Church's act of contrition does not go nearly far enough


On the evening of Saturday, November 16th, 1532, a Spanish priest, Father Vincente de Valverde, walked into the open square at Cajamarca, a city of the Inca empire in what is now Peru. He was accompanied only by an interpreter. Father de Valverde approached the Inca emperor, Atahuallpa, who was on horseback and was flanked by 80 nobles and 6,000 men.

Father de Valverde started to recite the Requirement, which was a formal demand to a heathen to submit to the authority of the Pope and the king of Spain and to permit the teaching of the Catholic religion. Atahuallpa was unimpressed and tossed the breviary of the priest to the ground. The priest turned away and cried aloud that the Incas had repudiated the word of God.

Thereupon Francisco Pizarro and a tiny force of about 160 men, who were concealed in buildings around the square, opened fire with cannon and guns, killing almost all the Incas present. The atrocity had papal sanction, for such fate properly befell those who on hearing the word of God rejected it.

Similar acts of atrocity were perpetrated throughout the colonised world of America, Africa and Asia for centuries, all in the guise of the Catholic Church bringing the message of Jesus to the world. The church was a breeding ground of anti-Semitism and of unspeakable atrocities against the Jews.

Crusades instigated and sponsored by the church massacred Muslims, in one instance hundreds of defenceless men, women and children in the Mosque at Jerusalem. Later in the wars of religion, some more thousands were massacred, again in the name of Jesus. Slavery was justified by the church, the subjugation of women was sanctioned by the church, oppressive regimes were supported by the church. Torture was justified and often practised by the church.

In what was described as an act of contrition on behalf of the church, Pope John Paul II last Sunday sought forgiveness for these sins. It followed the publication last week by the International Theological Commission of a document entitled Memory and Reconciliation: the Church and the Faults of the Past.

In its Web format ( the document is 38 pages long, including seven of footnotes. Of the 31 pages of text, just five related to the sins being confessed and, in the case of each of these sins, there are no specifics.

The sin most grieved has nothing to do with genocide or subjugation or torture; it has to do with the disunity of the church. The massacres of colonised peoples throughout Africa, Asia and America are subsumed in a mention of "doubtful means" employed in the pursuit of "good ends".

Support for slavery and oppression is, one assumes, contained in the mention of how the church "may" have been responsible for failing to denounce injustice and violence. The complicity of the church in the genocide of the Jews and of virulent anti-Semitism is dismissed as "a sad historical fact".

The implication is that the church as an institution has no responsibility because, having been founded by Jesus Christ it is holy and immune from defect. The sins, such as they are, have been committed by members of the church, although the document avoids suggesting that any pope and church authority might have had any responsibility.

In short, this much-heralded, courageous and magnanimous apology is no such thing. It represents more an intricate and clever denial of the complicity of the church in some of the gravest crimes against humanity of the past two millennia.

Had that complicity been spelled out more clearly, it might have been more difficult to disentangle the responsibility of the church from culpability. More critically, it might have been impossible to avoid asking whether that complicity reflected on the message of what the church was seeking to convey.

For there is beating at the heart of the Bible's message an impulse to genocide, to oppression, to the subjugation of women, to intolerance. This is not the complete picture of the Bible's message. There is also the Golden Rule ("Do unto others etc") and the encouragement to forgiveness, but this Francis of Assisi dimension is not the full picture either.

Memory and Reconciliation makes a footnoted implied reference to the difficulty of reconciling toleration with the Bible's message. In Deuteronomy, Chapter 7, there is the passage: "When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drive out before you many nations - the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you - and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally.

"Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD's anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.

"This is what you are to do to them: break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the Earth to be his people, his treasured possession."

And in the New Testament, especially in the letters of Paul, there are passages justifying oppressive authority (Romans 13), slavery (I Corinthians 7. 24), the subjugation of women (I Corinthians 11. 4-16) and intolerance (I Corinthians 5. 9-12). Arguably, also in the New Testament there is the beginnings of anti-Semitism.

For believers to challenge this inheritance would be to challenge belief. Just as the message of Jesus is inseparable from the message of love and forgiveness, so the message of Christianity is inseparable from the message of intolerance and oppression. That the two messages are not compatible is a conundrum not for outsiders to unravel.