A recent news story about the beatification of John Paul II mentioned that the late Pope had led the Catholic Church to “repent” for its anti-semitism. The use of the word “repent” stuck out in my mind, and made me wonder, “Can an institution, such as a Church, repent?”
What separates an institution from a simple group of individuals are things like leadership, norms of action or conduct and culture. If an institution does something wrong, it is either because its leadership chose to do something wrong, or because it established some standard way of acting that led to doing wrong, or because its culture somehow encouraged wrongdoing. [There could be other ways, these are just what occur to me].
I don’t think the idea that an institution could do wrong ever occurred to the writers of our scriptures, so I wasn’t surprised after a cursory look through the topical guide didn’t yield any clear guidance. There are scriptures in which groups of people are told to repent, but nothing that clearly refers to an institution repenting for things that the institution’s policies, leadership or culture caused to happen. But does that mean institutions can’t repent?
Before we can answer that, I think we have to ask what we mean by the word “repent.”
In LDS doctrine, we usually mean “repentance unto salvation” when we say the word “repent;” i.e., we mean making changes and restitution for sins so that we will gain salvation in the next life. Since I doubt very much that any institution, including the Church, continues into the next life, I can’t see any reason why an institution would need to “repent” in the same sense that we need to repent.
But, on the other end of what is probably a spectrum of meanings, the word “repent” can also mean simply changing from one thing to another. Even the scriptures use this meaning, for there are a places in the scriptures that talk about the Lord repenting of what he did (see, for example, Amos 7:3 and Genesis 6:6). Clearly, the Lord isn’t repenting of sin, or repenting unto salvation, but instead simply changing a course of action or thought. [This still may be problematic theologically, but the alternate meaning of "repent" is still there.]
Something more like this latter meaning of “repent” is much easier to apply to an institution. We know institutions make errors, and even sin, when their leaders or rules or cultures lead them to do wrong. A company dumping toxic waste into a river, for example, has done something wrong, sinful even, although it may be more difficult to say that individual workers have done something wrong to the same degree that the company has. Has the hourly worker grateful to have any employment at all and ignorant of what was in the materials dumped in the river even done something wrong? A lot depends on the circumstances and what that employee knew.
In practice, it is exactly this distinction between individuals that are part of an institution and the institution itself that makes the idea of repentance by an institution difficult. No institution has total control over its employees, leaders and volunteers, so the possibility of an individual using an institution to do wrong is a real possibility. Conversely, the feeling that individuals have that they didn’t know or aren’t themselves responsible for wrongdoing sometimes gets translated into their assumption that the institution also did no wrong.
Thinking about it, I believe the same steps of repentance that we are taught to use can, for the most part, also be used by institutions, at least in theory. I don’t see any reason that an institution can’t recognize and acknowledge that it has done wrong, express remorse for that wrongdoing, seek forgiveness and make restitution for the wrongdoing, and make restitution.
And, not too surprisingly, the hurdles that prevent institutions from repenting are also similar: Pride doesn’t allow institutions to admit wrongdoing. Restitution requires giving up assets—something institutions are as loath to do as individuals are. And perhaps worse, acknowledging wrongdoing often means that others no longer trust us or, in the case of companies, stop purchasing company goods and services.
Apologies from institutions are often controversial. I think its kind of hard to sort out when the institution is really at fault, and when a few individuals are. Emotionally, victims often blame the institution, not knowing whether or not individuals were involved. But while institutions can’t repent the same way that individuals should, when they have done something wrong, I think there is a place for institutions to repent.