Curmudgeon’s Corner: The case against Catholic apologies

Curmudgeon’s Corner: The case against Catholic apologies

[Especially papal and particularly JP2, who (according to Wikipedia: List of apologies made by Pope John Paul II) “officially made public apologies for over 100 of … wrongdoings” – the most extensive being his March 2000 CONFESSION OF SINS AND ASKING FOR FORGIVENESS (see comment below for complete text)]

By Dr. Jeff Mirus | Aug 31, 2017

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, 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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8 comments on “Curmudgeon’s Corner: The case against Catholic apologies


    March 12, 2000


    The Holy Father: Brothers and Sisters, let us turn with trust to God our Father, who is merciful and compassionate, slow to anger, great in love and fidelity, and ask him to accept the repentance of his people who humbly confess their sins, and to grant them mercy.

    [All pray for a moment in silence.]

    I. Confession of Sins in General

    Cardinal Bernardin Gantin: Let us pray that our confession and repentance will be inspired by the Holy Spirit, that our sorrow will be conscious and deep, and that, humbly viewing the sins of the past in an authentic “purification of memory”, we will be committed to the path of true conversion. [Silent prayer.]

    The Holy Father: Lord God, your pilgrim Church, which you ever sanctify in the blood of your Son, counts among her children in every age members whose holiness shines brightly forth and members whose disobedience to you contradicts the faith we profess and the Holy Gospel. You, who remain ever faithful, even when we are unfaithful, forgive our sins and grant that we may bear true witness to you before all men and women. We ask this through Christ our Lord. R. Amen.

    Cantor: Kyrie, eleison; Kyrie, eleison; Kyrie eleison.

    The assembly repeats: Kyrie, eleison; Kyrie, eleison; Kyrie eleison.

    [A lamp is lit before the Crucifix.]

    II. Confession of Sins Committed in the Service of Truth

    Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger: Let us pray that each one of us, looking to the Lord Jesus, meek and humble of heart, will recognize that even men of the Church, in the name of faith and morals, have sometimes used methods not in keeping with the Gospel in the solemn duty of defending the truth. [Silent prayer.]

    The Holy Father: Lord, God of all men and women, in certain periods of history Christians have at times given in to intolerance and have not been faithful to the great commandment of love, sullying in this way the face of the Church, your Spouse. Have mercy on your sinful children and accept our resolve to seek and promote truth in the gentleness of charity, in the firm knowledge that truth can prevail only in virtue of truth itself. We ask this through Christ our Lord. R. Amen. R. Kyrie, eleison; Kyrie, eleison; Kyrie eleison.

    [A lamp is lit before the Crucifix.]

    III. Confession of Sins which have Harmed the unity of the body of Christ

    Cardinal Roger Etchegaray: Let us pray that our recognition of the sins which have rent the unity of the Body of Christ and wounded fraternal charity will facilitate the way to reconciliation and communion among all Christians. [Silent prayer.]

    The Holy Father: Merciful Father, on the night before his Passion your Son prayed for the unity of those who believe in him: in disobedience to his will, however, believers have opposed one another, becoming divided, and have mutually condemned one another and fought against one another. We urgently implore your forgiveness and we beseech the gift of a repentant heart, so that all Christians, reconciled with you and with one another will be able, in one body and in one spirit, to experience anew the joy of full communion. We ask this through Christ our Lord. R. Amen. R. Kyrie, eleison; Kyrie, eleison; Kyrie eleison.

    [A lamp is lit before the Crucifix.]

    IV. Confession of the Sins Against the People of Israel

    Cardinal Edward Cassidy: Let us pray that, in recalling the sufferings endured by the people of Israel throughout history, Christians will acknowledge the sins committed by not a few of their number against the people of the Covenant and the blessings, and in this way will purify their hearts. [Silent prayer.]

    The Holy Father: God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your Name to the Nations: we are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant. We ask this through Christ our Lord. R. Amen R. Kyrie, eleison; Kyrie, eleison; Kyrie eleison.

    [A lamp is lit before the Crucifix.]

    V. Confession of Sins Committed in Action Against Love, Peace, the Rights of Peoples, and Respect for Cultures and Religions

    Archbishop Stephen Fumio Hamao: Let us pray that contemplating Jesus, our Lord and our Peace, Christians will be able to repent of the words and attitudes caused by pride, by hatred, by the desire to dominate others, by enmity towards members of other religions and towards the weakest groups in society, such as immigrants and itinerants. [Silent prayer.]

    The Holy Father: Lord of the world, Father of all, through your Son you asked us to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us and to pray for those who persecute us. Yet Christians have often denied the Gospel; yielding to a mentality of power, they have violated the rights of ethnic groups and peoples, and shown contempt for their cultures and religious traditions: be patient and merciful towards us, and grant us your forgiveness! We ask this through Christ our Lord. R. Amen. R. Kyrie, eleison; Kyrie, eleison; Kyrie, eleison.

    [A lamp is lit before the Crucifix.]

    VI. Confession of Sins Against the Diginity of Women and the Unity of The Human Race

    Cardinal Francis Arinze: Let us pray for all those who have suffered offences against their human dignity and whose rights have been trampled; let us pray for women, who are all too often humiliated and emarginated, and let us acknowledge the forms of acquiescence in these sins of which Christians too have been guilty. [Silent prayer.]

    The Holy Father: Lord God, our Father, you created the human being, man and woman, in your image and likeness and you willed the diversity of peoples within the unity of the human family. At times, however, the equality of your sons and daughters has not been acknowledged, and Christians have been guilty of attitudes of rejection and exclusion, consenting to acts of discrimination on the basis of racial and ethnic differences. Forgive us and grant us the grace to heal the wounds still present in your community on account of sin, so that we will all feel ourselves to be your sons and daughters. We ask this through Christ our Lord. R. Amen. R. Kyrie, eleison; Kyrie, eleison; Kyrie, eleison.

    [A lamp is lit before the Crucifix.]

    VII. Confession of SUns in Relation to the Fundamental Rights of the Person

    Archbishop François Xavier Nguyên Van Thuân: Let us pray for all the men and women of the world, especially for minors who are victims of abuse, for the poor, the alienated, the disadvantaged; let us pray for those who are most defenceless, the unborn killed in their mother’s womb or even exploited for experimental purposes by those who abuse the promise of biotechnology and distort the aims of science. [Silent prayer.]

    The Holy Father: God, our Father, you always hear the cry of the poor. How many times have Christians themselves not recognized you in the hungry, the thirsty and the naked, in the persecuted, the imprisoned, and in those incapable of defending themselves, especially in the first stages of life. For all those who have committed acts of injustice by trusting in wealth and power and showing contempt for the “little ones” who are so dear to you, we ask your fogiveness: have mercy on us and accept our repentance. We ask this through Christ our Lord. R. Amen. R. Kyrie, eleison; Kyrie, eleison; Kyrie, eleison.

    [A lamp is lit before the Crucifix.]

    Concluding Prayer

    The Holy Father: Most merciful Father, your Son, Jesus Christ, the judge of the living and the dead, in the humility of his first coming redeemed humanity from sin and in his glorious return he will demand an account of every sin. Grant that our forebears, our brothers and sisters, and we, your servants, who by the grace of the Holy Spirit turn back to you in whole-hearted repentance, may experience your mercy and receive the forgiveness of our sins. We ask this through Christ our Lord. R. Amen.

    [As a sign of penance and veneration the Holy Father embraces and kisses the Crucifix.]

  2. One of my very few disagreements with Pope St. John Paul II—to whom I pray each and every day …

    I apologize for the popes who have scuttled the Cause of the Saints and given us fake saints who cannot respond to our needs.

    Oremus. Flectamus genua. Levate.

  3. Harambe: I’m like … I mean … like seriously sorry that someone put a banana peel in a a tree and scared those sorority girls.

  4. Although it’s possible that the pope would have to consult with his shrink first, he should get around to issuing an apology for Vatican II, Land O’Lakes, Marxist Liberation theology, the Enneagram fad, and nuns in pantsuits.

  5. Since not everyone had the Irish Catholic experience of Vatican II in a direct first-hand way, it should be clarified that I was just kidding about the pope issuing an apology for nuns in pantsuits. As far as I can recall, that was a personal fashion choice by female religious and was not, in fact, imposed by a papal motu proprio by Pope Paul VI. They were following North American feminist fashion trends of the era. Likewise, not all nuns who were smokers smoked Virginia Slims. On the other hand, Paul VI did not impose an order for them to stop wearing pantsuits, so….

    Maybe that was part of the suppressed Third Secret of Fatima.

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