The world changed last Friday. Pope Francis has asked the Indigenous peoples of Canada to forgive his church.
Media coverage has generally focused on reactions from Indigenous leaders. This is understandable, given their repeated requests for an apology.
“This moment…reflects the determination and courage of many who have continued the fight over the years,” commented former National Chief Phil Fontaine.
Indigenous leaders kept the residential school issue in the public eye. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission headed by Justice Murray Sinclair heard more than 6,500 testimonies from survivors. Ground search radar identified nearly a thousand bodies buried in unmarked graves on land around these schools. Court cases have documented physical and sexual abuse.
We have been well informed of the need to apologize.
But we haven’t heard how – or if – theological understandings have changed in the Vatican.
And that, in my opinion, is the new neglect of the papal apologies.
Three-quarters of Pope Francis’ speech to the nearly 200 indigenous representatives seated with him merely rehashed the known story.
One section broke tradition: “I… feel shame,” the Pope admitted. “I feel shame – grief and shame – for the role that a number of Catholics, especially those with educational responsibilities, have had in all of these things that have hurt you, in the abuse that you have suffered and in the lack of respect for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values.All of these things are contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
“For the deplorable conduct of these members of the Catholic Church, I ask God’s forgiveness and I want to tell you with all my heart: I am truly sorry. And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your forgiveness.
For me – a foreigner, a non-Catholic – these are the key words: “I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your forgiveness.”
Traditionally, Catholics came to their church to confess their sins and ask for forgiveness.
With his words, Pope Francis turned this tradition on its head.
He asked the laity to forgive the Church.
It’s an amazing role reversal.
From what I can read and understand, Catholic tradition presumes that the Church (with a capital C) cannot do evil.
If the Church is the “body of Christ”, and if – for overly complex reasons laid out here – Christ himself must be sinless, then the Body of Christ must also be sinless.
The wording of Pope Francis’ “confession” – perhaps deliberately – does not address the implications of his statement.
When he says, “I’m sorry,” he could be speaking as the successor of St. Peter, the embodiment of the Church as a whole. Or perhaps he speaks as an individual, finally aware of the suffering inflicted by some members of his Church.
Likewise, he could apologize for the actions of a small group of people serving on behalf of the whole Church – who, out of charity, might have resented being sent to remote and isolated corners of Canada. ,
doing tasks they did not ask for, without adequate financial or moral support, venting their frustrations on the children in their care.
Or he could apologize for the institution itself, of which he is the titular head.
Jeremy Bergen, associate professor at Conrad Grebel College at the University of Waterloo, noted a significant omission: schools” (for the Canadian government).
“The Catholic Church as an institution was an agent of evil. But Pope Francis avoided saying that.
Indeed, one could argue that a decree of Pope Alexander VI in 1493 paved the way for boarding schools — among other evils. Aléandre’s document Inter Caetera, which means “among the others”, commonly called the Doctrine of Discovery, divided the new lands discovered by Christopher Columbus the previous year between Spain and Portugal.
He also specifically authorized Europeans to colonize, convert, and enslave the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
The French and British used Alexander’s permission to North America to justify taking over the natives.
territories and forcibly assimilating “pagan” peoples into a Euro-Christian culture.
They conveniently ignored another papal decree known as the Sublimus Deus, 44 years later, which defined indigenous peoples as rational human beings with rights to liberty and property, and outlawed slavery.
I am happy that Pope Francis has broken with tradition by issuing a personal apology to his native visitors. I am disappointed that he did not acknowledge how much his Church helped establish the climate that made his apology necessary.
Jim Taylor is a freelance writer and journalist from the Okanagan Centre. Email: [email protected]