With the great confession of guilt "Mea culpa" Pope John Paul II wanted to. to strengthen the credibility of the Church in the world during the Holy Year 2000. The moral theologian Rudolf B. Hein is in favor of a new edition in view of the current situation.
Interviewer: What does such a confession of guilt by a pope mean from a moral-theological point of view??
Prof. P. Dr. Rudolf B. Hein O.Praem (professor of moral theology at the Philosophical-Theological College of the Capuchins in Munster): Moral theology sees first of all the personal responsibility of the individual. In this respect, such a confession of guilt can only have a limited meaning, a symbolic meaning.
If you look at the "Mea culpa" declaration, it is actually a liturgical act. And as a liturgical act, it is certainly a very meaningful and also good thing to carry before God what the Church has accumulated in the course of its centuries, so to speak, in burdens and drags around with it. In this context we are of course in an area of the exemplary, the symbolic. We are not hard-fact in the realm of personal, moral guilt and responsibility.
The theologian and moral theologian Franz Bockle has always said that there are three dimensions of sin: as an act, and there we are with personal responsibility, as power, as something that works across structures, and as a sign. These last two symbolic dimensions, power and sign, can perhaps lead us further in an evaluation.
But ultimately the question remains: Can a pope apologize for something that other people have done to individuals or to what extent they have erred?
Interviewer: In the wake of the abuse scandal, some bishops have also asked for forgiveness on behalf of others in penitential services. Is this also more of a symbolic act that you just spoke of?
Hein: That is how I would see it. Substitution also means bringing something back into the public memory; means speaking for a dimension of church that as a community supported and protected a sinful structure.
Therefore, it is of course a sensible thing to simply bring this back into the memory of the public and to say: Yes, we are aware of this. That's what's in front of us. And in this respect, the theological declaration on "Mea culpa" also speaks of such a remembrance and an act of remembrance.
Interviewer: A current question that arises again and again is: Is it the Church that sins, or is it rather its members that stray from the right path??
Hein: There, too, one can of course very quickly slip into systematics and say: In the end, the church cannot sin at all. If the Church, dogmatically speaking, is the pure bride of Christ – this is how it has always been traditionally viewed – then of course the Church as a whole, as the one that is always connected to Christ, that has come forth from Christ, that is strengthened and sustained by Christ, cannot sin as such.
It consists, however, and this has always been part of the teaching of the Church, of sinful individual members. And this includes – please – pope and bishops, it must be said. Please, they do not and cannot exclude themselves.
Interviewer: At this point, Pope Francis very often brings up the devil, to whose seduction the sinner often succumbs. Critics now accuse the Pope of thereby turning perpetrators into victims. Does the human being sin of his own accord or does he succumb to the seduction of evil??
Hein: This leads us back to the question of so-called original guilt and original sin. That is, the constitution of man is of course always one that tends toward sinfulness.
If, however, we were to say that all moral transgressions are ultimately to be blamed on a foreign power, then this would lead us straight into determinism (doctrine of the predeterminacy of all events and actions, note. d. Red.); a determinism, at the end of which, at the top of which we see the devil.
And the church, I think, has always tried to defend itself against this determinism and to say: No, man is created by God as a free being, also as a morally free being, and is able to resist evil from within himself. He can set his own accents in action, otherwise he would be completely at the mercy of evil.
This leads us a bit into the spheres of discussion between Erasmus and Luther. You may be familiar with this: "De libero arbitrio" ("free will"), Erasmus, and "De servo arbitrio" ("subjugated will"), Luther. And I think if we slip too much into this direction of "De servo arbitrio", then it becomes dangerous.
Interviewer: The "mea culpa" 20 years ago was intended to strengthen the credibility of the Catholic Church in the world, according to the International Theological Commission at the time. Now, 20 years later, not much seems to be left of that credibility. Is it now time for a new "mea culpa"??
Hein: I would say yes. I have now looked at it again in peace, also as a liturgical act.
It is not at all a matter of spelling out in all details what this means for the guilt of the individual members of the church, but actually of publicly bringing back to memory what misconduct the church has carried out in the course of the last centuries and into what aberrations it has fallen and how this can lead to a healing.
This is also what these texts and also the statements of theologians say about it. And I can only confirm that. And what is clearly missing from "Mea culpa" is a reappraisal of the abuse scandals – abuse of power and sexual abuse.
The interview was conducted by Jan Hendrik Stens.