It seems that an apology is demanded whenever some horrendous wrong is discovered to have been committed in the distant past by Catholic priests and religious, on the one hand, and/or agents of the State, on the other hand.
By distant past, I mean a period of time far enough back that nobody in the present Church and/or government is responsible for it. Such is the case, for example, with the efforts of both State and Church to more or less forcibly assimilate native peoples in Canada, as brought to light once again through the alleged discovery of a mass grave of Native American children on the grounds of a former Catholic residential school, to which children were consigned by the Canadian government to be educated and formed as good Canadians.
(Note: Evidence now suggests that this was a collection of unmarked graves rather than a mass grave, which only strengthens the points I make below.)
I do not mention this Canadian instance because the United States has no similar history, but because it is the latest recognition in a whole series of recognitions of the severe deficiencies in any nation's effort to make vulnerable groups fit the desired national pattern, apparently at nearly any cost. The same approach was taken by the government of Australia with the aboriginal population there. As with English colonialism in India and European colonialism generally in Africa, the assumption that modern Western leaders "know best" how to bestow the gifts of "civilization" on their "inferiors" was fully operative when new countries were created by Europeans.
But it remains interesting how much emphasis is placed on the need for apologies from, in effect, "future" representatives of the involved entities — representatives who had nothing to do with the sins and crimes in question, and who already instinctively repudiate them. You will notice this particularly in the emphasis placed on "apology" in the Associated Press story referenced in our Editor's Note on this report: Pope expresses shock, prays for healing following discovery of mass grave at Canadian residential school.
You will notice this even more as a general rule — as Phil Lawler pointed out yesterday in Selective indignation: Canadian calls for a Vatican apology — when a complicit State can join in deflecting a portion of its own guilt onto the Catholic Church. I agree that the Church really should be held to a higher standard; but there is something very odd about the dominant culture's delight in finding fault with the Church for not upholding her own standards when, in the main, this is precisely what her opponents criticize her for on contemporary issues whenever she does.
Of course I admit that the question of belated public apologies is complex. Pope St. John Paul II clearly thought that institutional apologies, even for centuries-old mistakes and wrongs, had some merit in breaking down unnecessary hostilities to, and misunderstandings, of the Church. This beloved Pope offered many apologies for the Church's historical deficiencies, or rather the deficiencies of her members. But though I consider St. John Paul II to be, truly, "the Great", I've never been comfortable with this emphasis on apologizing for the past.
When are apologies meaningless?
My own theory is that as long as Catholic leaders (and civil officials) are not willing to apologize for the innumerable violations of the natural law which they condone today — by which, of course, I mean all the sins that are now fashionable — I do not see a great deal of merit in apologizing for past sins that were fashionable in a previous day, but which no longer constitute a temptation in either mainstream Catholic or secular culture now. Moreover, I believe it is essential to recognize that the very same deficiencies in moral judgment express themselves in different specific acts as cultural interests shift over time.
This demonstrates the complete uselessness of moral relativism. When we look closely, we find a continuum of abuse; it's just that different abuses are held to be right and good today as compared with yesterday, and that will change yet again tomorrow. In other words, what the dominant culture yesterday thought right and good is now condemned as abominable for no better reason than that the same faulty moral outlook has more or less randomly shifted to favor as right and good a different set of horrendous practices today. Consider the following continuum:
Large numbers of people in the dominant culture in a previous era approved of slavery, or at least thought it a necessary evil and so did not work against it. Nobody would dare maintain that position now. It is easy to apologize, on behalf of the dead, for slavery.
Large numbers of people in the dominant culture in a previous era approved of forcible assimilation of "inferior" native peoples, or at least thought it a necessary evil and so did not work against it. Nobody would dare maintain that position now. It is easy to apologize, on behalf of the dead, for this sort of "colonialism".
Large numbers of people in the dominant culture in a previous era approved of forcible removal of babies born to the poor so that they could be placed with richer parents, or at least thought it a necessary evil, and so did not work against it. But now we are getting closer to our own ever-shifting moral outlook, for this tends to be handled through surrogate motherhood and financially-arranged adoptions today, indicating that we have not quite entirely abandoned the attitudes attendant on this practice. But our differences in technique still make it easy to apologize, on behalf of the dead, for what we might call plutocratic infant management.
What the dominant culture yesterday thought right and good is now condemned as abominable for no better reason than that the same faulty moral outlook has more or less randomly shifted to favor as right and good a different set of horrendous practices today.
So now, in this litany, things are becoming uncomfortable. Some aspects of what a previous era generally approved still strikes fairly close to home, such as the widespread use of medical "advances" to restrict the number of children bred by the poor; the exploitation of the natural resources and/or the environment in poor countries by the dominant Western interests; and many other practices which make our own lives more comfortable and which we notice only when convenient alternatives become available.
And so we morph into our present set of unnatural vices which also cause constant suffering to those incapable of resistance. We come into the full-blown ideological redefinitions of the nature of men and women and the relations between them, as well as the ideological fiddling-for-personal-convenience with the structure of the human family — both of which are dominant forms of the exploitation of children, not to mention the adults these patterns tear to pieces.
We come also to the ceaseless indoctrination of children in the government schools of nearly every wealthy nation on earth — an indoctrination which dwarfs that inflicted on indigenous peoples. We come, in other words, face to face with the horrors of our current situation in which marriage, family, sex and gender have all been degraded and destroyed, in which children have their psychological and spiritual stability undermined in the name of non-existent liberties, in which new forms of exploitation are invented almost daily, and in which innumerable social ills spiral upward along with drug use, self-harm and suicide.
My point is that this is the same old viciousness masquerading once again as virtue, and most people would rather be caught dead than apologize for it in the moment of its ascendancy.
So, no, I don't care much for apologies for past sins that are found abhorrent today by those who have simply moved on to defend and propagate new-found sins arising from exactly the same source.
The blinding blur of evil
The worst evils are typically committed not by extraordinarily evil people but by ordinary people who have been caught up in the culturally-dominant banality of evil in their own time and place. The worst evils are typically committed, in other words, by the general acceptance of culturally-dominant lies as truisms.
We see this down through history. Often what is good and what is evil are reclassified according to the whims of society's elites, but these shifts retain much of a sameness in their refusal to be grounded either in Divine Revelation or in God's natural laws — absolute moral sources that transcend our personal and societal vagaries. Instead, they mirror the dominant culture's erroneous ways of thinking, in which specific heinous practices meet with approval for a time, only to be repudiated in the adoption of new heinous practices which violate the same moral laws in different ways — in ways which reflect the potent march of human cultural prejudice.
After all, what could be more clever on the part of the Father of Lies than to continually stir people to righteous denunciation of the sins of previous generations so that they can feel exactly the kind of moral superiority which makes it so easy to fall into a different set of sins today! Only those who are genuinely morally perceptive can see the characteristic sins and rationalizations of their own time and place. And those who are genuinely morally perceptive would rather a thousand times over to wean others from today's abominations than to indulge in self-righteous posturing about the past.
It is too easy to apologize for what all the right people uniformly regard as terrible while thoroughly approving equivalent or even worse sins and crimes that all the right people uniformly regard as wise and good.
All of this this explains why I don't think much of apologizing for past particular sins which do not tempt the current generation in the same forms. An impartial observer could easily demonstrate that those who are demanding the loudest and most abject apologies are busily engaged in equally outrageous horrors which they simply refuse to recognize, because they align with their own moral compass, which is the popular ideas of the dominant culture. Yet the old sins are typically only a slightly different form of that culture's ongoing rebellion against God, against nature, against reality itself.
It is too easy to apologize for what all the right people uniformly regard as terrible while thoroughly approving equivalent or even worse sins and crimes that all the right people uniformly regard as wise and good. Unless a human culture can submit itself to the absolute standards of right and wrong which we know by nature through reason and/or by Revelation through Faith — standards which do not admit of constant reformulation through cultural whim — then I have little interest at all in hearing apologies from present factotums for the transgressions of those who were swept by cultural whim into a different set of equally vacuous prejudices about reality.
Show me a person who has no rational capacity to formulate serious concepts of good and evil that go beyond the prejudices of the dominant culture, and I'll show you a person who is heavily supportive of a whole series of grave evils that just happen to be embraced by that culture. Show me a person with no rule of life but what fashion generates based on the personal desires of our elites — no rule of life other than what "everybody who matters" says is acceptable or not acceptable — and I will show you someone who has no way to recognize and confess his own sins, let alone the sins of those who have come before.
So here is my advice to spokespersons: Work to understand the Good and foster it now; don't apologize for what your stupid forbears did. That's a never-ending cycle in which evils are very conveniently condemned only when they have ceased to be popular. If you don't make a start toward the True and the Good in absolute terms now — if your morality changes from decade to decade with every cultural shift — then your descendants will surely be offering apologies for you which are just as shallow and glib and meaningless as your own apologies are today.
Jeffrey Mirus. "Confused about public apologies for the past? I'm not." Catholic Culture (June 8, 2021).
Jeffrey A. Mirus received a Ph.D. in Intellectual History from Princeton University in 1973. In 1977, Mirus collaborated with Warren H. Carroll in founding Christendom College. Jeff Mirus served as a professor, founded the apologetics program, was the first Director of Academic Affairs, made Faith & Reason the College's journal and founded and directed Christendom Press. He also co-authored the apologetics text Reasons for Hope and authored The Divine Courtship. Jeffrey Mirus now spends a majority of his time managing Trinity Communications and developing the CatholicCulture.org website.Copyright © 2021 Catholic Culture
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