Pope Benedict has apparently, sort of, admitted the truth about the forced religious conversions of the native peoples of the New World. But at the same time he did not repudiate the statements he made on this subject on May 13 as was demanded by indigenous leaders and by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Chavez even accused the pope of ignoring the ''holocaust'' that followed Columbus' ''discovery'' of the New World in 1492.
On May 13, while speaking to Latin American and Caribbean bishops, the pope demonstrated an amazing ignorance of the history of the violent cultural and religious oppression of indigenous peoples in the New World by European Christians. Benedict instead stated that the native people had been ''silently longing'' for Christ and were seeking God ''without realizing it.'' He said that this conversion was not a conquest of natives but was an ''adoption'' that made ''their cultures fruitful, purifying them ...''
Pope Benedict further demonstrated his misunderstanding of the forced conversions, ''civilization'' and massacres of natives in North, Central and South America when he stated that the church had not imposed itself on indigenous peoples and that Christianity had not been detrimental to their cultures. ''In effect, the proclamation of Jesus and of His gospel did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbian cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture.''
Not surprisingly, Pope Benedict's comments angered Indian leaders in Brazil and elsewhere. Brazilian Indians and Native organizations called the pope's comments ''arrogant and disrespectful'' and ''offensive, and frankly, frightening.'' A spokesman for one group said the pope was trying to erase the ''dirty work'' of colonization, and the Brazilian Indian Missionary Council stated that the pope's comments demonstrated his Eurocentrism and his ignorance of the facts. This same organization said that the pope must have ''missed some history classes.''
The Pope also missed the history of his Church and the papal bulls from the 15th century that divided the world for conquest and conversion by European Christians. For example, a papal bull in 1455 authorized Portugal ''to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans'' along the west coast of Africa and to place them into slavery and to take their property. In 1493, after Columbus ''discovered'' the New World, Pope Alexander VI issued three bulls that granted Spain title to the lands Columbus had found because they had been ''undiscovered by others'' (thus ignoring the known presence of indigenous people); granted Spain any lands it might discover in the future provided that they were ''not previously possessed by any Christian owner;'' and even more audaciously, the bull Inter caetera II divided the world by a line from the North to the South Pole and granted Spain title to all lands to be discovered west of the line to assist in ''the expansion of the Christian rule.'' Consequently, the world was divided up for European and Christian domination. This is exactly what followed.
This is the history that Pope Benedict overlooked in making his comments on May 13. In sharp contrast to Benedict's comments, Pope John Paul noted in 1992 that mistakes were made in the conversion of the native peoples of the Americas.
Pope Benedict was immediately called to task for his comments and for ignoring the history of colonization. The Vatican had been silent in the face of protests from indigenous groups. The pope finally spoke May 23 and acknowledged that injustices were committed in the colonization of the Americas. But by no means did he apologize for his earlier statements: ''While we do not overlook the various injustices and sufferings which accompanied colonization, the gospel has expressed and continues to express the identity of the peoples in this region.'' Clearly, this pope still has a long ways to go to understanding the truth of the colonization and religious conversion of the Americas.
This situation is nearly identical to the Pontiff's comments that outraged Muslims in September when he seemed to depict Islam as a religion tainted with violence. He later apologized for the pain his comments caused but apparently did not apologize for the comments themselves. Similarly, his statement of May 23 sort of acknowledges the history of forced religious conversions in the New World but he did not apologize for his May 13 comments that demonstrated an appalling lack of knowledge of history.
Robert J. Miller, Eastern Shawnee, is a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School and the chief justice of the Grand Ronde Tribe. He is the author of the new book, ''Native America: Discovered and Conquered.''