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Vatican on its knees

Rather than celebrating the official two-thousandth birthday of Jesus Christ, Pope John Paul II seems likely to spend the festivities apologising.

The Holy See only recently announced the establishment of a joint Jewish/Catholic commission to examine archives relating to the wartime relationship of Pope Pius XII to Hitler, Mussolini and the Holocaust. Come the millennium, the pope will delve further into the history books, and apologise publicly for the killing of Protestants, Jews and others during the medieval Inquisition.

That the pope himself chooses the biggest Christian celebration in 1000 years to apologise for the Inquistion shows just how insecure the Catholic Church has become. The idea that the Catholic Church has a responsibility to impose its faith on others by any means necessary has been central to a 2000-year tradition. But now, such absolutes are out of date. Catholicism has so little faith in itself that it can only cringe at a legacy of forcing others to believe in its doctrines.

Saying 'sorry' for the Inquisition is apologising for claiming Catholicism to be the one true faith. Isn't that taking the Catholic spirit of self-denial just a little too far? Today's pope is so far away from the spirit of the Inquisition that he recognises alternative roads to salvation, like Judaism and Islam. Even fundamental concepts like heaven and hell are being reviewed. Hell is rarely featured in modern sermons compared with the past. A leading Roman Catholic magazine, Civilta Cattolica, which is vetted by the Vatican prior to publication, recently declared that the image of hell as a place where souls are tormented by demons in burning flames is misplaced. Hell is no longer even a physical place, but a state of being where those who have chosen to do evil are condemned to isolation from God. It doesn't sound so bad, does it?

There have been numerous statements by priests expressing their embarrassment when mentioning heaven and hell. But what is the point of going to confession and pouring out your sins if there is no fear of hell? Maybe this is one reason why the practice of going to confession has declined so rapidly in recent years. In Italy, 60 percent of Catholics recently stated in a survey that they do not believe in hell. Meanwhile, the percentage of Italians attending Sunday mass dropped from 70 percent during the immediate postwar years to 25 percent by the mid-1980s. Whatever the pope might say in December, it seems that many Italians will have better things to do than listen carefully.

Dominic Standish

Reproduced from LM issue 126, December 1999/January 2000

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