Curmudgeon’s Corner: The case against Catholic apologies
One of my very few disagreements with Pope St. John Paul II—to whom I pray each and every day—was over his introduction of the habit of formally apologizing for past failures and errors of the Catholic Church. This is a prudential question; good Catholics can disagree about it. But this week I have been haunted by the need to make the case for the opposition. Either the Holy Spirit is prompting me to prepare my brothers and sisters in Christ for another round of apologies…or I am selfishly petting one of my peeves.
When I speak of “Catholic” apologies, I do not mean that good Catholics should never apologize for their own sins and mistakes. To the contrary, both holiness and charity (which are actually identical) demand that we be quick to recognize our faults, acknowledge them, and make amends. This applies to bishops and popes as much as to priests, deacons, all in consecrated life, and lay persons (perhaps excepting those who write for CatholicCulture.org, whose errors perforce exist only in the minds of their readers).
No, I am referring here to the somewhat strained contemporary practice of a pope or other high-ranking churchman making a public apology for sins and mistakes which were committed by the institutional Church in previous eras, especially when everyone still living knows of these sins and mistakes only through that strange combination of fact, misunderstanding and rumor which plagues each culture’s rendition of Catholic history. Whether we are referring to the Crusades, the Inquisition, the condemnation of Galileo, or any other questionable practice approved by legitimate ecclesiastical authority in the past, there are good reasons not to apologize.
This does not mean there are no good reasons in favor of apologies—chiefly to attempt to overcome divisions by dispelling the scorn or even hurt feelings that persist historically as a result of various ecclesiastical decisions and actions. But it is my purpose here to argue that, in nearly every case, apologies of this kind make things worse than they were before, for three very broad reasons.
1. Persistent misunderstandings confirmed
The first argument against apologizing for any past fault of “the Church” is that the fault in question is always (a) a course of action in what was, at the time, a very complex situation, with weighty arguments on all sides; and (b) a course of action which has become a stumbling block now because contemporary culture fails to recognize this complexity. In other words, the culture holds that there could never have been any doubt about the right thing to do, or any reason to justify what was done—ahistorical assumptions which are almost always false.
Myopic cultural misunderstandings of this kind cannot be cleared up by an apology. While it may be a plus to offer an example of humility, an apology is no time to take great pains to set the record straight. This is especially true because, if an apology is deemed culturally necessary, the current culture is almost by definition in no mood to attempt to understand the problem more fully. Instead, an apology immediately confirms that the contemporary cultural value in question is uncompromisingly right, and that the Church, as usual, is on the “wrong side of history”.
2. Confusion about the nature of the Church
More problematic for the Faith itself is the difficulty people have in recognizing that the word “Church” must be handled with great care. It has, after all, a dual meaning. On the one hand, the Church can be understood as the preeminent organized body of Catholics, so that what “the Church does” is whatever her members do under the authority of pastors, bishops and popes. On the other hand, the Church can be understood as the body of Christ, with Christ Himself at its head, so that what the Church does is provide truth, grace and spiritual direction to the sinners who are her members. Under this understanding, the members at all levels constantly interfere with and weaken the Church’s authentic mission, reducing but never eliminating her efficacious power. (In this sense, of course, all of us are in the wrong all of the time, except perhaps for...well, never mind.)
But non-Catholics and even many Catholics do not understand this critical distinction. Worse still, when left to themselves human cultures are typically dead set against understanding it (and I use the expression “dead set” advisedly). For this reason, an apology for a past sin or error of “the Church” serves always to reinforce a misconception in the public mind. What most people hear in such an apology is that they were right: The Church is a purely human institution that makes tons of mistakes, including huge mistakes that we now find it laughably easy to avoid precisely because we are free of obscurantist religious cant. Here is more proof, if proof were needed, that the Catholic Church has no Divine character, just as everyone knew all along. Here is more proof that the Catholic doctrine of infallibility is absurd.
3. Failure to address contemporary sins
All efforts to apologize publicly for “the Church’s” alleged historical blunders are characterized by another glaring deficiency: They recognize truths that the current culture values at the expense of truths that the current culture abhors. If the dominant culture affirms free thought (at least against religious convictions), then an apology for the Index of Forbidden Books bows to free thought at the expense of further eroding awareness of the grave consequences of human error, especially moral error. Or if the dominant culture affirms freedom from clerical influence, then an apology for the relationship of Church and State in the execution of heretics and witches bows to secularism at the expense of further eroding an awareness of the spiritual component of the common good.
Perhaps this point will be easier to grasp if I simply point out that you will rarely if ever hear Church leaders apologize for the many truly contemporary ecclesiastical wrongs which the dominant culture recognizes as goods. We might hear a pope apologize for some past pope’s private approval of enslaving prisoners of war, but when will we hear a pope apologize for his own failure to take every measure possible to make the Church speak with one clear voice against far more widespread destructive evils today, like sterilization, contraception and abortion? We may hear a pope apologize for the failure of the Church in the past to address popular moral causes such as respect and reverence for the environment, but when will we hear a pope express regret for his own failure to take clear and efficacious steps to ensure respect and reverence for the truth in Catholic education, especially higher education—which just might improve our moral judgment?
This, then, is my case. In theory, I suppose public apologies by and for “the Church” ought to be able to serve some good purpose. But in practice I fear their normal result is to reinforce cultural prejudices while currying a kind of favor that the Church generally does not need. Maybe it is not such a bad thing that official Catholic apologies, once reported, are generally ignored and rapidly forgotten in the very cultures they seek to affirm.
But there is no need to apologize if you disagree. Just don’t pretend to recognize which skeletons in the Church’s closet are really most important to the only One who matters.
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