The Canadian boarding school disclosures brought up old stories that had been neglected by governments and church hierarchies for decades. The stories are remembered well by the targets of religious coercion and victims of sexual and physical abuse who are with us still. The Pope came to Canada to apologize to them.
How does an apology compensate for decades—almost 200 years—of forced conversions, physical and sexual abuse, and loss of languages, cultures, and lives that Catholicism brought to Native North America? (And if we consider South America, make that 500 years!)
What about the “Doctrine of Discovery,” that arcane pronouncement by a 15th century Pope that said that Christian countries could acquire heathen lands freely, a doctrine that was relied on by Protestant as well as Catholic colonial powers up to and including the Marshall Supreme Court decisions that are the foundation of American Indian Law today? In my small circle of Native friends and acquaintances, that Doctrine and all that flows from it are still alive. Some in the Canadian First Nations have shouted at the Pope for rescinding the Doctrine of Discovery. Will the Pope—will the world—deal with old doctrines that still impact the current day?
What about other, Protestant, denominations that have their own histories of abuse of Native Americans and aboriginal people in other lands? Should the Anglicans, the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists who set out to civilize and Christianize Natives be brought into this conversation?
What about the Catholic-Protestant religious wars that were continuous but seemed always to hover beneath the surface of mainstream American history? New books about old fights—e.g., the Know Nothings and the KKK in 20th century Oregon—emerge from the academy. The murders of the missionary Whitmans are now seen in a new light—Marcus Whitman was not a martyr to Protestant Colonialism and savior of the Pacific Northwest as described by the virulently anti-Catholic Henry Spalding. Whitman College, named for the missionary, is welcoming Indian students and teaching the true story of its namesake. If there is chuckling in Native heaven, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce will note that he wondered in the time of the
Protestant and Catholic missions why they could not agree on their god.
That was in the 19th century. Those of us old enough to be aware of the Presidential election of 1960 might remember the fears that came with John Kennedy’s run for the Presidency. In our Lutheran church there was fear that the Pope would run the country.
That fear is apparently gone, but new divisions within American churches are tearing families and communities apart, and the same can be said of other major religions in other places. Can a new ecumenism heal the rifts within and among faithful Christians, Buddhists, Moslems, Hindus, and Jews? Can the Pope—and religion—even have a role in healing political, economic, and ethnic divisions that plague the planet?
And what about the good-hearted, the seriously religious who empathized with Natives as they gave their lives to the cause of Catholicism or Quakerism, faithfully and without resorting to abuse? Those who learned Native languages, wrote dictionaries and taught what they thought Indians needed for health and survival.
Or—in an even broader light—what about the missionaries in all lands who have given up their missionizing to tend to the health and welfare of the people, who become their witnesses and advocates, who trade proselytizing religion for acceptance of difference and belief in the worth of all humans. How do we acknowledge that there were good-hearted among the clergy?
The good Pope has unleashed a floodgate.
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