Vol I No. 7

Archbishop Welby really is very, very, sorry

by sinetortus

Justin Welby prostrate in apology at the Sikh Golden Temple of Amritsar


What should the world be expected make of someone who said that they were complicit in the bombing of a city, a massacre in India, offending gay people, had inadequately responded to child abuse, has white advantage and is systemically racist?   Then again, how does it affect things when he explains that he is also very very sorry about all this?

Does it change anything when the person announcing these things is also a religious leader?

Fortunately, Archbishop Welby does not actually think he has done all these things himself (though his framing of the racism point seems to entail a grey area) but he does think that he should apologise for them and has done so on a growing number of occasions

Indeed, so anxious is he to do this that an online search using the terms, “Welby apologises” will bring up 300,000 results, of which the media headlines below are illustrative:


All of this raises very interesting questions.  For example,  is it in fact possible to apologise for something one has not actually done? Clearly the archbishop thinks that he can do this, and given the frequency with which he has been moved to apologise, it would be very nice if  Archbishop Welby had given any systematic account of how this is possible and how he understands the concept and action of apology itself ,but this does not seem to be extant as yet.

Looking at all this historically,  it has to be said that,  while increasingly popular in recent times among everyone from politicians to companies, the issuing of public apologies is actually a rather recent phenomenon on any scale. And from the theological and philosophical perspective,  it all seems rather wanting in terms of systematic understanding of what is actually being done by these apologies.  It is striking too that the New Testament offers no examples to follow.

As a strange thought experiment that brings out some underlying issues, some might be tempted to speculate as to where some of the currently fashionable approaches to apologies might have led in Biblical times. Would we view Pontius Pilate differently if he had come back at some point and read out a proclamation? For example, he might have said that, in the light of subsequent investigations and new facts, of which he had previously been entirely unaware,  it had become clear that owing to an excessive desire to respect certain local community feelings there had been deep,  and potentially even systematic,  institutional failings in the administration of Justice during his time in office. He could then perhaps have added that, while it would not be appropriate for him to discuss the individual circumstances of any one particular case,  he wished to make it absolutely clear that he was deeply sorry, as was his wife the noble Lady Procula, for any pain and distress that might have been caused and that new procedures were being put in place to ensure improvement in the future.

Would it have been helpful for the Sanhedrin to do something similar?  They could perhaps have admitted that they had not taken all the factors into account, or involved all the appropriate stakeholders in their deliberations, and that in consequence, they now recognised that, lacking in diversity,  they might have been too blinkered in their approach at the cost of the greater good? And what about King Herod? Would the judgement of history have been different on Salome, if she had issued a statement later saying she was sorry and was undergoing therapy for the damaging effects of co-dependency issues with her mother Herodias?  These she could have explained had led to a devastating loss of personal autonomy which had left her unable to take optimal decisions regarding her career in dance as well as about John the Baptist.

But putting such counterfactual speculations aside – even though they do suggest significant issues about what apologies can or cannot achieve and for whom – it is an interesting question as to how and why the current enthusiasm for the apology has come about.

Among religious leaders, it does seem that the Papacy has been a key actor, with Pope John-Paul II serving as a particular pioneer. He offered around 100 official apologies that included ones to Jews, women, people convicted by the Inquisition, Muslims killed by the Crusaders and almost everyone who had suffered at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church,  as also for Christians involved in the African slave trade and the role of the church in the execution of heretics as well as the religious wars following the Reformation.


However,  it seems that the original innovator in the area – at least of self-critique by the church– was one Adriaan Florensz Boeyens. He was a former Inquisitor General and the only ever Dutchman to become a Roman Pontiff  –between 9th January 1522 and his death on 14 September, 1523 as Adrian VI. He faced a difficult double challenge,  between the rise of Lutheranism on the one hand,  and the Ottomans (led by Suleiman the Magnificent who had attacked Rhodes and was now threatening Hungary) on the other. But what matters here is that he instructed his Legate, Bishop Francesco Chieregati, to make a declaration on 25thNovember, 1522 to the Imperial Diet of Nuremberg of 1522-3. In this he admitted deep failings of the Roman Curia and their role in the profound internal crisis of the church, on account of “the abominations, the abuses…and the lies” of which the “Roman court” was guilty, and the “deep-rooted and extensive.sickness,” extending “from the top to the members.”

Unfortunately, his efforts at actual reform were largely frustrated. Even attempts to roll back the number of matrimonial dispensations foundered upon the fact that the (very large) anticipated income from this source had already been allocated for years in advance by his predecessor, the  Medici Pope Leo X.

Otherwise, to quote a key Vatican document,  of which more will be said later, on this terrain,  “in the entire history of the (Western and Roman) Church there are no precedents for requests for forgiveness by the Magisterium for past wrongs. Councils and papal decrees applied sanctions, to be sure, to abuses of which clerics and laymen were found guilty, and many pastors sincerely strove to correct them. However, the occasions when ecclesiastical authorities – Pope, Bishops, or Councils – have openly acknowledged the faults or abuses which they themselves were guilty of, have been quite rare.” (Memory & Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past)

Thus it really is with Pope John-Paul II, that the transition to the contemporary embrace of the apology began, even if some allowance is made for the instance of Paul VI, who,  in his address at the opening of the second session of the Second Vatican Council, sought the “pardon of God and of the separated brethren” of the East who may have felt offended “by us” (the Catholic Church), and declared himself ready for his part to pardon offences received. (But he was clear that this applied solely to the sin of the division between Christians and presupposed reciprocity).


Hence the significance of the act, on the first Sunday of Lent in the Jubilee Year of 2000, when John Paul II celebrated a solemn liturgy in which he was joined by the cardinals of the Roman Curia in offering a “universal prayer,” which had the title: “Confession of Sins and Asking for Forgiveness.”

This act fulfilled an intention the pope had expressed in his bull Incarnationis mysterium of 1994, in which he had formally declared the year 2000 to be a Great Jubilee and went on to propose a radical “purification of memory” as “an act of courage and humility recognizing the wrongs done by those who have borne or bear the name of Christian.”

However, Pope John-Paul,  and even more perhaps his later successor,  the then Cardinal Ratzinger,  also saw that large theological and philosophical as well as historical questions were raised by this event, with the result that the Roman Catholic Church’s International Theological Commission was asked to produce a work addressing them. This  was eventually issued as a non-magisterial document, entitled, Memory & Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past.

Recalling the Pauline image of the church as the bride for whom Christ handed himself over, “to sanctify her…that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25-27) there is an immediate and central problem about  how to relate an ultimately indefectible Church that is Holy with errors and sins committed within it,  and most especially by its leaders and pastors.

To this end,  an image — popular over the millennia from Patristic times was invoked, namely that of the Holy Mother Church and her sinful children. This allowed a distinction to be preserved between the theological holiness of the church (the holiness of the mother) and holiness in the-church-of present-experience (the holiness of her children) such that it is only the latter holiness that can be sullied with imperfection and sin.

Hence, “The Church, as a true Mother, cannot but be wounded by the sin of her children of yesterday and today, continuing to love them always, to the point of making herself responsible in all times for the burden carried by their sins.” Thus it is even possible, albeit in a highly qualified sense and by analogy,  to speak of the mother church as a sinner,  much as a mother takes responsibility on herself for the sins of her children. Thus,  “She is holy in being made so by the Father through the sacrifice of the Son and gift of the Spirit.” And yet, in a manner of speaking,  “She is also in a certain sense sinner, in really taking upon herself the sin of those whom she has generated in Baptism. This is analogous to the way Christ Jesus took on the sin of the world.”

Using this perspective,  it becomes possible to say of the church that , “She confesses herself a sinner, not as a subject who sins, but rather in assuming the weight of her children’s faults in maternal solidarity, so as to cooperate in overcoming them through penance and newness of life.”   (The historical paradox of thus coming to advance a position for the church suggestive of the Lutheran concept regarding the individual person, that we are simil justus et peccator  was not of course noted in the document.)

Yet,  there is a difficulty with the mother and children imagery,  insofar as it risks obscuring the specific role and responsibility of those who are authorized to act and speak “in the name of the church,” and who have therefore,  in her name promulgated and proclaimed the church’s doctrine and official policy and have also been charged with giving it practical effect, which is to the say the members of the hierarchy.  In other words, not all the mother’s children are of equal standing and responsibility.

Once the authors[1] of Memory and Reconciliation (MaR) accepted the clear the possibility that “in the name of the church” things could have been done “in contradiction to the Gospel.” It is not merely “certain of her sons and daughters.” who were understood as involved,  but popes, cardinals and bishops and it might have been better had this been made expressly clear. They have,  after all,  been specifically authorized to act and speak “in the name of the church,”.

Then in addition, there is the further point,  made by the American commentator Francis A. Sullivan, S.J.  He argued (in “The Papal Apology” April, 2000,  that,  “What is needed is the frank recognition that some official policies and practices of the church have been objectively in contradiction to the Gospel and have caused harm to many people.” Thus, even though he acknowledged that, “No doubt, insofar as those policies and practices involved actual sin, the guilt of such sin lies on the individuals who knowingly did what was evil. But what was objectively wrong and harmful in the officially sanctioned policies of the church calls for repentance, and this is rightly expressed by those who are authorized to speak and act in the name of the church.”

With this in mind,  Sullivan argued that the alternative imagery for the church,  used at the Second Vatican Council –of the church as,  the “pilgrim people of God,” has particular merit. Within that perspective, the church is, in the words of Vatican II,  a “human institution, always in need of reform, always in need of purification.”

As a people on pilgrimage, and furthermore a people consecrated to God in baptism, and who are “a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pt. 2:9)  the church has divine assurance of reaching its ultimate destination with the abiding gift of the Holy Spirit, yet nonetheless,  it can take wrong paths along the way –much as the people of Israel did after escaping Egypt on their way to the Promised Land   While the church holy (understood in its theological sense)  has a divine guarantee of arriving at the Kingdom of God in the end, the church of present experience,  can still take wrong paths along the way..

In the words of the MaR document, “From a theological point of view, Vatican II distinguishes between the indefectible fidelity of the Church and the weaknesses of her members, clergy or laity, yesterday and today, and therefore, between the Bride of Christ with neither blemish nor wrinkle …holy and immaculate (cf. Eph 5:27), and her children, pardoned sinners, called to permanent metanoia, and to renewal in the Holy Spirit. The Church, embracing sinners in her bosom, is at the same time holy and always in need of purification and incessantly pursues the path of penance and renewal. …”

The precedent of the People of Israel in the Old Testament also illuminates how a sense of solidarity across the generations is appropriate to a pilgrim people. This was,  “expressed in the confession before God of the sins of the fathers, such that John Paul II could state, citing the splendid prayer of Azariah: “Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of our fathers… For we have sinned and transgressed by departing from you, and we have done every kind of evil. Your commandments we have not heeded or observed (Dn 3:26,29-30). This is how the Jews prayed after the exile (cf. also Bar 2:11-13), accepting the responsibility for the sins committed by their fathers. So too, “the Church imitates their example and also asks forgiveness for the historical sins of her children. …”

Nonetheless, with all this said,  there remains, the very clear perspective set out by Pope John Paul II when he promoted the deeper theological exploration of the idea of taking responsibility for the wrongs of the past, and of possibly asking forgiveness from one’s contemporaries, in the Exhortation Reconciliatio et paenitentia.

He stated firmly there that, in the sacrament of Penance: “the sinner stands alone before God with his sin, repentance, and trust. No one can repent in his place or ask forgiveness in his name.”

Sin is therefore always personal, even though it wounds the entire Church, and even in situations of “social sin” – which are evident in the human community when justice, freedom, and peace are damaged – these are always “the result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins.”

“While moral responsibility may become diluted in anonymous causes, one can only speak of social sin by way of analogy It emerges from this that the imputability of a fault cannot properly be extended beyond the group of persons who had consented to it voluntarily, by means of acts or omissions, or through negligence.”  (MaR 1.3)


There are a number of points which all this brings out, in respect of the opening questions posed by the apologies of individual church leaders, such as Archbishop Welby and others, in recent times.

First, the act of apology really derives its significance not merely from being an act of sorrow, but rather, from the richer context of repentance and the quest for forgiveness. This brings with it a structure which mere sorrow on its own does not possess. It also brings a teleological perspective that merits further exploration and component pieces in a process with which mere apology of itself does not necessarily connect and cannot achieve.

Second, while there is a context for collective repentance which can in some way speak across generations, it has to be very carefully understood and set out. This probably limits quite sharply also the significance of individual gestures of sorrow and apology by one church leader to something symbolic of a more corporate ecclesial act.

Third, the fact that sin and error is indeed always individual and personal must impose great limitations on the real effect of acts of gestural symbolism, undertaken by a given Church leader, lest they be debased to what is sometimes called mere “virtue signaling”.

All of which entails that an understanding of apology and expressions of sorrow adequate to the drama that is now increasingly brought to the making of them,  remains a work needing to be done. In the absence of this being set out, just what such things really do mean must remain opaque.




[1]  The authors were the Rev. Christopher Begg, Msgr. Bruno Forte (President), Rev. Sebastian Karotemprel, S.D.B., Msgr. Roland Minnerath, Rev. Thomas Norris, Rev. Rafael Salazar Cardenas, M.Sp.S., And Msgr. Anton Strukelj.