”Arrogant.” ”Disrespectful.” ”Poorly advised.” These harsh words were not aimed at an unpopular president; not this time. They are the criticisms by Indian leaders in Latin America of Pope Benedict XVI, who again made headlines for culturally insensitive and historically inaccurate remarks.
About this time last year the pope stirred international controversy when he characterizing the Prophet Mohammed as having spread Islam by the sword in an ”evil and inhuman” manner. On May 15 he declared that the Roman Catholic Church had not imposed itself on the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Pope Benedict continues to stir up controversy wherever in the world he lands. But this particular papal idiom cannot be attributed to or excused as simple ignorance. There is an element of intent in the pope’s recent remarks that should anger, and mobilize, indigenous people throughout the world.
In a speech at the Conference of the Latin American and Caribbean Episcopate, the pope characterized pre-contact Indians as ”silently longing” for Christianity and stated that ”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.” It may be the most blatantly erroneous statement about the Christian legacy on indigenous cultures ever uttered.
Not only did the pope’s comments exhibit an ever-increasing general arrogance that aims to deny the rights of indigenous peoples around the world but, in this rare case, they came straight from the source. Millions of tribal people died as a result of the institution of the 15th century Inter Caetera papal bulls that provided legal justification for European colonization of the Native people of the Americas (including Brazil where Benedict spoke) and Africa. Then, Indians were slaughtered, enslaved or exposed to deadly diseases. Now, Native survivors of Christian colonization efforts suffer its traumatic generational effects: a diminished ability to relate to and practice traditional life ways, social exclusion and learned sexual abuse. If this does not qualify as an ”imposition” on the culture of indigenous peoples, what does?
Last year’s controversy was sparked by the pope’s suggestion at the University of Regensburg in Germany that Islam was spread through violence and that it was ”contrary to God’s plan.” It seemed fair at the time to give him the benefit of the doubt for misspeaking. ”He could clarify that the inherent rationality to which he referred … is a property of all humanity, not solely of Europeans,” we stated. ”We have no doubt that this was the true intent of his remarkable lecture. But if he is through apologizing to Muslims, perhaps he could now explain himself to the indigenous peoples of the world.” It is certain that our charitable view of that situation did not serve the legions of indigenous people who are now offended by suggestions that cultural decimation is considered ”purification” by the Church and its most revered leader.
The Vatican has for years largely ignored the valid request by indigenous peoples and their representatives to rescind the papal bulls and the ”doctrine of discovery” they inspired. And just days before his visit to Brazil, the country’s Indians appealed to Pope Benedict to express solidarity with them and acknowledge their struggle against the government’s encroachment upon their territories. They referred to a ”process of genocide,” which no doubt began with the arrival of European Christian crusaders. It is agreed then that the pope is fully aware of the indigenous position on the lasting legacy of Christianity as a colonizing force. Ignorance is no excuse. The comments were more an indication that the Church’s knowledge of indigenous cultures has not evolved much since the days when Natives were thought by Catholic monarchs to be heathens empty of a guiding spiritual force, in need of enlightenment.
It may be futile to demand an apology from the Church’s highest leader, but it is imperative that the indigenous voices continue to rise in protest after the controversy dies down. The public display of outrage (and credible threats of violence) by the Muslim world last year garnered a mea culpa by the pope, who said he was ”deeply sorry.” It is now time the Vatican, as a religious authority and political nation-state, acknowledges the cost of Christianity on the indigenous people of the world. Perhaps a statement from Pope Benedict recognizing the inherent sovereignty of Indian tribal peoples as reiteration of this theological tradition would be a good, first step toward making amends.