Pope Francis’s Careful Side-Step

Steven Newcomb

During his address to the U.S. Congress on September 24, Pope Francis alluded to the collision between the colonizing nations of Christendom and our original nations and peoples of this continent. In a classic example of a bureaucratic side-step, the pope said: “Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected.” Is this meant to suggest that the rights of our ancestors and our nations were mostly respected, just not always respected? History provides ample evidence that the right of our nations to live free from domination and dehumanization has hardly ever been respected by dominating societies, such as the United States.

Pope Francis also said: “Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent, but it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present.” With regard to U.S. federal Indian law and policy, the pontiff made two errors of logic with that one simple statement. The issues we’re dealing with regarding the doctrine of Christian discovery and domination are not “in the past.” The doctrine of Christian domination has been carried forward and maintained by each new generation of the society. It is still being maintained in 2015.

Additionally, no reform has ever been created by arguing that unjust patterns of thought and behavior from the past must be maintained in the present. If that were the case there would be no Supreme Court ruling Brown versus Board of Education because Plessy v. Ferguson (separate but equal) would not have been overturned. Given that approach, segregation would still be the law of the land in the United States. No reform movement has ever succeeded in creating reform by agreeing with the proposition that a system of injustice must be maintained in the present because it was created in the past and has been continuously and carefully maintained up to the present time by those whom that unjust system benefits.

Lord Acton famously said, “All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He also condemned those who used the spurious argument that bad or unjust behavior in the past cannot be judged by the standards of the present. He gave the example of the heretic burned at the stake by the Inquisitors. By conveniently ignoring the perspective and criteria of the one horribly burned at the stake, and the perspective of that person’s family, it is possible to pretend that only the Inquisitor’s viewpoint exists. According to the pope’s logic, we cannot use our present day criteria to say the Catholic Inquisitor was wrong for burning an innocent person at the stake. We can only look at the matter from the viewpoint of “the Holy Inquisition.”

With regard to the pope’s mention of “those who were here long before us,” the pope said, “For those peoples and their nations, from the heart of American democracy, I wish to reaffirm my highest esteem and appreciation.” He made this statement one day after officially and ceremonially declaring Junipero Serra to be a saint for carrying out what Pope Alexander VI called a “sacred” and “praiseworthy” purpose of “subjecting” and “reducing” the “barbarous nations” for “the propagation of the Christian empire.”

The Spanish Catholic Mission system that Junipero Serra founded in Alta California resulted in some 150,000 Native people dying in those missions, and yet Pope Francis did not utter one word of sympathy for the dead of the nations in California to whom he said he wishes “to affirm my highest esteem and appreciation.” Someone ought to inform the pope that actions speak louder than words, and it is not possible to esteem and appreciate distinct nations by disrespecting their dead, especially when your own institution unleashed on the planet a system of domination and dehumanization that led to those ancestors’ deaths. If Pope Francis wants to tangibly demonstrate his esteem and appreciation to the Original Nations and Peoples of this hemisphere, he needs to revoke the papal decrees of domination of the fifteenth century.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He is a producer of the documentary movie, The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree).

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gtm303's picture
Good column, Steve, as was Ray Cook’s recent column about the papal bulls. By extension, in his speech to Congress, Francis said, “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..” Unfortunately, through his canonization of Junipero Serra, and through the Vatican’s refusal to rescind the papal bulls, Francis does precisely what he cautions against — repeating and legitimizing, in 2015, the sins and errors of the past. If he is sincere in his “esteem and appreciation” for indigenous peoples, the rhetoric of the Pope, while flowery and welcome, would be more meaningful if it were coupled with specific actions of justice – the repeal of the papal bulls (the foundation of all colonizing, federal Indian law) and now, rescinding the sainthood of the Indian-killer, Serra.
Flower's picture
Thank you for this article. I’ve been pondering his statements all week and just don’t understand why he would utter these words. Appreciation? Why should we not judge the actions of the past by todays standards? Killing a life was no more acceptable then as it is today.
tmsyr11's picture
Did You Know the US Apologized to Native Americans? With so much emphasis on Pope Francis, what about the President of the United States and his signatory US policy of: “Apology to Native Peoples of the United States.”, by Barack Obama’s hand signed, December 19, 2009. It’s so much reasonable to CHALLENGE or even RE-EMPHASIZE the your importance of making wrong to right. >>>>>>>>>>(excerpt) “The United States, acting through Congress,” states Sec. 8113, “apologizes on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States;” and “expresses its regret for the ramifications of former wrongs and its commitment to build on the positive relationships of the past and present to move toward a brighter future where all the people of this land live reconciled as brothers and sisters, and harmoniously steward and protect this land together.” Of course, the apology also makes it clear that it in no way admits liability in any of the dozens of lawsuits still pending against the U.S. government by Native Americans. “Nothing in this section … authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States,” states the apology. In the more than two years since enactment of the Defense Appropriations Act of 2010, the Obama White House has never publicly acknowledged the “Apology to Native Peoples of the United States.” >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> If there SIDE_STEPPING, it appears Pope Francis took a page from the Barack Obama’s signed Apology. I don’t believe many know that the United States apologized let along talked about it. Where are those Indian/Native American/Indigenous/First Nations “activists”? Why don’t you do a write-up piece to the President Obama’s and United States’ Apology.