Reading a Catholic paper yesterday, I must say I was rather startled to see the pope charging the Catholic priests who taught in the elementary schools of Canada with genocide. Returning from his trip to Canada, the following exchange took place during the press conference:
Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press: Good evening Pope Francis, My name is Brittany Hobson. I am a reporter with the Canadian press. You have often spoken on the need to speak clearly, honestly, forthrightly, and with parrhesia. You know that Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission described the residential school system as “cultural genocide.” This has since been amended to just “genocide.” Those who were listening to your apologies the past week did express disappointment that the word genocide was not used. Would you use those words and accept that members of the Church participated in genocide?
Pope Francis: It’s true, I didn’t use the word because it didn’t occur to me, but I described the genocide and asked for pardon, forgiveness for this work that is genocidal. For example, I condemned this too: Taking away children and changing culture, changing mentalities, changing traditions, changing a race, let’s say, a whole culture. Yes, it’s a technical word, genocide, but I didn’t use it because it didn’t come to mind, but I described it. It is true; yes, it’s genocide. Yes, you all, be calm. You can say that I said that, yes, that it was genocide. [In English] Yes. Yes. Thank you.
It is true that the Holy Father does not appear to have the fondest view of the Catholic priesthood, nor of the proselytism vital to evangelization. It is also true that he shares the long-standing liberal view that the history of the Church is, to some lively extent, a history of colonialism and oppression. But he has never gone so far as to say that the Church is guilty of genocide. After I read the report, I was reminded of a letter that the great honorary Catholic Samuel Johnson wrote in 1766 to Mr. William Drummond, which my fellow co-religionists and all men of good faith should read. Boswell sets up the letter nicely in his incomparable biography.
[Johnson] wrote this year a letter, not intended for publication, which has, perhaps, as strong marks of his sentiment and style, as any of his compositions. The original is in my possession. It is addressed to the late Mr. William Drummond, bookseller, in Edinburgh, a gentleman of good family, but small estate, who took arms for the house of Stuart in 1745; and during his concealment in London till the act of general pardon came out, obtained the acquaintance of Dr. Johnson, who justly esteemed him as a very worthy man. It seems some of the members of the Society in Scotland for propagating Christian knowledge had opposed the scheme of translating the Holy Scripture into the Erse or Gaelic language, from political considerations of the disadvantage of keeping up the distinction between the Highlanders and the other inhabitants of North Britain. Dr. Johnson being informed of this, I suppose by Mr. Drummond, wrote with a generous indignation as follows.
Since the letter is one of the noblest Johnson ever wrote, it bears quoting in its entirety:
TO MR. WILLIAM DRUMMOND.
Johnson’s Court, Fleet Street, Aug. 13, 1766,
I did not expect to hear that it could be, in an assembly convened for the propagation of Christian knowledge, a question whether any nation uninstructed in religion should receive instruction; or whether that instruction should be imparted to them by a translation of the holy books into their own language. If obedience to the will of God be necessary to happiness, and knowledge of his will be necessary to obedience, I know not how he that withholds this knowledge, or delays it, can be said to love his neighbour as himself. He that voluntarily continues ignorance is guilty of all the crimes which ignorance produces; as to him that should extinguish the tapers of a lighthouse, might justly be imputed the calamities of shipwrecks. Christianity is the highest perfection of humanity; and as no man is good but as he wishes the good of others, no man can be good in the highest degree, who wishes not to others the largest measures of the greatest good. To omit for a year, or for a day, the most efficacious method of advancing Christianity, in compliance with any purposes that terminate on this side of the grave, is a crime of which I know not that the world has yet had an example, except in the practice of the planters of America, —a race of mortals whom, I suppose, no other man wishes to resemble.
The Papists have, indeed, denied to the laity the use of the Bible; but this prohibition, in few places now very rigorously enforced, is defended by arguments, which have for their foundation the care of souls. To obscure, upon motives merely political, the light of revelation, is a practice reserved for the reformed; and, surely, the blackest midnight of popery is meridian sunshine to such a reformation. I am not very willing that any language should be totally extinguished. The similitude and derivation of languages afford the most indubitable proof of the traduction of nations, and the genealogy of mankind. They add often physical certainty to historical evidence; and often supply the only evidence of ancient migrations, and of the revolutions of ages which left no written monuments behind them.
Every man’s opinion, at least his desires, are a little influenced by his favourite studies. My zeal for languages may seem, perhaps, rather over-heated, even to those by whom I desire to be well esteemed. To those who have nothing in their thoughts but trade or policy, present power, or present money, I should not think it necessary to defend my opinions ; but with men of letters I would not unwillingly compound, by wishing the continuance of every language, however narrow in its extent, or however incommodious for common purposes, till it is reposited in some version of a known book, that it may be always hereafter examined and compared with other languages, and then permitting its disuse. For this purpose, the translation of the Bible is most to be desired. It is not certain that the same method will not preserve the Highland language, for the purposes of learning, and abolish it from daily use. When the Highlanders read the Bible, they will naturally wish to have its obscurities cleared, and to know the history, collateral or appendant. Knowledge always desires increase: it is like fire, which must first be kindled by some external agent, but which will afterwards propagate itself. When they once desire to learn, they will naturally have recourse to the nearest language by which that desire can be gratified; and one will tell another, that if he would attain knowledge, he must learn English.
This speculation may, perhaps, be thought more subtle than the grossness of real life will easily admit. Let it, however, be remembered, that the efficacy of ignorance has long been tried, and has not produced the consequence expected. Let knowledge, therefore, take its turn; and let the patrons of privation stand awhile aside, and admit the operation of positive principles.
You will be pleased, Sir, to assure the worthy man who is employed in a new translation, that he has my wishes for his success; and if here or at Oxford I can be of any use, that I shall think it more than honour to promote his undertaking.
I am sorry that I delayed so long to write. I am, Sir, your most humble servant,
Boswell’s response to the letter should also be quoted: “The opponents of this pious scheme being made ashamed of their conduct, the benevolent undertaking was allowed to go on.” Whether the pope will register any shame for his vilification of the good work of the priests in Canada remains to be seen, though he should be made aware that keeping native peoples in ignorance of Christianity, let alone the knowledge of civilization is neither faithful nor charitable. As Johnson so unanswerably reminds us, “The efficacy of ignorance has long been tried, and has not produced the consequence expected.”
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