Friends have asked me what I thought of Pope Francis’s recent words in Canada during his pilgrimage of penance. As I said earlier, it is up to indigenous people to say whether or not the apology is satisfactory, but I want to comment on some of his other statements.
The vicious Doctrine of Discovery, has for more than 500 years held that it is justifiable for Christians to steal land from indigenous people and brutalize and murder them in the process and then force them to be become Christians. What could be worse than that? Even if the doctrine was dismissed by former Popes, the doctrine was used to exploit indigenous people right up to the 20th century. Pope Francis while in Canada was implored to reject that doctrine And guess what?” He did it! At least that I is my interpretation of his words, for what he said is clearly incompatible with that doctrine.
According to Niigaan Sinclair, writing in the Winnipeg Free Press, “Pope Francis has rebuked over 500 years of how the church and Catholics treated Indigenous people.” Sinclair pointed out how in 1550, almost 500 years ago, a trial took place among Catholic leaders at Valladolid where the question was: are Indigenous Peoples human? Today, it seems incomprehensible that such a question could even be asked, but in 1550, the idea that indigenous people might be human was radical. Until then, the Popes had declared that indigenous people could be robbed of their land and must be converted while authorizing the use of brutal and even murderous force against them. It was a heinous doctrine that required a heinous world view—white male supremacy—to found it. It was not confined to Catholics but was the common European attitude to indigenous peoples everywhere.
Catholic leaders had a hard time coming to a final decision on the issue and hence acquiesced in violence, evangelization and yes, even genocide for the next 500 years. At least that was the case until now. On July 28 in Quebec City, Canada, Pope Francis asked a monumental question: “How about our relationships with those who are not ‘one of our own,’ with those who do not believe, with those who have different traditions and customs?”
The question is astoundingly simple and yet astoundingly profound. Then the Pope gave a very clear answer to his own question: “This is the way: to build relationships of fraternity with everyone, with Indigenous brothers and sisters, with every sister and brother we meet, because the presence of God is reflected in each of their faces.”
Pope Francis gave a theological answer to the question. I would have given a more naturalistic answer. I would have said, this is because ‘we feel the humanity in the indigenous people as we feel it in our ourselves.’ But either way, the answer really is the same.
Niigaan Sinclair said this in response: “In a simple statement that rebuked over 500 years of Catholic doctrine, the Pope had pronounced Indigenous cultures and traditions are valuable, worthy on their own terms, and represent “the presence of God.”
Sinclair explored the idea further by speculating what this revolutionary idea of Pope Francis means in practice:
“Bishops and priests must now “build relationships of fraternity” with Indigenous ways, instead of forcing us to give up our songs, stories, and traditions. Because, finally, after 500 years, the church finally recognizes us as human. Forgive me if I don’t give the Pope a standing ovation — as the priests and bishops did — but I do recognize a step when I see one.”
So far, I have not read any other pundit who has recognized the significance of Pope Francis’ remarks, but Sinclair has done so. This is how he characterized those remarks: “The impact of Pope Francis’ new doctrine is nothing short of a game-changer for Catholicism in Canada (and, I guess, the world).”
Sinclair showed how significant the Papal comments are:
“It means Indigenous languages, cultures and ceremonies must be recognized as legitimate spiritual expressions by every member of the Catholic Church. It means any effort to destroy Indigenous traditions is to attack the “presence of God.” It means the purpose of the Canadian residential school system — to eradicate “the Indian in the child,” to use an infamous phrase — was invalid in the eyes of this Pope.”
I acknowledge that I scoffed at the suggestion that the Pope would discard 500 years of Catholic history—even ignominious history such as the Doctrine of Discovery—but that is exactly what he did. It was a historical moment! Indigenous people should be proud of what they have achieved. It is truly, deeply momentous.
Pope Francis summed up his thoughts in Quebec this way:
“Thinking about the process of healing and reconciliation with our Indigenous brothers and sisters, never again can the Christian community allow itself to be infected by the idea that one culture is superior to others or that it is legitimate to employ ways of coercing others.”
I am not aware of any more profound remarks made by any Pope in the past 500 years and they were made in Canada at the behest of the indigenous people of Canada! This was a great day.
So forget about the Pope’s apology, forget about the doctrine of discovery, what Pope Francis said in Canada was a miracle. It was magnificent. I think in his own humble way, without fancy words, Pope Francis did do what Niigaan Sinclair wanted him to do—he called for truth, love, and justice.