The Promises, Limitations, and Perils of Public Apologies

Posted on Sunday, July 31, 2022
by David P. Deavel

AMAC Exclusive By David P. Deavel

Pope Francis’s public apology to native peoples in Canada for the abuses of the residential schools run by Catholics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was, even for the many Catholics who find his papacy largely a failure, seen as largely successful. I think it was too, but such public apologies—on the part of churches, governments, and even nations—have promises, perils, and risks involved that need to be remembered by those offering them as well as by those on behalf of whom they are offered.

Francis’s apology on July 25 at the powwow grounds south of Edmonton, Alberta, in Maskwacis went beyond what has been given by Catholic leaders of the past. He was sorry, he told the audience, which included many former Inuit, Metis, and other First Nations students at the residential schools: “Sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous peoples. I am sorry. I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the Church and of religious communities cooperated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.”

He was referring to the system of residential schools, many of them run by Catholic dioceses or religious orders, that carried out the will of the Canadian government to “civilize” native peoples. Native children were often taken away from their families and brought to the schools. There was not only a great deal of “physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse” (Francis was criticized by some for not including sexual abuse), but there was also the attempt to eliminate all aspects of native culture (“cultural destruction and forced assimilation”) in the children as well as the obvious separation of the children from their families—quite often against the will of those families. That this action was a stain on the various religious orders, dioceses, and even the Catholic Church as a whole is undeniable. And it is good that Francis offered this apology.

There is great promise in this action, for it is a Christian principle that repentance is the only way to make any progress at all. Repentance meaning not merely guilty feelings but actually turning away from bad actions. That the Catholic Church did not respect the rights of parents and children in many of its members and branches means that an apology is the first step in a new pattern of behavior toward native peoples. Acknowledging those wrongs is a first step toward taking away the scandal that prevented many members of Canadian tribes from following Jesus in the first place. It is also a first step toward new relationships and ministries to Natives, 63% of whom are Christian (according to 2011 polling data). The Catholic Church can now preach the Gospel in a much more plausible way, one that does not involve rejecting all parts of native cultures, but only those that contradict the Gospel.

So far, so good. But there are also limitations to what such apologies can do. Many people assume that such public apologies will provide broader societal healing. This is, however, unlikely, for some reasons given twenty-five years ago by Catholic legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon in a reflection titled “Contrition in the Age of Spin Control.” Glendon was writing in the context of then-Pope John Paul II’s famed apologies on behalf of the Catholic Church, apologies which were being made in preparation for a renewal in the third millennium of Christian life.

Glendon observed that one of the main difficulties is that such apologies often get filtered “through the news media.” Thus, what people hear is oftentimes not exactly what popes (or other leaders of nations and groups) have said. In the case of the Catholic Church, there is a tendency for those filtered apologies to come off as an apology for what the Catholic Church teaches. Quite often, such apologies for bad Christian behavior done in the name of the Gospel often get translated as apologies for the Gospel itself. The distinction between an apology for trying to erase all of native culture and the Christian necessity of abandoning false religious or moral teachings ends up getting erased. Thus, the promise of the apology can be neutralized. In the case of many “liberal” Catholic clergy and academics, this problem of the media is often exacerbated.

Thus, when many people do get around to reading the actual words of the apologies, they are quite often shocked to find out that popes have not completely condemned the Catholic Church or the claim that Christ is the Lord of all. The same goes for leaders of governments in our own woke times—apologizing for any actual wrongdoing without condemning the nation as a whole is often depicted as not a true apology. If you don’t say the entire nation remains systemically racist, you are still “part of the problem.”

This leads to a limitation that is part of the peril of such apologies. Many people believe such apologies will promote healing in a nation as a whole. But quite often such apologies are only seen by those demanding them as a submission of will to themselves. Glendon noted that John Paul’s apologies were often used by the Church’s enemies as an excuse to fudge the historical record in the other direction: to erase the positive record of what Catholics and Catholic institutions have done. The goal was then to put more pressure on the Church and on individual Catholics to bend the knee to those demanding the apologies. We can see such a danger in the headline “Canada says Pope’s apology to Indigenous not enough.”

Canada says? Well, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says so. The same Justin Trudeau who closed down the Office of Religious Freedom in 2016 and who ordered Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland to strip the tax-exempt status of pro-life charities this past December.

It’s important for those making public apologies to remember to whom they are apologizing. Glendon noted that expressions of sorrow are first and foremost to God, and then to those who were affected by the actions. They do not require “abasing ourselves before others, and certainly not before persons who are unwilling to admit any misdeeds of their own.” Certainly not the Canadian government. Most certainly not Prime Minister Trudeau, whose policies on religious freedom and abortion—not to mention freedom in the age of Covid—show that Gov is no substitute for God and demands no higher fealty.

I’m glad Pope Francis made his trip to Canada and delivered an apology. Ministers and elected leaders are right to do so in certain situations. But they cannot expect that such apologies will right all wrongs or change the game, especially if the apologies are being manipulated. They should also beware that their apologies may be seen as submission to the powers that be instead of the Name that is above all names.

David P. Deavel is an Associate Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas (Texas). A senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative, he is a winner of the Acton Institute’s Novak Award and a former Lincoln Fellow at the Claremont Institute. With Jessica Hooten Wilson, he edited Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West (Notre Dame, 2020). Besides his academic publications, his writing has appeared in many journals, including Catholic World Report, City Journal, First Things, Law & Liberty, and The Wall Street Journal. Follow him on Gettr @davidpdeavel.