Papal Excuses: The indigenous were asking for it.

I don’t have the time to comment on this as well as I should. But I think it’s worth pointing to:

Pope’s Opening Address for Latin America and Caribbean ‘Aparecida’ Conference.

It gives me great joy to be here today with you to inaugurate the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, which is being held close to the Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida, Patroness of Brazil. I would like to begin with words of thanksgiving and praise to God for the great gift of the Christian faith to the peoples of this Continent.

The problems here are fairly obvious, I think. It’s a frustrating follow-up to his comments on the excommunication of pro-choice legislators in Mexico City.

Comments (19)

  1. Katie

    Thanks to Luke’s wonderful link to an Onion article in response to a post, I think I’ll follow suit.

    Vatican Rescinds ‘Blessed’ Status Of World’s Meek

  2. lukelm

    “…the proclamation of Jesus and of his Gospel did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbus cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture.”

    Was that before or after the whole enslavement and genocide thing?

  3. carl

    Unbelievable. One massive step backwards for the Catholic Church.

  4. carl

    The more I hear about this story, the more I’m just blown away by the sheer extent and audacity of historical ignorance displayed by Pope Benedict in these comments. I don’t think the Catholic Church will feel the end of this one for quite some time, unless there’s a major apology forthcoming (which the Church is not known for). A couple more links:

  5. Rick

    “the indigenous were asking for it”??? I think the Holy Father’s address was SLIGHTLY more sophisticated than that.

  6. j alan meyer


    Don’t let sophistication blur the message:

    Christ is the Saviour for whom they were silently longing. It also meant that they received, in the waters of Baptism, the divine life that made them children of God by adoption; moreover, they received the Holy Spirit who came to make their cultures fruitful, purifying them and developing the numerous seeds that the incarnate Word had planted in them, thereby guiding them along the paths of the Gospel. In effect, the proclamation of Jesus and of his Gospel did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbus cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture.

    “Silently longing”? In what sense is that not simply a way to say they were asking for it?

  7. Rick

    my apologies. At 2 in the morning I wasn’t thinking very clearly and given the tenor of the posts on this board (“unless there‚Äôs a major apology forthcoming, which the Church is not known for”) I interpreted the title of this post as just a cheap shot against the Church, and took offense. From a Catholic perspective, the pre-Columbus peoples were longing for Christ because they were human beings, and all human beings long for Truth, as St. Thomas says. We’re hardwired for it, so to speak. Now, we should be ashamed of how that Truth was presented to the indigenous peoples often times (though certainly not all the time), but the Holy Father is standing pretty firmly in the Tradition when he speaks of an innate longing for Christ being present in humanity (the “seeds of the Word” imagery is used by St. Justin Martyr and a number of the other Church Fathers).

    Carl, it’s likely that many will remember John Paul II’s pontificate for his readiness to do exactly what you say the Church never does.

  8. carl

    hi Rick,

    You won’t find “never does” in my comment. I said the Church is not known for readiness to make major apologies, which I think is hard to argue with.

    Indigenous people have also quite reasonably requested a formal retraction of the 16th century papal bulls that blessed European monarchs to conquer, dis-possess, and enslave the heathens of the New World. Nothing but silence from the Vatican in response.

    John Paul II did make some valuable beginning steps towards apology to indigenous peoples in the early ’90s, which makes it doubly sad to see the current Pope rushing headlong in the other direction.

  9. DevanD


    I will, for the moment, take for granted your argument that the Pope stands within Catholic tradition (i.e., indigenous were “silently longing” for Christ). The papal bulls that carl refers to above are described in more detail here::

    If I take what you say as true, if the indigenous were longing for Christ, I must ask you: Were they shown Christ? Was the Gospel proclaimed? Or were they shown the sword? Was imperialism proclaimed?

    In regards to the statement that the proclamation of Christ was not “an imposition of a foreign culture”: I would like to hear from you, Rick, if you think this actually holds its weight. If it is not imposition of foreign culture, then how do we account for the vast number of indigenous who no longer speak their formerly native tongues? Was that the transforming power of Christ as well (He wants us all the speak English, Spanish, and Portuguese)? Or was that colonization, alienation, and dispossession?

  10. eric (Post author)

    Also taking for granted your argument that the Pope stands within Catholic tradition (and I’m sure he does) – it might beg the question: Is that a good excuse for anything, especially this sort of dismissal? Is that a tradition he really ought to stand in?

  11. Brian Hamilton

    Can we be just slightly charitable? Acknowledging that this pope seems to have a penchant for misspeaking rather disastrously, he’s neither ignorant nor malicious. Shortly after the speech in question, he insisted that “it is not possible to forget the sufferings and injustices inflicted by the colonizers on the indigenous population, whose fundamental human rights were often trampled upon.” Rather than glossing over the very real injustices, Benedict simply wanted to “confirm the Church in Latin America and the Caribbean in their walk of faith that has been and still is a living history–as we see in popular piety, art, in dialogue with the rich pre-Columbian traditions as well as numerous European influences and influences from other continents.” Unless we aim to condemn the entire Christian heritage of Latin America as imperial leftover, which would itself be an outrageous insult to the fervent faith of so many South American Christians, we have to make some distinction between the proclamation of the gospel as itself the evil–which a great many South Americans, being Christians, would dispute–and the mode of proclamation, which was almost always a mode of violent repression. The distinction is flimsy, of course, since the two are in practice inseparable, but it must nevertheless be made. It is not the good news that wreaks havoc, but our failure to tell it properly. And the good news has a way of being good even when we don’t live up to it. I don’t think Benedict would say anything more (or less) than this.

    I don’t think that lets Benedict off the hook, though. He should at least apologize for being insensitively clumsy.

  12. DevanD


    I’m having a hard time understanding exactly what it was that Benedict was trying to say. He first says that the church has been “in dialogue with the rich pre-Colombian traditions”. He says also “they [the pre-Colombian peoples] received the Holy Spirit who came to make their cultures fruitful.” That does not sound like he thought their traditions were “rich” as he says – they needed the Holy Spirit for that to occur, in his view. Or not? He said they were “rich” too!

    What is he saying?

    I agree with you Brian that he should apologize for being “insensitively clumsy”. I, however, am getting a bit tired with us being so charitable to our religious leaders – nonetheless the Pope – who often speak within a culture of privilege and Eurocentrism and say terribly ignorant things. Read the former Cardinal’s notes on Liberation Theology:

    He may acknowledge the need for the statements made the the Latin American Bishops – but then he goes on to blast the basis upon which such documents were written.

    Also, I don’t think the mode of proclamation and the proclamation can be separated nor can we speak of them separately. Let’s speak earnestly here Brian – in what sense can the distinction be made? Proclamation IS THE MODE, Christ is the truth. It would seem hard for me to see the truth of the reconciling and redeeming power of Christ when it is being proclaimed to me down the barrel of a gun.

    I find it very problematic that a white European (Benedict) attempts to speak to – and of – the Latin American experience; one should necessarily tread lightly, and he failed miserably at that by tip-toeing around until he could find a place to stamp his feet.

  13. Brian Hamilton

    I think Benedict was trying to affirm the rich diversity of the South American Catholic church, whose experience and expression is amazingly unique–overwhelmingly different from its European forms–precisely because the good news has spread there within a different cultural heritage, beautiful in itself. Without denying (or calling attention to) the despicable elements of imperialism that in too many places accompanied evangelism, Benedict is talking to the South American Catholics as people who freely accepted the Holy Spirit, who came not to destroy the cultures but “who came to make their cultures fruitful.” Benedict is affirming and encouraging indigenous influence on the church, not suppressing it. He’s also speaking to the South Americans as real people who have genuinely adopted their faith, rather than speaking of their faith as a by-product of European expansion. Does that clarify at all what Benedict was saying?

    I think it’s true that Benedict should have called attention to the violent history in order to repent of it publicly; I think it was destructive to think he could talk about the evangelization of South America without mentioning that history. But, again, I don’t think Benedict was being malicious, and I think his points were actually quite profound.

  14. eric (Post author)

    I don’t buy it for a second, Brian. If Benedict meant to be “encouraging indigenous influence on the church, not suppressing [them]” he would have said that. What he said was the opposite. There is no way his comments make sense outside a concept of religious colonization. He distinctly talks down to pre-columbian cultures, traditions, and spirituality. He also clearly denies that colonization.

    How do you call this “not denying (or calling attention to) the despicable elements of imperialism”:

    the proclamation of Jesus and of his Gospel did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbus cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture.

    I do not believe that you have to downplay the imperialist history in order to respect the current believers. And I don’t believe that the Catholic authorities do respect the beautifully unique cultural elements of the Latin American Church. In fact, as Devan points out in relation to liberation theology, it is often the features most unique to the Latin American Church that the Catholic authorities fight most strongly against.

    I would argue that affirming and encouraging today’s church (indigenous influences and all) requires (as Oscar Romero had) a much stronger sense of injustice and the history of western domination. Anything else is privileged whitewash and hardly relevant to the marginalized of the church.

    It’s very charitable of you to twist the Pope’s words – but I think it is fairly clear from this statement (and other writings of his) what tradition he stands in and what direction he is pushing the church. Having so much (white European) power, he should be held to much higher standards of respect and communication than you expect from him.

  15. Rick

    hey folks, fascinating blog you have here.

    Carl, my apologies for putting words in your mouth. I can’t speak for the Vatican on why Romanus Pontifex has not been retracted. There could be any number of reasons, ranging from the inability of that massive bureacracy known as the Curia to get things done in a timely manner to the authoritative weight of the document itself (I, admittedly, do not know much about Romanus Pontifex, and I’m not going to look to Wikipedia for an education on it). Sorry, I don’t have the answer for you.

    “colonization”, “dispossession”, “alienation”…those are very pointed words. To answer your question, I would say without hesitation that the indigenous people did indeed see Christ. I have all the evidence I need of that by looking at the great saints of Latin America (indigenous and European) – Rose of Lima, Juan Diego, Martin de Porres, Bartolome de las Casas, and the list goes on. Yes, the pre-Columbian peoples saw Christ despite the worst efforts of the Europeans. God worked in the messiness of human existence as usual. I think Brian addressed this very well (and I touched on it in my second post), so I’ll leave it at that.

    To say that Christ was proclaimed at the end of a gun barrel is an oversimplification. Attrocities were committed quite frequently of course (Which has been well-established in this post, and over which both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have expressed sorrow) but there’s much more to the story: Bartolome be las Casas’ “A Brief Relation of the Destruction of the Indies”; ordinances promulgated by Isabel and Charles attempting to crack down on the ensalvement and mistreatment of indigenous peoples; moral theologians throughout Catholic Europe (most notably the great Thomist Francisco de Vitoria) defending the rights of the indigenous. Not as simple as conversion at the end of a gun.

    Anyway, I have no intention of becoming a regular contributor on this blog. I fit like a square peg in a round hole here. Just wanted to offer a few words in defense of the Holy Father (as if he needs my words).

  16. Rick

    p.s. Brian, I see you’re a student at Notre Dame? Do you know Spencer Daniel? He’s a grad student at ND.

  17. Brian Hamilton

    I’m starting to doubt whether you read anything more than the first two paragraphs of that address, Eric. While Benedict is by no means apologizing for having sent missionaries (is this what he’d have to do to stay outside a concept of religious colonization?), virtually the entire address is aimed at affirming and engaging the unique contributions and situation of the South American church–a uniqueness which, he says, stems precisely from the encounter between indigenous cultures and the gospel. This includes, note well, their emphasis on “the God who is close to the poor and to those who suffer.” It also includes many other things, like a deep devotion to the saints, especially the Aparecida, and a rich range of popular devotions. Liberation theology is not the only or most unique contribution of the South American church, as Benedict knows quite well.

    As for your muted sneer regarding my suggestion of charity (pardon me if I’m reading sarcasm where none was intended), I only meant that we should not presume ill-will or outrageous historical ignorance before actually hearing someone out. Charity in listening doesn’t mean making someone say something we like when they’re not, it means believing that they mean what they say, that they’re being honest and forthright. It won’t always be true, but it’s a sign of our generosity and hospitality (rather than habitual misanthropy) that we assume it’s true until proven otherwise.

    Rick, thanks for mentioning folks like las Casas and Vitoria. These people are our visible reminder that even at the worst times, Christian witness was not synonymous with colonialism. I am at Notre Dame, and I know Spencer quite well; we’re working on the same degree. Where do you know him from?

  18. Rick

    we both were/are involved with Dominican Volunteers USA. He was my predecessor at Casa Juan Diego Youth Center in Chicago. He’s a good guy; he had some great “survival tips” for me as a first year volunteer working in a mostly Latino parish. Tell him I said hello if you bump into him.

  19. carl


    Benedict chose to open his speech (whether malevolently or ignorantly) by
    a) minimizing and denying any suffering that indigenous people might have suffered at the hands of Catholic missionaries and their accompanying conquistadores
    b) justifying the essential rightness of Catholic conversion of the indigenous (without mention of method), and
    c) admonishing indigenous people against the “step back” of “breathing life into pre-Columbian religions.”

    Nobody forced him to take the angle he did. Given the history and overall (continuing) impact of Christian colonization on real indigenous communities in North and South America, choosing to take that tack in the opening paragraphs IS either malevolent or grossly ignorant, regardless of the content of the rest of his speech. The immediate reaction from actual indigenous leaders (even Christian ones) bears that out.


    “colonization,” “dispossession” and “alienation” are pointed words. They’re also pointed realities, and to this day there are kids committing suicides in very real indigenous communities as a direct result of the continuing effects of those pointed realities.

    All histories are complex, and there are counter-cultural heroes like Fray Bartolome throughout history. Believe it or not, the existence of a few historical counter-examples does not change the very real effects of the overall trend of Christian colonization of the New World, which was precisely dispossession and alienation, uncomfortably pointed though you may think it.

    I highly recommend supplementing your reading of Pope Benedict with a glance at Rev. Dr. George Tinker’s book, “Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide”. From the description at “George Tinker probes into U.S. mission history to pierce the romantic veil of most history writing and show how four of the most noted Christian missionaries, men of the highest moral character, the best of intentions, and sincere commitment to the gospel, confused gospel values and European cultural values, often with lethal results.” (Note that Tinker, an Osage, ordained minister, and Iliff professor, writes in Missionary Conquest about missionaries with stated values more like Fray Bartolome’s than conquistadores or encomenderos).

    From my experience, I think Tinker’s comment that many indigenous communities could use a “hundred-year moratorium on Jesus” is closer to the mark than Benedict’s “profundities.”

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