Statements by Pope BenedictXVI, the conservative new Catholic pontiff, have reopened some ancient wounds between the church and indigenous peoples.
According to Reuters reports, indigenous leaders in Brazil were offended by the pope’s “arrogant and disrespectful” remarks during his visit. The pope reportedly said the Roman Catholic Church had purified them, and a revival of their religions would be a backward step.
Speaking to Latin American and Caribbean bishops in Brasilia, Benedict said the church had not imposed itself on the indigenous peoples of the Americas. He said they had welcomed the arrival of European priests at the time of the Conquest, as they were silently longing for Christianity.
Silently longing? Not exactly the kind of words you expect to hear coming out of a pope’s mouth. And how exactly would he know that?
The pope must know that colonization was a deeply painful chapter in relations between the church and native peoples in Latin America. It was not uncommon during colonization for priests to bless the conquistadors before they went and massacred natives.
The Vatican has asked forgiveness for the atrocities committed by European colonizers. Pope John Paul II spoke in 1992 of mistakes in the evangelization of native peoples of the Americas. This was taken by most natives as a historic apology.
Benedict’s recent statements caused indigenous leaders such as Dionito Jose de Souza, a leader of the Maluxi Tribe in northern Brazil, to ask, “Is this pope taking back that apology?”
The answer is no. The millions of Catholics, including thousands of Catholic Indians, do not think what the church did to indigenous peoples during colonization was “welcomed” – much less “longed for.” Catholics must tell their leaders the church needs to move forward – not harken to its troubled colonial past.
In New Mexico, where many Indians have converted to Catholicism but still practice their own native religions, it is amazing the leader of the largest church in the state would be so out of touch.
While the Catholic Church is not generally viewed as progressive in many areas, it has been a relentless champion for the disadvantaged, the oppressed and the poor. In many ways, the Catholic Church and its leaders have been the conscience of the international community, challenging richer nations to pay more attention to the rights of minority groups, including indigenous peoples.
Recently, the church has championed basic rights many indigenous people still lack: health care, clean water, housing and nutrition.
John Paul II challenged First World countries to do more for the poor and indigenous people. He tried to be Christ-like in his walks with the poor, the sick, the powerless. And the Catholic Church is better for it.
Church leaders such as John Paul II also made great strides in seeking peaceful solutions to international conflicts, fighting the death penalty and pushing for a more humane immigration policy.
Let’s hope the current pope’s insensitive words in Brazil were more a gaffe than a sign he wants to take the church back to a time when indigenous peoples were seen as barbarians in need of religious conversion, rather than humans entitled to their rights and religious beliefs.
Otherwise, more and more Catholics will continue to “long” for the days when John Paul II was their spiritual leader.
Griego is an Albuquerque writer and former Albuquerque City Council member. The Albuquerque Tribune, Eric Griego