Pope Francis gave a speech in rural Canada this week to a mostly indigenous audience. He apologized for the abuses of Catholic boarding schools, specifically for “the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the indigenous peoples” and “in particular, for the ways in which many members of the church and of religious communities cooperated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.”
In other words, Pope Francis apologized for Catholic missionaries going out into the wilderness to teach Native Canadians. Despite being the leader of the Catholic Church, he echoes the arguments of many of the relativist secular left, believing all cultures and religions to be more or less equal and deserving of equal regard. In line with this argument, he takes a dim view of proselytizing and favors dialogue — except when it comes to working with the traditionalists in his own church.
Beyond the usual progressive platitudes, Pope Francis was obviously seeking to apologize for the the much ballyhooed scandal behind the recently discovered gravesites of so many indigenous students who attended some of Canada’s Catholic boarding schools. Many leftist news sites and advocacy groups immediately concluded that these institutions committed mass murder and covered it up. Soon after, this story prompted many cases of arson and vandalism against Catholic churches in Canada.
However, for all the attention it received, no one actually knows the specifics of what atrocities were supposedly committed. No one has has found any bodies, and no one could say whether they were victims of abuse or neglect. Seven months after the discovery, Federalist Senior Editor John Daniel Davidson noted the utter lack of evidence to suggest the church was hiding bodies for nefarious purposes: “Not a single corpse has been exhumed from the site since then. No human remains, of children or anyone else, have been found and confirmed as a result of the radar search.” This is still the case six months later.
Nevertheless, Pope Francis still thought it would help to apologize. He evidently believes this will help with healing and might redeem the Catholic Church’s image. Moreover he could conveniently use this occasion to signal his disapproval of colonialism and approval of indigenous cultures, much like he did with his ridiculous Amazon Synod a few years ago.
Unfortunately, not only is the pope wrong on all of this, but he has this all backward. Rather than heal, this admission of guilt and wrongdoing will only provoke more grievances and calls for reparations. And rather than prove to the world just how progressive the church has become, his speech will show just how regressive the church still is. While there are times when a Christian leader should apologize, this was not one of those times.
With church attendance collapsing and basic truths being forgotten, it would’ve been far more appropriate for Pope Francis to loudly acclaim the missionary efforts in Canada and call for more such activity. These were men and women willing to go into wilderness often facing gruesome death and torture from hostile tribes. They were willing to help bring a largely stone age society into the modern age, equipping them with the tools to prosper and reach their potential. And they weren’t motivated by money or honor — on the contrary, as Declan Leary explains, their schools were criminally underfunded and unsupported — but by a desire to save souls and save lives from what most people today would consider a brutal and undignified way of life.
There’s no shame in recognizing that this was an effort to assimilate indigenous cultures to the West, and it’s a postmodern mistake to equate assimilation with the full-on cultural erasure. In an excellent essay discussing the anti-colonial activism of recent years in Canada and Australia, Helen Andrews explains that in Canadian schools, “assimilation was not premised on the assumption that Indian culture was worthless. Many schools offered classes in Indian crafts; [one teacher] employed the nationally celebrated Winnebago artist Angel De Cora as an art teacher.” To their credit, the teachers preserved what they could, even when it wasn’t much: “[Some indigenous students] did not have to be assimilated in the sense of knowing which fork to use, but they should know what a fork is.”
Nevertheless, assuming for the sake of argument that blatant crimes were committed and this campaign to teach and civilize indigenous peoples amounted to cultural genocide, what should have happened when European Christians encountered these native tribes? Should they really have left them alone to live out their days in the wilderness? Or, should they have done what Canada, the U.S., and Australia do now and dump money on them in perpetuity in return for using the land that they claimed? Frankly, if there’s anything to apologize for, it’s exercising this latter option which has left so many indigenous people to languish listlessly in these dysfunctional reservations.
Instead of trying to save face, Pope Francis could have saved the work and reputation of so many Catholics doing the thankless work of civilizing communities and bringing them into the larger community of Christendom (what would later be know as “the West”). This was real charity, not the hollow leftist advocacy of today’s activists (caught so well in Babylon Bee’s recent headline, “Pope Prepares for Meeting with Elizabeth Warren”.
Acknowledging the good done by past Christians would be the very thing to bring about healing. The people who are truly hurt by cultural disenfranchisement and destruction won’t be cured by a hefty welfare check and an apology from the pope; they will be cured by having faith in God, cultivating virtue, and building up a community based in truth and freedom, not lies and dependency.