updated 9/18/2006 3:49:47 PM ET 2006-09-18T19:49:47

Papal apologies have been few and far between, mostly confined to correcting historical errors such as condemning Galileo for maintaining that the Earth is not the center of the universe or asking forgiveness for the sins of Christians over the centuries.

So Pope Benedict XVI’s declaration that he was “deeply sorry” regarding his remarks on Islam and violence was an extraordinary expression of regret, a rare personal post-mortem by the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

Not even Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who made the “purification of memory” a tenet of his papacy, came close to issuing personal regrets.

“In the context of a more open style of the papacy that has evolved over the last generation it’s certainly not surprising that the pope would respond with regrets,” said John-Peter Pham, a former Vatican diplomat.

Benedict acted after Muslims worldwide protested a speech the pope gave in Germany last week, in which he quoted from a Medieval text that characterized some teachings of Islam’s founder as “evil and inhuman” and referred to spreading Islam “by the sword.”

‘Deeply sorry'
Statements issued by the Vatican spokesman and secretary of state failed to placate Muslims. So Benedict used his regular Sunday appearance to say the text did not reflect his own opinions and that he hoped his words of regret would serve to “appease hearts and to clarify the true meaning of my address,” describing that as an invitation to dialogue.

Although Benedict didn’t explicitly acknowledge he did anything wrong — he said he was “deeply sorry for the reactions” — he still traveled some distance.

Giuseppe Alberigo, a historian at the University of Bologna, described the pope’s expression of regret as “sensational and quite unique” in church history. Given the widespread protests, Alberigo said the statement was necessary.

While popes are traditionally protective of their office, church experts say the stance is not linked to the popular conception of papal infallibility. That only applies when a pope explicitly proclaims infallibility on pronouncements about faith and morals, and this is rarely done. The last time was in 1950, when Pope Pius XII declared the Assumption of the Virgin Mary to heaven as Catholic dogma.

Benedict’s statement differed from apologies offered by his predecessor. “John Paul spoke of the mistakes of the church,” Alberigo said. “Those great historic mistakes are something completely different.”

Challenges for John Paul II
But even John Paul did not have it easy. When he informed the College of Cardinals of his plans for a sweeping apology timed for the new millennium in 2000, some cardinals resisted, the then-Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, said at the time. But John Paul went ahead, asking forgiveness for the sins of Catholics through the ages, including wrongs inflicted on Jews, women and minorities.

Among other apologies, John Paul, during a 1992 visit to Senegal asked forgiveness for Christians involved in the slave trade and during a 1995 visit to the Czech Republic for violence by Catholics against Protestants during the 16th century.

Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, provided the theological backing for many of John Paul’s initiatives.

However, as pope, Benedict seemed to have some second thoughts.

During a visit to Poland in May, he touched on the debate about judging Catholic priests accused of collaborating with the communists who ruled Poland after World War II.

“Humble sincerity is needed in order not to deny the sins of the past, and at the same time not to indulge in facile accusations in absence of real evidence, or without regard for the different preconceptions of the time,” he said.

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