An Excerpt from Cardinal Ratzinger’s Book:
Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith (pp. 279-283)
"When we look at this constant story of “mea culpa” in the Church, we may ask ourselves---and I, too, have asked myself this –what exactly is surprising about it, what is new about this Holy Year? My impression—and I should like to offer this for discussion here—is that something changed at the beginning of the modern era, when Protestantism created a new kind of church history, with the aim of showing that the Catholic Church was not merely stained with sin, as she has always known and said, but that she was, allegedly, completely corrupted and ruined and no longer the Church of Christ; rather, she has, on the contrary, become an instrument of the Antichrist. Consequently—since she was corrupt through and through—she was said to be no longer the Church but an anti-church. At this point, something had obviously changed. A Catholic historiography now necessarily grew up in opposition to this picture, with the aim of showing that the Catholic Church—despite those sins that could not be denied and were more than obvious—was nonetheless the Church of Christ and remained the Church of the holy saints, the holy Church. At that time when two kinds of historiography were opposed to each other and when the Catholic historians felt obliged to write apologetics to demonstrate that in spite of everything the quality of holiness still remained in the Church, then necessarily the voice in which sins are confessed in the Church becomes more quiet."
"The position became still worse in the course of the Enlightenment; let us recall Voltaire’s “Écrasez I’Infâme!” Ultimately, the accusations were growing in scope right up to those of Nietzsche, in which the Church appears, no longer as merely failing to do the will of Christ, but as the great evil of all evils afflicting mankind, as effecting the alienation of man from himself, something from which he must finally be liberated in order to become once more himself. We see the same theme, differently worked out, in Marxism. For Marxism, too, the Church, Christianity as such, alienates man from himself, gives its sanction to oppression, and stands in the way of progress. Since the Enlightenment, many deplorable historical realities have been exaggerated into real myths—the Crusades, the Inquisition, the burning of witches—and these have grown far beyond the historical facts into mythical bugbears that not merely justify but positively demand the rejection of the Church. Any attempt to see history as being a little less black and white, to distinguish a little more clearly the various ways in which different people were responsible, to see the complexity of these phenomena and to see what the various people responsible were trying to do, is condemned beforehand as a concession to inhumanity. When certain distressing facts grow into a kind of negative confession of faith and are no longer able to be seen in the context of forces and effects that can be distinguished from one another, then it becomes more difficult for the faithful to join in the confession of being at fault: it would now seem necessary to make clear that the Church, in spite of it all, has been and still remains an instrument of salvation, a force for good and not for the destruction of man."
"Today we find ourselves in a new situation, in which the Church can, with greater freedom, invite us to return to the confession of sins and can thus also invite other people to confession and to a more profound reconciliation. We have seen the enormous destruction wrought by various kinds of atheism, which brought forth a new level of anti-humanism, of the destruction and ruin of man. The atrocities that the atheistic systems of the twentieth century have invented and practiced cast all previous horrors into the shadows; we cannot take them in without shuddering. The rejection of the Church, the rejection of God and of Christ, does not save anyone; on the contrary—we can see what appalling capacities it unchains within man. The question is once more posed for everyone: Where are we? What can save us? Thus, we can admit to guilt with a new openness and, at the same time, recognize with a new gratitude the gift of the Lord, which he grants to us through the Church and which all the sins in her have never been able and never will be able to ruin or spoil."
"To end with, I should like very briefly to formulate three criteria for dealing correctly with the church’s guilt and for the right way to purify our memory."
"The first criterion: The present-day Church cannot set herself up as a tribunal to deliver judgments on previous generations—even though sins of the past are necessarily implicated in the “mea culpa”; for without the sins of the past, we are unable to understand the situation of today. It is neither possible nor permissible for the Church to dwell arrogantly in the present day, to feel herself exempt from sins and to make out that it is the sins of others, of the past, that are the source of evil. The confession of the sins of other people does not set us free from acknowledging the sins of the present day. Rather, it helps to awaken our own consciences and to open up the way toward conversion for us all."
"A second criterion: Confessing, according to Augustine, means: “Doing the truth”² That is why it demands, above all, the discipline and the humility belonging to truth, not to deny all the evil that has been carried out in the Church, yet also to avoid marking up against ourselves, in false modesty, sins that were never committed or concerning which where is no historical certainty."
"Third criterion: Again in accordance with Augustine, we have to say that a Christian confessio peccati always has to go hand in hand with a confessio laudis. In any honest examination of conscience we can see that for our part in every generation we have done much that is evil. Yet we can also see that, in spite of our sins, God has always purified and renewed the Church and has always entrusted great things to fragile vessels. And who could fail to recognize how much good has been done, for example, in the past two centuries by new religious congregations and by lay movements in the sphere of education, in the social sector, in efforts on behalf of the weak, the sick, the poor, and the suffering, even while those centuries were at the same time ravaged by the atrocities of the atheistic systems? It would be failing in honesty to see only our evil and not the good that God has effected through the faithful—in spite of their sins. The Church Fathers saw this paradox of guilt and grace as being summed up in the words of the Bride in the Song of Songs: “Nigra sum sed formosa” (Song I:4). “I am stained with sins, yet beautiful”—beautiful through your grace and through what you have done. The Church is able to confess the sins of the past and of the present in all openness and confidence, in the knowledge that evil will never completely ruin her; in the knowledge that the Lord is stronger than our sins and renews his Church again and again, that she may continue to be the instrument of God’s good works in our world."