Self-serving apologies: Not the Catholic way
If you want to seize the contemporary moral high ground, I suggest you apologize for something your ancestors or your organization or your country did hundreds of years ago, checking first to ensure that the behavior in question is universally excoriated in our own more enlightened times. Above all, do not apply an absolute standard to the contemporary conduct of your country, your organization, or yourself, lest you must apologize for some sin that everybody else believes to be good—some evil for which the world hates not the sin but the apology itself.
That’s one of the messages sent by the fresh Jesuit apology for the Order’s having sold slaves at Georgetown University in 1838. It is also one of the messages sent by every public Catholic apology for past wrongdoing which the world knows is not among our current sins. I say “one of the messages” because the relative frivolity of such fundamentally innocent apologies does not always mean they merit no comment at all. It may be valuable to freely admit that some ancestral sin or error (such as botching the Galileo case) was either immoral or unfortunate, if there are any still living who see the case as a symbol of what we or our family or our organization or our country—or our Church—is like today.
But while there is some value in the admission that the entity with which we are identified is fallible, there is little or no value in apologizing for something the apologizer neither did nor oversaw nor permitted. I would suggest rather that such apologies are more often a distraction from our current moral and spiritual obligations.
Let us confine ourselves exclusively to the Catholic Church. I don’t care that the Society of Jesus owned and sold slaves in 1838, which every Jesuit today recognizes as immoral. But I do care that the Order is still fully engaged in the sins characteristic of our contemporary culture in anno Domini 2019: The modernistic justification of moral relativism, the rewriting of Catholic teaching on human sexuality, the pandering to contemporary secular trends and popular appetites, and the blatant immorality approved both on campus and in the classroom in the vast majority of Jesuit-affiliated schools.
One would think, among those who are supposed to be engaging in a daily examination of conscience, that at least some of these widespread divergences from the Christian way of life would bubble up for repentance and correction in the occasional rare moment of spiritual honesty. But if they did, we would be getting apologies for the very real sins which are daily defended and committed in our own time, with rapidly changing administrative policies to match. Instead, what we see all around us is a selfish grasping after cheap grace, by which I mean a lust for the favor of the world rather than the blessing of God.
Apologizing in a Catholic way
Simply as a salutary exercise, I would place a moratorium on public apologies for any sins that are not in the midst of recognition and reform in personal or institutional life right now. In the present example, nobody believes the Jesuits still own and sell slaves. That problem was corrected a very long time ago. An apology long after the fact by those completely uninvolved is not contrition but public relations.
As a step toward true contrition, then, I would also rule out self-serving apologies which are forced through disclosure by third parties after a period of institutional denial. In such cases we need apology-in-action: The nature of the cover-up must also be disclosed and those guilty of serious dereliction of duty must be identified and punished along with those directly guilty of the immoral behavior in question.
Finally, Catholic leaders must apologize in Catholic ways. It is not enough to acknowledge what “everybody” regards as horrific; it is necessary to admit also to those things which Our Lord regards as horrific, even when the world refuses to admit their sinfulness. To take the biggest example today, Church leaders must not only express sorrow and a firm purpose of amendment for the sexual abuse of minors (which the world claims to abhor) but for the toleration and even approval of homosexual activity and any other endemic violations of purity which stain the Church’s ministers and undermine the teachings of Christ (which the world often approves).
As I mentioned, there are sometimes good reasons to acknowledge that what everybody knows to be wrong really is wrong, especially to dispel popular misconceptions so that others do not needlessly find the Church offensive. But it is a far greater service to ourselves, to others, and to the Church herself to name, to admit, and to repent the evils that are destroying us precisely because everybody claims they are right. Sadly, it is just here that our very complicity renders us ineffective. For if Catholics leaders—and we ourselves—are not determined to avoid even the near occasion of sin, why apologize at all?
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