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. 

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