I’ve always considered the catchphrase “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” among the most banal and annoying Valentine’s card slogans. Saying sorry is at the very heart of genuine love — romantic or otherwise — so long as it’s authentic, based on contrition and reflection, and implies reformation of character and a determination to amend ways and put matters right. And what applies to personal attachments also applies to geopolitical and cultural relationships.
I mention this because Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently asked Pope Francis to apologize on behalf of the Catholic Church in Canada for its establishment and administration of residential schools for Indigenous children. These schools (which were also run by the United, Anglican and Presbyterian churches) were designed to perform cultural genocide on Indigenous people, and in operation were physically, sexually and economically abusive. In spite of what certain deniers and revisionist journalists might claim, there was nothing redeeming about these obscenities.
The Vatican moves achingly slowly and is also terrified of litigation and public shame. It still hasn’t done all it should regarding the mass sexual abuse of children and the decades that priests were destroying the lives of little boys and girls at will. The current Pope is better than most in his grasp of social justice and righting past wrongs, but he’s still a product of his church and its culture and politics.
In Canada, the history of our treatment of Indigenous people has been varied. I can speak with some knowledge of my own Anglican denomination and say proudly that today enormous effort is made to show heartfelt sorrow, to repair, to empathize, to campaign in the wider world for Indigenous rights and to expunge what was. The United Church has been similarly apologetic and active. But of course, it’s terribly late and perhaps terribly too little. More than this, Christians have generally only apologized when pressured to do so. Voluntary declarations of guilt are rare.
Beyond the broad, wide, damning theme of settlers and First Peoples, however, there is the greater failure on the part of the Roman Catholic Church to offer apologies for its many errors and crimes. Believe it or not, it took the Vatican more than 350 years to apologize for condemning Galileo, who dared to say that the Earth moved around the sun. “We today know that Galileo was right in adopting the Copernican astronomical theory,” explained Paul Cardinal Poupard in 1992, after a 13-year investigation.
Very few in the Christian world have clean hands, however, and it’s taken a long time for Indigenous people to be listened to; even now, if we’re honest, much of the work being done is cosmetic and has failed to respond to wounds still open and bleeding. Yet for the Christian, the ability and willingness to apologize is essential, and the capacity to forgive is equally so. And that is worth so much more than a Valentine’s Day card.
Michael Coren is an author and journalist in Toronto.
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