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Apologies: The danger in lamenting what everyone laments

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Aug 01, 2014

Pope Francis has apologized for the past hostility of Catholics to Evangelicals (and the one Evangelical pastor he spoke to has apologized for past Evangelical hostility to Catholics). I am prepared to admit that this actually addresses a significant problem where Pope Francis hails from, in Latin America. But in a great many other places, perhaps most places, nobody any longer thinks Evangelicals and Catholics should be hostile toward each other.

Even for these, the apology is a healing gesture, a good thing to do. So why does something bother me?

Let us look at another case. The German bishops have lamented the enthusiasm of German Catholics for World War I. Again, I would be hard-pressed to say this does any harm. But here the case is clearer: Nobody, but nobody, any longer thinks it was particularly smart or particularly Christian to be in favor of whatever dubious causes were alleged to justify World War I. My unease deepens. But why?

Perhaps I am thinking of that little idea expressed by Hans Urs von Balthasar on the ambivalence of our commitment to God. I quoted this in Renewal with God before Us: Christ Determines All, but let me quote it again here:

One could paint the history of the Church in this light as the history of all the things she offers to God as substitutes in order to escape the act of real faith. So we find ourselves back in the zone of the ambivalent, where things very good in themselves can be the expressions of a hidden evasion. [Who Is a Christian?, p. 76]

Now we are on to something.

Of course, the modern habit of apologizing comes to us on good authority. Pope John Paul II established the precedent. For him, clearly, this was what we might call a small step toward the healing of Catholic history, also designed to break down useless barriers which serve as obstacles to evangelization. I truly believe John Paul II should go down in history as John Paul the Great, though not particularly because of his apologies. Nonetheless, he did apologize for the role Catholics played in many unfortunate situations. One Wikipedia article sets the total at more than a hundred. I clearly recall, for example, his apology for the role of Catholics in restricting Galileo in the 1630s and in sacking Constantinople during the Crusades.

But we do well to notice something just one more time: Nobody any longer thinks restricting Galileo was wise or sacking Constantinople was justified. Still, these things are associated in our cultural memory with the Church, and so the Church attempts to reassure everyone that she, too, sees the collective light. Why not dispel lingering misunderstanding?

Easy Apologies and Comfortable Laments

The trouble lies elsewhere. Sure, there is value in lamenting the past errors of Catholics, so that unnecessary obstacles to mutual understanding may be reduced. But Catholic leaders need to take special care not to ignore the things Catholics are doing right now that require apology. Having been smoked out on sex abuse, of course, there are now a great many apologies in that quarter—some doubtless sincere despite being essentially forced. But even here, the contemporary pattern is to beat the collective Catholic breast for those things done by our ancestors that our culture now uniformly recognizes as mistaken or morally wrong.

The point is that we typically ignore the current things, the things for which we have the greatest need to apologize precisely because so few in our culture recognize them as seriously wrong. What about the current scandal given by Catholics in ignoring, aiding and abetting the grave moral evils which are so deeply rooted in our dominant culture today?

The German case is a telling one. Just a few weeks before the German bishops lamented the widespread hawkish Catholic position on World War I, a number of German bishops were busy calling for changes in Church teaching on marriage and sexuality because it was not understood and lived by their people. Divorce, contraception, abortion and homosexuality are all extraordinarily widespread among Catholics or at least condoned by Catholics in others and in the culture at large.

As in Germany, so with all of us. Not only are Catholics deeply complicit in the prevailing sins of the age (be these sins sexual, educational, materialistic or political), but proper moral instruction from priests and bishops ranges from slim to none. Where are the apologies for the direct and indirect involvement of Catholics in these grave sins? This involvement makes it significantly easier for others to sin without reproach or consequence. Making it easier for others to sin is the very definition of scandal.

Beware Evasions

Is it not possible that apologizing for what everybody agrees we should be sorry for is one of those things, good in itself, which can also serve as an evasion? Might it not shift our focus away from a deeper commitment to God’s will for us right now? I seriously doubt that the Holy Spirit is expending tons of Divine energy trying to wake us up to the evils all of us already rightly abhor. It is far more likely that the Holy Spirit is beating the drum wherever God’s will contradicts our current prevailing comfortable assumptions. Choosing to emphasize something else—something long past, something easy—is a common human response to such a challenge.

I admit that it will be easier to recognize today’s conflicts between God’s ways and our ways when we look back in fifty or a hundred or a thousand years, after passions on these particular issues have cooled. Still, the very clarity of Catholic teaching ought to enable us to overcome this perception gap. A second difficulty is far more significant: Apologies for currently popular faults actually require conversion and change. There is no way to maintain the credibility of an apology if you have not stopped committing the offense.

But this is the whole point, is it not? We need to lament and apologize for the vices that are most popular right now. Distancing ourselves from what everybody already hates is puerile and boring. What we all need are apologies that will cause embarrassment because, in their very kindness, they will heap burning coals on all our heads (Rm 12:20). We need laments that arise not from what everybody knows, but from what only God and the Church know.

High-sounding apologies for things long past may well be good in themselves. They may also help us evade the deep Christian commitment needed to overcome our current sins.

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Show 8 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Baseballbuddy - Aug. 06, 2014 10:02 AM ET USA

    All Christians know that they must repent but also forgive. While St. JPII gave the collective mea culpas for past Church infractions (a very good thing) that caused division, there has been silence from the protestant quarters. I may have missed the "all's forgiven" from them, and "let's begin the collective return to the sacraments". The point is that the Church opened her hand to those she (temporally) alienated, and very few have taken it.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Aug. 02, 2014 6:47 PM ET USA

    Perhaps the Intentions we offer, at Mass following the Creed, would be a good place to draw public attention and repentance for current public sins. Sins like support of our military in countries in mid-east, or support of Israel in their plan to exterminate the Palestinian people, or the lack of support for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Obviously, the list could contain many current problems needing the healing of repentance.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Aug. 02, 2014 3:32 PM ET USA

    Point of order! There is no such thing as "sins long forgotten"! As a matter of fact it is the Devil's pleasure to make us think that sins (and their effects) are long forgotten. Lest I encourage scrupulosity, Our Lord is quick to forgive ANYONE is willing to repent..., but unless thorough reparation is made concerning "those sins," particularly the larger ones, consequences will continue to reverberate, even centuries later.

  • Posted by: shrink - Aug. 02, 2014 9:41 AM ET USA

    Excellent analysis. Another reluctance to confess our current sins is blowback. E.G., the US bishops have apologized for the pederasty scandal—which was good—but they did not apologize for the wider scandal of tolerating clergy sexual behavior with adults, since it's too close to home. Or, we know Francis is really really serious about apology when he asks forgiveness for the serious damage that the Jesuits have perpetrated on the Church in the last half-century. Martyrdom anyone?

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Aug. 01, 2014 8:59 PM ET USA

    The positive response yesterday of a preeminent Evangelical authority to Pope Francis' apology for past Catholic antagonism tells me the pope is one step ahead of us here. If it means a step toward bringing these good people back to a fullness of faith, I have to be in favor of it. That said, I am with Jeff Mirus' criticism of facile apologies for sins long forgotten to all but scholars.

  • Posted by: jacquelinehynes4610 - Aug. 01, 2014 6:54 PM ET USA

    Several years ago, our apostolate ran a conference for our diocesan priests with two well-known priest presenters. The day-long event was on Humanae Vitae. Over 45 priests and seminarians attended along with a few deacons. You can imagine what an impact occurred when one of the priests got up and verbally repented and apologized for his involvement in counseling parishioners that using contraception was not sinful. Think this is what you mean, Jeff. Hopefully, many other were converted.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Aug. 01, 2014 5:09 PM ET USA

    The Church is unique among institutions in her divine mandate. Not only is she charged to preach the Gospel and to facilitate the salvation of souls as her Master desires, but she is bound to bear witness to truth. She is bound to identify herself as the vehicle of salvation. We know what happened to her Master in bearing witness. In testifying to Christ's salvific will, she must not waver. Good points Dr. Mirus. The prayer meeting in June was well-intentioned too. Yet it seems so long ago.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Aug. 01, 2014 4:53 PM ET USA

    I disagree. Should it be considered that the Catholic-protestant rift is passé and devoid of passion & substance?? Hardly. In fact, because of the extreme Ecclesiastical and Biblical emphasis on "Unity" (eg; Christ's High Priestly prayer in the Gospel of John) I have little doubt that any number of very serious practical problems within both the Catholic & protestant brethren do not find their roots in this scandalous division & would be radically altered for the good if healing occurred.

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