This past November 20th, the Catholic bishops of Rwanda issued an apology for the Church’s complicity in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. The apology and reactions to it are covered in this nice piece in the online Catholic journal, Millennial.
A Church apologizing? The phenomenon joins a global trend of the last quarter century, namely a sharp historical spike in apologies issued by heads of corporate entities – sovereign states, churches, business corporations – for misdeeds committed in the name of their organization. In the Catholic Church, it was John Paul II who practiced apology most famously, offering over 100 apologies concerning some 21 different historical episodes and people groups. This excellent book by journalist Luigi Accattoli covers it well.
As the Millennial piece suggests, political apologies are complex and not always well received. The Rwandan Church’s apology met with sharp criticism from the Rwandan government. One might suspect, though, that this government has narrow political reasons for its stance. Rwanda’s President Kagame can be credited for keeping the peace and promoting development in Rwanda since the genocide but has done so through favoring an elite of the Tutsi minority, repressing political opposition, promoting and enforcing a narrative that blames the genocide exclusively on the majority Hutus and almost entirely avoids acknowledgment of Tutsi crimes, and links the Catholic Church to a narrative of complicity in this genocide. There is much truth to this complicity, of course, as the apology attests and the article explains. Far from the heroic role that the Catholic Church played in standing up to dictatorship and violence in countries like Poland, the Philippines, Chile, and Malawi, the Rwandan Church, including priests and members of the hierarchy, associated themselves closely with leaders who carried out the genocide and in some cases participated in carrying it out. It is also probable, though, that Kagame wishes to maintain the Catholic Church in a position of weakness so that it will not become an alternative center of authority that can challenge the government (as the Church has become in many African countries). By continually insisting on the Church’s guilt and its constant need to atone, Kagame keeps the Church on the defensive and thus crippled in its moral authority.
Political apologies can be strong or weak. Do those articulating them take responsibility for the full range of deeds done? Do they acknowledge the role of powerful members of their hierarchies in the misdeeds and speak for their institutions? Prior to the apology, did those voicing it make efforts to listen to members of the victims’ community and to discover what was desired? How well was the apology received by victims? Was it answered with forgiveness and reconciliation?
By the first set of criteria – governing performance – the Rwandan Church’s apology seems like a good one. Whether it meets the latter criteria – being well received – is still an open question. The Rwandan government has criticized the apology, but this does not mean that others will not welcome it. We can pray that they do and that it will bring healing, which is ever critical even over 22 years after the genocide.