During his recent tour of Mexico, Pope Francis delivered an apology for the “mistreatment” of Mexico’s indigenous peoples. Sadly, the pontiff’s offering did not even begin to right the atrocities of the past.
The Catholic Church’s role in the subjugation of indigenous peoples of the Americas began with the first missionaries. Christopher Columbus set sail looking for more than a new world. He believed he was ordained by God to forcefully conquer the isles of the Caribbean. The Spanish Conquistadors engaged in the most violent forms of Catholic proselytizing, including enslavement, wiping out indigenous languages, land theft, mass murder, and genocide.
The trails blazoned with Native blood by these first Catholic missionaries became paths towards the rise of religious imperialism. The Church carried on the mission to conquer and civilize the indigenous people of the Americas by replacing their “savage gods” with the cross. Indigenous people were either coerced or lured into adopting their conquerers’ corrupt values, including greed, lust, violence and hate.
The Pontiff’s shallow apology is extremely disturbing for a number of reasons. First, the apology implies that the legacy of brutal Christian conquest is left somewhere in the dust of history. In fact, this terrible religious trauma has touched every generation of indigenous people since those early days of conquest.
In this country, where the Pope delivered another apology to Native people while visiting here in September, Native American tribes continue to struggle against that original trauma, passed down through the generations. Turn-of-the-century Catholic boarding schools founded to “kill the Indian and save the man” assimilated Native American children across the nation. The loss of spirituality and culture meant unbroken generational cycles of abuse and addiction for too many Native families.
But perhaps most disturbing about the Pope’s apology is the attempt to assuage non-Native guilt about the past. At bottom, the Pope’s words add up to a call for indigenous peoples to forget the atrocities leveled against their ancestors.
The Catholic Church might believe forgiveness is the start of genuine reconciliation, but forgiveness cannot be extracted by fiat or by force. The Pope, in trying to put to rest the horrific crimes committed by the Church in the Americas, is calling upon indigenous people to forgive their oppressors.
Asking forgiveness may appear to be harmless, but without real acknowledgement of the extent of the harm done, it can actually be dangerous. As astute historian Howard Zinn pointed out in a 1998 article he wrote for The Progressive magazine: “These ignored episodes could tell us much about racial hysteria and class struggle, about shameful moments in our continental and overseas expansion, so that we can see ourselves more clearly, more honestly.”
Unfortunately, this week Pope Francis ignored an opportunity to make the past relevant to all peoples, and to lead a process of true reconciliation and healing.
Mark Anthony Rolo is an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians. He is the author of the memoir “My Mother Is Now Earth.” He can be reached at PMProject@progressive.org