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Newcomb: Papal statement suggests Crusades were ‘contrary to God’s nature’

There he was, on the front page of the San Diego-Union Tribune: Pope Benedict XVI waving to a huge crowd in Regensburg, Germany. The headline read: “Jihad contrary to God’s plan, pope says.” Knowing a little something about the Vatican’s own history of holy war during the Crusades, and during the Catholic invasion of the indigenous nations of the Americas, the headline struck me as deeply ironic.

According to newspaper reports, Pope Benedict XVI’s address was intended to criticize the West for having excluded a belief in God from science and philosophy. But toward the beginning of his speech, he directly quoted a 14th century Byzantine Christian emperor, Manuel II, who characterized the Prophet Mohammed as having spread Islam by the sword in an “evil and inhuman” manner. Because of the indignation and outrage sparked throughout the Muslim world by Pope Benedict XVI’s quoting of Manuel II’s remarks, the pope later said he was “deeply sorry” for those passages of his speech that “were considered offensive.”

Elsewhere in his speech at Regensburg University, in Germany, Pope Benedict XVI discussed Manuel II’s thoughts on “the theme of the holy war.” The pope said that Manuel II had argued that “spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable.” According to the pope, the emperor said that violence is “incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.” Pope Benedict XVI summed up by saying, “The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.”

The pope’s reference to “holy war,” as used in the 1300s by Manuel II, was apparently calling into question what he considers to be the Islamic version of holy war. (On PBS’s show, “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” Nihid Awad, with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, denied that there is a concept of holy war in the Islamic religion.) But if the pope is going to be consistent and not hypocritical, then he must acknowledge that the Vatican’s own extensive, bloody and violent history of holy wars and crusades were “unreasonable” and “contrary to God’s nature.”

The Vatican Archives of the Holy See contains many original documents of Catholic crusades against unbelievers. For example: the Dum Diversas from 1452, by which Pope Nicholas V authorized King Alfonso V of Portugal to “invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue, all Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ,” to “put them into perpetual slavery” and take away “all their possessions and property.” By Pope Benedict’s XVI’s criteria, was this not contrary to reason and “God’s nature”?

Or how about the four papal bulls issued to the king and queen of Spain shortly after Cristobal Colon (aka Columbus) successfully happened upon well-inhabited indigenous islands in the Caribbean. The papal bull of May 4, 1493, is representative of the four. By its terms, the infamous, licentious and libidinous Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, declared it his desire that “barbarous” indigenous “nations” be “subjugated, and brought to the Catholic faith and Christian religion” for the “propagation of the Christian Empire.”

When Pope Benedict XVI said violent conversion is not in accordance with reason and is “contrary to God’s nature,” by this standard the pope must acknowledge that conversion to Catholicism by violence was contrary to reason, and thus “contrary to God’s nature.” The Catholic missions in California serve as just one example of the systematic use of violence by the Roman Catholic Church in its efforts to convert indigenous peoples.

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The mission system was a slave-system that used incredible violence and abusive practices against the Native peoples of the entire region now known as California. The Franciscan and Dominican orders used ruthless techniques in an effort to achieve what one joint document by these two Catholic orders referred to, in 1775, as “the spiritual conquest and conversion of the infidels” of “Old and New California.”

Such a militaristic attitude and behavior toward the spiritual life of entire indigenous nations is an attitude and behavior of crusade or holy war. The Indian people died of malnutrition and of the diseases that resulted from the filthy and pestilent conditions within the mission walls where they were forced to live. A huge percentage of indigenous women held in the missions had stillborn babies as a result of the abusive conditions. All in all, thousands of innocent indigenous people died under the crushing brutality of the Catholic mission slave-system in California, a system which was, by the pope’s criteria, unreasonable and “contrary to God’s nature.”

The Catholic boarding schools were another example of the Catholic Church waging war against indigenous languages and cultures. Generations of Indian children in the United States and Canada were abused in those schools. Those children were abused for simply doing the most natural thing of all: speaking their own indigenous languages. They were also taught to fear and even despise their own non-Christian spiritual traditions, which the church teachers said were associated with evil.

And, since the Catholic mission system of California and those parochial boarding schools were part of its crusade or holy war against “infidels,” Pope Benedict XVI’s recent statement serves as an unintentional acknowledgment that its very own mission system was “contrary to reason” and “contrary to God’s nature.” But, then, we as indigenous people already knew that.

Over the past 30 years, many indigenous human rights organizations, including the Indigenous Law Institute, have repeatedly called for a revocation of the Inter Caetera papal bull of 1493. Unfortunately, Pope John Paul II made no such revocation. When Pope Benedict XVI became the new successor to the seat of the papacy, the ILI sent the new pope a letter calling upon him to revoke the Inter Caetera bull. This letter, along with a longer written document explaining why the bull should be revoked, was hand-delivered to the representative of the Holy See at the United Nations.

The only response we received was a letter saying the papal bull was so old that it is probably no longer in force. But the antiquity or age of the document in question is not at issue. What is at issue is that, by Pope Benedict XVI’s own standard, the Vatican ought to openly and publicly renounce before the world its own history of holy war and crusade against indigenous peoples throughout the world. Pope Benedict XVI can put solemn action behind his call for “frank and sincere dialogue, with great mutual respect,” by revoking the Inter Caetera papal bull in a ceremony with indigenous elders, spiritual leaders and indigenous representatives from all over the world.

<i>Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Delaware, is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, Indigenous Research Coordinator at Kumeyaay Community College on the Sycuan Indian Reservation in California, and a columnist for Indian Country Today.