Official Apologies v. Contrition

Official Apologies v. Contrition

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Baseball’s annual Jackie Robinson Day on April 15 brought news stories about a resolution by the Philadelphia City Council “officially apologizing” (according to Time) “for the racism [Mr. Robinson] faced as a player while visiting Philadelphia.” As New York Times story pointed out, the apology came 69 years after Robinson played his first game in Philly and 44 years after his death. Note that the apology was not by a Phillie who played in those games, by the Phillies organization, or by the hotel that refused to let Robinson stay with his white teammates.

One need not impugn the bona fides of the City Council to question whether its “apology” has any meaning whatsoever, especially in light of the institutional and personal racism that is endemic to Philadelphia and the rest of our country.

A typical dictionary definition of “apology” is “a statement saying that one is sorry about something; an expression of regret for having done or said something wrong.” The word comes from the ancient Greek ἀπολογία, meaning a speech in defense. Cf. “Apologetics”. Although the history of the change in meaning is not clear, one explanation is that an apology is a defense of one’s honor by admitting a wrong. Thus, it seems implicit in the term that the wrong must be personal to the speaker. Otherwise, the statement is simply an expression of sympathy or empathy. In other words, simply acknowledging that someone else did what you think is wrong is not an apology. From this perspective, Philadelphia’s resolution makes about as much sense as Ali McGraw’s infamous line from the mawkish 1970 movie Love Story, “Being in love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

But even if I can apologize to the victim of your wrong, merely saying “I’m sorry” is not enough. What is required to give an “apology” meaning? As every Catholic who has made her First Confession knows, the essential element is contrition. According to Fr. Hardon’s Dictionary, four qualities permeate a genuine act of contrition: detestation of the wrong, grief or a sense of guilt, and the determination not to commit the wrong again. Philadelphia’s City Council can “officially” apologize for anything it wants, but that apology has meaning only if the Council is contrite, which means that it is committed to stopping repetition of the wrong. And we’re not talking about racial insults to the deceased, but the sin of racism itself. To paraphrase Love Story, being sorry for racist behavior means being determined to end racism.

Let’s pray that Philadelphia will follow its Resolution with the resolution to treat all its citizens with Brotherly Love.