A 2023 Column Contest grand-prize winner, Laurence Pevsner’s Sorry Not Sorry investigates why we’re sick of everyone apologizing all the time—and how the collapse of the public apology leaves little room for forgiveness and grace in our politics and culture.

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Last week, you probably got a New York Times alert saying that the pope had apologized. But Pope Francis didn’t really apologize—his spokesperson did.

The situation was a little odd. After a closed-door meeting of Italian Bishops, local papers reported that the pope had said gay men should not be allowed to train for the priesthood. Pope Francis supposedly argued that, while it was important to embrace everyone in the Church, it was too likely that a gay person might risk leading what he calls a double life—the idea of practicing both the priesthood and non-celibacy, including homosexuality.

This wasn’t a new or secret argument from Pope Francis. He made it before in 2018, for example, in a public interview published as a book. “In consecrated life or that of the priesthood, there is no place for this type of affection,” he said. “For that reason, the church recommends that persons with this deep-seated tendency not be accepted for ministry.”

What was new this time was a word the pope reportedly tossed out in addition to this argument, saying that the Church already had too much “frociaggine,” which translates from a Roman Italian dialect, roughly, to the slur “faggotness.”

I keep saying “reportedly” and “supposedly” because in the apology released later, we did not get the traditional Catholic elocution. The pope did not spell out exactly what he said himself. Instead, the Director of the Holy See Press Office, Matteo Bruni, put out the following (translated from Italian):

Pope Francis is aware of the recent articles about a conversation, behind closed doors, with the bishops of the CEI. As he has had the opportunity to affirm on several occasions, “In the Church there is room for everyone, everyone! No one is useless, no one is superfluous, there is room for everyone. Just as we are, everyone.” The Pope never intended to offend or express himself in homophobic terms, and he apologizes to those who felt offended by the use of a term, referred to by others.

This is a weak apology. The pope hid behind an online statement given by a spokesperson rather than delivering it himself and in person. The pope also does not admit to exactly what he said, and instead apologizes only to “those offended” by the “term.” And the apology does not address why the pope might have used this slur or even acknowledge the larger point the pope was making and why some may disagree with it.

And yet, it is still an apology. And even a weak apology, on this issue, from this leader, has power. After all, it used to be exceedingly rare for popes to apologize at all. Consider that one of the earliest recorded apologies in history, in 1077, happened when the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV supplicated himself before Pope Gregory VII. Historically, emperors apologized before popes did.

But Pope Francis has, like many leaders lately, recognized the potential power of apology. In a piece about the pope’s “pilgrimage of penance” to Canada to apologize for the Church’s horrific treatment of indigenous peoples, Paul Elie in the New Yorker put it like this: “Much of his papacy has involved redressing wrongs committed by the Church, and he has done so by striking a note of penitence that’s relatively new to the papacy—but that he has now established as an essential part of the office.”

By contrast, the apology Pope Francis made in Canada was exemplary. “I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples,” he said. “I have come to your native lands to tell you in person of my sorrow, to implore God’s forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation, to express my closeness and to pray with you and for you.”

The question remains: Why did someone with so much experience in apologizing well do so poorly this time? He knew to come in-person to Canada. He knew to describe the actions not as evil to those offended but just as plain evil. The offense of deploying a slur is obviously less than the horrors committed against these Indigenous people, but why not use the same winning apology formula?

Perhaps, though, this time the spokesperson was right to specify “those offended,” because not everyone was offended. In fact, Gay Twitter seemed to be having fun with it. “It’s not frociaggine unless it’s from the Vatican region of Italy, otherwise it’s just a sparkling fruit,” wrote @matthewsuber. Another post, from @dashiellsilva, summed up the ethos:

Pope Francis: literally uses homophobic slur to describe gay men.

Gay men: “Yass queen! Go off slay! Read us for FILTH mama boots yes GAWD"

Part of the reason for this lighthearted response, at least by some, is because Pope Francis is still seen as having made far more progress on this issue than anyone had any right to expect. He shocked the world when he famously said, during his first press conference as pope in 2013, “Who am I to judge?” when asked about a purportedly gay priest. Five years later he told a gay man, “God made you like this and he loves you.” And just last year he declared in an interview that “being homosexual is not a crime.”

These statements are a big deal for the leader of what used to be, and sometimes still is, one of the world’s largest and most powerful homophobic organizations. Many (including me) may wish for the pope to keep going further. But let’s be real: all progress is relative. You shouldn’t expect Chick-fil-A to sponsor the Pride Parade.

Instead, what the slur and the apology does is heighten the contradiction of Pope Francis’s argument. How can he lead a crowd of a half-million young people in Portugal with the chant “todos, todos, todos” (everyone, everyone, everyone) to show everyone is welcome in the Church, but also have a policy that explicitly does not welcome everyone in the Church? The slur indicates that the pope still has some backward beliefs—the apology, weak as it is, indicates that he wants to move the Church forward.