How are we sorry? Let us count the ways
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 8 December 2007)

The idea that there's virtue in apologizing for atrocities of the past has taken firm root in modern society and made mass apology a commonplace gesture. We live with a new idea, intergenerational contrition, extended by people who did not commit crimes to people who weren't around when the crimes were committed.

Last month, Marc Cardinal Ouellet apologized for sins of bigotry perpetrated by the Quebec branch of the Roman Catholic Church when it had the power to perpetrate them, before the reforms of the 1960s. That was an eccentric apology, since no one asked for it and it didn't begin to satisfy those it was intended to palliate, such as organized gays and women. Nevertheless, Ouellet invited fellow Catholics to join him in repentance. Just what Catholics needed: a new form of guilt, this one inherited. "Forgive me, Father. In the 1930s my grandfather spoke ill of the Jews and wasn't nice to homosexuals either. And women? Don't ask."

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said Ouellet "spoke only on his behalf." He was just trying to expiate the sins of the hierarchy that ran things till good guys like Ouellet took over. His letter seemed to me an act of effrontery. What right has he to apologize for clergy long dead or retired? Was he hoping that everyone would now forget past errors and declare the church's slate clean?

Perhaps that works in the confessional, but not necessarily in the public arena. George Jonas, in his Nov. 28 column, advised Ouellet to apologize only for his own sins. That sounds like a good rule. We all have sins to atone for, as the cardinal would certainly agree.

But Jonas won't get his way. Wide-ranging contrition is the style of this period. We now believe we can heal historic wounds by distributing apologies in all directions, an approach popularized by Pope John Paul II in preparation for the Jubilee year 2000. He said the church couldn't "cross the threshold of the new millennium" without repentance of past errors.

He called for "the purification of memory," an unhappy phrase that evoked brain-washing and the Memory Hole in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. But he liked this process so much that (according to one newspaper's count) he issued 94 apologies.

The Age of Apology: Facing Up to the Past (University of Pennsylvania Press), a collection of essays by 22 scholars, explores the issues raised by public apology in various countries. The essay by Michael Marrus of the University of Toronto walks delicately and thoughtfully through the papal confessions. Marrus quotes Nicholas Tavuchis, a University of Manitoba sociologist, who defines apology as two-way communication. To have meaning it must be accepted as well as given. But, as Marrus notes, in most cases "the pope apologized to God, not to victims or their descendants."

He apologized for the treatment of the Jews by Christians in the Holocaust. That was natural enough; it happened in his lifetime. But he went much farther back. He apologized for forcing Galileo (1564-1642) to deny his discoveries and apologized in Prague because Jan Hus, a heretical Czech priest, was burned at the stake in 1415. He expressed regret about the Crusaders sacking Constantinople in 1204.

There's no statute of limitations on the crimes of history, even crimes of omission. Tony Blair issued an apology to the Irish for England's failure to respond adequately to the Potato Famine of the 1840s. Two years ago, the U.S. Senate apologized (on behalf of senators long departed) for the failure to make lynching a federal crime. What else is there that England failed to do in the 1840s or the Senate failed to do in the 1920s? The list could go on forever and possibly will.

Matt James of the University of Victoria divides his chapter on Canada into "Apologies, Quasi-Apologies and Non-Apologies." Canada has apologized to Japanese and Italian Canadians displaced during the Second World War, Ukrainian Canadians imprisoned in the First World War ("on the mistaken ground that their former status as citizens of the Austro-Hungarian empire made them national security risks"), Chinese who had to pay a head tax ($50 in 1885 money) to enter Canada, and, of course, natives.

Often, though, these apologies consist of politicians making a fuss about some issue and then producing little more than a press release. We yearn for a sense of public morality and increasingly demand decency from our governments. But perhaps the appearance of decency is what we really have in mind.

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