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14 July 2021

I’ve shed my teenage atheism and can see the appeal of Catholicism – but not of the Catholic Church

I fail to understand how Catholics can maintain an active relationship with the Church after its failure to apologise for unfathomable horrors.

By Megan Nolan

There are certain events whose horror is of such a magnitude that the vocabulary of apology and contrition seem entirely inappropriate, even intolerable. The philosopher Hannah Arendt writes that “radical evil” is neither punishable nor forgivable, its scale rendering the idea of retributive justice unthinkable. These crimes can defy response on account of their sheer size, as with genocide. But they can also be crimes that on the surface are more ordinary – with established social protocols, however imperfect, to deal with them – and underneath it are charged by decades of historical injustice and violence, such as the police killing of George Floyd in 2020.

In the aftermath of Floyd’s murder, which led to Black Lives Matter protests globally, the apparently unanswerable evil of racist violence left many white people (including myself) paralysed by confusion about how to respond. There was the question of whether to respond publicly and vocally at all if doing so was inevitably self-serving, an attempt to disown any perceived responsibility for the persistence of racism. There were suggestions to donate silently to relevant funds, and then opposing suggestions that acting invisibly was inadequate. For me, the crucial question became not only about whether one should express sorrow in public but also about the notion and limits of apology. Should you extend an apology for an injustice that you did not personally carry out, but in which you feel yourself to be to some degree complicit? Or is the abstraction of such an apology an insult to the idea of meaningful reconciliation?

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Those questions have arisen for me again in recent weeks as I have been reading about the Catholic Church’s failure to apologise for an unfathomable horror. In Canada the remains of 215 indigenous children were unearthed in May and 751 further unmarked graves were discovered in late June, both on the sites of former residential schools operated by Catholic clergy.

This is not the first time that the Church has faced a scandal of this kind. It recalls the case of the Tuam mother and baby home in County Galway, where, the historian Catherine Corless’s research revealed in the early 2010s, hundreds of children and infants had been buried without ceremony. The Bon Secours sisters, the order of nuns who ran the home at the time of the deaths, between 1925 and 1961, eventually issued a formal apology a number of years after the revelations, but only when extensive investigations had left the truth beyond any reasonable doubt. That is to say, an apology was not offered until there was no obvious alternative response.

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Corless welcomed the apology but stressed that the order should allow the grave to be exhumed, and that other institutions should follow suit. Pope Francis has expressed sorrow for the discovery of the indigenous children’s bodies in Canada, but has not extended an apology. I expect that he will eventually, as Justin Trudeau and other leaders continue to express dismay at his withholding one, but what will it mean then? How convincing can an apology truly be when it is forced from a reluctant subject?

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela writes about apology in her book A Human Being Died That Night (2003), based on her interviews with Eugene de Kock, the police colonel turned death squad leader in apartheid-era South Africa. She asks: “How do we know that the signs of alleged contrition are not simply signs of the perpetrator’s having been caught, or of changes within the society that have destroyed his power base and support structures and have left him vulnerable?”

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In the Catholic Church, there seems to me little evidence of a willing effort to reconcile past evils with its contemporary iteration, and admissions of guilt and expressions of regret are only offered when they are unavoidable.

I am Catholic, both technically and in some residual, sore, longing part of myself, but I struggle to understand how Catholics who maintain an active relationship with the Church can stand to do so in these circumstances. I understand the power of community and shared faith, and frequently find myself yearning after both the prayer and the physical spaces of Catholicism when in despair. Stuck in London away from my family during a lockdown Christmas, I surprised myself by firmly wanting to go to Mass.

I think I hesitate to voice my disgust and bewilderment at the Catholic Church because I don’t want the antipathy to be construed as being directed towards Catholic people. I, like many of my generation, am also retrospectively embarrassed about an overeager Richard Dawkins phase in my teens, in which I disdained all things religious in an unbearably jejune way. I’m not like that now.

I don’t wonder at how or why people are religious or can live with uncertainty and inconsistency. I don’t even call myself an atheist these days. But I think that shift and a desire to be tolerant of others’ choices and faiths have perhaps led to a kind of overcorrection of my adolescent dogmatism, where I have nodded along too easily as people tell me it’s possible to be a leftist and a feminist and a practising Catholic all at once.

The impossibility of endorsing, even tacitly, an institution like the Catholic Church as it currently exists rears its head occasionally, as it has with the discovery of the bodies of indigenous children, left in lonely, unmarked graves. Likewise, you can consider yourself Catholic and in favour of legalised abortion, but you live with the knowledge that your subjective position is at odds with what the Church says about who you are. This contradiction may be uncomfortable to discuss, but I don’t think it can or should be ignored. 

[See also: Suffering should unite us, so why does it divide?]

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This article appears in the 14 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Apple vs Facebook