Pope Francis’ July 9, 2015, request for “forgiveness” for “crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America” indicates how far and fast the discussion of Christian complicity in colonial domination has moved—spurred by mounting critique of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery.
In 1993, when Birgil Kills Straight, Steven Newcomb, and Maria Braveheart Jordan sent an “open letter” to Pope John Paul II calling for revocation of a 500-year old papal bull underlying the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, their move seemed quixotic. Many people acted as if colonial-era documents were somehow irrelevant in today’s world.
Now, about a generation later, revocation of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery has developed from a quixotic project into a widely understood target in the movement to free Native peoples from continuing effects and programs of colonial domination. In the U.S., for example, the Doctrine of Christian Discovery underpins federal Indian law to this day.
Pope Francis did not mention the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, but he did go further than Pope John Paul II, whose “apology” in the year 2000 blamed individuals, rather than the church itself, for violence against Native peoples and others. Francis asked forgiveness “for the offenses of the Church herself.” Notice, too, that Francis spoke of “crimes”; he did not limit himself to the softer rhetoric of “sin.”
Pope Francis also contributed to an important clarification about the role of church doctrine in colonization when he referred to the “so-called conquest” of America. As the U.S. Supreme Court stated in its 1823 decision, Johnson v. McIntosh, the Doctrine of Christian Discovery serves as a “pretension” of conquest. Whereas actual conquest carries legal implications of a justifiable dominance, the Doctrine of Christian Discovery is justifiable only to those who place religious discrimination against non-Christian “heathens” at the foundation of law.
According to the New York Times, Francis’ “apology for the church’s complicity in the colonialist era received an immediate roar from the crowd,” which was made up of “nearly 2,000 social activists, farmers, trash workers and neighborhood activists” in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.
The roar from the crowd echoes events of the Tupac Amaru rebellion against Spanish rule in Peru more than 200 years ago. But it leaves questions about what will happen next.
How will Native people who consider themselves Christian respond to the critique of Christian colonial domination? Will they rest satisfied with a papal request for forgiveness? Or will they insist that a request for forgiveness must be followed by action demonstrating real change, such as a papal revocation of the offending papal decrees?
Many people have criticized the planned canonization of Junipero Serra, the 18th century monk who was a driving force in Spanish colonization on the west coast of North America. Serra organized the effort of temporal and spiritual conquest of Native peoples in “New Spain.” He was responsible for much evangelical violence in the name of Christ as he corralled forced Native labor to fill Spanish demands for tribute and treasure.
Will Christian Natives be able to see that Junipero Serra cannot be a “saint” if what he did was a “crime”? Will Christian Natives raise their voices to challenge the canonization and to see “sainthood” for Serra as a continuation of the very acts for which Francis and other popes have asked forgiveness?
Will more Christian Natives call on the church to take the next steps after requesting forgiveness and officially revoke the 500-year old papal bulls that authorized violence and domination against Native peoples?
The history of Indigenous resistance to Spanish colonialism in South America leaves doubt about the ability of Native peoples to overcome allegiance to the church in their struggle for self-determination.
When Tupac Amaru began his campaign against Spanish rule in 18th century Peru, he believed the church would support his movement to free Incan peoples from the oppression of colonial officials and landowners, who kept whole communities of Native peoples in slave conditions. Tupac Amaru’s initial demands for an end to Spanish domination were often made from the steps of churches, where he called upon his followers to respect priests while challenging secular authorities.
Despite the willingness of some local priests to work with Incan leaders, the church hierarchy took an antagonistic role. Bishop Moscoso of Cuzco ordered priests to preach against Native forces. Moscoso took a leading role in assisting the Spanish military response to the rebellion. He excommunicated Tupac Amaru, in an effort to portray him as a heathen rather than a hero.
When Tupac Amaru realized the highest church authorities were not sympathetic and were plotting with secular officials to destroy the Incan rebellion, he was bewildered. The excommunication angered and dismayed him as it undermined support among Natives, who distanced themselves from the rebellion and even joined Spanish militias.
In a recent book—”The Tupac Amaru rebellion”—author Charles F. Walker writes: “Highly religious, the…rebel leaders could not conceive of a world without the Church and could not come up with an effective plan to silence” church leaders like Bishop Moscoso.
Walker writes: “the greatest, or at least most unexpected, challenge faced by the rebel leaders [was] how to reconcile their religiosity…with extensive counterrevolutionary efforts by…the Church….”
Today, critics of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery are in the ascendant, reaching even the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, whose “Study on the impacts of the Doctrine of Discovery” calls for “mechanisms, processes and instruments of redress” for Indigenous Peoples.
As Newcomb wrote, Pope Francis “has taken an important first step toward revoking the papal bulls of empire and domination.” Newcomb deserves enormous credit for helping lay the groundwork for that step. He followed his role as co-author of the 1993 “open letter” with a 2008 book, Pagans in the Promised Land, laying bare the ongoing Christian religious foundation of U.S. federal Indian law.
Pope Francis seems aware of the unsustainability—or at least unacceptability—of regimes based on the pattern of Christian domination. It remains to be seen whether the church—its leaders and its lay members—are up to the task of building a world without such patterns.
Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.