Pope Francis delivers his blessing at Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta, July 26, 2022 (CNS photo/Paul Haring).

It was not the typical papal visit. Yes, there were the political dignitaries, the popemobile, and the larger-than-usual press corps. But the reason for the visit was different, the tone was different, and Pope Francis was different: he was in a wheelchair for a good part of his July visit to Canada.

He was there to honor a pledge he made in March of this year to the various representatives of the Métis, First Nations, and Inuit communities of Canada who had travelled to Rome to meet Francis personally and to ask on Vatican soil that he come to their soil on Turtle Island. They did so because they wanted him to apologize for the role of the Church in administering the Residential Schools that had been established by the federal government in the nineteenth century with the express purpose of ensuring total Indigenous assimilation into the white Victorian Christian society that was Canada at the time. The schools were in operation between 1869 and 1965, although the final school didn’t close until the mid-1990s. Over that time these institutions housed more than 150,000 children. Of that number, several thousand died while in custody.

At the behest of the government, Canada’s churches were charged with overseeing the residential schools and were funded to that end. Many denominations were involved, including the Anglican Church of Canada, the Presbyterian Church, and the United Church of Canada. But most schools fell under the aegis of the Roman Catholic Church, principally under the control of several religious orders, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate being the primary one.

As Duncan Campbell Scott, an esteemed Canadian Confederation poet and the Deputy Superintendent of Indian Residential Schools, observed in 1910, in response to criticism over the high number of Indigenous children who were perishing in the schools: “It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their resistance to illness by habituating so closely in the residential schools and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages. But this does not justify a change in the policy of this Department which is geared towards a final solution of our Indian problem.” The historical resonances of the phrase “a final solution of our Indian problem” are unnerving if not frightening. Scott certainly saw his task as nothing less than “killing the Indian in the child,” as the first prime minister of Canada, Sir John A. MacDonald, so inelegantly put it.

The legacy of the schools has been a national scandal for decades: intergenerational trauma, disproportionate Indigenous incarceration rates, astoundingly high youth suicides, rampant addiction, inadequate education, poorly maintained reserves for status Indians, appallingly poor self-esteem infecting every aspect of Indigenous life. Canada was shamed into recognizing this sordid history with the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Report of 2015—a chronicle of suffering that was a thorough, unflinching, unqualified indictment of decades of abuse. The government and the churches were severely criticized, and in short order various steps were implemented to provide financial compensation for survivors and the descendants of survivors, along with commitments to educate the Canadian public on the history and scope of what the TRC commissioners identified as systemic discrimination culminating in cultural genocide.

The report contained ninety-four calls to action, among which was a potent summons to accountability by the bishop of Rome. “We call upon the Pope to issue an apology to Survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of First nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools. We call for that apology to be similar to the 2010 apology issued to Irish victims of abuse and occur within one year of the issuing of this Report and to be delivered by the Pope in Canada.”

Indigenous communities saw the appearance of the pope on their land as an historical correction, as he apologized for the Church’s role in running the residential schools and more besides.

The onsite apology didn’t happen in a year—it took another six—and the reasons for the delay are many, the key ones of which I explored in Commonweal in 2021. The tepidity of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ response to the request, the failure of the Catholic Church in Canada to meet its financial obligations—in sharp contrast with its sister churches—and the relentless exposés of clerical abuse in the media combined to damage episcopal authority, outrage lay Catholics, and eventually create national momentum for the pope’s trip that could no longer be resisted or sidetracked.

Francis heeded the request of the Indigenous representatives in Rome, responded positively to the pro forma invitation from the CCCB, set about familiarizing himself with the reality on the ground; he was aware too that for many his Canadian trip would be a test case for subsequent papal travels. The trip was not a state visit; there was no addressing the House of Commons and Senate in Ottawa. Although he was welcomed in Quebec City by Mary Simon, the first Indigenous person in Canadian history to serve as the Governor-General, the Queen’s Representative, and he was twice in the company of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the political class was largely absent. This trip wasn’t about them, and you could feel their collective relief.

But Francis quickly found himself the center of contentious and competing priorities. For many in the Indigenous community, his visit was about bringing some closure to the process initiated by the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement of 2007, which ushered in a new era of political and ecclesial accountability. The prospects emerging from this agreement were promising, and the way forward, although not without its hurdles, eschewed the moral murkiness of past treaties with their broken promises. When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began its work in earnest, it did so in the context of the larger history of Indigenous-settler relations, post-confederation (1867) Canadian expansion, and centuries of neglect by the Crown. It was an ugly history, and an anguished First Peoples’ cry for recognition and reparation was the backdrop for Francis’s visit. Dissatisfied with government prevarication and foot-dragging, the Indigenous communities saw the appearance of the pope on their land as an historical correction, as he apologized for the Church’s role in running the residential schools and more besides.

That “more besides” became a defining feature of the trip and came close to hijacking Francis’s spiritual pilgrimage. What I am alluding to is the centrality accorded the Doctrine of Discovery and calls for its revocation by many in Canada. Heavily controverted by historians, canonists, theologians and moral philosophers, the “doctrine” is situated in the bull, Inter Caetera, issued by the Spanish Borgia pope Alexander VI in 1493. Alexander, largely at the behest of their Most Catholic Majesties of the new Spain granted to the conquistadores—working, of course, on behalf of their monarchs—possession of any lands 100 leagues west of the Azores on condition that they were not already under the jurisdiction of any other Christian ruler. A previous pope, Nicholas V, had likewise offered “full and free permission” to the Portuguese crown to build a Christian empire in regions pagan and Saracen.

The messy politics of crown-and-cross alliances has never been ideal, and these pacts have been effected in circumstances where both parties are seen as mutual beneficiaries. But very early into the 16th century, Rome began to think differently, and with Paul III and his bull Sublimus Deus (1537) there was a radical departure from the Borgia pontiff’s teaching: “We define and declare that said Indians and all people who may be later discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ: and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.”

The venality of kings and the rapacity of viceroys eclipsed the moderating humanism of theologians and preachers.

Fine and noble words, in keeping with the Gospel, but Paul III was swimming against the stream. The venality of kings and the rapacity of viceroys eclipsed the moderating humanism of theologians and preachers like Antonio de Montesinos, Francisco de Vitoria and Bartholomé de las Casas who made compelling arguments advocating for the inviolable dignity of the First Peoples. However, in the end, it was the courtiers and conquistadors who won. They found validation of their behavior in philosopher Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda’s argument that the Indigenous were by nature disposed to servitude. This argument was instantiated in law by the United States Supreme Court in 1823, with Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in Johnson v. McIntosh that Native Americans were entitled to hold a right of occupancy but did not have complete sovereignty over their own land. Canada in turn relied on Marshall’s reasoning and judgment to ensure “exclusive power to extinguish” Indigenous claims and rights within its borders.

Throughout his time in Canada, Francis faced repeated demands that the Doctrine of Discovery be rescinded and done so publicly. The fact that Alexander’s Inter Caetera had been abrogated or rescinded shortly after its initial promulgation and its propositions repeatedly refuted by subsequent pontiffs appeared not to have penetrated media consciousness. In fact, a Statement by the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See at the UN in 2010 made clear “the fact that juridical systems may employ the Doctrine of Discovery as a juridical precedent is therefore now a characteristic of the laws of those states and is independent of the fact that for the Church the document has had no value whatsoever for centuries.” Although this statement and a subsequent detailed analysis provided by the Commission for Justice and Peace of the CCCB—“The Doctrine of Discovery, Terra Nullius, and the Catholic Church: An Historical Overview” (2016)—were essential resources for any enlightened discussion, they were noticeably absent in any exchange, relegated to relative obscurity until the last moment, and then hastily provided to a media that had since moved on.

It was a communications disaster by any definition. Francis himself seemed puzzled by the frenzy, responding to a reporter’s query on the plane back to Rome that if the Doctrine of Discovery is about colonization and its myriad ills, then the Church emphatically rejects it. In addition, he made clear that he accepts that what happened at the residential schools was cultural genocide, although he never used the term in his scripted locutions and homilies in spite of numerous pleas from Indigenous leaders to do so. The advice he received from his Canadian hosts—principally the Archbishop of Edmonton, Richard Smith—appears to have been inadequate. Accompanied by two knowledgeable Canadian Curial cardinals, Francis was well prepared for his spiritual pilgrimage of penance and healing but ill equipped to navigate the tumultuous political and ideological seas.

Yet he charmed and moved the crowds, was honored with a traditional Indigenous headdress, and managed his physical challenges with grace. But as everyone says—regardless of their position and perspective—this papal trip was only the beginning. In the months before Francis’s visit, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland released a report on federally run Native boarding schools, which American Jesuits played a substantial role in operating, and called for a Truth and Healing Commission to examine that history. Francis’s experience in Canada could provide some instructive lessons.

Michael W. Higgins is the Basilian Distinguished Fellow in Contemporary Catholic Thought, University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto, and Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Conn. He is currently writing a book on Pope Francis for House of Anansi Press.

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