Not long ago His Holiness Pope Francis became the first successor of St Peter ever to visit a Waldensian Temple, during a gita to Turin. On behalf of the Catholic Church, the Sovereign Pontiff requested forgiveness from the Waldensian community, descendants of a proto-Protestant movement condemned for heresy in 1215. The pontifical apology was “for the non-Christian and even inhuman attitudes and behaviour that we have showed you.” On hearing this Eugenio Bernadini, the pastor of the Waldensian community in Turin, looked pleased as Punch, and the Italian press reported with enthusiasm on the conviviality of the get-together. Some weeks later the Waldensians convened a synod at which they discussed what to make of the Pope’s gracious overture. After deliberation, the Synod replied to the Holy Father in no uncertain terms: “Dear Brother in Christ Jesus, the Synod of the Evangelical Waldensian Church accepts with deep respect and not without emotion your apology … but this new situation does not allow us to step in the place of those who testified with their blood or the other Protestants suffering for their faith, and to forgive you.”
This withholding of forgiveness in response to the Holy Father's apology was interpreted by some Catholic commentators as churlish. However, rather than adding pressure to already bruised feelings by calling the Waldensians monumental party-poopers, perhaps we should see in their sober response a recognition of significant differences between the Catholic understanding of ‘the Church’ and non-Catholic views on ‘church’ – differences which might make it possible and meaningful for the Catholic Church to apologise for events that happened many centuries ago, but which probably make it unthinkable for denominations such as the Waldensians to offer forgiveness for inconveniences endured by their own spiritual ancestors.
The Catholic Church identifies Herself as the Mystical Body of Christ. Enlivened by the Holy Ghost, and united on earth in every generation under the successor of St Peter, She is an organic whole in a similar way to that in which a human being is a single living unity. All of Her members who are in a state of grace are animated by the same supernatural life force infused in Baptism, and Christ is the Head of this Mystical Body. During a lifetime it is possible that all of the cells of a human body will die and be replaced several times, while we retain a continuity of memory and identity from cradle to grave, which means that we remain the same person. This explains why it is possible to prosecute and punish someone for a crime committed decades before. Cell regeneration never seems to have been accepted as a mitigating factor in a court of law. Similarly, in the Church, generations are born and die, to be replaced by new members, but the Church retains Her own memory and sense of identity because of the supernatural life that animates Her and binds Her members on earth, in Heaven and in Purgatory into a living whole. This also makes it possible for the Church to acknowledge some responsibility for the actions and words of Her members in times past.
This understanding of the Church explains a significant difference between the act of Faith for a Catholic and for a Protestant. An old-fashioned Protestant of the best sort will tell you that he believes in Pentecost, for example, because it is recorded in the Bible. The Catholic Church, however, teaches us about Pentecost because She was there when it happened. It was her own birthday, and the festivity of it all is still fresh in Her memory, as is the fact that at the time She told Herself to make a note of it in the Scriptures that She was then in the process of writing. She teaches Our Lady’s Assumption with equal conviction. For some reason She did not get around to writing any explicit account of that event, but She remembers it and rejoices in it as if it happened yesterday.
Leaving aside any questions about the merits of the abundance of apologies that has been proffered in recent decades, we can at least see how it is possible for a pope to apologise for actions or attitudes of certain Catholics in past centuries. One can only imagine that, in centuries to come, the appalling abuses and betrayals that have sullied the wedding garments of the Bride of Christ so nastily in our own time will furnish future popes with plenty of material for apologising. The Provost knows next to nothing about Waldensian ecclesiology, but assuming that these particular separated brethren do not share our ‘high’ understanding of the Church as Mystical Body of Christ united on earth under the successor of St Peter, we should also understand why they might feel unable to accept any apology on behalf of deceased predecessors. Rather than being ungracious, it seems that the Waldensians were just being honest, God bless them.
Fr Julian Large