an unapologetic anti-apology view

Ian Hunter, Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at Western University in London, Ont., has written a commentary over at The Catholic Register titled I’m sorry, this column is about the blame game. Hunter is critical of umbrella-style apologies given by churches and governments for sins of the past. He uses the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada as an example. The Commission travels the country and provides opportunities for former Residential School students to tell their stories.  Hunter believes,

The interesting thing about this worldwide pandemic of apologizing is that its common feature is the debasement of truth and language. Such apologies debase truth because the person proffering the apology is seldom the one who has committed any historical harm, as indeed the recipient is seldom one who suffered it. Such apologies debase language because, for an apology to be meaningful, contrition must precede regret. In these politically correct exercises, the person apologizing seldom has reason to be contrite, while the recipient has his sense of victimhood officially confirmed.

The Residential School issue is filled with legal and ethical complexities. At the time, schools were built to provide education in remote areas where there was none. We know, now, the errors of colonialism by churches and governments. Taking children from their homes and way of life was wrong. Trying to replace their culture and heritage with that of white, western European society was wrong. Verbally, physically and sexually abusing those same children was not only wrong, it was unconscionably evil. How do we make it right? How do we begin to repair the damage that was done so justice can be served?

Not all religious and priests, lay women and men who taught in these schools were abusers. Not all children were abused. But recompense must be made. Sadly, this has left many dioceses and religious orders on the verge off, or in actual bankruptcy. As with all abuse scandals, many innocent women and men are tainted with the fall-out. The legal issues of justice for evils perpetrated so many years ago are complicated. Apologizing is not.

After a wrong has been acknowledged, apologizing is the first logical step in any reconciliation process. Yes, ideally, the apology should come from the perpetrator. But, when a person acts in the name of a larger body, then that body must apologize also. When John Paul II publicly apologized for the evils of the Inquisition, he was humbly admitting that the Church had erred. An apology will not bring back the dead or undo the suffering, but it tells the world that we know and acknowledge that evil was done in the name of the Church. And with acknowledgement there is contrition and a desire to not let history repeat itself.

Professor Hunter does make a point regarding empty apologies. There are lawyers who provide seminars to businesses on how to make apologies without admitting legal liability. We see frequent examples of empty apologies from politicians and media personalities. “I apologize for my hurtful words” is replaced with, “I apologize if my words hurt you.” This kind of apology takes the responsibility off the perpetrator and places it on the victim.

The weakness of Professor Hunter’s argument is highlighted near the conclusion of his essay,

Nor is our penchant for historical apologies unrelated to the feminization of our era. It is feelings, not thoughts, that are valued today. If I feel wronged, then I must have been wronged. If my life has not turned out as I had hoped, someone must be to blame and who better than the government?

Ah, so the feminization of our era is the problem. Worrying if someone was wronged and apologizing for that wrong is more a woman thing. Men need to stay focused on cerebral matters and leave the messiness of feelings to us.

I’m truly sorry that you think this way, Professor Hunter.

reality and a 5 minute retreat

The international clerical sexual abuse and cover-up scandals are again making Catholic news head-lines this week. Signs of progress are coming from an Abuse Summit taking place at the Vatican. From heart-wrenching personal witnesses by victims, to public penitential prayers, to acknowledgement of the accountability of both bishops and priests; there is hope that eyes are being opened and denials will no longer be accepted. John Allen’s daily reports over at the National Catholic Reporter give an insightful commentary on the summit proceedings.

Another NCR article chronicles a well-known story of massive cover-up and re-victimization of the abused not just by the offending clergy, but by their own families and parishes. Clerical power thwarts victims in Poland is a difficult article to read. I found my heart racing, and my body filling with angry tension. This is the country of my heritage with a culture of devoted Catholics, colorful pilgrimages, and love for the Blessed Mother. Yet, it is also the Church that angered my grand-father decades ago for its clericalism and greed.

By now, we know that our Church consists of sinners and saints. We cannot run from the reality of evil, for it must be faced and eradicated. But we also need to be nurtured and reminded of the existence of a loving God. We need to be reminded that we are beloved by God. And, we need to be reminded that we are loved by others. This is especially true for those who have been so deeply hurt and wounded.

I began my daily online reading with an uplifting piece from Sandy Prather’s column, Breaking Open the Ordinary in the Prairie Messenger. It raised my spirits, and I returned to it again after the depressing reading later in the day. If you can, take some time to read the entire reflection. It makes for a wonderful 5 minute retreat…

We likely will never have the actual experience of clouds parting and seeing the Holy Spirit descending like a dove upon us, but each of us needs to hear at least once in our life the spoken words: “You are the beloved; in you I am well pleased.” As disciples of Jesus, we carry the message to each other: God delights in you. It is to be affirmed into life.

pelvic politics, cont’d

The term “pelvic politics” describes the perception of an unbalanced emphasis on sexual issues by some bishops and conservative Catholics. Church teachings on birth control, abortion, gay marriage, co-habitation, celibacy and a male-only priesthood all become a litmus test for identifying a faithful Catholic. Too often, the test becomes a weapon of righteous judgment and condemnation. Sitting on the wrong side of the orthodoxy fence can deny you a church wedding, election support, or employment in church run institutions. Ecclesial promotions for ordained members are dependent on their public support of these teachings. In extreme cases, excommunications have been meted out to those who have publicly questioned or not supported them; usually by extremely-minded bishops.

Yesterday’s post included this quote from David DeCosse,

the bishops’ emphasis on law as the pre-eminent category of conscience means that they leave little room for practical reasoning to help the conscience figure out what to do in the face of complexity.

For me, of all the issues listed here, the one that is most black and white is that of abortion. It is not a form of contraception. It’s the intentional killing of an unborn child. And yet, there are cases that reflect the “face of complexity”; cases that show the moral dilemma that must be faced in the grey in between. Cases that need a wise mind and compassionate heart to discern what is right and wrong in a specific situation.

What about the woman in Phoenix who was 11 weeks pregnant with her fifth child and suffered heart failure? What about the nine year old girl in Brazil, raped and impregnated by her stepfather? In both cases, an abortion was performed to save the life of the mother. In both cases, excommunications were declared on all those involved (except for the young girl due to her age). Instead of praising the Church’s moral superiority and conviction, these stories showed to the world a Church lacking in compassion and understanding.

It is easy to raise the accusatory banner of hypocrisy at pharisaic church leaders who place heavy burdens on us while sexually abusing or covering up the abuse of others. It is difficult to listen to sermons on the importance of marriage and fidelity when stories appear of bishops having long term relationships and fathering children. Righteous rants on the “intrinsic evil” of homosexuality ring hollow, when the presence of homosexuality in the ranks of the ordained is ignored or denied.

But anger will get us nowhere. We need to stop and take a breath, together, and revisit the gospel call to life. Where should our focus be?

Up here, in the great white north, the words of the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau still resound in the psyche of our modern history. In 1967, as a young Justice Minister, he introduced an Omnibus Bill in the House of Commons that included decriminalizing homosexual acts performed in private, telling reporters “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” His intention was good. But, we still need moral guide-lines and laws to support them. In Canada, we have seen the dangers of human rights and freedoms going amuck when pedophiles demand the right to own child pornography. Or white-supremacists hide behind freedom of speech to spread their hatred and pass it on to their children.

The state and the church do have a place in the bedrooms of the nation when those bedrooms hide sexual abuse and rape. We have the moral obligation to denounce and prosecute those who kidnap or buy and sell humans into sexual slavery. We must insist that the possession, itself, of child pornography is wrong; because behind the pictures are real children being exploited.

In this time of global violence and injustice, it’s time for Catholics to stop being the religion of ‘nay’ and begin truly promoting a culture of life that acknowledges the face of complexity of our modern times. Too many issues are being ignored while we continue to count the number of angels dancing on the proverbial pin head.

It’s interesting that while church leaders are still debating the moral use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa, Women Religious around the world are banding together to stop human trafficking.