Maxima Culpa

Catholic complicity and Canadian residential schools
A child’s red dress hangs on a cross near the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia, June 6, 2021 (CNS photo/Jennifer Gauthier, Reuters).

On May 24, 2021, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in the Canadian province of British Columbia announced that it had located the bodies of 215 children, some as young as three years old, buried in unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. In the weeks that followed, ground-penetrating radar found still more buried children at sites across Canada, including the recent discovery of 751 children’s bodies at the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. Because there were more than 130 such schools in Canada, it’s expected that the coming weeks and months will reveal many more unmarked graves.

“Residential schools,” the Canadian euphemism for boarding schools that separated Indigenous children from their families and communities, were designed to take away Indigenous language and culture—“to kill the Indian in the child.” These schools existed from the late nineteenth century until 1997, and about 70 percent of them were operated by Roman Catholic missionary orders and dioceses. Residential schools were not only explicitly imperialist in their aims, but, unsurprisingly, were the sites of much emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. The trauma caused by the system is still felt by survivors and their communities. The 2015 report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that the residential school system amounted to “cultural genocide.” The questions that all Canadians are now asking about restitution and reparations to Indigenous people are thus especially urgent for Roman Catholics—including what responsibility we the living have for sins that, in some cases, were committed centuries ago.

In thinking about all of this, I keep returning to Dante’s Inferno, especially what it teaches us about responsibility and culpability. The odd trait uniting the souls in Dante’s hell is their refusal to accept that they deserve to be there. In Canto III, the first thing the pilgrim hears from the damned is them “cursing God, cursing their own parents, / the human race, the time, the place, the seed / of their beginning, and their birth.” This pattern continues through the Inferno; from the deceitful lovers Paolo and Francesca, who blame their reading of Lancelot for their infidelity, to Lucifer himself, who weeps in self-pity, those eternally punished are marked not only by a refusal to repent, but also by a denial that they sin. By foregrounding this evasion of culpability as the distinction between salvation and its absence, Dante shows pride as a longing for a world that operates according to our will rather than God’s. To curse your age, rather than to humbly acknowledge your failure to respond to it in Christian charity, shows that you’ve become closed off to your dependence on God’s love.

Those eternally punished are marked not only by a refusal to repent, but also by a denial that they sin.

Dante the Pilgrim needed to learn the same lesson about Christian humility that we do today: we are sinners and need to repent, and our own efforts are not enough to undo the wrongs that we’ve done. At the same time, this humility must be accompanied by a frank acknowledgement that we have the freedom to abandon our sinful ways and the hope that we can be redeemed. Dante’s depiction of hell honors this freedom by giving people what they think they want; it is their pride that keeps them from recognizing that God has better plans for them, and that eternal punishment means being faced with the consequences of our own stubborn refusal to admit our guilt.

It’s difficult to see ourselves as complicit, let alone guilty, for being born in a certain time and place—to accept responsibility for actions that seem merely historical to us. In the case of the settlement and colonization of North America, the ancestors of the Europeans are, in a limited way, right to say we’ve done no wrong. But the same spirit of honesty should compel us to acknowledge the brute fact that we continue to benefit from the ongoing devastation of Indigenous peoples involved in the creation of countries like Canada and the United States. Given the role of the Church in the genocide of Canada’s Indigenous peoples, Canadian Catholics need to ask ourselves a rather Dantean question: Do we, like those in Inferno, curse our contingent historical situation, or own up to our limited, but real, complicity even in situations not of our own making? When we deny our participation in the evils of settler colonialism, we attempt to evade culpability in just this way: we want the benefits of this “new” world without owning up to the evils required to take it and make it. We posit an ahistorical Church, a world in which we get to choose our origins. Recognizing this is not the case is offensive to the pride that says I’m not sinful unless I really mean to be.

Nobody digs an unmarked grave because they think they’re beyond reproach. The tepid response of the Canadian bishops and Pope Francis to these revelations is thus especially vexing. While some dioceses and religious orders have cooperated with ongoing investigations into the residential school system, the Vatican has so far been reluctant to share records about the schools. Moreover, while the archbishops of Vancouver, Regina, and Montreal have apologized and offered aid, other Canadian bishops and cardinals have not only failed to do so, but have also adopted a defensive posture. Pope Francis issued a statement expressing “closeness to traumatized Canadians,” but the words “sorry” and “apology” are conspicuous in their absence. In an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Cardinal Thomas Collins expressed doubt that a “big and dramatic thing [like a papal apology] is the way forward,” emphasizing, instead, the importance of a quiet, pastoral approach. Surely good pastoral work can be quietly done to help reconcile with Canada’s Indigenous peoples, but those people—and many of the faithful in the Canadian Church, Indigenous and settler alike—think an apology is a prerequisite to begin the work of building a relationship of trust and mutual respect. It is good news that Pope Francis now seems willing to meet with Canadian Indigenous leaders, but that does not substitute for a forthright apology.

The scandal of our refusal to reconcile with Canada’s Indigenous peoples has thrown the Gospel into ill-repute where and when it is most needed.

That the issue of an apology should be the sticking point is and is not difficult to understand. There is an obvious desire to avoid the potential legal and financial liability entailed in an apology, and the Roman Church’s complex ecclesiology further complicates locating guilt in the Church qua Church. As Massimo Faggioli noted to the CBC, from the perspective of the Church hierarchy, an apology would only generate demands for more apologies: “And you know what happens the day after they announce that? Australia and Africa and every place else wants an apology, too. So when do you stop? The problem is, as they see it, it’s never enough.” But wondering whether apologies are necessary and sufficient seems thoroughly beside the point. Indeed, the issue of how to judge Catholic involvement in colonialism is not particularly difficult to discern; a 1537 Apostolic Brief by Pope Paul III to Cardinal Juan Pardo de Tavera declared automatic excommunication for the “enslavement or despoilment” of Indigenous Americans. Addressing some of Canada’s Indigenous peoples in Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories, John Paul II, who had his own encounter with Soviet imperialism, condemned “physical, cultural and religious oppression, and all that would in any way deprive you…of what rightly belongs to you.” Although the material interests of the Church are surely part of the story, the explicit and implicit question for Canadian Catholics inside and outside the Church hierarchy is about responsibility—and this is precisely the place where the richness of Catholicism’s understanding of sin and salvation is most apposite.

As Canadians grapple with the legacy of settler colonialism, the Church should be able to draw upon its theological, pastoral, and material resources to aid in reconciliation. The good news is precisely that even our most grievous faults do not put us beyond the reach of redemption. But who wants to hear that from the Roman Catholic Church? The scandal of our refusal to reconcile with Canada’s Indigenous peoples has thrown the Gospel into ill repute where and when it is most needed. In Laudato si’ and elsewhere, Pope Francis repeatedly denounces a “throwaway culture,” but what more striking evidence could we find for this culture than a nominally Catholic school system that discarded the bodies of children in unmarked graves? Pope Francis has offered stirring criticisms of the “new colonialism” of globalization, but these criticisms lose their verve if we fail to acknowledge our role in the “old” colonialism, which, as it happens, is inseparable from the new one. The issue is not whether a repudiation of colonialism betrays the missionary character of Christianity; it is that the Christian mission is compromised by the failure to repudiate colonialism.

The Sunday after the revelations at Kamloops, I was at Mass with my four daughters, reciting the Confiteor, admitting I’ve sinned both by what I’ve done and what I haven’t done. As I struck my breast, and watched my older daughters do the same, I thought of the children in the unmarked graves—how could I not?—and it struck me that this frank communal acknowledgment of our failings was real and good, but also a signpost for where we should go next. A friend once told me that Christianity was an answer to a problem he was not sure existed: sin. If anything, what we are seeing now in Canada is how even sometimes well-meaning actions can be evil. To acknowledge the sins done in the name of our Church, and to model repentance and restitution for this sin, is not a betrayal of the Church. It is our only option for living the Gospel.

Published in the September 2021 issue: 

Matt Dinan is an Associate Professor in the Great Books Program at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada.

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