“And make no mistake, the residential schools were first and foremost Christian.” In this, Declan Leary, the author of a particularly discourse-driving article in the American Conservative, got it right. The Canadian residential schools run by the Catholic Church—which killed children by the hundreds and thousands—were Christian. They may have not acted in the stead of Christ. But they were Christian in deed, ritual, and murder.
The rest of Leary’s argument stands outside the boundaries of the Catholic Church, which he is seemingly a part of. They were not good—even if they were Christian.
He writes, “the certain fact that souls were saved by the missionaries, the enduring belief of Christians that the Gospel is true and must be spread, is paramount; everything else is secondary.” The ambiguous noun phrase “everything else” contextually implies the hypothetical genocide—and often sexual abuse—of Indigenous children in the care of the Church. (I use “hypothetical” because he seems to think the children may have died of natural causes despite evidence to the contrary.) “Whatever sacrifices were exacted in pursuit of that grace—the suffocation of a noble pagan culture; an increase in disease and bodily death due to government negligence; even the sundering of natural families—is worth it.” (Italic emphasis is Leary’s, not mine.)
I can’t believe I have to write this but… no, the Native graves weren’t good. They were a crime against the cross. They were mortal sin. The children were precious in the eyes of God—even when forgotten, abused, and neglected by the Church. It’s damningly ironic for a conservative organization like the American Conservative that cares so much about anti-abortion policy to publish something so indifferent to the lives of children taken too soon by someone else’s hands.
The Catholic Church does not teach that the conversion of the Holy Spirit in spiritual life trumps the rights to physical life. Donum vitae, a document with magisterial authority produced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1987), in a text also quoted in CCC 2258, proclaims:
“Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves ‘the creative action of God’ and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can, in any circumstance, claim for himself the right to destroy directly an innocent human being.”
Note the “under any circumstance,” which would by default include missionary compulsion, a form of evangelicalism enforced by the residential schools in the mandatory use of English, forced acceptance of Christianity, and the threat of physical violence for any discretion. The conversion of souls is only “worth it” if the choice is made out of one’s free accord of the will.
The Second Vatican Council’s Dignitatis Humanae likewise reads, “The search for truth, however, must be carried out in a manner that is appropriate to the dignity of the human person and his social nature.” The same magisterial document later adds, “Consequently, to establish and strengthen peaceful relations and harmony in the human race, religious freedom must be given effective constitutional protection everywhere and that highest of man’s rights and duties—to lead a religious life with freedom in society—must be respected.” If it’s a Christian responsibility to protect and allow other religions to thrive, the paganism of the Indigenous must be included. The “suffocation of a noble pagan culture” in exchange for the genetic descendants to be “received into the Church of Christ,” contrary to the American Conservative, would not be “worth it” since such religious and cultural suffocation denies others the freedom of religion that they are entitled to according to the teachings of the Church.
Leary’s argument, in these respects, is clearly postured against the magisterium.
He’s not the first to make such an argument, though. Widely considered the founder of international law, Francisco de Vitoria (1486-1546), in “On the Evangelization of the Unbelievers,” ultimately argued against the idea—with a few caveats—that Christian princes may compel non-Christian subjects to believe.
Using the theology of Thomas Aquinas and other scholastics, Vitoria concluded that 1) of those never of Christian faith, force can never be used against them, 2) they may be forcibly restrained from hindering missionaries, and 3) force can only be used against apostates. To forcibly convert an unbeliever, he determined, was “prohibited by divine law.” While Vitoria’s arguments are dated and harmful in many respects, it’s notable that even in the 15th century some Christian thinkers had figured out a more peaceful and humanistic response to forcible conversion than the American Conservative’s article in July of 2021.
Additionally, from an evangelism perspective, it would cause more harm than good, “which is unlawful,” and would generate hate toward Christianity in the Natives. In this, Vitoria was absolutely correct. The desecration of the Canadian churches was driven by righteous anger as a response to generational trauma, and the proper Christian response isn’t to be quick to anger at the need for a new paint job but rather to recognize the suffering caused by the Church and to protest alongside those hurting. Any other response would also generate more harm than good, which, like Vitoria says, “is unlawful.”
Vitoria’s interpretation of Aquinas is consistent with the Doctor of the Church’s theology. In ST III, q. 68, a. 10, Aquinas answers, “It is written in the Decretals (Dist. xlv), quoting the council of Toledo: ‘In regard to the Jews the holy synod commands that henceforward none of them be forced to believe: for such are not to be saved against their will, but willingly, that their righteousness may be without flaw.’”
The Native graves wouldn’t have been considered “worth it” to Aquinas, a cornerstone to Catholic theology. Moreover, Aquinas responds to the objection that the salvation of the soul is “worth” the murder of the body, precisely the same objection that Leary maintains:
“It is not right to rescue a man from death of the body against the order of civil law: for instance, if a man be condemned to death by the judge who has tried him, none should use force in order to rescue him from death. Consequently, neither should anyone infringe the order of the natural law, in virtue of which a child is under the care of its father, in order to rescue it from the danger of eternal death.”
To translate Aquinas to the present situation, the genocide of the Indigenous people in the care of the Church at residential schools is not worth it.
Since Leary’s article begins with a quotation from Luke 9:51-62, rhetorically setting up his argument with the authority of Jesus’ words, I’ll conclude with words of Jesus that shortly follow the passage Leary elected to cite. Luke 9:51-56 is when the Samaritan village refuses Jesus, his disciples want to burn the village down, and Jesus denies their violence. Despite the Samaritans’ rejection of Jesus, in chapter 10 Jesus tells the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Here, I quote part of that pericope in Luke 10:25-28:
“Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’”
Image: Group of students posing in front of the Brandon Indian Residential School, Brandon, Manitoba / Groupe d’élèves devant le pensionnat indien de Brandon, Brandon (Manitoba) 1946. Public Domain. By Unknown author – https://flickr.com/photos/lac-bac/33304058366/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=106992609.
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Joshua Polanski studied religion and strategic communication at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI. He currently attends Boston University School of Theology, where he is completing a Master of Theological Studies. He was confirmed into the Catholic Church this past Easter.