by John Ziegler (in collaboration with Don Boland)

There are two quite distinct usages of 'sorry' in current English. The first is to express sadness in a sort of abstract sense, with sympathy, as in something like: "I'm sorry to hear that your sister is ill", or "I'm sorry the weather has turned rainy". In this sense there is no connotation that what I am sorry for, sad about, is any fault of mine. The second usage is to express sadness with regret, because of a fault or apparent fault of mine, as in: "I'm sorry I slighted you. Please forgive me", or: "I'm sorry if it seemed that I slighted you, although I did not mean to do so". In this sense, to say 'sorry' means to offer an apology.

All of us are pretty clear about that when it comes to being sorry personally and apologising personally. But there seems to be a little less clarity when it comes to questions of communal apology.

The article 'Communal Apology?' in The Latin Mass, Spring 1997, by Father X, is a case in point, exactly as is a lot of debate in Australia at the moment about apologising to the Aboriginal people.

Father X, discussing a call by the Pope for an apology for certain wrongs on behalf of the Church, says: "Recently Catholics in Portugal took up the call for communal repentance for sins of the Church. A service was held to express repentance and regret for the expulsion of Jews from Portugal 500 years ago under Manuel I. Was anyone at that ceremony personally guilty of the crime?" He goes on to say: "What is the rationale behind 'repenting' and apologizing for actions committed centuries ago by members of the Church?"

Now, there is a question of similar implications considered by philosophical sociologists. Australia, for instance, has treaties of extradition of its citizens from other countries for certain reasons like crime, as other countries do with us. I do not know when such a treaty was made with, say, the United States: but no doubt it was done before I was born. How can our grandfathers, then, so bind us, now, by treaties? I, and most of us, had no say in it. Yet all admit that all of us are still bound by that treaty, so that we expect our criminal citizens who have fled there to be extradited to us, as they theirs to them. We do not have to renew the treaty for every new citizen born, or find that with the passage of time that the treaty lapses because all the originators are dead.

And it is similar in things that are not of political society. Thus, if my bocce club as a body contracts a debt to pay ground rental fees, who would seriously claim that the debt can be neutralized by having new members join and old members resign? The debt remains as long as the club, as a body, remains.

Evidently, there are bodies comprising persons which are more than the sum of their parts. The body evidently, in those cases, has rights and obligations independently of the sum of the persons in it, and can bind itself for the future independently of them.


Societal Rights and Obligations

It is no answer to say that it is a legal fiction, this 'moral person', as it is called, conveniently invented so that the lawyers can hold sway. For if that is morally reasonable, then so is any other legal fiction, such as that the deliberate killing of the unborn is not murder.

It is quite clear, also, that such rights and obligations cannot come from the members, for they do not have them. Thus, I do not have the obligation, personally, to arrange repatriation of a criminal to another country, but Australia does. Or again, I do not have the right to punish a member for misbehaviour, but the club does. And what I do not have, the sum of members do not have. Zero times any number you like is still zero.

It is already clear that Father X, and many in the debate over apologising, have not seen that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts: the 'body' is more than the sum of its members. For the whole is the sum of the parts plus an order. In this I am not particularly speaking of the Church in supernatural terms, but rather in natural terms, as a society of people, and in this it is like other societies. The Church, strictly as the Church, containing in its all too human members nothing that is not divine, is indefectible; but taken in a less strict sense, consisting of those members with their human failings (as well as others who are not members of the Church in the strict sense), what we also refer to as the Church (should we call it 'small "c" church'?), or parts of it, is capable of doing, even in a concerted and societal way, that which may need to be righted, or to merit an apology. If many within the Church do not well distinguish these two meanings of the word, is it surprising that almost no one outside it does so?

But how is one to explain this sort of action of the church as a whole? What is this 'moral person'?

There are different sorts of collections. One kind is like a heap of stones. In such cases there are individual stones, and there is the totality, the heap. In so far as the totality is superior only as a totality then it is so simply as the sum of the parts, as the heap is superior in size to a stone. Another kind is like a hive of bees, the bees being natural parts of the hive, just as my limbs are natural parts of me. Here, the totality is more than the sum of the parts, in that the totality is that for which the parts exist. Thus, the bees exist for the hive, just as my thumb has no rights of its own independently of me. What happens to the old tattered bees whose fuel consumption is more than their payload? Do they go to well-earned retirement? The bees' retirement village is below the hive, where the ants wait.

How Man is Social

Human societies have something in common with hives, in that man is, to a certain extent, a natural part of human society. Aristotle had said that man is naturally social, in his famous saying that one who would live without human society is either a beast or a god. But in the case of collections of humans 'natural' is to be understood as something nevertheless exercised with freedom, as parental love is natural, even though one may abjure it. Thus, one is free indeed not to be social to obtain one's needs, needs arising because of natural insufficiency of the individual, but the advantages of doing so are so obvious that we might say it is a matter of rational necessity (as my colleague Don Boland puts it). This is so of both family and state, more fundamentally so of family. To the exact extent, then, that man is thus naturally part of society as a sort of suppliant, then he must be social. To put this another way, society has the means to satisfy man's fundamental needs, and therefore is obliged to do so, requiring that he submit himself accordingly (become what we call 'civilised'). But man is much more than that, social by reason of need. He is impelled by a deep natural inclination, though most freely, to share with others from his abundance, just as a teacher or musician has much to bestow , and in that capacity brings benefits, the very good which is his person-hood, far nobler than the 'moral person' we have spoken of, to human society. In this capacity, as person in his own right, and as abundant, far from being a part of society and he beholden to it, it is beholden to him. In this capacity man is superior to society, even as in his capacity as part of it society is superior to man. Delineation of these two opposite aspects, the inferiority and superiority of the individual person vis-a-vis the human collectivity, and resolution of corresponding rights, in what Aristotle called political society and we simply call society, is the central problem for political theory. It has been much ignored. The question of regime, which has occupied, one might say obsessed, minds, is secondary.

Human societies are voluntary and free, and this is true of one's family and country (which societies indeed no-one can avoid, and which are a matter of rational necessity, but which nevertheless one can abandon or be abandoned by), but much more so of societies of which one is more freely a member, such as a bocce club, and the Church.

The Nature of Human Society

There is a societal obligation to behave reasonably, just as there is a personal one. The bocce club is not free to secede from political society to become the bocce nation, nor to raise an army of military aggression to obliterate the sport of marbles. But being what it is, it has the obligation to pay its debts, to rule its members, to be ruled by superior societies, and it has the rights necessary to do these things: whereby it is due to it that others refrain from hindering it in carrying out these obligations.

Whence comes this entity having rights, obligations, and a continuity independent of the individual persons comprising it (given always that there are some)? How might one explain it? The rights, the obligations, the continuity, are not those of the members. I have no obligation, personally, to rule a fellow member, but the club has. I have no right, personally, to expel a fellow member for unruly behaviour, but the club has. I have no part in the club affairs if I resign, but the club continues.

All this is all the more true, and obviously so, when we consider political society. Australia can require of me, in times of national peril, that I risk my life in its defence: but I do not have that right over any fellow citizen. It can make treaties, binding itself and therefore me and future generations: but I cannot. It has the right that other nations honour their treaties to it: but I do not. It continues, though I die.

As I asked, how is this to be explained? The society, the collectivity, has rights and obligations which obviously cannot come from the members, because they do not have them. We must therefore admit that the whole is decidedly something other than the sum of the parts. Now, there is something of a similar problem in the case of human generation. Parents provide the matter, the germ cells, but what results from their union is a new being, a human person, having activity explained not by matter alone; having, as we say, a spiritual, immaterial, soul. This is not explained by the matter of the germ cells, any more than that the entity having rights and obligations, the entity of the society, is explained by the rights and obligations of the members. In the case of the new human person, we are obliged to admit that it must be the Creator who produces the new person having spiritual soul, an entity having the body as its matter. Equally, in the case of a new society, we are obliged to admit that it must the Creator who produces the new moral person, not indeed with a spiritual soul of its own, but having the united intentions of its members as its matter. It is not a substance, but an order: the order in the wills of its members. Whilst the united intentions of the members are all that can be provided towards a new entity having those obligations and rights, they cannot explain them. Rousseau sought to explain them by saying that the united intentions create a new being, the 'social will'. This opinion is the root of those strange theories of the totalitarian State, which we have seen ad nauseam in our time, according to which the State is the only real person, having that 'social will', and the citizens utterly at its service. But in truth those intentions are no more than the perfectible matter of a society, which pre-supposes them. Power superior to them gives it form.

What ensures the continuity of the human person? The substantial integrity of its parts. What then ensures the continuity of the moral person? The continued (substantial) agreement of its members. If the members at some time change intention substantially, such as to abandon interest in the game of bocce in favour of star-gazing, then the society is formally changed and its continuity interrupted, even if the same members are involved. If I am inducted into a society, I necessarily agree to its aims. If I voluntarily and substantially abandon those aims, I am by that fact out of the society, regardless of whether the society disowns me by due process. In this sense, excommunication from the Church is always and necessarily self-inflicted before any public decree.

Communal Apologies

With this in mind, it is easy to think about communal apologies. If in the past a substantial number of members of the bocce club had denigrated all marbles players and over a considerable time, what are we to think? It would seem to be implied (although not necessarily so) that such denigration is part of the complex of aims of the club, not in its written rules though it may be. Suppose that today it is wished to recognise that as a fault, even though none of the original members still exists. There may be still the implication (to marbles players) that part of the club aim is that denigration, if it has never been clearly repudiated (of course, it might really have simply lapsed and been forgotten). Therefore, the club itself, in its moral person, should apologise, since apologies are for real faults as well as those that might only seem to be so. How is that achieved? Clearly, by encouraging the members severally to acknowledge it, so that by substantial agreement (which may be expressed through its organs of governance), the apology becomes part of the intention of the moral person. For in this sense, private apologies 'do not count'.

If my friend Fred apologises, it is a question of Fred now apologising for Fred then. If there is a communal apology, there is no question of members now apologising for something they personally did not do, for that is impossible: it is a question of the society now apologising for the society then.


John Ziegler is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted July 2000. It was published in Universitas, Number 6 (2000).
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