On Secular Repentance

This column originally appeared in the January 2000 issue of Crisis Magazine.


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Repentance is good for the soul. In the past few decades, the Church has been called upon from various quarters to repent for her misdeeds over the 20 Christian centuries. And John Paul II has openly admitted some of the faults of Catholics: the Inquisition, the Galileo fiasco, the Church’s acquiescence in the brutalities of European explorers, and the complicated history of Christian prejudices against Jews. As we begin the third Christian millennium, it was the right thing to do.

But there is a curious blind spot in these various calls for the Church to repent. Secular figures rarely feel a need to disavow their own complicity in crimes, even when many of them, still living to this day, bear no little guilt for atrocities that make the Church’s sins pale by comparison.

Take the Inquisition. Beyond question the Church was involved in religious trials that probably led to the deaths of several thousand people over the centuries. Though the process was conducted under a strict legal code, it was wrong to execute people for their beliefs. But as the Polish poet Cszelaw Milosz has reminded us, communism in some of the larger countries killed more people on average per day than the Church killed in centuries. Rare is the Western intellectual who supported communism and repented of that monstrous error.

We now have a good general accounting of the sins of communism. A group of French and Eastern European researchers have assembled a more than 800-page indictment that has been published under the title, The Black Book of Communism. The recent English edition was translated from the French.

Though this explosive volume has received some attention in intellectual journals, the interest is —  we might say — rather weak for the enormity of the subject. Communism killed at least 100 million people in the twentieth century, 25 million in the former Soviet Union, 65 million in Communist Chinaemdash in all about seventeen times as many people as there were Jews who died in the Holocaust. It is hard not to believe that the relative silence about this large fact of the last century reflects an uneasy conscience among many writers and thinkers in the West who had some share in supporting or apologizing for the most murderous regimes the world has ever seen.

Socialist regimes committed many enormous crimes against the Church as well. Some 300,000 Catholics perished in Mexico, the first socialist country on earth after its revolution. In Spain during the Spanish Civil War, the so-called Republican forces in which anarchist and communist elements dominated, 7,000 documented cases of martyrdom occurred. Whole religious orders were wiped out. Even George Orwell, usually thought of as an advocate of honesty and decency beyond party, shrugged off this obvious fact in his book Homage to Catalonia.

Where such matters have been noticed, the usual rationalization is to say that the Church has been a reactionary force, aligned with oppressive regimes. It was only natural, we are told, that in the untidy situations of the modern drive toward freedom, that some of these recalcitrant elements would be the target of violence. But this is a specious claim. Anyone who looks carefully at the violence against Christians in the last century cannot help but see that quite often the Church had no political position other than the protection of her own rights and a defense of innocents being slaughtered by the millions. It is telling that the charge against the Church is made in broad, unverifiable historical terms while the defense of known, murderous ideologies gives every actor the benefit of the doubt.

So perhaps it is time for Christians and other victims of secular thought gone wild to begin demanding repentance, too. If the supporters of communist and brutally anti-Catholic regimes in the past really believed that they were the path to a brighter future for humanity, let them now come forward and confess their error. Life is difficult to understand. We often deceive ourselves. We will be happy to accept a repentant sinner with the same fervor that we hope ourselves to be forgiven.

But do not expect all the professors, journalists, television pundits, religious figures, and politicians who for decades warned us about our “inordinate fear” of communism to rush to public recantation during the new millennium. Repentance may be good for the soul, but it is never easy. Real repentance requires admitting that we have to let go of some cherished illusions and to resolve never to commit the same sin again. In any generation, few are they willing to undertake that profound reform of soul.


  • Robert Royal

    Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of TheCatholicThing.org, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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