The reporting on Pope Francis’s “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada late last month was, for the most part, extremely favorable in the Catholic press but somewhat more ambivalent in both Native American and secular Canadian outlets. At times the reportage almost seems to be about two different sets of events because compared to the coverage in Catholic media, the latter set of outlets had a much more urgent, worried, and unsettled tone.

One thing that we must consider when looking at different perceptions of the Pope’s journey is the issue of – for lack of a better word – “unpleasability.” Certain sectors of Native American and First Nations society, as with other societies that have been badly hurt by policies associated with or implemented by the Catholic Church, have no interest in reconciling or entertaining apologies from Pope Francis (or from anybody else who might plausibly be in his position). In a way, people have every right to feel like this. There’s no moral obligation to simply move on from profound hurt or to jump back into trusting people or organizations that have badly betrayed your (individual or collective) trust in the past. In particular, younger Native Americans often perceive Catholicism extremely negatively in an almost Manichean way. This is a phenomenon that is not unique to Native Americans or to Catholicism but part of a broader zeitgeist on the political left rejecting liberal notions of tolerance and pluralism in favor of a stark, though secular, good vs. evil view of the world. (The essayist Wesley Yang has referred to this zeitgeist as the “successor ideology,” which is a useful term despite intense controversy over some of the things that Yang suggests when he uses it.)

Manichean or not, this is, again, a set of perceptions that it makes sense for somebody to have. However, it creates an issue of audience—an apology is, by definition, not “for” people who are simply not willing to accept it. What, though, of the criticisms of those who were, or even who still are, receptive to some aspects of Pope Francis’s visit and the contrition that Pope Francis expressed, but were disappointed in other aspects? These people exist too, bad-faith commentary suggesting otherwise from the non-Native press notwithstanding.

Two areas of concern came up again and again in coverage of the visit and a strong case can be made that they warrant a response. The first is Pope Francis’s failure to explicitly connect the issue of the residential schools to the issue of sexual abuse. Francis expressed contrition for both separately during the visit to Canada. However, his specifically residential-school-related apology delivered in Maskwacis, Alberta seems to have intentionally omitted sexual abuse from the categories of abuse he named. Sexual abuse was left out even though it was specifically mentioned by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission among the offenses for which they asked the Church to apologize. The reason for this omission is unclear and thus it is difficult to justify, or even to know whether or not justification is even possible.

The second area of concern, about which there is slightly more to discuss and which has more shades of gray, is the lack of an explicit repudiation of the “doctrine of discovery”, the bull Inter caetera, and so forth.

The “doctrine of discovery” is a concept parachuted into international law from the justifications used by European Christian monarchies to colonize lands outside of Europe. It isn’t one particular document; rather, it functions as an umbrella term for many interconnected and related concepts, statements, and ideologies. It became relevant in North American politics when the 1823 United States Supreme Court case Johnson v. M’Intosh resulted in a statement by Chief Justice John Marshall that the rationale used to allow those European powers to lay claim to foreign land could be used on American soil with regard to indigenous peoples. That case continues to be relevant in United States judicial rulings to this day, usually regarding the right of the government to overrule or ignore indigenous sovereignty. It’s often viewed within the US and Canada as an extension of Age of Exploration policies like Pope Alexander VI’s papal bull Inter caetera, rather than a distinctly American idea.

As a result, and possibly because of the influence of American politics and its widespread rejection of Catholicism, North American indigenous peoples tend to treat the  bull and other specifically-Catholic justifications as part of the same phenomenon as Protestant and secular actions taken against their sovereignty. This is almost certainly why a banner reading “Repeal the Doctrine of Discovery” was unveiled at one of Pope Francis’s speeches by Canadian First Nations onlookers, and why online conversation in many Native American circles focused on that “doctrine” as a key point that they wanted Pope Francis to address.

However, a strong argument can be made that the idea of a unified “doctrine of discovery” is held primarily by North American Anglophones. Spanish-language uses of the term focus on the 1823 Supreme Court case rather than on Inter caetera or preceding European ideas and motivations, and Spanish discussions of colonialism focus on different points and critiques than English ones. This may be why Pope Francis didn’t speak on the issue directly — not only is it a term that seems to exist outside the languages he speaks fluently, but he has made many statements in the past explicitly rejecting the idea that North American concepts and philosophies should dominate global discussion.

Despite this legitimate reason for not directly addressing the “doctrine,” Pope Francis’s silence on Inter caetera is still disconcerting. Unlike other actions against indigenous peoples, this bull is a specifically Catholic declaration, and is therefore the responsibility and burden of later generations of Catholics. The silence and implied ignorance regarding this issue is hard to accept and its impact is twofold. First, the parts of Catholic press and social media who feel that this apology is good enough may cite its omission as proof that remaining problems do not matter. Secondly, indigenous people (particularly indigenous Catholics) who feel that there must be a more direct apology are now in the awkward position of having to speak up in circles that are less amenable to critical discussion now that the tour is completed and that believe, therefore, that the wrongdoings of the Church have surely been addressed.

Despite these omissions, Native Catholics in particular gained much from Pope Francis’s visit. It is difficult to be a North American Native and a Catholic. Catholicism never took hold among North American Natives as strongly as it did in Mexico and points south. This means that practitioners are associated both with a largely white European religion and with a religion that did irreparable harm to their own communities. An oft-repeated observation in many Native Catholic circles is that both Native communities and white settler communities are uncomfortable spaces, as the former are often hostile toward Christianity in general and observant Natives in particular, while the latter expect the cultural identities and generational traumas of Native Catholics to be subsumed under the unifying identity of “Christian.” But North American Native Catholicism exists, and is alive and well, and for that living tradition, Pope Francis’s apologies and visit are extremely important.

Problems with the apology aside, the Pope—old, with increasing mobility issues, and bearing many other responsibilities—did take great pains to make it there. This is meaningful, on the level of sheer hospitality, to the Native leaders who hosted him and honored him with ceremonial regalia. Alberta is a long haul from Italy even compared to Toronto or Montreal — Nunavut even more so. If nothing else, Francis visited Canada and attempted to make amends despite the inconvenience and while suffering physical pain. Especially for many older Natives, the physical act of the gesture says at least as much as the words of the papal apology itself.

The visit also developed the way in which the Church acknowledges past wrongs, at least to an extent—it’s still “bad apples,” but bad apples systematically involved in a morally unconscionable project. The introduction of institutional responsibility is an important step. No longer is the Church presented as a “perfect society” that can never be implicated in any collective or institutional way.

And with that now openly acknowledged, not only has Pope Francis begun the process of a long-overdue reconciliation toward a community upon whom the Church visited great harm, he has opened the door to other discussions and apologies that may be called for in the future. That, we think, is enough to call this visit a success and perhaps the beginning of greater healing on all sides.


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Meredith Dawson is a Catholic convert living in the Midwestern United States. She is a Cherokee Native American and an independent Tolkien scholar.

Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.

The Canada Apology Tour: Opportunities Missed, Opportunities Met
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