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A necessary apology

The Rwandan genocide took place in 1994, more than two decades ago. Some 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were murdered by Hutu extremists. Like all genocides, this one was long in the making, and there is clear evidence that it was planned, rather than a spontaneous outbreak of ethnic violence. Many sought refuge in Catholic churches and in mission compounds, where, tragically, they found no safe haven.

Moreover, if anyone looked to the Catholic hierarchy for leadership at the time, they found little support. Indeed, there is overwhelming evidence that some priests, nuns and bishops were either among the perpetrators of the genocide, or its silent supporters and enablers. In other words, there were Catholic clergy and religious for whom tribal animosity was more important than the universal law of Christian charity.

Recently, the Catholic bishops of Rwanda produced a statement to be read out in all Catholic churches in the country. It said: “We apologise for all the wrongs the Church committed. We apologise on behalf of all Christians for all forms of wrongs we committed. We regret that Church members violated [their] oath of allegiance to God’s commandments.” Yet this sincerely meant apology has been rejected by the Rwandan government as insufficient, and was itself undermined by the fact that some priests refused to read it out. Clearly, two decades on, the wounds left by the genocide have not been healed.

Given the scale of the crime, it is not hard to see why. But it is a matter of justice for the Church to act now, not just to try to close a sad chapter in its history, but also to avoid the danger of creating

A statement from the Pope on the Church’s role in the genocide would be helpful a poisoned legacy which may damage her far beyond the borders of Rwanda.

The Rwandan government has demanded that the Vatican itself should apologise for the Church’s role in the genocide, and does not accept the Church’s claim that, while individual Catholics were guilty of genocide, the Church as an institution was not. The Church needs to confront this demand from the Rwandan government. While it is false to think that the Rwandan genocide was planned anywhere but in Rwanda itself, the Church has had a huge influence on Rwandan society, and the historic and festering divisions between Hutu and Tutsi may well owe something to the Church’s influence.

In addition, the Church hierarchy that failed to stop the genocide or, in some cases, even to condemn it at the time, was a hierarchy that had been appointed by Rome. The failure of local leadership sprang from the failure to appoint better bishops. Moreover, after the genocide, several priests and nuns suspected of taking part in it, and in some cases convicted of crimes in absentia, reappeared in Europe, in parishes and convents, seemingly protected by the institutional Church. It should be clear that the Church’s conduct before, during, and after the genocide leaves much to be desired, and that this cannot be placed entirely at the door of individuals or the local Church alone.

In Pope Francis we have a pontiff who is keen to go the margins. A statement from him on the Church’s role in the genocide might lay this matter to rest, and, more importantly, help the people of Rwanda in their long journey towards national healing and reconciliation.

e Pope’s doubts

When Lord Acton wrote that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, he had in mind the particular powers of the papacy, and indeed history tells us that Acton was right. So it is something of a relief that Pope Francis admitted at a general audience last week that he suffers from doubts. Someone with doubts is someone with the humility to accept that he may be wrong. It is also someone who has a questing mind – always attempting to discern the truth.

But a doubting pope is a difficult concept for some. The pontiff is secure in his position, protected from error in particular functions and is the very heart of Catholic authority. If he can doubt then so can we. Indeed, it is the person who stifles his doubts who is most likely to be radical and to attempt to force his views on others.

It is not the value of doubt in itself that counts. Doubts are, as Pope Francis explains, the spur to “progress either in knowledge or in faith”. We will never be without doubts, for there will always be more questions to nag us forward. Frank Sheed, the great lay theologian, taught that we must continue to explore the mysteries of faith ever more deeply, while accepting that the final answers will elude us.

Perhaps the ultimate certainty which we do not doubt is the value of love. It is not confined to Christians, for Jesus tells us in the Gospels that many love him indirectly through their love for their neighbours. Together with enriching our understanding, it is, Pope Francis tells us, “when faith is lived and shown in service to others” that we experience the presence of God. Truths become clear – for they have become reality in our lives.


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