It beggars belief that the bishop of Rome would visit Canada, to cement a series of apologies for Catholic failings in the residential schools affair, without taking a considered position on the charge of genocide. Yet that is what his press remarks on the flight home would suggest. Here’s the relevant bit, italics added:
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.
This is especially puzzling, not only because Francis didn’t take up Hobson’s implicit invitation to distinguish between genocide and “cultural genocide” (it is the latter to which he refers, not the former) but also because his official addresses suggest that careful thought was given to matters of substance and to positioning for further debate.
Fr Raymond de Souza has offered a constructive account of Francis’s layered efforts to effect a suitable apology. He rightly draws on the key paragraph of the Maskwacis address of 25 July:
Although Christian charity was not absent, and there were many outstanding instances of devotion and care for children, the overall effects of the policies linked to the residential schools were catastrophic. What our Christian faith tells us is that this was a disastrous error, incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is painful to think of how the firm soil of values, language and culture that made up the authentic identity of your peoples was eroded, and that you have continued to pay the price of this. In the face of this deplorable evil, the Church kneels before God and implores his forgiveness for the sins of her children (cf. John Paul II, Bull Incarnationis Mysterium [29 November 1998), 11: AAS 91 , 140). I myself wish to reaffirm this, with shame and unambiguously. I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the indigenous peoples.
This paragraph is well balanced. The residential schools run by Catholics were not devoid of charity, nor of the Christian mission to share the gospel with indigenous peoples. They were, however, deeply compromised by policies—not generally of the church’s own making—the effect of which was to deprive indigenous peoples of their culture and identity. Some of those responsible for their operation sinned greatly in this regard and it is right and proper in all sincerity to seek forgiveness and reconciliation for the harm done.
The same admirable balance was found in Francis’s address to Catholics at the indigenous Sacred Heart church. Francis there proposed, not reconciliation through eschewal of evangelism, which would be a rejection of the Church’s mission, but through eschewal of power politics in favour of brotherly communion. What he called for, observes De Souza, is “a cruciform model of both evangelization and reconciliation.”
Evangelical energy falls into the excess of abuse when it seeks to impose itself by power, to “come down from the cross.” Reconciliation proceeds when the crucified One unites all to himself, including both the abused and the abusers. The goal is no longer to simply acknowledge offenses, but to restore both the violated and the violators to peace through the blood of the cross.
This theme would have been developed best in connection with the Jesuit martyrs, whose absence from his addresses is another great puzzle. To include them, of course, would be to punch a hole in the Romantic vision of indigenous peoples as all about harmony with nature, another theme that (re)appeared in the press interviews on the flight home. It would be to invite consideration of the weaknesses and sins of indigenous cultures, not only of colonial cultures, and of the need of both for the saving graces of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
No attempt at reconciliation that fails to reference Canada’s patron saints and the missions recounted in the Jesuit Relations makes any sense to me. It is by them that the successes and failures of subsequent missions can be measured. But at least Francis went on to urge, during his visit to Quebec, a recovery both of the motherly spirit of saints Anne, Mary, and Kateri and of the entrepreneurial spirit of St François de Laval. For the church’s work can be carried out, and often was carried out, not by reliance on the state but in the full liberty of the gospel.
Just here, as De Souza emphasizes, Francis makes a crucial link between the errors of the past and the errors of the present. Catholics and Catholic institutions had indeed, in regard to the residential schools, cooperated in a “deplorable system, promoted by the governmental authorities of the time, which separated many children from their families.” This mistake must not be repeated. But the colonizing mentality of the past has not disappeared. Far from it. Ideological colonization, encourgaged and backed by the state, even to the division of families, is one of the most obvious features of our era. “In the past,” said Francis, in the presence of the prime minister,
the colonialist mentality disregarded the concrete life of people and imposed certain predetermined cultural models; yet today too, there are any number of forms of ideological colonization that clash with the reality of life, stifle the natural attachment of peoples to their values, and attempt to uproot their traditions, history and religious ties. This mentality, presumptuously thinking that the dark pages of history have been left behind, becomes open to the “cancel culture” that would judge the past purely on the basis of certain contemporary categories.
Now, all this being so, Francis might have responded to the Canadian Press correspondent by (a) carefully distinguishing between genocide, of which there was none, and cultural suppression, of which there was certainly some, albeit not as much as many would have us believe; (b) observing that, at their best, both state and church were trying to help indigenous peoples make their way in a much changed situation, not eradicate their cultures; (c) acknowledging that they achieved much good as well as much evil, and that in weighing the latter we must distinguish between accidental, careless, and deliberate evils; (d) insisting that the pot must not call the kettle black—if we are to use the slippery language of “cultural genocide” at all, we must be prepared to apply it also to what is going on today.
That’s expecting a bit much, you may say, for an extemporaneous exchange on a plane. But it could have been done, and indeed the groundwork for doing it was already laid in Francis’s lengthy and nuanced response to the CBC’s Ka’nhehsíio Deer, which lacked only a plain repudiation of certain myths and fictions about the doctrine of discovery. On my view, a good deal of damage was done to an otherwise thoughtful agenda by the failure to provide that, but even more so by the pope’s unscripted and indefensible embrace of the word “genocide,” which (as I’ve argued before) cannot be saved even by prefixing the adjective “cultural.”
Perhaps in Rome damage control is being undertaken as I write. But in Rome, too, there are many inconsistencies. What is the Vatican doing in China, for example, if not cooperating with a state-powered cancel-culture program called Sinicization—a program in which there is suppression of the church’s own culture and, at its extremes, actual genocide among the Uighur? What is it doing in the West, if not cooperating with the equally hubristic cancel-culture program of the globalists who are abusing children and families through “public health” regimes and subjecting large swaths of the populace, against their will, to “policies of assimilation and enfranchisement” or (as with Canadian truckers and Dutch farmers) disenfranchisement? And what shall we say within the sphere of the Church itself, which has its own “diverse traditions and cultures” but apparently can no longer accommodate even the traditional Latin mass communities?
I feared that the papal visit would be little more than a new exercise in cooperation with state power and cultural hegemony. Thankfully, there was something other and more to it than that. Yet I am left wishing, not for the first time, that the pope would learn to take a red-eye home, sans reporters and sans counter-productive improvisation.
(Editor’s note: This essay was originally posted on the “Desiring a Better Country” Substack and is reposted with the permission of the author.)
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