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Opinion: Pope Francis’s apology for residential schools doesn’t acknowledge institutional responsibility

Jeremy M. Bergen, University of Waterloo

Pope Francis made a public statement today to the delegations of Indigenous people who met with him this week to discuss personal experiences in residential schools or their harmful legacies.

His statement included the words “I am very sorry,” and is being reported as an apology for residential schools.

As a white settler theologian, it is not for me to say what the apology means to those to whom it was addressed. But as a scholar who studies church apologies for historical wrongs, and their place in processes of reconciliation, I note there are significant shortcomings to the Pope’s statement.

Abuse and criminal actions

There are several kinds of wrongs associated with residential schools. There were abusive and often criminal actions by individuals who worked in these institutions. Those in authority covered up abuses and failed to protect children. And the residential school system advanced an assimilationist policy.

Individual criminal responsibility and general institutional responsibility may also overlap. The many unmarked graves and unheeded calls to address deathly conditions in the schools speak to the wrongs and traumatic legacies of these institutions.

Pope Francis most clearly addressed the abusive actions by individuals — the “deplorable conduct” of “a number of Catholics” — about which he expressed sorrow and shame. He also acknowledged the painful experiences of those who shared their stories with him.

The Pope did not acknowledge that the church as an institution embraced assimilationist policy in its decision to run the schools.

Lack of clarity

As is unfortunately common in many church apology statements, when those who utter the apology use the passive voice, it’s unclear who was the agent of the actions in question.

Pope Francis spoke about “a colonization that lacked respect for you,” and acknowledged that “great harm was done to your identity and your culture.” But who was responsible? He spoke about “attempts to impose a uniformity” to which “great numbers of children fell victim” that were based on “programs devised in offices.” But which offices?

The Pope positions the church as being on the side of outrage and sorrow for this colonization — “sadly, this colonial mentality remains widespread” — and as a partner in overcoming it, rather than as an active agent of its perpetration.

While Pope Francis’s denunciations of settler colonization are welcome and significant, and indeed the Catholic Church ought to be a partner in undoing it, an apology should offer clarity. Clarity is needed regarding the responsibility of the institution on whose behalf he speaks.

Church as agent of harm

On an intuitive and experiential level, the Catholic Church as an institution was an agent of harm. But Pope Francis has avoided saying this.

In this regard, there may be a mismatch between what survivors and the wider public expect of an apology and how the Pope has framed his message.

Since the Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council (1962-65), there has been an active debate within Catholic theology about whether the church itself, understood as the Body of Christ, can be the agent of sin, or whether it’s only individual members (including leaders) who sin.

A dancer in regalia wearing orange is seen in a public square in front of some people holding drums.
Indigenous delegates to the Vatican seen in St. Peter’s Square, March 31, 2022. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Many Catholic apologies make the distinction that it was individual members who did wrong rather than the institution. An analogy sometimes used is that the church is like a mother who regrets what her children have done.

Following this analogy, a mother can try to repair what her children have done, although everyone knows the mother didn’t actually commit the offence. While this position can be found in Catholic theology, it is not the consensus.

A church that is sinless by definition is an abstraction that is unconnected from experience. Several Catholic theologians do argue that the church itself is sinful.

Unless the church itself acknowledges this, how can it change in order to cease doing harm and be an agent of healing?

Ambiguous language

This apology seems to follow this pattern in using ambiguous language on whether the church has acknowledged its complicity.

While Pope Francis’s words may be reported and received as an acknowledgement of church complicity, a careful reading of the words suggest otherwise.

In addition to the language of apology — a language which the church is not accustomed to speaking — the Pope used more traditional theological terms such as “pardon” and “forgiveness.” The danger is that these terms can undermine what an apology is meant to accomplish.

To ask God’s forgiveness, as he did, might imply that it is been granted and everyone can move on. To ask to be pardoned by those he was speaking to may place a burdensome expectation on them to reciprocate by granting it.

Pope Benedict XVI’s private expression of sorrow in 2009 to Phil Fontaine, then national chief of the Assembly of First Nations and a residential school survivor, was often reported as an apology.

A man in suit and tie and feather regalia seen standing between two men, one holding a drum.
Former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine, centre, walks with members of the Assembly of First Nations in St. Peter’s Square at the end of their meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican, March 31, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Fontaine has recently indicated he felt pressure to acknowledge and accept it as a definitive apology, even though it was not.

An apology should be made in a ritually appropriate way, which will vary for every case. Survivors have consistently asked Pope Francis to make an apology in Canada. Today, the Pope indicated his intention to come to Canada in the near future and continue his “closeness.”

Definitive apology?

While I understand Pope Francis was moved to say something this week, for the sake of reconciliation I hope this was not his definitive apology.

In his April 1 statement, Pope Francis also said: “I will be happy to benefit again from meeting you when I visit” your lands, and, “I think with joy … of the great veneration that many of you have for Saint Anne, the grandmother of Jesus. This year I would like to be with you on those days.” The feast of St. Anne falls on July 26.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action #58 urges the Pope to apologize for the church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools and to do so in Canada.

Such an apology will need to acknowledge the complicity of the Catholic Church, and do so on Indigenous land. Pope Francis’s closing comments about humility and the fruitfulness of the humiliation of the church are helpful sentiments.

In Rome, in an ornate Vatican hall, the Pope spoke on his terms. In the spirit of humility, the next statement should be made in a setting chosen by those he will address.

An apology can foster accountability. It puts a particular narrative on record and implies specific commitments for the future. It can be a recognizable and public reference point for the ongoing work of truth and reconciliation. I hope Pope Francis continues to reflect on what he has heard this week, and prepares to come to Canada to make a more definitive acknowledgement of the church’s complicity.

If you are an Indian Residential School survivor, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

Jeremy M. Bergen, Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Theological Studies, Conrad Grebel University College, University of Waterloo

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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