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Jewish World Review March 14, 2000/ 7 Adar II, 5760

Wesley Pruden

Wes Pruden
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The risky business of
making an apology -- WHAT HAPPENS if we run out of people to apologize to before we run out of apologies?

We can never start worrying too soon. So far the problem is not so much making the apologies and the apologees come out even, but pleasing the apologees the apologizers apologize to.

Pope John Paul II is learning this lesson. He had no sooner brought out his best purple vestments to apologize in, surrounded by his most important cardinals (in scarlet) and monsignori (in black), than the complaints started rolling in.

The pope's apology seems elaborate enough to a disinterested bystander who is neither Jewish nor female nor an offended "other" Christian. It's an apology offered in seven parts for sins in general, sins in wrongful service of faith, sins against Christian unity, sins against the Jews, sins against respect for love, peace and cultures, sins against women and minorities, and sins against basic human rights.

Some of the sins cited in the pope's apology are certainly whoppers, beginning with sponsorship of the Crusades and continuing with the Inquisition down to acquiescence in the greatest outrage of all, the Holocaust. The pope did not cite these by name, but no one could miss his meaning. The reference to sins against women are recalled, too, and the villain who first comes to mind is St. Bernard of Cluny, who wrote that female adornments "are but blood, mucuous and bile. If we refuse to touch dung and phlegm, even with a fingertip, how can we desire to embrace a sack of [feces]."

(He no doubt went into the priesthood when he couldn't get a date to the senior prom.)

The pope goes to Israel next week, and he will disappoint the Jews, or some of them, if he does not expand his apology for unwitting Catholic complicity in the Holocaust. But the beatification of the severe, humorless Pope Pius XII, who never reflected the grace and joyousness of the Gospel of Christ in the way that John Paul II does, may be at stake. The rap against Pius XII is not that he participated in the Holocaust, but that he did nothing to put obstacles in the way of the trains to Auschwitz, when perhaps he could have.

Israel's chief rabbi feels "frustrated" because the pope didn't mention the Holocaust by name, and the director of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, expects the pope to correct this "omission" in Israel next week.

Apologizing for ancient wrongs is particularly difficult business, as the first reaction in Israel demonstrates. The leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention not necessarily representing Southern Baptists themselves experimented with a public apology several years ago, this one for slavery, though if any Southern Baptist actually owns a slave he certainly keeps it to himself.

Nobody apologizes for modern slavery in Sudan, but Bill Clinton is said to want to apologize for slavery here, and the lawyers are telling him not to do it. He might open a serious argument about reparations, the payment of damages to descendants of slaves. It's not at all clear how such damages could be calibrated, nor deciding who gets what. Should blacks with white ancestors get as much as blacks with no discernible white ancestors? Who will determine who's really black and who's not? A sunburned son of toil with a Philadelphia lawyer might prove a fictitious black ancestor, and there goes the jackpot.

Mr. Clinton's eagerness to find somebody else's sin to apologize for only demonstrates how much easier it is to apologize for a grandfather's sin than for one of your own. If Mr. Clinton, for example, really wants to indulge the warm and fuzzy feelings that come with a good apology you might think he has ample reserves of his own sins to apologize for.

Once you start apologizing for other people's sins there's no good stopping place. The president could start with an apology to the Indians, since the white settlers ruined his neighborhood. The Indians owe the white man an apology, too, for all those blond scalps their granddaddies hung in the teepee, so maybe that one's a wash. Mr. Clinton, acting as surrogate for Abraham Lincoln, could apologize to the South for having sent an invading army to places the army had no business going. Soon enough the apologizing lapses into absurdity.

Nevertheless, a pope is not free to take Henry Ford's advice to "never apologize, never explain," and to call the pope's apology remarkable is to understate its importance by a considerable margin. "John Paul II," the London Daily Telegraph noted yesterday, "is as far as possible from being a sort of liberal wimp who wants to impose the standards of the present upon past history, and for whom apology for 'old, unhappy far off things/ and battles long ago' comes with sentimental ease." No, this apology is from a real man with the right stuff.

JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.


03/10/00: The pouters bugging a weary John McCain
03/07/00: When all good things (sob) come to an end

© 2000 Wes Pruden