The sad, surreal visit of an apologetic pope
Canadian Indigenous peoples face a reckoning after being granted an audience with a major symbol of their oppression.
Pope Francis is scheduled this evening to complete his week-long Indigenous apology tour through Canada. He’s used his visit to offer seemingly heartfelt condolences to Indigenous peoples throughout Canada for portions of the Catholic Church’s role in their genocidal assimilation. (An update on the pope’s words re: genocide here.)
Indigenous peoples’ most progressive hope for his trip was that he would rescind the 1493 Papal Bull and related Doctrine of Discovery, which served as the historical Church-sanctioned policy rationale for destroying and subverting Native culture in the so-called New World. But he has not done that — and even the most idealistic of Indigenous advocates suspected he would not.
To do that would have undermined a foundational principle of Christian, colonial and capitalistic ideology, and few contemporary world systems seem prepared for the possible ramifications — financial, social, legal and otherwise.
The Papal Bull "Inter Caetera," issued by Pope Alexander VI on May 4, 1493, played a central role in the Spanish conquest of the New World. The document supported Spain’s strategy to ensure its exclusive right to the lands discovered by Columbus the previous year. It established a demarcation line one hundred leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands and assigned Spain the exclusive right to acquire territorial possessions and to trade in all lands west of that line. All others were forbidden to approach the lands west of the line without special license from the rulers of Spain. This effectively gave Spain a monopoly on the lands in the New World.
The Bull stated that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be "discovered," claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers and declared that "the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself." This "Doctrine of Discovery" became the basis of all European claims in the Americas as well as the foundation for the United States’ western expansion. In the US Supreme Court in the 1823 case Johnson v. McIntosh, Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in the unanimous decision held "that the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands." In essence, American Indians had only a right of occupancy, which could be abolished.
What the pope has done is apologize, repeatedly and profusely, to Church-run boarding school survivors and descendants, to Indigenous leaders and chiefs, and to thousands of tribal citizens who have gathered to see and speak with him. Along the way, he’s visited some of the graves and seen some of the names of Native children who died and were murdered in boarding school institutions. Sexual abuse is another sin for which he has taken responsibility.
The pope has gone out of his way to label the historical atrocities as “evil perpetrated by some of [the Church’s] sons and daughters” while making less of an argument that this was an intentional, institutionalized abuse of power. He has at the same time highlighted the “charity” of the Church toward Indigenous peoples. He has not met with every Indigenous group that has wanted to speak with him; the Haudenosaunee have been particularly upset by that.
Anger, grief and sadness have been a big part of the Indigenous perspectives surrounding his pilgrimage. Some have felt betrayed by the shortcomings of his apology; some have felt sickened by his presence on their lands; some mourn deeply for their lost ancestors and ways of life. Some want more accountability, including information from Rome that could perhaps hold the Church accountable in courts of law. And some feel a jarring sense of unease after getting what so many had requested of the pope and of Christian leaders before him.
Old wounds have been freshly opened, and this time on the world stage. Indigenous peoples, often forgotten in so many ways, are now magnified. Their plight has been sanctioned — and apologized for — by one of the most well-known world leaders.
One particularly surreal moment came on Monday when Cree leaders chose to honor the pope with a headdress, which he wore while posing alongside several chiefs.
Many Indigenous peoples were left asking why tribal leaders would choose to honor the pope with a sacred gift when he is the living symbol of an ongoing system of assimilation and extreme abuse. Time and again throughout history, Natives have honored and worked with their oppressors in various ways, and to some this moment in the world spotlight was not the time for it to be happening again.
Some Canadian Indigenous peoples, meanwhile, have said the headdress was an appropriate gift for Pope Francis in particular, given his contrite and polite tone during an historic time of seemingly genuine remorse and attempt at reconciliation.
Ironically, as a result of the very abuses Pope Francis is apologizing for, many contemporary Indigenous people are Catholic and/or Christian, so there is an added layer of cognitive dissonance. Many Natives devoutly believe in Christianity, yet it was in the name of Christianity that their ancestors were assimilated and murdered and that their cultures and lands were forever altered. To say the least, this is not an easy feeling to reconcile.
Questions abound: Will the papal bull ever be rescinded? If so, what will that mean? Will the pope make a similar visit to the U.S. and to Latin America, which both experienced similar atrocities to the Indigenous peoples of Canada? Will anything really change as a result of this sorry snapshot?
Along with the sadness and confusion, feelings of hope for a better future were alive and well, too, during the pope’s journey.
Indigenous children, parents and grandparents came together to shape what they hope will be a whole new world.
Happy Friday, Wiredians.
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