I have great respect for the current Pope. He seems a godly and kind man who has genuine  compassion for the poor and the oppressed. This makes it hard to understand his current refusal to offer a genuine apology for the atrocities perpetrated by people in the employ of the Roman Catholic church as administers of the Canadian government’s Residential Schools policy.

I have searched the internet to try to understand the Pope’s unwillingness to acknowledge the need for an apology.

Fr. de Souza in “The National Post” disposes of the question arguing that the Roman Catholic Church does not need to apologize because in 1991 the Canadian bishops and leaders of religious orders that participated in the Residential schools already apologized saying,

We are sorry and deeply regret the pain, suffering and alienation that so many experienced. We have heard their cries of distress, feel their anguish and want to be part of the healing process.


If I smack you across the face and then say, “I am sorry and deeply regret the pain you have experienced,” I doubt you would feel that you hard received a particularly heartfelt apology for my role in causing your pain. I certainly do not imagine such a lame “apology” would go far to assist in any “healing process” to which I might give lip service.

Jeremy Bergen, in the Globe and Mail yesterday, has a more plausible and complex explanation for the Pope’s refusal to apologize for the Roman church’s role in the egregious wrongs perpetrated in the schools operated by its employees. According to Bergen, the reluctance to apologize comes from theology. (https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-the-theological-reason-why-the-catholic-church-is-reticent-to/)

Bergen states that, according to Roman Catholic ecclesiology, the Roman church is not an institution, not even really an organization; it is “the body of Christ.” As “the body of Christ,”  the church “cannot sin;” members may sin, the church cannot. How can an organization that “cannot sin,” ever need to apologize?

Bergen points to the profound danger in this argument:

A church that is sinless by definition is a problematic abstraction, unmoored from history and experience. Statements premised on this assumption will not speak to the church’s deep complicity in a destructive system. Indeed, unless the church openly and specifically acknowledges its own culpability, why would anyone believe that the church itself may be an active agent in reconciliation?

Whenever theology or ethics become “unmoored from history and experience” we are treading into dangerous territory.

In 1993, the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada offered a genuine apology for the Anglican Church’s role in Residential Schools. He apologized “On behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada.”

Here there is no ducking of culpability, no hiding behind some mystical theological construct. The Archbishop clearly acknowledged  “our failures in the residential schools.”

He went on to say,

We failed you. We failed ourselves. We failed God.

I am sorry, more than I can say, that we were part of a system which took you and your children from home and family.

I am sorry, more than I can say, that we tried to remake you in our image, taking from you your language and the signs of your identity.

Archbishop Peers’ apology is worth reading in its entirety as a shining example of what a genuine apology might sound like: https://www.anglican.ca/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Apology-English.pdf

To hide behind a nebulous term like “the body of Christ” seems unconscionable in the face of the real suffering that continues to be experienced by real people who suffered real harm at the hands of that “body.”

Teresa of Avila, a saint of the Roman church, famously wrote,

Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours.”

If this is true then every person who slapped, starved, denigrated, abused, and denied basic human rights to an indigenous child did so as “Christ’s body.”

The “body” that sought to destroy Indigenous culture must apologize directly and specifically for the harm done by this “body.” As Bergen states, it is incongruous and self-serving for the “body of Christ” to take credit for all the good done in its name while rejecting blame for any evil perpetrated by Christ’s hands and feet.

Jody Wilson-Raybold makes the sobering point that,

the residential school system was based on the Indian Act, which did not explicitly say the children in those institutions should be abused, malnourished, used for medical experimentation, banned from learning their culture, language and identity, and sometimes killed. 


Those who administered the Indian Act invented the horrors from within their own warped psyches and poisonous institutional structures. These horrors were the work of “the body of Christ.” Surely, it is time for that “body” to take responsibility for its actions if there is ever to be a road to healing.