Who's Sorry Now?

It isn't often that a pope apologizes. But in an unusual personal letter addressed to "every woman" in the world this week, John Paul II does just that. Acknowledging that women "have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude," the pope offers a brief, somewhat stilted mea culpa for the church's complicity in their oppression. "If objective blame, especially in particular historical contexts, has belonged to not just a few members of the Church," the pope writes, "for this I am truly sorry. May this regret be transformed, on the part of the whole Church, into a renewed commitment of fidelity to the Gospel vision."

Zen Buddhists may savor the sound of one hand clapping, but for Christians no sound is sweeter than the beating of breasts. This year in particular, church leaders and groups have produced a veritable chorus of apologies for sins past and present. Last month the Southern Baptist Convention formally apologized to African-Americans for defending slavery in the antebellum South and for condoning "racism in our lifetime." In the Netherlands last April, a group of 800 German Christians apologized to the Dutch for the Nazi invasion of their country during World War II. On a trip to the Czech Republic in May, John Paul begged forgiveness for the church's part in religious wars that followed the 16th-century Protestant Reformation. And at their General Congregation in Rome last March, the Jesuits not only apologized for abetting centuries of "male domination" but also pledged their personal "solidarity with women."

Vague and cursory as it is, the pope's own apology is part of a church commitment, announced last November, to repent of past ecclesiastical sins as prelude to the celebration of Christianity's third millennium. "It is time," John Paul says, "to examine the past with courage, to assign responsibility where it is due in a review of the long history. of humanity." But his 16-page letter is also a strategic move aimed at capturing support for the Vatican's position at the fourth U.N. Conference on Women in Beijing this September. The Vatican has already criticized the conference's controversial draft document for supporting abortion rights, defending diversity in "sexual orientation" and for giving scant attention to women's role as mothers.

'Real equality': At times in his letter, the pope sounds almost like a modern feminist. He praises women for historically unacknowledged accomplishments equal to those of men. "Yet how many women have been and continue to be valued more for their physical appearance than for their skill, their professionalism, their intellectual abilities, their deep sensitivity," he writes, "in a word, the very dignity of their being!" On the issue of equal rights, the pope discerns "an urgent need to achieve real equality in every area: equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights and the recognition of everything that is part of the rights and duties of citizens in a democratic State." He even expresses admiration for "those women of good will who have devoted their lives to defending the dignity of womanhood by fighting for their basic social, economic and political rights, demonstrating courageous initiative at a time when this was considered extremely inappropriate, the sign of a lack of femininity, a manifestation of exhibitionism, and even a sin."

But the pope is not about to sign up with the National Organization for Women. He praises "those women who, with heroic love for the child they have conceived, proceed with a pregnancy resulting from the injustice of rape," not only in time of war. But before blaming women who have abortions under any circumstances, he insists that "guilt needs to be attributed to men and to the complicity of the social environment" which approves freedom of choice. Moreover, he writes, equality does not mean that men and women are the same. What the world needs, the pope believes, is "an effective and intelligent campaign" which recognizes the specific "genius of women" in society and in the church. As he has done in the past, however, John Paul reiterates his belief that the ordination of women as priests is contrary to the example and intention of Jesus.

The pope's letter drew faint praise from at least one American feminist leader. "His tributes to equality and to the women's movement are forward steps," says Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. "But the letter has an overall tone of separate-but-equal roles for women." On the other hand, the pope's forceful stand for women's rights seems certain to lose the Vatican support from the conservative Muslim countries that had backed the pope's views at last year's U.N. conference on world population in Cairo. Even so, the mea culpas will continue. Next Easter, Protestants will join Catholics in a series of ceremonies repenting the Crusades against Muslims and Jews 900 years ago. Being Christian, it appears, is always having to say you're sorry.