Benedict XVI: Reflections on the pope;s visit to America

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WASHINGTON - Pope Benedict XVI is no doubt beloved by many American Indians, but after his recent U.S. tour, some are questioning his positions regarding the well-known historical religious and cultural oppression of Native peoples.

And some American Indian scholars are using his visit as an occasion to raise questions about church doctrine and statements from the pope himself involving Christianity;s sometimes brutal role in the colonization of the Americas.

During the pontiff's journey to the U.S., which started April 15 and lasted more than five days, he met with President George W. Bush and attended major religious ceremonies in Washington and New York City. He received high praise for his visit to a Jewish synagogue and for reaching out to people of many faiths. He also faced head-on the Catholic Church's recent sexual abuse scandals by meeting with victims who had suffered at the hands of priests.

The pope's goodwill visit also saw him touch on the treatment of American Indians in the United States. After praising America April 17 as a land of opportunity to a crowd of 46,000, he expressed concern that the country's founding promise fell short for many Indians and blacks.

''Americans have always been a people of hope,'' the pope said during a Mass at Nationals Park, home of Major League Baseball's Washington Nationals. ''Your ancestors came to this country with the experience of finding new freedom and opportunity.

''To be sure, this promise was not experienced by all the inhabitants of this land - one thinks of the injustices endured by the Native American peoples and by those brought here forcibly from Africa as slaves.''

Some Native leaders were quick to praise the pope's comments.

''I commend Pope Benedict XVI for making this bold, and very true, statement with the world watching,'' Joe Garcia, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said in a statement. ''Native people have suffered greatly since the arrival of European settlers as they were displaced and then later subjected to U.S. government policies of termination and assimilation.''

Others said the pope seemed to be casting blame on early American colonists without taking responsibility for historical actions taken against American Indians by the Catholic Church and other Christian religious leaders during the so-called New World era.

''In one sense, what the pope said was right on,'' said Robert Miller, a professor of law at the Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore. ''But on the other hand, it totally ignores the history of the church and its historic role in colonization.''

''His comments could lead one to believe that the Holy See's historical legacy had nothing to do with the injustices he referred to,'' said Steven Newcomb, co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute and author of the new book, ''Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery.''

As Newcomb points out in ''Pagans in the Promised Land,'' documents from the 15th century, such as the papal bulls, clearly show the papacy played a role in the genocidal onslaught that impacted millions of indigenous people on the North American continent.

In a 1436 bull, Pope Eugenius gave permission to Portugal to convert indigenous residents of the current Canary Islands to Christianity and to control their lands; in 1455, Pope Nicolas authorized Portugal ''to invade, search out, capture, vanquish and subdue all Saracens and pagans'' who had previously made their homes in North America.

Pope Alexander VI continued the domination in 1493, issuing three bulls that confirmed Spain's title to lands on this continent because, he proclaimed, the New World had been ''undiscovered by others.'' Alexander also granted Spain any other lands it might discover in the future provided that they were ''not previously possessed by any Christian owner.''

Newcomb and other Indian leaders have worked for decades to get the Vatican to rescind or apologize for the papal bulls. They have been unsuccessful, despite support from some Catholic leaders in the United States.

''He comes here and acknowledges injustices were done,'' said Newcomb, who is of Shawnee and Lenape descent, ''but he doesn't acknowledge these reprehensible documents that really set up authorization for brutal colonization.''

Miller said he would be surprised if the church were ever to make an official apology for the papal bulls. Yet he does find it quite ironic that during his recent visit, the pope faced U.S. survivors of sexual abuse from priests and told them he is sorry for the sins.

''He'll address a sex scandal involving living priests,'' Miller said, ''but he won't apologize for or withdraw the historical papal bulls.''

Indian scholars, too, are concerned that Pope Benedict's most recent words about indigenous people seem to contradict statements he made just last year when speaking to Latin American bishops in Brazil. On May 13, 2007, the pope said the ancestors of contemporary Indians were ''silently longing'' for Christ and seeking God ''without realizing it.''

''In effect, the proclamation of Jesus and of his gospel did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbus cultures,'' the pope said, ''nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture.'' He added that a return to indigenous religions ''would be a step back.''

Soon after his speech, many Indians in both South and North America expressed concern that the pope's statements ignored the historically violent religious and cultural oppression of indigenous peoples on this continent by European Christians. They noted that the conversion of many Natives to Christianity was anything but civil, and many lost their lives trying to maintain their own cultural identities.

''His comments from a year ago showed his absolute lack of historical knowledge,'' Miller said. ''His words indicated a continued ethnocentric viewpoint that the Catholic religion is better for Indian people than their own religions.''

Research from Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate estimates that there are between 650,000 and 1 million contemporary Indians who practice Catholicism - a substantial percentage of the overall Indian population.

''We're not trying to attack the current church today,'' Miller said. ''But what are they doing to make up for these historical issues?''