The Romero Institute commends the Holy See for recognizing the atrocities committed against Native Americans by the colonial powers with the express blessing of the Catholic Church during his address to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress today, Sept. 24.
However, our organization finds the balance of the pope’s comments to be tepid and insufficient in terms of bringing about the type of acknowledgement of the United States’ past iniquities that is necessary to move forward toward a path of reconciliation with the Indigenous population of this nation and of this continent.
In his speech to Congress, Francis said the following:
“Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected. For those peoples and their nations, from the heart of American democracy, I wish to reaffirm my highest esteem and appreciation. Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent, but it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present. Nonetheless, when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past.”
Again, the language is insufficient. ‘Not always respected’ is a clear euphemism that glosses over the gravity of crimes committed by colonial powers and the United States government — crimes that include forced labor, enslavement, massacres, repetitive breaking of treaties and official promises and acts of genocide.
Clearly this goes far beyond a mere lack of respect.
We also respectfully disagree that it is ‘difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present.’ Indeed it seems to the Romero Institute reassessing past actions according to the improved values of the present is the primary function of studying and coming to grips with human history.
However, we are encouraged by the Pope’s recent acknowledgements of the plight of the Indigenous peoples in the Americas.
Over the past months, Pope Francis has made sweeping gestures to Indigenous peoples across the world by imploring world leaders to energetically work to prevent climate change, and suggesting that Indigenous lifestyles and teachings could be useful resources in achieving this goal.
In a recent speech in Bolivia, Francis went as far as apologizing to the Natives of North and South America for the cruelties inflicted upon them by Catholic Europeans, who often claimed their actions were ordained by God.
The Romero Institute appreciated these statements for what they were; a public admission and apology for the crimes committed against Native communities, from the mouth of the highest spiritual authority in Western culture.
His message of humility and repentance has encouraged us and many others, leading us to believe that more meaningful actions towards justice and restoration lay in store.
Nevertheless, we cannot help but deplore the recent canonization Padre Junipero Serra on Wednesday, in a move that was highly criticized by Native peoples across the country. As the first Padre Presidente of the California Mission System, Serra was responsible for the enslavement, forced conversion, and deaths of tens of thousands of Californian Natives.
While this ceremony had been planned by the Vatican before Francis attained the Papacy, we still reject his statement that Serra sought to, “defend the dignity of the Native community”, and feel that his promotion to sainthood ignores the atrocities endured by the Native Californians.
For there to be forgiveness and significant steps taken to reconciliation between Indigenous peoples, the Catholic church, and National governments, there must first be an acknowledgement of the systematic cruelties inflicted against the Indigenous peoples across the world by those bodies.
In many ways, Pope Francis has done more for Indigenous rights than any other contemporary international leader by demanding action on climate change and offering some apology for the treatment of Native peoples by Europeans.
However, his recent actions have led us to question if the Pope could do more to atone for the sins of the past. One major step Francis could take towards establishing a just resolution between Indigenous peoples and the Catholic Church would be to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery, a series of Papal bulls from the fifteenth century that endorsed the enslavement or eradication of all ‘pagans’ and ‘saracens’ who did not practice the Catholic religion.
European Imperialists used this contract to justify their atrocities against Native peoples as divinely approved, and it is still cited as precedent to dispossess Native Americans in US court cases as recently as 2015.
By rescinding this document, Pope Francis could show the world that he is serious both about recognizing the evils of history, and moving towards a brighter future. We need to see Francis take action on this issue before any apology can be viewed as serious or complete.