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An Apology is the Beginning of Healing: Pope Francis and the Indigenous Peoples

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“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Balderdash! Some of you will remember the line in the 1970 book and its film adaptation, Love Story. The sentiment was wrong then and now. When I saw the movie some 50 (!) years ago, I did not think it right. Apologies are appropriate responses to both minor and grave moral harms for which I am responsible. From small infractions to large, apologies are important in making amends. Pope Francis clearly recognizes the need for a public apology for the Church’s role in abuse of Indigenous Peoples since the 1493 authorization of Portuguese and Spanish exploration and conquest of the western hemisphere in Alexander VI’s Papal Bull Inter Caetera, “The Doctrine of Discovery.”[2]

Many Indigenous Peoples and their allies are calling for explicit repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery. Regardless of evangelization intent, Inter Caetera granted immense license to the explorers and conquisatdores to abuse and enslave despite moral teachings that Jewish, Muslim, and other non-Christian peoples had rights to their beliefs and land even as, albeit subordinate, minorities.[3] Among initiatives for admitting harm, the Long March to Rome delegations of Indigenous Peoples in 2016 sought explicit revocation and renunciation of the Papal Bulls of Discovery:  Dum Diversas (1452) by Pope Nicholas V, granting ‘perpetual slavery’ to Muslims/Saracens, pagans, and other unbelievers;[4]  Romanus Pontifex (1455) by Pope Nicholas V, granting Portuguese conquest of Africa and the Atlantic slave trade;[5] and especially  Alexander VI’s Inter Caetera, which broadly permitted western exploration and conquest.[6] West-bound European colonization brutally exploited both the land and its peoples. The Long March delegation exposed how “the Papal Bulls of Discovery were based upon a ‘manufactured inequality’ [and] created the template for injustice by relegating heathen[s] to a lower order of humanity.”[7] On May 4, 2016, the delegation met first with Pope Francis and identified that the only way forward in Vatican-Indigenous relations is revoking the Bulls. After the Papal Audience, Long March delegates met (for 2 hours!) with Archbishop Silvano Maria Tomasi of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (now housed in the Dicastery for Integral Human Development) who, persuaded by their arguments, acknowledged “maybe the Vatican does have to make a statement”[8] (alternate sources offer “revocation is on the table”[9] and “abolish the papal bulls”[10]).

Representatives from the Confederacy of Haudenosaunee, the Assembly of First Nations Canada, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the Yakima nation visited the Vatican in 2018 to request revocation of the Bulls that resulted in their abuse, disenfranchisement, and early demise. Early in 2022 another delegation of Métis, Inuit, and First Nations Peoples visited and met with Pope Francis. As is customary, gifts were exchanged –rosary beads from Pope Francis and, among other gifts from the delegation members, “two pairs of handcrafted moccasins to represent the children who never made it home from Canada’s residential schools. … The moccasins were presented to the Pope with the mutual understanding that he will return them the next time he visits Canada. And when he returns them that he does it with the apology, ‘I’m so sorry.’”[11] Another pair of moccasins was also presented to the Pope “as a sign of the willingness of the Métis people to forgive if there is meaningful action from the church.”[12] The Pope met with them privately in space conducive to listening; a mental health counselor was present for additional support. On the last day of their visit, he formally addressed the delegates and, while not rescinding the Doctrine, prayed for forgiveness from God and pardon from the delegates. “Listening to your voices, I was able to enter into and be deeply grieved by the stories of the suffering, hardship, discrimination and various forms of abuse that some of you experienced, particularly in the residential schools … All this has made me feel two things very strongly: indignation and shame. … I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry.”[13]

The Pope returned the moccasins on Monday, July 25 as the first step of his penitential pilgrimage in Maskwacis, Alberta, saying: “I am here because the first step of my penitential pilgrimage among you is that of again asking forgiveness, of telling you once more that I am deeply sorry. Sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the indigenous peoples. I am sorry. I ask forgiveness … with shame and unambiguously I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the indigenous peoples.”[14]

The Canadian government established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008 to better respond to the needs of residential school survivors. After investigating the trauma through survivor testimonies, the Commission concluded that what happened was “cultural genocide.” Then, in 2021, archaeologists detected 215 unmarked graves at the Kamloops residential school in British Columbia and 751 unmarked graves at the Marieval residential school in Saskatchewan; other school sites are yielding more unmarked graves.[15] Efforts at reconciliation within the Church, which oversaw many of these schools, began in earnest with this news.

The first residential school, the Mohawk Institute in Branford, Ontario, opened in 1831 and closed in 1970.[16] Between 1831 and 1996, when the last residential school closed, 150,000 Indigenous children were placed in residential schools distant from their families and deprived of their languages and cultures. By 1879 there was a network of residential schools, many of them operated by Catholic religious communities tasked with the goal to ‘civilize the Indians.’ With vicious rationale and governmental support, these schools deliberately undermined Indigenous, First Nations, Métis and Inuit cultures across Canada. “The residential school system is widely considered a form of genocide because of the purposeful attempt from the government and church to eradicate all aspects of Indigenous cultures and life worlds.”[17] Each school followed the same general patterns: prohibited use and subsequent loss of native language, foods, customs, beliefs, and religious practices as well as sexual, physical, and emotional abuse.[18] Today, in large part the result of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, First Nations people have put forward 94 calls for moving past lip-service to reconciliation. They are categorized by Legacy, redressing the generational damage of the residential schools, and Reconciliation, advancing a future that admits the cultural genocide with responsive and responsible action.[19]

In these days, Pope Francis affirms, “the Indigenous peoples have much to teach us about care and protection for the family; among them, from an early age, children learn to recognize right from wrong, to be truthful, to share, to correct mistakes, to begin anew, to comfort one another and to be reconciled. May the wrongs that were endured by the indigenous peoples, for which we are ashamed, serve as a warning to us today, lest concern for the family and its rights be neglected for the sake of greater productivity and individual interests.”[20] In his homily at the Basilica Shrine of St. Anne de Beaupré, building on the Gospel reading (Luke 24:13-35) on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus, he enjoins us to “follow the itinerary of this journey … from failure to hope.”[21] Even so, “a missing piece of reconciliation in this visit of the pope, his pilgrimage, is action.” Inside the Basilica as Mass was starting, two Anishinaabe women held a banner in front of the altar calling for action beyond words of hope and prayers: “RESCIND THE DOCTRINE.”[22] Pope Francis has faced this request before, by representatives of the Long March to Rome in 2016, and the Haudenosaunee Relations Committee in 2018 who repeat: “An apology to Indigenous Peoples without action are just empty words. The Vatican must revoke these Papal Bulls and stand up for Indigenous Peoples for the harms done to us. Revoking these Bulls is one small way of correcting a historic wrong and moving forward to a better future.”[23]

Inter Caetera blessed the tragic events of colonialism and the repercussions that followed for Indigenous peoples—from genocide to rape, abuse, childhood incarceration, and forced assimilation. The doctrine of discovery created a dangerous legal precedent that infiltrated international law, legitimizing abuse of the land and Indigenous Peoples. Analyzing the doctrine from an ethical and theological perspective with the force of justice, the best and definitive solution for relief of these harms, as Indigenous Peoples themselves identify, is to go beyond “I am truly sorry” with resolute action to renounce, repudiate, rescind, retract-revoke the Bulls now.[24]

As of this writing, Pope Francis has not yet rescinded the Doctrine, despite the fact that Dun Diversas, Romanus Pontifex, and Inter Caetera were found wanting as early as 1537 by Pope Paul III, who wrote “whatever may have been said to the contrary, the said Indians … may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved.”[25] Since Paul III used none of the explicit terms –abrogate, renounce, repeal, rescind, revoke, etc.—the Doctrine remains on the books. The time to formally declare the Doctrine’s illegitimacy is now.

[1] Shaun Vincent, “Walking Together/Marcher Ensemble” (2022), https://www.papalvisit.ca/walking-together-logo/.

[2] Pope Alexander VI, Inter Caetera (1493), https://www.papalencyclicals.net/Alex06/alex06inter.htm.

[3] See Philippe Buc, Martha Keil, and John Tolan, ed.s., Jews and Christians in Medieval Europe (Turnhout, BE: Brepolis Publishers, 2015).

[4] Indigenous Values Initiative, “The Papal Bull Dum Diversas,” Doctrine of Discovery Project (23 July 2018), https://doctrineofdiscovery.org/dum-diversas/.

[5] Pope Nicholas V, “The Papal Bull Romanus Pontifex” (1455),  https://www.papalencyclicals.net/nichol05/romanus-pontifex.htm. See also Indigenous Values Initiative, Doctrine of Discovery Project (23 July 2018), https://doctrineofdiscovery.org/the-bull-romanus-pontifex-nicholas-v/.

[6] Pope Alexander VI, “The Papal Bull Intera Caetera” (1493), https://www.papalencyclicals.net/alex06/alex06inter.htm. See also Indigenous Values Initiative, Doctrine of Discovery Project (13 June 2022), https://doctrineofdiscovery.org/inter-caetera/.

[7] The Long March to Rome, The Creator Has Been Heard (May 4, 2016), https://longmarchtorome.com/the-creator-has-been-heard/.

[8] Ricardo da Silva, “Explainer: Could Pope Francis revoke the 15th century ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ used to justify colonizing Indigenous peoples?,” America (July 28, 2022), https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2022/07/28/dontrine-discovery-pope-francis-243435.

[9] The Long March to Rome, “Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace,” The Creator Has Been Heard.

[10] Paul Barnsley, “Church considering request to rescind doctrine of discovery,” APTN National News (June 1, 2016), https://www.aptnnews.ca/national-news/church-considering-request-to-rescind-doctrine-of-discovery/.

[11] Lisa LaFlamme, “Residential school survivor presents Pope with symbolic moccasins,” Canada TV National News (March 31, 2022), https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/residential-school-survivor-presents-pope-with-symbolic-moccasins-1.5843821.

[12] Nicole Winfield, “Canada Indigenous tell Pope of abuses at residential schools,” National Catholic Reporter (March 28, 2022), https://www.ncronline.org/news/justice/canada-indigenous-tell-pope-abuses-residential-schools.

[13] Pope Francis, “Address of His Holiness Pope Francis with Representatives of Indigenous Peoples in Canada,” Rome (April 1, 2022), https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2022/april/documents/20220401-popoli-indigeni-canada.html.

[14] Pope Francis, “Meeting with Indigenous Peoples: First Nations, Métis, and Inuit,” Maskwacis, Alberta, CA (July 25, 2022), https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2022/july/documents/20220725-popolazioniindigene-canada.html.

[15] Jenna Kunze, “Keeseekoose First Nation: More Unmarked Graves of Residential School Victims Found,” Native News Only (February 16, 2022), https://nativenewsonline.net/sovereignty/keeseekoose-first-nation-more-unmarked-graves-of-residential-school-victims-found.

[16] Timeline, “Residential Schools,” The Canadian Encyclopedia (2022), https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/timeline/residential-schools. See also Deborah Barndt, ed., “The Mush -Hole: Colonial Food Legacies among the Haudenosaunee,” Earth to Tables, n.d., https://earthtotables.org/essays/mush-hole/.

[17] Erin Hansen, Daniel P. Gamez, and Alexa Manuel, “The Residential School System,” Indigenous Foundations (2020),  https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/the_residential_school_system/.

[18] Union of Ontario Indians, An Overview of the Indian Residential School System (2013), https://www.anishinabek.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/An-Overview-of-the-IRS-System-Booklet.pdf.

[19] Centennial College, Our Stories: First Peoples in Canada, ch. 9. “Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada” (Toronto: Press Books, 2018), https://ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/indigstudies/chapter/truth-and-reconciliation-commission-of-canada/.

[20] Pope Francis, “Meeting with Civil Authorities, Representatives of Indigenous Peoples, and Members of the Diplomatic Corps,” Citadelle de Québec (July 27, 2022), https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2022/july/documents/20220727-autorita-canada.html.

[21] Pope Francis, “Homily at the Holy Mass for Reconciliation,” National Shrine of St. Anne de Beaupré, Quebec (July 28, 2022), https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/homilies/2022/documents/20220728-omelia-beaupre-canada.html.

[22] Anna Mehler Paperny, “Protest over 15th-century land grab doctrine interrupts papal Mass in Canada” (July 28, 2022), https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/banner-against-indigenous-doctrine-unfurled-papal-mass-2022-07-28/

[23] HERC, “Haudenosaunee External Relations Committee Addresses Pope’s Visit,” Indian Time (July 28, 2022), https://www.indiantime.net/story/2022/07/28/news/haudenosaunee-external-relations-committee-addresses-popes-visit/40263.html.

[24] See Anthony Mejia, “The Revocation of Inter Caetera,” (Santa Clara, CA: Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, 2020), https://www.scu.edu/media/ethics-center/hackworth-fellows/The-Revocation-of-Inter-Caetera.pdf.

[25] Pope Paul III, Sublimus Dei (1537), https://www.papalencyclicals.net/paul03/p3subli.htm.