Apology from the Pope


Sir - At the beginning of its document "Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past", the Catholic Church's International Theological Commission mentions the expressions of unease which had been voiced that "the simple admission of faults committed by the sons and daughters of the Church may look like acquiescence in the face of accusations made by those who are prejudicially hostile to the Church". The Commission did not even envisage the type of reaction to be found in Vincent Browne's column (March 15th). For him this act of contrition is in fact nothing short of a devious cover-up for the evil at the core of Christianity.

I cannot hope to argue against Vincent Browne's personal conception of Christianity and the Catholic Church in particular, but his distortion of historical and theological truths cannot go unchallenged. He presents a very selective account of history. He recounts the story of a massacre perpetrated by a certain priest and Spanish soldiers in the conquest of South America; the kind of abuse which the Church does not dispute and for which she now asks pardon. We are told however that the atrocity in question "had papal sanction, for such fate properly befell those who on hearing the word of God rejected it".

We are told nothing of the efforts (largely successful) of the church and certain outstanding churchmen such as Bartholomew de Las Casas in the defence of the rights of the native Indians of South America. We are told nothing of Pope Paul III's Bull Sublimis Deus, written only five years after the atrocity described in the column, in which the Pope insists that "the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and no effect". Vincent Browne has obviously never asked himself why one doesn't find the Indian "reservations" of North America in South America.

In quoting the long piece from Deuteronomy, he chooses to present the rather gory text without any reference to its cultural and theological context. Strangely enough this is precisely the kind of error the International Theological Commission warns against in its infamous document when it states that: "the precise correlation of historical and theological judgment is a decisive element for reaching correct and efficacious statements that take proper account of the times, places, and contexts in which the actions under consideration were situated". In other words, we are being told to bear in mind that the ancient Jews of the 12th century BC did not have the benefit of reading the opinion columns of The Irish Times.

Lastly, the document's statement: "The hostility or diffidence of numerous Christians toward Jews in the course of time is a sad historical fact" becomes in the column: "The complicity of the church in the genocide of the Jews and of virulent anti-Semitism is dismissed as "a sad historical fact". Surely that is simply shoddy journalism? - Yours, etc.,

Fr Gavan Jennings, Nullamore, Richmond Avenue South, Dublin 6.