I have heard and read a number of convincing arguments that the Crusades were justified and Catholics should not feel ashamed or think that we have to apologize for them. Yet I also read somewhere that at one point during his pontificate Pope John Paul II participated in (or at least voiced support for) a public act of apology by Christians to Muslims for the Crusades. Is this claim true? And if so, does that settle the issue of whether the Crusades were right or not? Thank you.
Pope Saint John Paul II did not apologize for the Crusades per se. He apologized for the actions of Christians that were against the values of the Gospel. This is a fine but necessary distinction. Even in a just war there can be individual actions that are contrary to justice and morality.
For example, Saint John Paul II apologized for the sacking of Constantinople in his May 4, 2001 visit to Athens:
Some memories are especially painful, and some events of the distant past have left deep wounds in the minds and hearts of people to this day. I am thinking of the disastrous sack of the imperial city of Constantinople, which was for so long the bastion of Christianity in the East. It is tragic that the assailants, who had set out to secure free access for Christians to the Holy Land, turned against their own brothers in the faith. The fact that they were Latin Christians fills Catholics with deep regret. How can we fail to see here the mysterium iniquitatis at work in the human heart? To God alone belongs judgement, and therefore we entrust the heavy burden of the past to his endless mercy, imploring him to heal the wounds which still cause suffering to the spirit of the Greek people.
Saint John Paul II also said the Muslims and Christians need to forgive one another when he visited a Damascus mosque in 2001:
For all the times that Muslims and Christians have offended one another, we need to seek forgiveness from the Almighty and to offer each other forgiveness. Jesus teaches us that we must pardon others’ offences if God is to pardon us our sins (cf. Mt 6:14).
And all of this was summed up in his homily at the 2001 Day of Pardon:
- Let us forgive and ask forgiveness! While we praise God who, in his merciful love, has produced in the Church a wonderful harvest of holiness, missionary zeal, total dedication to Christ and neighbour, we cannot fail to recognize the infidelities to the Gospel committed by some of our brethren, especially during the second millennium. Let us ask pardon for the divisions which have occurred among Christians, for the violence some have used in the service of the truth and for the distrustful and hostile attitudes sometimes taken towards the followers of other religions.
Whether the crusades, in their essence, were just or prudent were not questions that the Pope addressed. What he addressed was that within those events there were actions by Catholics that did not live up to the standards of the Gospel.