Theology of Apology

Deacon Doug McManaman

I had to ask myself recently whether it is fitting for Pope Francis to apologize for the role the Church played in Canada’s 19th and 20th century Residential Schools. From a theological point of view, I believe the answer is rather easy. Yes, it is indeed fitting. What follows is my attempt at an explanation. 

The first principle I would like to lay down is that Christ’s redemption of the human race is really an apology. Christ, who is the Second Person of the Trinity who joined a human nature to himself, came to reconcile man to God, and he accomplishes this by offering himself as a sacrifice of reparation for the sins of all human persons. Christ is entirely innocent, but he takes upon himself the sins of the world and brings them to the altar of the cross. He acts on our behalf to offer this sacrifice of reparation, and his sacrifice can achieve what we simply cannot, precisely because he is both divine and human. As a son of man, he can step in on our behalf; but as God the Son, the value of his sacrifice is infinite, and it has to be, because sin against God is of infinite gravity; for it brings about an infinite gulf that man cannot cross if he is to stand before God. It is an apology to the Father on our behalf for sins from which we cannot deliver ourselves. 

The next point I’d like to make is that Catholicism is not about us. This is one point that those who leave the Church persistently fail to grasp, obviously. Catholicism is not about Catholics; it is about Christ. What this means is that it is not about our love for him: “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins” (1 Jn 4, 10). As for us, essentially we’re just a bunch of “shleps”, and the first condition for belonging to Christ is to see this and acknowledge it. Two scripture verses are enough to show this: first, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the kingdom of heaven is theirs” (Mt 5, 1), and “If we say, ‘We have not sinned,’ we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 Jn 1, 10). Consider this both from the level of the group and the individual level. I remember a pastor of a parish in Brampton asked me to give a talk on Church history to his RCIA class. I spent a week preparing for this, but I asked him: “Are you sure you want me to do this? This might scandalize them; they may not want to be Catholics after this”. The history of the Church is, from one angle, not all that pretty. There’s quite a bit of sin and stupidity that fills our history. And this is true on an individual level as well. I don’t like seeing myself in the past, either on an old VHS cassette or in old photos that open up a series of memories of my life at the time. I often shake my head: “I can’t believe I said that to him”, or “What an idiot I was for doing that”, etc. I don’t shake my head now, because I am blind, but I have no doubt that I will years down the road when I am given an opportunity to glance at myself as I am currently. 

The next point in the building of my case for an apology is that the Church that Christ established is his Mystical Body. God is humble, so humble that he chooses to communicate himself, his word, his grace, and his very body and blood, through the instrumentality of unworthy hands throughout history until his Second Coming. There is no way around this. We are unworthy, flawed, limited, and blinded by our own sinfulness, but he chose to bestow upon us the tremendous dignity of being his instruments. However, every day we pray: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us”. If one is a deacon, priest, or bishop, one prays this line at least twice a day through the Liturgy of the Hours, and once again in the Mass if one is a priest. Our sins hurt others indirectly. However, what if I hurt someone directly? Then I am to reconcile myself to that person before bringing my gift to the altar: “Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5, 23-24). But what if I have no access to my brother, whom I have hurt? That is precisely what the sacrament of reconciliation is about: sin is not a private affair between me and God; rather, sin is essentially public because we are a Mystical Body; my sin affects the entire body of Christ, just as a thumb tack in my heel affects my entire self (I as a single whole feel the pain, not merely my foot). Absolution reconciles me simultaneously to both the Mystical Body, the Church, and to God–that is why we ought to go to Confession frequently. 

But how do I reconcile with my brother, whom I have hurt through my own sin, if I am dead? If I die in a state of grace, my sins have been forgiven, but I may still have to pay the debt incurred by my sins (purgatory). It is my hope that Masses will be said for the repose of my soul. But the Mass is the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection; it is the very same sacrifice as that of Calvary, mysteriously made present in the here and now, but applied to me. In other words, it is Christ’s apology offered by the Church for me. In purgatory, I see the far reaching effects of my sins in ways closed to me now, and I will grieve and mourn in sorrow, and I will yearn to make reparation and be reconciled to those I have hurt. Someone will have to become my voice and stand in for me.  

As for today, I am alive, but since I am a living part of that living Mystical Body that came to be on Good Friday as blood and water flowed from his side, I can apologize on behalf of my brother or sister who has since died and who grieves for the damage his or her sins have caused others. I may be innocent of his sin, but I am deeply connected to him nevertheless. As St. Paul says: “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy” (1 Cor 12, 26). The sorrow that I feel that this or that person has been hurt by the Church is the sorrow of the Church. I found myself spontaneously apologizing to a woman whose mother tried on a number of occasions to have her baptised–this was in Scotland in the 50s. She was repeatedly refused because she married a Protestant outside the Church. No doubt I was aware of the very real possibility that the story may not be entirely accurate, but it is not unreasonable for me to assume that at least some of this story involved sins of an overly rigid clergy lacking in compassion and mercy. If this is true, then they would, with the rest of us today, shake their heads at themselves and offer her a heartfelt apology; but they are dead, they have no voice. So I became their voice at that moment and offered that apology on their behalf–after all, someday I just may need someone to apologize on my behalf when I am unable to do so.

Did the Residential schools have “cultural genocide” as their principal purpose? That would require a lot more evidence than what we’ve been given by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, however it is not at all difficult to believe that the Church in general–not to mention the entire western world–failed to appreciate the value of Indigenous heritage, their right to hold onto and develop it. After all, just look how many centuries it took the Catholic Church to speak positively about the truths found in the great religions of the world, such as Hinduism and Islam (Cf. Nostra Aetate). By no means has such a development come to completion–there is still a great deal more to unravel in this area. Although the Church has been given the charism of infallibility, which protects the deposit of faith until the final coming of Christ, Jesus clearly says that the Holy Spirit will “lead you to the complete truth” (Jn 16, 13). She possesses the truth completely insofar as She possesses Christ; for she is his Mystical Body, but she does not possess the complete articulation of what that possession implies in all its theological detail. That unfolds gradually as a result of new questions that arise out of ever new circumstances. The Church develops through history like a tiny mustard seed that becomes the largest of garden plants (Mt 13, 31-32). 

And so it is perfectly fitting, from a theological point of view, for Pope Francis to apologize to the Indigenous peoples of Canada, on behalf of those who fell short in running the schools. If there is a tinge of victimhood thinking in the repeated calls for an apology, these calls may not stop with the papacy of Francis. Nevertheless, to apologize for the sins of our forebears is as sound as someone having Mass said for the repose of our own souls, which is the application of Christ’s Good Friday apology for us. 

Ideological Thinking and Catholic Education

Douglas P. McManaman

I don’t watch a lot of television, but for the past few years, the shows that I do enjoy watching are investigative in nature, shows that follow the trajectory of a real-life investigation of a murder or robbery, etc. The most interesting investigations are those that show a gradual accumulation of data and the resulting shift in the plausibility index of potential suspects. For example, the initial set of data might reveal a number of possible suspects; more data then narrows the focus to a most plausible suspect, along with one or two less plausible suspects. However, further data, as a result of new leads, has at times eliminated that suspect who was previously the most plausible candidate only to raise another suspect, formerly less plausible, to the maximally plausible rung on the ladder. Sometimes the most recent piece of new data eliminates all previous suspects and points to an entirely new one. 

These are important cases, because they reveal a critical lesson about knowledge that we as a culture have yet to fully appropriate–although those in the hard sciences seem to have a firm grasp of it, at least when they reason within the context of a scientific inquiry. I’m referring to the precarious nature of human knowledge. A large set of evidential data may point to a person who is entirely innocent. A simple example: a middle-aged man with long brown hair, wearing light-colored blue jeans and a green windbreaker was seen fleeing a horrific scene in which a woman was sexually assaulted and killed. There was no sign of forced entry, and no money or jewelry were missing. Hence, we formulate a highly plausible conditional statement: If x committed the assault and murder, then x will be a middle-aged man with long hair and who owns a light-colored pair of blue jeans and a green windbreaker. However, it does not follow that the long-haired man over yonder walking his dog and who is wearing a green windbreaker jacket and light-colored blue jeans is our killer. It is possible, but the conclusion that he is the killer must be tested–further evidence is needed. The reason for this is that the conclusion (“he is our man”) does not necessarily follow from the data. It is possible that he is the killer, but it is possible that he just happens to be wearing two pieces of clothing that are similar to what the killer was seen wearing. The hypothesis must be tested and tested again against an ever-expanding set of information. Hence, the experimental nature of the sciences, and the investigative nature of inductive reasoning. 

But ideologies do not work that way. Ideological thinking begins in the realm of ideas and stays there. An ideology is a kind of grand hypothesis, a worldview, that is meant to explain a vast array of empirical data, for example, the world we live in with all its inequalities, crimes, injustices, poverty, oppressions, murder rates, suicide and divorce rates, drop-out rates, etc. It then proceeds to formulate a conditional statement, which is essentially a grand idea: “If x is an essentially oppressive, racist and discriminatory system (or nation), then x will give rise to oppression, inequality, racism–not to mention other evils”. And since it is not difficult to find instances of oppression, racism and inequality, the hypothesis is easily corroborated (x is an essentially–not incidentally–oppressive, racist and discriminatory system, or nation).

Corroboration, however, does not prove a hypothesis. The requirement to test a hypothesis remains, because the conclusion does not necessarily follow. The difficulty is that such a hypothesis cannot be tested in a laboratory. At this point we need to look for disconfirmatory evidence, that is, facts in evidence that falsify the conclusion, as an investigator ought to do with respect to the murder case above. For example, the long-haired man over yonder walking his dog, wearing blue jeans and a green windbreaker, has no criminal record, is not middle-aged, is blond, and his green windbreaker is a darker shade of green than the one reported to have been worn by the fleeing suspect, and most importantly, he has an alibi–he was 10 hours away when the murder and assault took place. The same kind of testing must take place with respect to “grand ideas” that seek to make sense out of this world. The problem with such grand hypotheses/ideas is that they are attractive, for they are emotionally satisfying insofar as they simplify a highly complex reality, and they are easy to corroborate (i.e., render us susceptible to confirmation bias). However, if such an idea is wrong, it can be falsified. But falsification requires some research, specifically data that is inconsistent with the grand hypothesis that essentially constitutes the ideology (i.e., America is an essentially racist country; all minorities are oppressed; Israel and everything Israel does is bad; corporations are essentially greedy and immoral, etc.). And so, there is tremendous incentive, especially when we are young, to hang on to such a grand idea and pay no attention to evidence that falsifies it–falsification only complicates matters.

Recently I had a discussion with an atheist friend of mine who has tremendous respect for the scientific method, which of course is thoroughly empirical. What surprised me was my friend’s complete disregard for the importance of history. “No need to look back”, he insists. “The context, problems and solutions back then were completely different from today. The old masters knew nothing about modern times. They are irrelevant. I’m perfectly capable of understanding modern problems, ideas, and solutions without making reference to anyone in the past.” Astoundingly ahistorical for someone who stands by the logic of empiriometric science, which is thoroughly developmental and historical. But one need not be explicitly aware of history in order to be completely under the spell of a current mode of thinking that has its roots in history. It is impossible to escape the influence, positive or negative, of historical trends of thought; it is possible, however, to rise above them. Ignorance of history only condemns us to repeat it, but if we understand where certain ideas come from, it is possible not to get hoodwinked.

The ideological thinking that has gained significant ground today is of course applied postmodernism, or Critical Theory and all its ever-diversifying branches (postcolonial theory, queer theory, critical race theory, critical whiteness theory, critical disability theory, gender ideology, etc.). Postmodernism has its roots in the philosophy of G. W. F Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger.[1] A basic principle of postmodern thought is that knowledge in any objective sense is impossible, and so it is characterized by four basic themes: 1) the blurring of boundaries, 2) the power of language, 3) relativism (both cultural and moral), and 4) the loss of the individual and the universal.[2]  

For someone like Nietzsche, a father of postmodernism, objective knowledge is impossible. The reason is that the universe is unknowable and unintelligible. Why? Because there are no fixed natures. Both philosophy and science have traditionally been regarded as the study of the natures of things (i.e., human nature, the nature of organic or non-organic substances, the nature of time, space, etc.), but there are no “natures”; nothing is stable in the world outside the mind; there is only “becoming”, pure flux, and thus there is no “being” or “beings” to study or know. In order to know, there must be a stable intelligible structure (an essence) that the mind can wrap its head around and penetrate more and more deeply, but there isn’t, according to Nietzsche. Definitions, which have as their purpose the expression of what something is essentially, are just constructs that delimit what in reality has no boundaries (such as the male/female binary). It is language (the sound) which provides the illusion of stability or permanency, or the illusion of “being” and distinction. Language constitutes being, constructs it, thus giving the appearance that reality is made up of stable entities or things.

Science is thereby reduced to a fiction, nothing more than a highly complex linguistic construct. The mind is not measured by reality, rather, reality is measured by the mind. Moreover, science rests on first principles, such as the principle of identity, which is that “Each being is what it is”, as well as the principle of non-contradiction, which runs “Nothing can both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect” (or its logical formulation: “Nothing can be both true and not true at the same time and in the same respect”). But these principles are mere constructs, according to Nietzsche. Hence, nothing has any objective and intrinsic identity; rather, identities are imposed on reality through language. That is why contradictories can be “true” at one and the same time–for there is no “truth” in any objective sense of the word; the principle of non-contradiction is just another western construct. All we have in reality are various centers of power that are constantly in flux, encroaching upon other centers of power. Thus, language is about power, and if science is nothing more than a product of language, then science is fundamentally about power, not knowledge per se. Morality has no objective grounding, for it too is nothing more than a linguistic system that is fundamentally oppressive, a tool of the majority crafted to oppress the minority (one center of power encroaching upon a smaller center).[3] 

Within this postmodern framework, the logic of science with its basic requirement to test hypotheses is simply a part of this oppressive power system. Hence, to insist on evidence for one’s claims is to reveal a western oppressive colonial bias that assumes the objectivity and universal nature of the rules of logic. Hence, demanding evidence is a perpetuation of oppression. Reasoning cannot therefore be the way to overcome an impasse, because the rules of reasoning are again white European constructs; the only option that remains is power and struggle. 

In the end, all that exists are constructed narratives. There is no “truth” per se, only our narrative and their narrative, each one an expression of a will to power. In the postmodern world, there is always someone or something to demonize and a narrative to deconstruct, because there is always an oppressor and always an oppressed (a majority and minorities). There cannot be peace in such a cynical world, only dialectic and conflict. 

When postmodernism is traced back to its roots, it is obvious how utterly and “radically” irrational it is. Unfortunately, to the postmodernist “irrational” is not a derogatory term, for reality is in itself absurd, and intelligibility is constructed, not discovered. To those who believe in reason, its tenets are unsupportable and entirely self-refuting. Most people, however, don’t take the time to examine ideological trends at that level–they don’t have the time, or the patience, or the interest. This is a problem, because on the surface, postmodernism in its applied form will often appear to dovetail with some very basic religious tenets. But they are not, for that reason, compatible with religion, especially the Judeo-Christian religion. Follow the trajectory of the two projections as they lead away from the joint in the dovetail and we see that the two modes of thinking are irreconcilable and diametrically opposed. Both speak of equity, liberation, justice, and inclusion, and thus condemn inequity, oppression, injustice and exclusion, but to conclude that the two are thereby consistent, much less essentially the same or interchangeable, could not be more mistaken. For Catholics, one must show evidence that a behavior, a system, culture or nation, etc., is unjust or oppressive using rational data and universal moral principles, something that postmodernism rejects outright. 

Catholicism is not an ideology, but a religion, and religion is first and foremost a “relationship”. It is a revealed religion that has its roots in Judaism. Contrary to postmodernism, God, who is Being Itself (I Am Who Am), created all that is visible and invisible, and so the universe is a cosmos, not an unintelligible chaos; science is not a fiction. Material things are beings, and a being is a composite of essence and existence. Material things do change, but for every change, there is always something that remains unchanged, namely matter. The human person is created in the image and likeness of God, that is, in the image of mind and heart. To know is, among other things, to apprehend to some degree the natures of things, their intelligible structure. In this light, reality is intelligible and is the measure of the mind, not vice versa. A person is a per/sona, a “through sound”, that is, a communicator. To communicate is to enter into a kind of communion, a union of minds. Language does not distort the real, but unveils it, albeit limitedly. The only word that constructs being is the divine Word (Logos): “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him, nothing came to be” (Jn 1, 1-3). That Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. He came to liberate, to free us from a kind of oppression, namely the oppression and slavery of sin and death, but he did this through his sacrificial death on the cross and subsequent resurrection. Male and female are indeed binary, for as such they represent the fundamental binary into which reality is divided, namely “Creator and creation”, that is, God who is preeminently Father, and creation who is mother–as well as Yahweh, the Bridegroom of Israel, and Israel his bride, and finally Christ the Bridegroom and the Church who is his Bride. Marriage is a two in one flesh union in which a third, namely a child, is loved into existence as the fruit and living testimony of that one flesh union–a distant image of the Trinity. Not all power is unjust and oppressive; at its best, authority exists for the good of those subject to it, such as children to parents, or the law abiding to law grounded in reason; and so not all rejection of authority amounts to liberation from oppression–rejection of legitimate authority usually ends in oppression.

Catholic education must begin at the roots, not at the surface, that is, not with issues that are on trend, and which happen in some way to dovetail with certain elements of the Catholic faith. It must begin with the mystery of Christ as the permanent and inexhaustible reservoir out of which our understanding of the world, its history, and the nature of man arise. It must ever more deeply penetrate the mysteries of the Incarnation, the Trinity, the Paschal mystery and the supernatural life of divine grace, and from this foundation draw out the moral and spiritual implications of living one’s life as a new creation in the Person of Christ, for example, the requirements to a greater prudence, discernment, honesty, affability, purity, modesty, humility, courage, perseverance, magnanimity, natural piety, devotion to the common good and above all a single minded devotion to the kingdom of God.  

Social justice, oppression, and racism mean entirely different things for the postmodernist than for the Catholic. It is very important that Catholic educators get a firm grasp on this point: for the applied postmodernist, the very norms of Catholicism are oppressive at their roots and must be thoroughly deconstructed. We, on the contrary, would argue that any injustice, including racism, is impossible unless there is a stable and underlying human nature in light of which we apprehend that all men, despite accidental differences, are essentially the same and thus essentially equal. Postmodernism does not have what it takes to cry out in any definitive way against racism, colonial oppression, exploitation, etc., because postmodernism denies universals, such as “humanity”, human nature, universal rights and moral obligations, and it maintains that all knowledge, including moral knowledge, is nothing more than a construct. On what basis then are inequity or exclusion or discrimination to be condemned? For there are no universal moral norms in light of which the postmodernist can assert that any action is absolutely unjust and morally repugnant. 

For postmodernism, reality is essentially conflict, which can never be resolved or come to an end; for in a postmodern mind-frame, change is not a movement from the imperfect to the perfection of full realization and completeness, for that implies existing natures, beings that are composites of essence and existence and which are open to the fulfillment of their own natures. Rather, change is pure and total, without an underlying substrate or stable essence, and so it is always a matter of power, dominance, and loss–at least for one party. Philosophy becomes a matter of deconstructing language and the power structures they conceal, and not a study of the ultimate nature of things. But to insist that power structures and hierarchies are unjust is inconsistent and arbitrary, at least for those who believe in reason; but to insist that postmodernist claims are inconsistent and arbitrary is, in their minds, the perpetuation of colonial oppression. 

When Catholic education is reduced to postmodern activism under the appearance of being inclusive and equitable, students are in the end deprived of the wisdom to distinguish those elements that are ultimately destructive of Catholic education from its essential constituents. Inclusivity and equity are indeed good words; for the very word “Catholic” is from the Greek kataholos, which means “on the whole” or universal: Catholic is inclusive of all nations, which is why Christ sent his disciples out to all nations. Moreover, for centuries equity was understood to be a part of the virtue of justice, which involves the application of principles of justice to contingencies in which the letter of the law falls short. But for the postmodernist, whatever is outside the “norm” is non-inclusive, and so Catholic moral norms in particular must be deconstructed and liquidated. The Catholic understanding of marriage, for instance, as a two in one flesh union and the moral implication that sexual acts outside of marriage are morally deficient are seen as “heteronormative” and thus oppressive, giving rise to homophobia and “straight” privilege.

Catholic educators must be more shrewd and wary of ideological trends that eventually die out, only to be replaced by newer but nonetheless temporary fads. If we teach the mysteries of the faith in which our students have been baptized, with genuine evangelical zeal and understanding, relate to those students with a living faith, actually pray with them and expose them to the rich spiritual and theological heritage that is ours in the Church, it is not a stretch to suggest that social justice will take care of itself; a glance back at those saints who are the true face of the Church strongly suggests as much: i.e., St. John Bosco, Venerable Nelson Baker, Blessed Michael McGivney, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Jean Baptiste de LaSalle, St. Catherine Drexel, St. Mother Teresa, the monks of those monasteries that were the first hospitals, etc. If students are going to receive the specifically Catholic education to which their baptism gives them a right, then parents, teachers, administrators and trustees must be grounded in the mystery of Christ as revealed in Scripture and expounded ever more deeply throughout the history of the Church, the mystery from which springs the entire moral and spiritual heritage of the Church. 


  1. F. F. Centore. Being and Becoming: A Critique of Post-Modernism. Greenwood Press: Westport, Connecticut, 1991, pp. 21-69.
  2. For an excellent treatment of postmodernism in its applied form, see Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity―and Why This Harms Everybody. Pitchstone Publishing: Durham, North Carolina, 2020. 
  3. See F. W. Nietzsche. The Will to Power. Trans. W. Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Vintage, 1968.

A Few Thoughts on the Current Residential School Media Narrative

D. McManaman 

Every time I read something about residential schools, my thoughts always return to two things. The first has to do with the Ontario School System. Because we are members of the OCT (Ontario College of Teachers), we receive 4 issues of Professionally Speaking every year. I don’t know one teacher who reads anything other than its infamous blue pages found at the back of the magazine and which highlight the most recent hearings and disciplinary action involving teachers of various boards around the province. It does not make for pleasant reading. It is hard to believe that there are such people in the teaching profession today, teachers who are willing to have a sexual relationship with their students, who would text students nude photographs of themselves, groom them, kiss them, touch them, abuse them, swear at them, insult them, assault them, etc. Now let’s try a thought experiment: take all the issues published since 1997 and spend a full day reading the blue pages straight through. Or, imagine doing that 25 years from now with about 200 issues in front of you. Without any doubt, if one is not careful–and most people are not careful–, one can easily walk away with the impression that the Ontario School system is horribly deficient, abusive, and broken. The problem with such an impression is that it arises out of a very large but unrepresentative sample, namely the blue pages. Although the facts are indisputable, the impression is simply not true to the facts; for the vast majority of our students would have gone through their 12 years in school without ever encountering such teachers or hearing about them. I’ve spent 32 years in Ontario schools and have only come across one colleague who was written up in those pages. 

The second idea has to do with the clerical sex abuse scandals. One of my favourite lines from the 2015 film Spotlight, a film about the Boston Globe’s uncovering of the massive clerical sex abuse scandal and cover up within the Archdiocese of Boston, is from a discussion that takes place in a Cafe between a reporter and a lawyer who represents some of the abuse victims. The lawyer says to the reporter: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse a child”. And this is one point that struck me as I was making my way through Sacrilege, a 500 page tome that examines the clergy sex abuse crisis, by Leon Podles. It was astounding to realize just how many parents refused to believe their child and who would in some cases severely punish the child for daring to suggest “father” could do anything like that; or, those parents who did believe their child, but would be shunned by other parents of the parish or neighborhood for daring to suggest that “father” could do such a thing. And this extended beyond parents to district court judges, prosecutors, newspaper editors (who refused to publish), police chiefs and police officers (who refused to investigate), etc., let alone certain bishops. The participation in the cover ups was mind-bogglingly widespread. There is no doubt that “villages” destroyed the lives of so many children. 

The Prime Minister has called on the Catholic Church to step up and take responsibility for the residential schools. Aside from the issue of what conditions must be in place for justified ascription of collective responsibility, it can easily be pointed out that if the Church must apologize, then Canada as a whole must apologize, for it happened in this country. In an article entitled “Myth versus Evidence: Your Choice” (2018), Mark DeWolf writes: 

A close examination of recorded fact, along with a bias-free examination of those studies that have attempted to measure the long-term effects of the residential experience on former students, turns up telling evidence that the IRS system is far from the greatest villain in this story. Far more significant factors have created — and perpetuate — the many problems faced by First Nations people today, and those include the underfunding of native education generally, the government’s repeated failure to observe treaty obligations, and a variety of other misguided federal policies. These last include the failure to consult meaningfully with native groups regarding issues that affect them significantly, the 67-year ban on such important gatherings as the Sun Dance and the potlatch, and the rush to place native children in provincial schools in the 1950s. And the finger-pointing should not just be directed at Ottawa. The rapid spread of non-Indigenous culture through technology has likely done more to erode First Nations culture and community life than any efforts by Christian missionaries.

Once again, it takes a village, or in this case, an entire nation. This brings me to the question of sound representation. I say this because a number of friends of mine who have had much greater interaction with First Nations people than I have, for example on the Manitoulin and in the Brantford area of Ontario, have been told by a number of them that they loved their residential schools and couldn’t wait to get back to them after the holidays. They were fed, looked after, and saw none of the abuse that others had seen. In an article by William Gairdner entitled “Balancing the Biased “Genocide” Story About Residential Schools” (2018) are included a number of testimonies that have to make us wonder about the representative nature of the current narrative regarding the residential schools. For example: 

I worked with Chipewyan people as an employee of the Catholic Church from 1991 to 2001 …. I heard many positive comments by native people who had attended residential school in Fort Resolution…. One woman, a Chief of her community for some years, said, ‘I couldn’t wait to go back to residential school.  You were clean and you had good food.’ I knew another family, eight children. The Dad was a trapper who spent the winter on the barren lands. His wife contracted TB and was placed in the isolation hospital in Ft. Res. The children were taken by the Dad each year to the school to keep them safe. It was very hard for the youngest who was only 4 yrs at the time – traumatic even to be separated from parents and older sibs. However, the child survived where otherwise he may not have. The schools must be viewed in the context of the social and economic circumstances at the time.

Gairdner also writes:  

Hodgson-McCauley, the first female chief of one of the 23 bands in the Northwest Territories. She also wrote a popular weekly column for Northern News Service right up until one week before she died of cancer at the age of 95 on March 12, 2018. Hodgson-McCauley, the recipient of a 2017 Indspire Award for her achievements and contributions in politics, reported that many former students were coming forward “with their good and positive side of their residential school experiences.” Elders had phoned her to express concern that only the negative side of the residential schools was being publicized. “They are planning to start a committee of elders to make public the positive side of the residential school.  They all agree that Canadians must be made aware of the positive stories,” she wrote. Surely one of the most impressive positive stories is by the famous Tomson Highway, which can be found here:

He states: “There are many very successful people today that went to those schools and have brilliant careers and are very functional people, very happy people like myself.

One begins to suspect that perhaps Rubenstein and Clifton have a point. In an article from the National Post entitled “Truth and Reconciliation report tells a ‘skewed and partial story’ of residential schools” (2015), they write: 

The mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to “reveal to Canadians the complex truth about the history and the ongoing legacy of the church-run residential schools, in a manner that fully documents the individual and collective harms perpetuated against Aboriginal peoples.” By indigenous cultural standards of evidence gathering and truth telling, perhaps it did. By contemporary Western juridical and objective social science standards, however, the report is badly flawed, notably in its indifference to robust evidence gathering, comparative or contextual data, and cause-effect relationships. The result is that it tells a skewed and partial story of what actually occurred at the residential schools and how this affected its students. Among the report’s many shortcomings are: implying without evidence that most of the children who attended the schools were grievously damaged by the experience; asserting as self-evident that the legacy of the residential schools consists of a host of negative post-traumatic consequences transmitted like some genetic disorder from one generation to the next; conflating so-called “Survivors” (always capitalized and always applied to every former student) with the 70 per cent of aboriginals who never attended these schools, thereby exaggerating the cumulative harm they caused; ignoring the residential school studies done by generations of competent and compassionate anthropologists; arguing that “cultural genocide” was fostered by these schools while claiming that aboriginal cultures are alive and well; refusing to cast a wide net to capture the school experience of a random sample of attendees, despite a $60 million budget, which would have allowed the commission to do so; accepting at face value the stories of a self-selected group of 6,000 former students — who appeared before the commission without cross-examination, corroboration or substantiation — as representing the overall school experience.

Nonetheless, cooperation with a government in what appears to include an underhanded attempt to stamp out indigenous culture is unjustifiable. As Pope Francis recently said in Maskwacis, Alberta:

Although Christian charity was not absent, and there were many outstanding instances of devotion and care for children, the overall effects of the policies linked to the residential schools were catastrophic. What our Christian faith tells us is that this was a disastrous error, incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is painful to think of how the firm soil of values, language and culture that made up the authentic identity of your peoples was eroded, and that you have continued to pay the price of this. In the face of this deplorable evil, the Church kneels before God and implores his forgiveness for the sins of her children…I myself wish to reaffirm this, with shame and unambiguously. I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the indigenous peoples.

For Catholics, forgiveness is both vertical and horizontal, like the cross. The reason is that sins are both vertical and horizontal–sins against God are not private, for they affect everyone, by virtue of our social nature and the deep solidarity that it establishes between us. Apologies, in order to be thoroughly meaningful, must be genuine acts of repentance, which involve a change of heart, metanoia, that is, a turning away from sin and selfishness towards the worship of God, which should in turn involve an honest reflection on what it is we are doing in this country today that will call for an apology 100 or so years from now, such as our national indifference to the lives of the 105,000 unborn who are aborted every year in Canada–that’s two full SkyDomes snuffed out each year. That’s going to be a lot of shoes to lay out. 

The Simplicity and Complexities of Love

A Reflection on Pastoral Sensitivity and the Importance of Teaching

(to be published in

Douglas P. McManaman

Those who are well versed in the sciences readily understand that although we are surrounded by ordinary and simple things, such as flowers, a cool breeze, oak leaves, water, bread to eat, etc., on another level these ordinary things are anything but simple. The biomolecular complexities of cell multiplication, photosynthesis, and metabolism took centuries to understand–and much of it is still not fully understood. These inexhaustible complexities are not incompatible with the simplicity and beauty of those very things of which they are constituent parts; rather, they are the conditions without which these simple and beautiful things could not exist–without photosynthesis and the complex biochemistry of nutrition, a simple flower could not exist. 

Love is very much like that. On one level, it is simple and beautiful; on another level, it is highly complex. Pope Gregory the Great suggests as much in his Moral Reflections on Job:  

How must we interpret this law of God? How, if not by love? The love that stamps the precepts of right-living on the mind and bids us put them into practice. Listen to Truth speaking of this law: This is my commandment, that you love one another. Listen to Paul: The whole law, he declares, is summed up in love; and again: Help one another in your troubles, and you will fulfill the law of Christ. The law of Christ—does anything other than love more fittingly describe it? Truly we are keeping this law when, out of love, we go to the help of a brother in trouble.

The simplicity is beautiful; for one would be hard pressed to find anyone who would take issue with his words. However, people have been disagreeing about moral issues and questions from the very beginning. The reason is that on a deeper level love becomes much more complex. Pope Gregory understood this. He continues: 

But we are told that this law is manifold. Why? Because love’s lively concern for others is reflected in all the virtues. It begins with two commands, but it soon embraces many more (emphasis mine). Paul gives a good summary of its various aspects. Love is patient, he says, and kind; it is never jealous or conceited; its conduct is blameless; it is not ambitious, not selfish, not quick to take offense; it harbors no evil thoughts, does not gloat over other people’s sins, but is gladdened by an upright life.

The more general the level of discourse, the easier it is to achieve certainty, and with certainty comes universal agreement. But as we descend to a more concrete level of discourse, matters become muddier and so agreement is much harder to achieve. Hence, the reason mathematical discourse enjoys universal agreement, whereas scientific matters, such as the cause of cancer or precisely how we go from sound waves in the environment to the perception of sound, are much less certain and result in best estimates that are tentative. 

The science of ethics exhibits the same pattern. Universal moral principles are rather simple: i.e., good is to be done, evil is to be avoided; one ought not to harm others; do not do to another what you yourself would not want done to you; one ought not to act individualistically, etc. But the science of ethics becomes far more complicated as we descend towards the concrete level of human action in the here and now, which demands more specific moral principles to properly address the richer and more variegated situations that life brings us. Few would disagree with the aforementioned principles, for they are nothing more than the most general outlines of what love implies (willing another’s good). But try suggesting that aborting a fetus, or euthanizing an elderly person, or having sex with a person you are not married to, artificial insemination, etc., are immoral acts and you will have an argument on your hands, perhaps a vicious one. The specific demands of love, their detailed implications in the here and now, are just far more difficult to uncover, and the reason is that human nature as well as human existence in the concrete are rather complicated. 

Moral permissiveness fails to appreciate the complexities of moral science, and yet most people understand that permissiveness is inconsistent with parental love. The rules of good parents are rooted in the love they have for their children, which is why no parent who genuinely loves their child will permit them to eat whatever they want, whenever they want, or stay out all hours of the night, come home when they want, etc. Such permissiveness is reckless; for love wills what is genuinely good for the other, which does not always coincide with what the child wants. But when it comes to the Church’s perennial moral teaching, especially in matters of sexuality, marriage, and the life issues (i.e., contraception, abortion, euthanasia, cohabitation, etc.), many people have a difficult time seeing that permissiveness does not necessarily equate to love, but is very often just as reckless. 

Another tension that poses difficulties for both pastors and teachers is that which arises between a pastoral approach to ministering to an individual student or member of the Church on the one hand, and the requirement to teach the class (or the congregation) as a whole. The pastoral approach to ministering to a person requires a great deal of experience as well as a firm grasp of moral and spiritual principles, from the most universal to the intermediate and to the most specific. It requires a mental attunement to contingencies, an understanding of human beings that only comes with experience, as well as circumspection, foresight, memory, docility, and a reasonably moderate degree of empathy. Moral philosophy does not carry such a burden; hence, it is much neater and somewhat easier. However, empathy can be inordinate, and inordinate empathy, like disordered passion, blinds the mind. It is hard to detect, because it feels like a superabundance of charity, mercy, and understanding. I can become so empathetic and sensitive to how my words might affect individual students or members of a congregation that I begin to teach or preach at a level that is so general that my message becomes obvious, completely innocuous, and unchallenging, leaving the faithful/students as a whole entirely ignorant of the basic demands of the moral law, both natural and divine. 

This is a very difficult apparatus to balance, to be sure, and persistent opposition can wear a person down (such as a pastor or teacher), especially if he does not have the support of the local ordinary or the administration. But the result of relinquishing one’s prophetic office at that level is inevitably a generation who are surprised to discover, for example, that in vitro fertilization, or artificial insemination, or leaving one’s spouse to live with another, or having sex with oneself, or pornography, etc., are morally wrong. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so this lacuna is eventually filled by popular culture. If the Church is unwilling to teach the difficult truths of personal morality, the world will oblige, and the result, among other things, is young engaged couples whose understanding of the nature of their own marriage is as nebulous as that of current popular culture. What is advantageous about a bold and challenging approach, more akin to St. Paul (“pray that speech may be given to me to open my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel”), is that it very often spawns personal encounters, which may begin acrimoniously, but will often become doorways that lead the individual to a more profound and meaningful life of faith. 

The greatest evil, according to ancient Greek wisdom, is the corruption of youth; for it was a capital offense–of which Socrates was falsely accused. The harshest thing Jesus ever said in the New Testament was that anyone who is a source of scandal to children (“causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin”), it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea: “Woe to the world because of things that cause sin! Such things must come, but woe to the one through whom they come!” (Mt 18, 6-7). Those lines are worth thinking about. There is no doubt that hanging back, keeping silent, even on the grounds of “pastoral sensitivity”, is conduct that, in Scripture, merits condemnation; for the Lord said to Ezekiel: “If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die’—and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade the wicked from their evil conduct in order to save their lives—then they shall die for their sin, but I will hold you responsible for their blood. If, however, you warn the wicked and they still do not turn from their wickedness and evil conduct, they shall die for their sin, but you shall save your life” (Ezek 3, 18-19).

The more we love something, the more pain we experience at the sight of its neglect, abuse or destruction–I remember how incensed I felt when I learned that my mother had slipped on an icy sidewalk in downtown Toronto; all she saw as she looked up were the legs of pedestrians stepping over her–no one stopped to help. The second Beatitude is “Blessed are those who mourn; they shall be comforted”. We mourn because of the proliferation of sin throughout the world and its corrupting influence on the young; for the more we love God and all who belong to God, the more incensed we become at sin and the world’s indifference. The increased light of faith allows one to discern what really is sin and what isn’t, but more importantly, with an increased consciousness of sin comes a greater awareness of the profound mercy of God; for without an acute sense of sin, we lack a meaningful sense of that mercy. The most obvious reason for general irreligiousness is a lack of a sense or consciousness of sin, which in turn is the reason for a lack of awareness of the boundless mercy of God which moves a soul to gratitude and to love God in return. Moreover, God is drawn to poverty. F. X. Durrwell writes: “Not only the mercy, but the power of God is drawn to the weakness of sinful man, for when it is dealing with weakness, God’s power is mercy.” From this angle, a light and frivolous kerygma that consistently refuses to broach the subject of sin and issues of personal morality is really a kind of spiritual contraception that deliberately keeps God at bay, preventing His approach towards souls who have yet to realize their poverty of spirit–the irony is that such an approach is believed to be more fruitful. 

The complex science of morality is nothing other than the drawing out of the specific implications of the demands of love. To love another is to will his or her good. Intelligible human goods (i.e., human life, truth, leisure, sociability, marriage, religion and integrity) are incalculably superior to sensible goods (pleasure, complacency, relaxation, feeling good, enjoyment, etc.), and moral maturity is achieved when a person is able to sacrifice the latter for the former. Not everyone wants to grow up, but a significant number certainly do, and the Church has the conditions to make that possible, and one important condition for those who are open consists in a humble and charitable presentation of the moral heritage that belongs to us in the Church. Inordinate sensitivity only keeps people in the dark.