On apology

Christine Caldwell Ames considers the proper response to historical wrongs.



Christine Caldwell Ames considers the proper response to historical wrongs.


Well, famously, of course, Pope John Paul II apologised for the inquisition as part of a broader theme of apologies for the church’s crimes in the past. And I think it is paramount for the church generally – Catholic, Protestant, whatever – it’s paramount to understand the roots of religious persecution, that are not just contextual – that is, are not just a result of politics, society, bad actors – but that the roots of religious persecution do in many ways linger in the Christian tradition, in the New Testament, in canon law, in all of these texts that, although they’re from the past, people regularly revisit.

But one thing that makes me hesitant as a historian is the idea that there is a fixed body of Christianity, a fixed being of Christianity, this kind of fixed entity of Christianity that has always been the same over time, and that always needs to be the same. And it seems to me that this is where the impulse to apologise in part comes from, that we look at the church as it is today and we see that it is fallen, or perceive that it has fallen from some ideal, but what we see as a historical matter is that that ideal has never existed. That Christianity is a living thing, a vibrant thing, that in many ways has developed in directions that are disconcerting and uncomfortable – especially for moderns, who have rejected a lot of this. But that it is a recognition that Christianity is alive, for good or for ill.