Papal apologies for the Catholic church’s behavior are a relatively recent phenomenon. Pope John Paul II, who held the title between 1979 and 2005, was the first to issue them. His successor, Benedict XVI, timidly followed that precedent; but it is Pope Francis who has turned the symbolic apology into something of a masterstroke, helping to shift the church’s atonement from a focus on historical wrongs to accepting moral responsibility for more current events.
In January 2017, Pope Francis met with Chilean survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic priests to apologize to them personally. It was a strikingly intimate gesture that demonstrates how the concept of papal apologies has evolved. Here’s a look at some of the most important apologies the church has made.
Galileo before the Holy Office in the Vatican. The astronomer was condemned by the Tribunal of the Inquisition for having defended the theories of Copernicus.
John Paul’s first papal apology in 1992 was for the church’s treatment of Galileo. In the 17th century, the church had branded the astronomer a heretic for (correctly) asserting that the sun was the center of our solar system. Because this contradicted the church’s position that Earth was the center, the church forced Galileo to choose between recanting his position or burning at the stake. He decided to recant, and spent the last several years of his life on house arrest.
This first apology was one of over 100 that John Paul issued during his time as pope, most of which concerned the church’s historical misdeeds. Yet not everyone was happy about this new turn in the papacy.
“There were some misgivings because many thought that would weaken the public standing of the Catholic church,” says Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. “Some bishops or some cardinals evidently grew tired of this pope who thought that it was good for the church to apologize.”