THE BUSINESS about apologizing for past and prospective sins of racial, religious or ethnic slights has surely got out of balance.
Pope John Paul II's comprehensive "apology" for historical sins did not get universal applause for several reasons, foremost among them that he declined to be specific. Some thought he should have listed the Inquisition, others the Holocaust, still others the tacit and sometimes explicit position of the Catholic Church that there is no salvation other than through the church. Here the pope was obviously guided by the maxim, "Inclusio unius est exclusio alterius." If you start listing things, you're going to leave something out.
Another reason for dissatisfaction (e.g. my own) has to do with presumptive innocence and a tiny alarm bell going off at the idea of guilt for one's father's sins. Awhile ago, President Clinton traveled to Africa and apologized for everything from slavery to the minimum wage. The impact of that auto-da-fe was to stimulate not contrition but cynicism. That doesn't work with the pope, who is not running for re-election. The pope gives greater attention to moral questions in an hour than Mr. Clinton has given in a lifetime.
Still, the clamor aroused by the pope's homily plays into appetites both prurient and mischievous. Consider, now, what many are laboring to transform into a historical engagement, namely the appearance of candidate George W. Bush at Bob Jones University. It is becoming something on the order of Bush's Munich. It is even being suggested that he name a Catholic vice presidential candidate in order to dispose of any suspicion that he harbors deep anti-Catholic prejudices. Yes, and the pope should canonize a Jew as tender of pontifical sincerity. Preferably a contemporary of Torquemada. But what are we heading for?
Slate magazine, in its now sparkling tradition, cites novel reactions to the Bob Jones business and passes on cool commentary on the business of giving public offense. Suppose, Andrew Sullivan speculates, that candidate Al Gore were to appear in the company of Louis Farrakhan, what would happen to him? The hypothetical answer: The Democratic Party would cremate him and spit on his ashes.
By contrast, Mr. Sullivan, a Catholic seeking reason to take offense, cites the apparent immunity of politicians who appear at Bob Jones University. Sen. Strom Thurmond accepted an honorary degree there, it transpires, as also Sen. John Ashcroft and Sen. Jesse Helms. President Reagan lectured there, as also Vice President Dan Quayle and Patrick Buchanan.
The author pulls out the Web site of Bob Jones, which advises the curious that the Catholic Church "is not another Christian denomination. It is a satanic counterfeit, an ecclesiastic tyranny over the souls of men, not to bring them to salvation but to hold them bound in sin and to hurl them into eternal damnation. It is the old harlot of the Book of the Revelation -- the Mother of Harlots ... drunk with the blood of the saints of God whom she has harassed and persecuted, imprisoned, massacred and destroyed."
What surprises isn't that some Catholics (Mr. Buchanan, me) and a number of distinguished Protestants have lectured at Bob Jones; it is that Bob Jones would have on campus (a) subscribers to the mother-of-harlots religion, and (b) presidents and vice presidents who ignore the 60 million Americans who subscribe to the mother-of-harlots faith.
The point can be made that there is a double standard -- Mr. Farrakhan is categorically boycotted, Bob Jones is not. But the point is polemically opportunistic. Nobody knew anything about Bob Jones and the mother-of-harlots business until researchers for John McCain decided to play with the idea that George Bush was soft on anti-Catholicism, for the purpose of encouraging Catholic Michigan voters to look suspiciously on George W.'s credentials in the primary campaign. Grown-ups know that nothing that approaches notice, let alone a menace, is said in the Bob Jones universe, whereas the Nation of Islam does reach out for the support of black Americans and has got itself some formidable apostles, among them Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.
What does offend is "The Sopranos" TV series. It is a categorical assault on Christian values, Christian decorum and Christian dignity. We can't expect the pope to apologize for "The Sopranos," but it would be nice if somebody did.
William F. Buckley Jr. is a syndicated columnist.