A Papal Apology: the cultural context of a public apology

From the Sister Annette Potvin fonds, PR2010.0475/1
From the Sister Annette Potvin fonds, PR2010.0475/1, Provincial Archives of Alberta

Students at Blue Quills Residential School, Alberta, Canada, 1940. From the Sister Annette Potvin fonds, PR2010.0475/1, Provincial Archives of Alberta

 

By Marieke Zoodsma –

 

Not only President Trump took the opportunity of the G7 summit in Italy to meet the highest leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, also met with the pontiff in the Vatican last week where they, according to the Vatican Press Office, talked about themes of integration and reconciliation. That the pope and the Canadian PM discuss such topics during a meeting is not coincidental: the Catholic Church played an important role in the Canadian residential school system that abused indigenous children for over a century. The legacy of this residential school system is one of the major obstacles for reconciliation between Canada and its Indigenous communities. Thus, as part of moving forward in the reconciliation process, Trudeau came to Vatican to ask for one thing: an official apology from the Catholic Church.

 

The Canadian residential schools were part of the Indian Act, set up by the Canadian government in the 1880s, and mandated education for indigenous children. This education would take place in boarding schools, away from the children’s homes, and would subject them to forced conversion and abuse. The system was based on the assumption that indigenous spirituality and communities were inferior and unequal, captured in the infamous phrase “to kill the Indian in the child” – a policy that has been argued to constitute cultural genocide. The last residential school closed in 1996.

 

These schools were often set up in partnership with the Church. In the 1930s, some 80 residential schools were operating across the country, of which 44 were run by Roman Catholics, 21 by the Church of England (now the Anglican Church of Canada), 13 by the United Church of Canada, and 2 by Presbyterians. The crucial role of the Church in this schooling system has been thoroughly examined by the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where one of the most important outcomes was that a formal papal apology is necessary for genuine reconciliation to move forward (TRC Report – Call to Action paragraph 58). Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper officially apologized in name of the Canadian government in 2008. From the 1990s onwards, the Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches have issued, through a moderate who spoke for the whole Church, a formal apology. One article on the matter of the papal apology read: “Formal apologies have also been made by the Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches, which also ran some of the schools. The previous pontiff, Pope Benedict, met with survivor of the system Phil Fontaine in 2009, but did not formally apologize. Instead, he shared his ‘sorrow’ and ‘sympathy’.”

 

This is where the interesting twist lies: what does it exactly mean to formally, officially and publicly apologize? Are there certain rules that it should abide by, and are these universally accepted? Many scholars argue that a ‘correct’ apology should consist of several factors: an acknowledgment of wrongdoing, the acceptance of responsibility, an expression of remorse, the promise of non-repetition, and the apology needs to be sincere. However, this assumes a check-list approach to political apologies – an approach that can be seen to decontextualize the phenomenon. An apology is a social performance that is aimed to restore a temporarily broken relationship – in the case of political apologies that between the perpetrator state and the victims –, a relationship that is broken through the violation of a shared moral code. This shared moral code (the norms and values of a culture), the social relationship (intergroup contact) that is violated, and the social performance (an apology) are all culturally and situationally grounded concepts. In other words: whether or not an apology can be – or is – successful, depends on the cultural context. Is it even possible for a head of state to sincerely apologize, and what form does this take within different communities? What is the framing of the apology; who is the spokesperson (actor), what is the setting (stage), what are the exact words used (content)?

 

It is intriguing that one of the most powerful and famous apologies that has been offered in our so-called age of apology does not contain any words: the genuflection of the German Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1970. The Kniefall of the German chancellor at the memorial for the Jewish Uprising in Warsaw was the first symbolic public representation of German guilt and opened the way for new forms of collective remembrance. It was a gestural social performance that expressed a feeling of remorse, repentance, and acknowledged Germany’s past as a perpetrator. Our guest writer Renate Vink argued in her article: “… what the Warschauer Kniefall teaches is that we cannot simply dismiss the value and potential of such gestures or apologies by merely looking at our current (political) circumstances”. To understand the salient impact of the Kniefall, the cultural meaning attributed to this non-verbal performance needs to be taken into account. Such a gesture might not work in a different situation, with different actors, and in a different culture.

 

The report of the TRC reads: “An official apology constitutes a public admission that acceptable societal norms and values have been violated and that, as a result, civic trust has been broken.” An acknowledgment of past suffering by the highest leader of the Catholic church can be an important driving force for reconciliation on a social and cultural level – once offered to meet the criteria of the Indigenous culture. It is therefore that Trudeau specifically asked the pope to come to Canada to offer his apology in name of the church. Indigenous people document their histories through oral-based tradition, including the official recording of apologies made in order to rectify suffering. If the Vatican is honest and willing to transform its relationship with Canada’s indigenous people and to come to terms with the dark pages of its past, the church must understand and respect the Indigenous people’s own concepts of reconciliation.