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Did We Say Apology?

by Christopher A. Ferrara

After the conviction of two nuns for complicity in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls rushed to make it that under no circumstances would the Vatican accept any legal responsibility for what the nuns may have done. Quoting remarks of John Paul II in 1996, Navarro-Valls declared: “The Church [...] cannot be considered responsible for the faults of its members, who have acted against the Gospel law. They will be called to render account of their own actions.”

Now, I have no idea whether the case against the nuns was well founded or a miscarriage of justice. What is curious, however, is that when confronted with a concrete example of alleged wrongdoing by living Catholics, the Vatican is quick to remind everyone that these wrongdoers are — quite simply — on their own, and that the Church will accept no liability for their actions.

Of course it is true that the Church cannot be held accountable for the sins of individual Catholics. This being so, an obvious question presents itself: What, then, is the point of all the apologies to assorted victim groups which have been issued by everyone from the Pope to local bishops in recent years? If the Vatican disavows any responsibility for the wrongdoing of individual Catholics, and if the Vatican has no intention of paying any reparation or making other amends for what they have done, will these ecclesial apologies not be seen as the height of hypocrisy?

Indeed, what are we to make of the Vatican’s own declaration in the document Memory and Reconciliation, which was written by a theological commission in an attempt to provide some theological basis for the ongoing papal apologies. According to this document: “Heads of state or government, private and public associations, religious communities are today asking forgiveness for episodes or historical periods marked by injustices. This practice is far from just an exercise in rhetoric, and for this reason, some hesitate to do so, calculating the attendant costs  —  among which are those on the legal plane  —  of an acknowledgment of past wrongs.”

Now, just a moment. On the one hand the Vatican disavows any legal responsibility for the sins of Catholics for which the bishops are constantly apologizing, but on the other hand, in Memory and Reconciliation, the Vatican asserts that corporate apologies by governments and other organizations for past wrongs must be more than “just an exercise in rhetoric,” and that non-Church leaders therefore hesitate to make apologies because of “attendant costs — among which are on the legal plane — of an acknowledgment of past wrongs.”

So, when organizations other than the Church apologize for past wrongs there could be legal exposure, perhaps including a demand for reparation — because apologies must be more than rhetoric. But when the bishops volunteer such apologies on the part of the local dioceses, or the Pope himself on the part of the Church as a whole, there must be no legal exposure, and the apologies must, in practical terms, be only rhetoric. I see, I see.