Ancient papal bulls gave European explorers carte blanche ‘to invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ, to put them into perpetual slavery, and to take away all their possessions and property’.
According to the Economist, attention is now being focused on the 15th century bulls, collectively known as the Doctrine of Discovery, because the Canadian government wants the Pope to apologise for the role played by the Catholic Church in the systematic abuse of indigenous children.
Although this was a government programme, between 1883 and 1996 churches ran the 139 residential schools. Priests and nuns of the Roman Catholic church controlled the majority of them.
Seven years ago Stephen Harper, then Conservative Prime Minister, apologised on the Government’s behalf to the 150,000 children and their families for the brutal attempt to wipe out their cultures.
Then on December 15, Justin Trudeau, the new Liberal Prime Minister, apologised again, saying the “abhorrent” system represented:
One of the darkest chapters in Canadian history.
And he called for an apology from the Pope himself.
No words of regret, though, have been expressed by the Church’s national body in Canada. It has refused to apologise on grounds that a decentralised structure leaves this duty to individual dioceses. Some, however, have apologised.
But Catholic foot-dragging over payment of their agreed share of the $1.4 billion settlement of a class-action lawsuit by former students prompted the federal government to take the dioceses to court.
Said the Economist:
This would seem egregious enough to merit a papal pronouncement; Mr Trudeau is speaking up now because of a promise he made during the recent election campaign to implement all 94 recommendations of the truth-and-reconciliation commission set up as part of the settlement agreement. Its final report was delivered on December 15th.
By 2014, commission had determined that more than 4,000 of the school children had died in residential schools that failed to keep them safe from fires, protected from abusers, and healthy from deadly disease.
That figure was based on partial federal government records, and commission officials expected the number to rise as its researchers got their hands in future months on much more complete files.
Trudeau may have some luck getting papal action on recommendation “58”, which calls on Pope Francis to visit Canada and apologise to former students, their families and communities for:
The Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools.
The Economist said that Pope Francis seems open to acknowledging the church’s past sins. He has apologised to the victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland and asked forgiveness during a trip to Bolivia last July for the church’s role in the sins of colonialism.
Where Trudeau will run into greater difficulty is implementing recommendation “45”. It calls for a new royal proclamation (Canada is a constitutional monarchy) that among other things would repudiate two concepts based on the 15th-century papal bulls.
This, explained the Economist, is “much trickier ground”. The 15th-century bulls crept into national and international law and underlie the legal existence of English-speaking settler states such as Canada, the US and Australia.
Some indigenous groups have long called for the Vatican to repudiate the offending bulls. Some theologians suggest this might have been done in 1537, though the proof is hazy. Those advocating a repudiation say the doctrine is still very much alive.
A group of Canadian and American native chiefs are planning to march to Rome from Paris in May to petition the Pope in person. It is unclear what the legal impact would be if either the Pope or Trudeau publicly repudiated the concepts.
The Economist concluded:
Neither seems likely. The Pope’s speech in Bolivia provided a perfect opportunity to do so if he was so inclined. He will have another chance if he accepts the invitation of the Quebec government to visit the French-speaking province in 2017 on the 375th anniversary of the founding of Montreal. (The Prime Minister’s office has yet to issue an invite.) But the last word from the Vatican is that a trip to Canada is not currently contemplated.
• Top picture shows First Nations activists taking part in the Walk for Reconciliation in Vancouver, BC, in September 2013. Photo: Darrel Dyck/The Canadian Press/AP. Source Aljazeera America.
Hat tip: Dave