate issue, Wilson said. John Paul, remaining true to his Catholic roots, has established himself as a transcendentalist, but in a way that goes beyond the traditional thou-shalts and thou-shalt-nots. His ceremony spoke of rights, a concept drawn from the Enlightenment tradition of Locke and Jefferson. Rights are not commandments, but are held to be fundamental properties of human lives.

No person may violate another’s rights without being in some way immoral, transcendentalism holds; the Pope subscribes to this doctrine by declaring his belief in fundamental human rights. In this way John Paul is on the same page with the Declaration of Independence and its statement “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

Sunday’s declaration was not the first time John Paul has taken a stance on transcendentalism. “How often have I had occasion to speak of the fundamental and inalienable rights of man, even before the Assembly of the United Nations,” he remarked in 1983, speaking to members of the World Medical Association. His words showed explicitly that he considered rights absolute: “The rights to which one refers are not, in the first place, those which are recognized by the changing legislations of civil society, but they are rooted in fundamental principles, in the moral law which is based on being itself and which is immutable.”

He praised the Hippocratic model of medical ethics, because of “the value it attaches to the human person who is a subject of rights and of duties, and never an object to be used for other ends, not even some self-styled social good.”

The way John Paul has repeatedly spoken of rights indicates that he believes it wrong to kill a human, not because a God said “thou shalt not,” but because a human has a right to life. This is major shift in attitudes from the way morality was handled during, say, the Crusades. Nor is John Paul alone in this shift. It is part of a greater change in attitudes that has taken place over centuries in our society -- a movement towards taking responsibility for the consequences of our own actions, and looking to ourselves for the solutions to our problems. Slavery, for instance, was once accepted as divinely ordained, and yet church groups were among the most outspoken advocates of abolition in the nineteenth century. Martin Luther King used his religion in the fight for civil rights. In each of these cases, the old moral principles were revised and reinterpreted in light of an evolving belief in human rights. John Paul’s apology was another step in this most admirable shift in society.

The same Pope who sought reconciliation with Lutherans, met with Orthodox and Muslim leaders, and acknowledged the reality of evolution, has taken one more step forward. By acknowledging not only broad categories of sins meant to include the Crusades and other actions, but also the Church doctrine which has made these acts acceptable throughout centuries, John Paul has moved still more towards modernizing the Church and improving its ability to deal rationally with modern issues.