Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Selective indignation: Canadian calls for a Vatican apology

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 07, 2021

In his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce puts a singsong threat into the earliest childhood memories of his young hero:


Pull out his eyes,

Pull out his eyes,


That phrase comes to mind as I read the latest demands for an apology from the Catholic Chuch, coming now from Canada. On one level these demands seem reasonable, coming after the discovery of what is apparently a mass grave, containing the remains of over 200 children, at the site of a “residential school” operated by a Catholic religious order in Kamloops, British Columbia. But the expressions of outrage—often misdirected, often misinformed—seem to have another goal: the deliberate humiliation of the Catholic Church.

Before I go any further, let me make two points clear.

First, if the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who ran the residential school, are withholding relevant information about the fate of children there, they deserve the criticism that is coming their way. Far too often in the past twenty years, Church authorities have claimed to be cooperating with investigators, while in fact resisting every inch of the way. The discovery of the children’s remains is shocking; the public deserves a full and accurate explanation of what happened.

Second, the “residential school” system was an atrocity, in which the Church should never have been involved. Under this system, set up in the late 19th century by the Canadian government’s Department of Indian Affairs, more than 150,000 children were taken from their families and trained—often under deficient and even abusive conditions—to adapt to the country’s now-dominant culture. This was not “genocide,” as some activists have charged, but it was a deplorable effort to eradicate a native culture.

Now, some context:

Did you notice that the “residential schools” were set up by a program of the Canadian government? The schools were administered by churches, but the government was ultimately responsible. So if conditions were substandard (which they were) and abuse occurred (which it did), the blame should not fall exclusively on the Church.

(In Ireland that Catholic Church has been castigated for abuses at the “Magdalen laundries,” another program that was run by church groups under the auspices of the government. The abuses were deservedly condemned. But were those abuses almost inevitable when secular authorities assigned small religious institutions—understaffed and underfunded—to care for young people in whom society at large had lost interest? In Ireland, as in Canada, angry voices seemed far more interested in condemning the Catholic Church than in examining the conscience of an entire society.)

Incredibly enough, the Canadian program of residential schools, born in unsubtle racism, survived until 1996. Since that time, leaders of the native tribes that suffered under the program have understandably demanded apologies. And apologies have been forthcoming: both from the government and from the religious bodies that administered the schools.

Actually the Oblates who administered the school in Kamloops made their apology earlier: in 1991. (The school was closed in 1978, well ahead of the program’s final shutdown.) Many Church leaders in Canada have issued apologies. Pope Benedict XVI voiced “his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church” in 2009. This past weekend, speaking about the shocking discovery in Kamloops, Pope Francis said that it “further increases understanding of the pain and suffering of the past.

Church leaders have apologized, then. But no matter: political activists demand more apologies: more sweeping, more abject. And again, those demands carry some weight, because the scandal was egregious. But why are these demands aimed exclusively at the Church, and not at the political powers that should have initiated the program, and should have supervised the schools?

Something went terribly wrong in Kamloops; that much seems certain. The religious order that ran the residential school has a lot of explaining to do. But so do the government officials who should have been supervising the administration of their program. Why, then, are editorial voices calling for an apology from the Vatican (which was undoubtedly unaware of the school’s existence until recently), rather than from Ottawa? Should the Holy See be held accountable today, for the racism that gave birth to a political program in Canada more than a century ago?

We have seen this pattern before, in the sex-abuse scandal. Catholic bishops were asked to apologize—and with ample reason, because their negligence was appalling. But when they did apologize, there was no letup in the demand for further apologies. Victims’ advocates insisted that the Church should sever all ties with clerics guilty of abuse. Then, when the Church did sever all ties, they complained that the Church should be held responsible for the future actions of these men—over whom the Church no longer had any means of control.

What is it, exactly, that activists want from the Catholic Church? An apology for past misdeeds? Fine. Full disclosure of how things went wrong? Fair enough. But the incessant calls for apologies—even after apologies have been offered—betray a desire to make the Church a whipping-boy, to keep the Church constantly on the defensive.

It never seems unreasonable to ask for an apology, especially when an apology is warranted. But to repeatedly ask one person for an apology, when others are at least equally guilty, is indeed unreasonable. Unless, of course, the real goal is to attack that one person—or, in this case, to attack the Catholic Church.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: garedawg - Jun. 13, 2021 10:54 PM ET USA

    I wonder if there are mass graves under Eton or Phillips Exeter...

  • Posted by: feedback - Jun. 08, 2021 10:01 AM ET USA

    Justin Trudeau, of all people, should know better than demand apologies from the Catholic Church for a government-concocted program of forced assimilation and its failures. On the other hand, the woke politicians, like Trudeau, have no problem with legalizing the mass slaughter of children in the womb and even after they are born.

  • Posted by: christosvoskresye5324 - Jun. 07, 2021 9:23 PM ET USA

    I'm reluctant to jump to conclusions. On the one hand, people today forget how high child mortality was in decades past. It's also worth remembering that the rich and powerful of British society also sent their kids to boarding schools (where there are rumors of atrocities as well). On the other hand, there is evidence of abuse and murder at Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, FL. It's worth keeping one's mind open but remaining skeptical.