Last 24-30 July 2022, Pope Francis visited Canada for an “Apostolic Journey.” Many expected that he would apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in the abuse of Indigenous children in the residential schools in Canada. Instead, he said, “I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples.” Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported that the Pope’s two apologies, the one in Edmonton and the first one in Rome in April, “have failed to acknowledge the church’s institutional role in the residential school system.” Here’s how I see the pope’s Canadian visit as an Anabaptist peacebuilding worker.
Historical Injustices and the Pope’s visit to Canada
The pope’s visit to Canada is to apologize for the abuse of Canadian Indigenous children in the residential schools which were run by the Catholic Church. I see the abuse of these children as a segment of a long history of injustices. Along with the many wars and violence in the global realities of the past and present centuries, the abuse of these children are part of various historical injustices that have traumatized various nations, especially many Indigenous Peoples, over several generations.
The historical context of Pope Francis’ “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada is framed in the healing process needed because of historical injustice. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, historical injustice is “past moral wrong committed by previously living people that has a lasting impact on the well-being of currently living people. Claims to material reparations for historical injustices are typically based on the nature of the lasting impact, and claims to symbolic restitution are often grounded on the moral quality of the wrongs committed.” The Encyclopedia of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity includes “episodes of genocide, slavery, torture, forced conversions, and mass expulsions of peoples” in its definition of historical injustice. It can be motivated by “political, economic, religious, or ethnic reasons” and that “states often abused or allowed the abuse of specific minorities or foreign populations.”
My reflection on historical injustice starts with the misuse of the name of Christ that sanctioned the colonial and genocidal policies of the European empires against the Indigenous Peoples around the world.
The Doctrine of Discovery: Misusing the Name of Christ
In the 1400s, a series of Papal Bulls were declared and sanctioned explorers to invade, colonize, and exploit lands and peoples around the world. The Doctrine of Discovery is the unsound theological basis for the colonialism and imperialism that still oppress many Indigenous Peoples today. These were done by the European imperial monarchs in the name of Christ.
The following 45-minute video explains how this doctrine affected the Indigenous Peoples of the Turtle Island (North America) and other IPs around the world:
The Doctrine of Discovery provided a framework for Christian explorers, in the name of their sovereign, to lay claim to territories uninhabited by Christians. It became a legal principle in public international law under which, when a nation “discovers” land, it directly acquires rights on that land. Though its meaning and intention has been fiercely disputed, almost two centuries later, this doctrine remains the law of the United States of America and the basis of land ownership in Canada and many other colonizing nations.
The impact of the Doctrine of Discovery on Indigenous Peoples was addressed during the concluding session of the 11th UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues 18 May 2012 in New York:
Legal and political justification for the dispossession of indigenous peoples from their lands, their disenfranchisement and the abrogation of their rights such as the doctrine of discovery, the doctrine of domination, “conquest”, “discovery”, terra nullius or the Regalian doctrine were adopted by colonizers throughout the world. While these nefarious doctrines were promoted as the authority for the acquisition of the lands and territories of indigenous peoples, there were broader assumptions implicit in the doctrines, which became the basis for the assertion of authority and control over the lives of indigenous peoples and their lands, territories and resources. Indigenous peoples were constructed as “savages”, “barbarians”, “backward” and “inferior and uncivilized” by the colonizers who used such constructs to subjugate, dominate and exploit indigenous peoples and their lands, territories and resources… According to the text, signs of such doctrines were still evident in indigenous communities, including in the areas of: health; psychological and social well-being; conceptual and behavioural forms of violence against indigenous women; youth suicide; and the hopelessness that many indigenous peoples experience, in particular indigenous youth.
The Doctrine of Discovery was the big historical violence that caused the wounds of the survivors and the deaths of those who were abused by government and by the Church who were the powers and authorities behind the residential schools.
4,000 Indigenous children died at residential schools run by the Catholic Church
Last year, hundreds of unmarked graves were discovered on the grounds of former residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has reported that more than 4,000 Indigenous children died either from neglect or abuse in residential schools, many of which were run by the Catholic Church.
Pope Francis has said that he is undertaking this “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada, in the hopes of contributing to the “process of healing and reconciliation with the country’s indigenous peoples.” During his Angelus address on 17 July, he said: “Unfortunately, in Canada, many Christians, including some members of religious institutes, have contributed to the policies of cultural assimilation that, in the past, have severely harmed indigenous communities in various ways.”
In April this year, the Pope met with Canadian Indigenous delegations, expressing his profound sorrow and asking for pardon for the suffering inflicted by some members of the Catholic Church.
But for Cornell McLean of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, the Pope’s apology does not ease the pain of lost children, “who never returned home, or the legacy First Nations carry as the survivors, their children, and their grandchildren,” he said during an interview with The Winnipeg Sun. “We are still mourning them,” he added. “However, we encourage the church to move forward in the spirit of reconciliation by making concrete commitments and true reparations going forward.”
Repudiating the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’
One of the highlights in our journey as members of Mennonite Church Canada, and as field staff members of its International Witness, was the day we received the news that our sending church actually did repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. Here’s the actual content of the document:
A Resolution to the Mennonite Church Canada Delegate Assembly July 2016: The Church and the Doctrine of Discovery
It is the recommendation, supported by the individuals, congregations and Area Churches below:
1. That Mennonite Church Canada repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery as it is fundamentally opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ and our understanding of the inherent dignity and rights that individuals and peoples have received from God.
2. That a working group be formed by representatives of Mennonite Church Canada and Area Churches to begin by reviewing the church related recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, make the appropriate study material available to congregations, and make further periodic recommendations to the General Board/Area Church Boards on steps along the path of reconciliation.
As Canadian citizens who originally come from the Philippines — a nation that had been colonized by the Spaniards and the Americans, sanctioned by the Doctrine of Discovery — we read about, and have directly witnessed, the marginalization of the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. We heard testimonials on the abuse of children in the residential schools. We saw the racial discrimination against the Indigenous Peoples in various sectors of the Canadian society — academic, business, church, government, police, and military. Regrettably, I kept my silence for most of my years in Canada. Like most immigrant families, my wife and I had to establish our respective means of income to provide a decent upbringing for our children in a stable home. And, as a burnt-out revolutionary going through a process of healing, I avoided getting too involved in any activism.
Then we followed the journey of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada from June 2008 to June 2015 even as Joji and I kept busy in our peacebuilding mission in Mindanao. When I read the TRC Reports, I personally experienced a sort of theological-ethical crisis for a couple of months. How could the Christian Church, to which I belong, intentionally and significantly contributed to the oppression of the Indigenous Peoples of Canada, specifically in destroying generations of children’s lives by uprooting them from their families and communities?
This 30-minute video talk by Jennifer Henry of Kairos Canada resonated exactly what went through my heart and mind during those weeks when I was struggling with the Doctrine of Discovery and how it corrupted the practice of my Christian faith. Jennifer Henry’s talk also helped me process what it means to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery as a Canadian Christian.
The repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery may bring uncertainty and chaos.
Yet, we believe that the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery may also bring order and system as an expression of active, nonviolent radical transformation.
There’s a viable way towards a peaceful, orderly, and systematic repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery. That is to help in the advocacy to adopt and to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in various contexts we are called to serve.
Beyond apology and being sorry — ask for forgiveness
The Conversation Magazine reported that Canadian Indigenous Peoples are looking for two things in the stated apology of Pope Francis: (a) Authenticity — Are the Pope’s statements a genuine reflection of the church’s “penance” and commitments to change? (b) Responsibility — Do the Pope’s statements demonstrate willingness and resolve for the church to address systemic causes and effects of specific harms?
In the same magazine report, many IPs felt that the Pope’s apologies were ineffective:
Apology analyst Andy Molinsky, a professor of international management and organizational behaviour at Brandeis University in the United States, describes four types of ineffective apologies. Two apology-types described by Molinsky are visible in the Pope’s statements: the “excessive apology” (or “I’m so sorry, I feel so bad”) that draws attention to one’s own feelings rather than what was done. The “incomplete apology” takes the tone of “I’m sorry that this happened, I’m sorry that you feel this way” and uses passive language. For example, in drawing attention to his own feelings of sorrow, Pope Francis neglected to acknowledge the rampant sexualized violence that destroyed many lives in residential schools. In his July 28 remarks, he references the “evil” of sexual abuse, but did not say specifically that sexual abuse happened in the residential schools. He said the church in Canada is on a new path after being devastated by “the evil perpetrated by some of its sons and daughters. I would add a fifth aspect to Molinsky’s list of ineffective apologies: the pathologizing of victims/survivors. Shifting the topic away from violence to the trauma of others conceals violence, disappears perpetrators and may result in blaming victims. This shift conceals the preceding acts of deliberation, planning and entrapment. Focusing on the mind of the victim is a strategy used by perpetrators, and their associates, to discredit victims and their claims.”
I believe that the pope’s statements of apologies will only be fully accepted as authentic and responsible when he, in behalf of the Catholic Church as a historical and global institution, has explicitly asked for forgiveness for the recent violent actions of Catholic Church — through their authorities and staff in those residential schools. The Pope must also ask for forgiveness for the historical injustices caused by the Doctrine of Discovery, specifically the genocidal colonialization of Indigenous Peoples and the violent grabbing of their lands.
Reparation and ReconciliAction
Reparations must follow an apology. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported 6,000+ testimonies of survivors victimized by residential schools. An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were separated from their families and communities. They were forced to attend one of 139 residential schools run by the Catholic Church across Canada.
The TRC submitted a document detailing 94 calls to action across a wide range of areas — child welfare, education, health, justice, language, and culture.
I’m encouraged when politicians express their passion for justice. “The Catholic Church and the government worked together in harms and crimes,” said Federal NDP Crown-Indigenous Relations critic Lori Idlout in an interview with Global News. “And they must work together to ensure that the harm done to Indigenous peoples is being addressed in meaningful ways. Co-operating with ongoing investigations, and making all documents requested by survivors, police and local governments available is the very least that the Church and the federal government can do for Indigenous peoples.”
It’s heart-rending to hear the cries of IP leaders when apologies are shallow and not authenticated by action. Without responsible action, the Pope’s visit merely “triggered an opening of a wound again,” Chief Tony Alexis of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation said in the same Global News report. “And this wound that has been opened again, we can’t just leave it like that. We really have to take the steps to make sure that we help heal and recover our people,” he added. “You can’t just say ‘sorry’ and walk away. There has to be effort, there has to be work and more meaningful action.”
Though the abuse and violence cannot be equated in terms of monetary value, reparations must be done. Last year, the Canadian bishops promised that they would put “$30 million toward initiatives that offer healing opportunities for residential school survivors, their relatives and larger communities.” We hope to see this amount as a concrete follow-up to Pope Francis’ apology.