On Papal Apologies

The Pope completed a tour to Canada last week that included multiple expressions of apology to Native peoples for the Catholic Church’s role in their forced assimilation.

Did it help? Did his apologies “hit the mark” or were they insufficient somehow? Depends on who you ask. Many people wept in response to the Pope’s heartfelt remarks, which included saying that he was “deeply sorry” and asking for forgiveness. But he apparently did not apologize on behalf of the Catholic Church, which some listeners were hoping to hear. This may be because the Catholic Church per se cannot sin.

Institutional apologies are tricky. Pope Francis was not personally responsible for the Indigenous residential schools, and most in his audience did not actually experience them. As one survivor commented, the abusers are the ones who should be apologizing, but, “they’re all gone now.” So Pope Francis’ words meant nothing to him.

There is a special term for an institutional apology by a religious body: the “ecclesial apology.” According to Jeremy Bergen, a professor of religious studies at Conrad Grebel University College in Ontario, ecclesial apologies are relatively new, appearing for the first time only after World War II, when German Protestant churches acknowledged that they failed to oppose the Nazis adequately. In the 1990’s, church apologies increased. He has written a book about this, entitled Ecclesial Repentance: The Churches Confront Their Sinful Pasts.

Professor Graham Dodds, a political science professor at Concordia University in Montreal who researches political apologies, says timing, word choice and contrition are important elements of an effective apology.

Pope John Paul II offered many ecclesial apologies during his reign, perhaps most memorably when he tucked a note into the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, apologized to the church in Ireland for clerical abuse. Pope Francis has apologized for many church wrongs during his reign.

Apologies are challenging. They get even more complicated when they involve an institution, and when the wrongs were committed in the past, by people no longer alive. Is it worth it? Does it make sense for a pope, or any leader, to apologize for wrongs committed by his predecessors? I suspect that the popes of this century would say yes. The book of James suggests that confession brings healing (James 5:16), and that’s what these popes were trying to do. A good apology is the first step; forgiveness is another, and reconciliation may follow upon that. None of it is easy, but the price of doing nothing is high too.


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