Pope Francis’s Careful Side-Step

During his address to the U.S. Congress on September 24, Pope Francis alluded to the collision between the colonizing nations of Christendom and our original nations and peoples of this continent. In a classic example of a bureaucratic side-step, the pope said: “Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected.” Is this meant to suggest that the rights of our ancestors and our nations were mostly respected, just not always respected? History provides ample evidence that the right of our nations to live free from domination and dehumanization has hardly ever been respected by dominating societies, such as the United States.

Pope Francis also said: “Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent, but it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present.” With regard to U.S. federal Indian law and policy, the pontiff made two errors of logic with that one simple statement. The issues we’re dealing with regarding the doctrine of Christian discovery and domination are not “in the past.” The doctrine of Christian domination has been carried forward and maintained by each new generation of the society. It is still being maintained in 2015.

Additionally, no reform has ever been created by arguing that unjust patterns of thought and behavior from the past must be maintained in the present. If that were the case there would be no Supreme Court ruling Brown versus Board of Education because Plessy v. Ferguson (separate but equal) would not have been overturned. Given that approach, segregation would still be the law of the land in the United States. No reform movement has ever succeeded in creating reform by agreeing with the proposition that a system of injustice must be maintained in the present because it was created in the past and has been continuously and carefully maintained up to the present time by those whom that unjust system benefits.

Lord Acton famously said, “All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He also condemned those who used the spurious argument that bad or unjust behavior in the past cannot be judged by the standards of the present. He gave the example of the heretic burned at the stake by the Inquisitors. By conveniently ignoring the perspective and criteria of the one horribly burned at the stake, and the perspective of that person’s family, it is possible to pretend that only the Inquisitor’s viewpoint exists. According to the pope’s logic, we cannot use our present day criteria to say the Catholic Inquisitor was wrong for burning an innocent person at the stake. We can only look at the matter from the viewpoint of “the Holy Inquisition.”

With regard to the pope’s mention of “those who were here long before us,” the pope said, “For those peoples and their nations, from the heart of American democracy, I wish to reaffirm my highest esteem and appreciation.” He made this statement one day after officially and ceremonially declaring Junipero Serra to be a saint for carrying out what Pope Alexander VI called a “sacred” and “praiseworthy” purpose of “subjecting” and “reducing” the “barbarous nations” for “the propagation of the Christian empire.”

The Spanish Catholic Mission system that Junipero Serra founded in Alta California resulted in some 150,000 Native people dying in those missions, and yet Pope Francis did not utter one word of sympathy for the dead of the nations in California to whom he said he wishes “to affirm my highest esteem and appreciation.” Someone ought to inform the pope that actions speak louder than words, and it is not possible to esteem and appreciate distinct nations by disrespecting their dead, especially when your own institution unleashed on the planet a system of domination and dehumanization that led to those ancestors’ deaths. If Pope Francis wants to tangibly demonstrate his esteem and appreciation to the Original Nations and Peoples of this hemisphere, he needs to revoke the papal decrees of domination of the fifteenth century.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He is a producer of the documentary movie, The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree).