Sight Magazine – Essay: Pope Francis apologized for harm done to First Nations people, but what does a pope’s apology mean?

Pope Francis apologized on April 1 to First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegations, acknowledging the harm caused by residential schools in Canada and marking a crucial step in the Church’s acceptance of its role in the abuse of Indigenous communities and children. Yet these apologies, important as they are, raise questions about what it means when a pope apologizes.

As a Catholic theologian who studies the authority of the churchI have observed how previous papal apologies can speak for the whole church and deny or claim responsibility.

Members of the Indigenous Artists Delegation of the Assembly of First Nations and the Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada perform in St. Peter’s Square, after an audience with Pope Francis, at the Vatican on April 1. PHOTO: Reuters/Yara Nardi/file photo.

Developments in the papal apologies
It was once unthinkable for a pope to apologize, because to admit guilt would imply that the Church was sinful. However, the Second Vatican Councila gathering of bishops, cardinals, heads of religious orders and theologians who met from 1962 to 1965 and modernized the church, changed the church’s perspective on change and implemented major reforms. It also opened the door to admitting wrongdoing.

Pope John Paul II apologized for the church’s many past mistakes by marking March 12, 2000 as a “forgiveness dayIn the document announcing the Day of Forgiveness, John Paul II said “the Church today, through the Successor of Peter, names, declares and confesses the errors of Christians of all times”.

“It was once unthinkable for a pope to apologize, because to admit guilt would imply that the Church was sinful. church, changed the church’s perspective on change and instituted major reforms. It also opened the door to admitting fault.

This sent a signal that the papal apology speaks for the whole Church, beyond the personal responsibility of a current pope. Just a year before, the International Theological Commission had declared that “in all the history of the Church there is no precedent for papal apologies for ‘the wrongs of the past'”. Thus, it set a significant new precedent. christian theologian Jeremy M. Bergen call it the Day of Forgiveness “the most widely received example of ecclesial repentance to date”.

The papal apologies are based on the understanding that the pope is the head of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, bound by tradition throughout time. As a result, it is possible for the pope to apologize for an event in the past when he was not pope, or perhaps even not yet born, because the church of a thousand years ago is linked to today.

When a pope apologizes, the apology often addresses the feelings of the victims, but does not implicate the Church as responsible. Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged the pain of victims of sexual abuse when he said in 2008, “I am deeply sorry for the pain and suffering endured by the victims, and I assure them that as a pastor, I too share their suffering”. Yet Benedict XVI has often arrested before apologizing for the concealment of the church.

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By not admitting wrongdoing and church cover-up, this apology straddles a line of expression of regret without taking ownership and accountability. It’s like a friend saying “I’m sorry you felt that way” without claiming responsibility.

Pope Francis and an apology
Francis more often admits the fault of the church for its actions. In a 2015 speech in Bolivia, Pope Francis spoke of the “serious sins” of colonization in the Americas and said, “I humbly beg pardon, not only for the offense to the church itself, but also for the crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”



In this apology, Francis spoke on behalf of the whole Church, even though acts of colonialism began centuries earlier. This apology affirmed the universal nature of the Church, as well as the unique suffering of Bolivians, by apologizing on Bolivian soil. Evo Morales, former Bolivian President, responded to apologiessaying, “For the first time, I feel like I have a pope: Pope Francis.”

From my point of view, Francis’ apologies for residential schools walk in a line between previous general and specific apologies. He stated, “For the deplorable conduct of these members of the Catholic Church, I ask God’s forgiveness, and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am truly sorry.” By saying this, he put a distance between himself and those “members of the Catholic Church” responsible for the abuse.

Excuses are actions
Certainly, there are those who say that actions are more important than words and that papal apologies are hollow without corresponding actions. While there are certainly actions that are necessary to make amends and restore justice, I argue that it is also important to recognize that apologizing is itself an action.

The actions of a world leader like the pope matter. Apologies are recognized as a step in restorative justice. For example, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of CanadaCalls to ActionThe document includes a call for an apology from the church.

The papal apology may not say it all, but it does say something important. As head of the Roman Catholic Church and world leader, the Pope apologizes both to the Church and on behalf of the Church to the world. These apologies are necessary starting points on the path to forgiveness and healing.The conversation

Annie Selak is Associate Director of the Women’s Center, Georgetown University. This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.

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