What Does It Mean to Say You’re Sorry? On Pope Francis’s Visit to Canada

Psychologists and family counsellors recommend that being able to say one is sorry is a necessary prerequisite for healthy relationships. But the recent “penitential pilgrimage” of Pope Francis to Canada’s Indigenous people was more than a personal, relationship journey. The trip represented an institutional recognition of past wrongdoing. While the Pope is an individual, he represents the entire Catholic Church. His mea culpa was an admission of guilt for past transgressions by the entire Church.

Seated in a wheelchair in a small town outside Edmonton, Pope Francis explained the reasons for his visit before directly apologizing for the Church’s past sins: “I have come to your native lands to tell you in person of my sorrow, to implore God’s forgiveness, healing and reconciliation, to express my closeness and to pray with you and for you. I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples.” The words were deeply felt by many. Several Indigenous Canadians were shown wiping away tears while the Pontiff spoke.

In a similar moral situation, and after years of hesitancy by the institution, the International Committee of the Red Cross’s (ICRC) President, Cornelio Sommaruga, expressed moral failure for his humanitarian organization’s lack of action during World War II. At the annual ICRC press conference in 1995, referring to the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, he said: “But believe me, every moment spent today on our humanitarian responsibilities to assist the victims of war and political violence reminds me of our institution’s moral failure with regard to the Holocaust, since it did not succeed in moving beyond the limited legal framework established by the States. Today’s ICRC can only regret the possible omissions and errors of the past.” Sommaruga expressed similar regret when he took part in the 1995 ceremony to commemorate the liberation of the concentration camp at Auschwitz.

Beyond mere emotions and recognition of moral failures, what does it mean to say you’re sorry as the head of a government, humanitarian organization or church?

The question is not rhetorical. Admissions by heads of institutions should have consequences beyond emotions. For example, President Bill Clinton made the following comments on two occasions during a visit to Guatemala in 1999:

“For the United States, it is important that I state clearly that support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and widespread was wrong, and that the United States must not repeat that mistake.”

Clinton made no excuses about who was responsible for the errors when clarifying his admission: “What I apologized for has nothing to do with the fact that there was a difference between the policy of the administration and the Congress in previous years…It is that the policy of the Executive Branch was wrong.”

Other U.S. presidents have also made admissions about wrongdoing. President John F. Kennedy took responsibility for the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. “There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan … Further statements, detailed discussions, are not to conceal responsibility because I’m the responsible officer of the government …”

In his own folksy way, President Ronald Reagan took responsibility for the Iran-Contra Scandal in 1987. He said: “Now, what should happen when you make a mistake is this: You take your knocks, you learn your lessons, and then you move on. That’s the healthiest way to deal with a problem… You know, by the time you reach my age, you’ve made plenty of mistakes. And if you’ve lived your life properly — so, you learn. You put things in perspective. You pull your energies together. You change. You go forward.”

When Kennedy said: “I’m the responsible officer of the government…” just as the Pope is the responsible officer of the Catholic Church or the president of the ICRC is responsible for the humanitarian organization, what does it mean for a leader to apologize?

The question has several levels of answers. The first is moral. The words of the Pope and Sommaruga are clear on this point. The second level is political. That would refer to presidents Kennedy, Reagan and Clinton. They admit wrongdoing because the policy they were responsible for did not succeed. (Robert McNamara’s “We were wrong, terribly wrong” when he was Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War would be along the same lines.)

As for the legal consequences of apologies, Professor Mark Gibney is interested in “whether these acts of contrition have any meaning or not?” The eminent legal scholar and political scientist, Belk Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, has focused on how apologies can change state practice and international law. In the case of Guatemala and Clinton’s apology, he asks: “If U.S. policy constituted a violation of international law, is a mere apology sufficient? What kinds of obligations does the apology entail?” Gibney’s point is that “the actions of the U.S. government were wrong, and presumably illegal, simply because the U.S. was aware of the gross and systemic human rights abuses that were being carried out in Guatemala, yet the U.S. persisted in supporting the government.”

Gibney asks two fundamental questions. First: “Does this state engage with the world differently than it did before it issued an apology?” And, “were these apologies an indication that states were starting to acknowledge having obligations that extended to foreign nationals living outside their borders?” For example: Can one imagine millions of Vietnamese suing the United States for human rights violations?

(As a contrary example to the above apologies, news sources reported that French President Emmanuel Macron’s office said that: “There will be ‘no repentance nor apologies’ for the occupation of Algeria or the bloody eight-year war that ended French rule,” adding that “the president would instead take part in ‘symbolic acts’ aimed at promoting reconciliation.”)

The Pope’s visit to Canada raised many questions. Institutional apologies should have moral, political and legal consequences. Reagan’s flippant comments have become too typical of political leaders. Macron’s hesitancy to apologize for the Algerian War is another example. As Gibney sadly notes; “while (some) states were willing to apologize for (some) transgressions they had carried out in the past, we could find virtually no evidence that these same states were apologizing because they thought they a legal obligation to do so – and, more importantly, that there is (or should be) a legal prohibition against the behavior for which they were apologizing for moving forward.”

Justice demands apologies and recognition of obligations. Post-colonial challenges raise many of these issues, focusing on transnational state responsibility. Macron’s hesitancy and the lack of sufficient international obligations on states when acting outside their borders remain problematic. Pope Francis and Cornelio Sommaruga are to be commended for highlighting moral responsibility as a primary institutional obligation. But, as Professor Gibney insists, there should be legal and political consequences following from that moral responsibility.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.