105. Against the Doctrine of Discovery: Papal apologies
105. Against the Doctrine of Discovery: Papal apologies

105. Against the Doctrine of Discovery: Papal apologies

Last week’s post examined Pope Benedict XVI’s message to commemorate the centenary of Lacrimabili Statu in 2012. The documents examined in the past all show how the popes denounced the slave trade and the abuse of indigenous peoples. However, none of these documents officially apologise for the Church’s role in indirectly validating the initial exploitation. Nevertheless, these began changing, particularly from Pope John Paul II. Today’s post examines papal apologies from Pope John Paul II to Francis. 

On his apostolic visit to Cameroon in 1985, Pope John Paul II said: “In the course of history, men belonging to Christian nations did not always do this, and we ask pardon from our African brothers who suffered so much because of the trade in blacks.”[1]

On his visit to Gorée Island in Senegal in 1992, Pope John Paul II affirmed:

The visit to the “house of slaves” reminds us of the Black trade, which Pius II, writing in 1462 to a missionary bishop who was leaving for Guinea, called an “enormous crime”, “magnum scelus”. During an entire period of the history of the African continent, black men, women and children were taken to this small place, torn from their land, separated from their relatives, to be sold there as merchandise…How can we forget the human lives annihilated by slavery? It is necessary that we confess in all truth, and I humble this sin of man against man, this sin of man against God…From this African sanctuary of black pain, we implore heaven’s forgiveness. At the same time, we must oppose new forms of slavery, often insidious, such as organised prostitution, which shamefully exploits the poverty of third-world populations.[2]

On his visit to the Dominican Republic to mark the 500th anniversary of the evangelisation of Latin America, Pope John Paul II said:

May the awareness of the pain and injustices inflicted on so many brothers and sisters be, in this Fifth Centenary, a propitious occasion to humbly ask forgiveness for offenses, and to create those conditions of individual, family and social life that allow an integral and just development for all, but in particular for the most abandoned and disinherited. I am reminded of those words of St Turibius de Mogrovejo, Patron of the Latin American Episcopate, in which he declares himself deeply saddened because ‘not only in the past have so many offenses and so serious been committed against these poor Indians, but also in our day many continue to do the same.’”[3]

Pope Benedict XVI, in his weekly audience, after he visited Brazil in 2007, affirmed,

Certainly, the memory of a glorious past cannot ignore the shadows that accompany the work of evangelisation of the Latin American Continent: it is not possible, in fact, to forget the suffering and the injustice inflicted by colonisers on the indigenous populations, whose fundamental human rights were often trampled upon. But the obligation to recall such unjustifiable crimes – crimes, however, already condemned at the time by missionaries like Bartolomé de Las Casas and by theologians like Francisco de Vitoria of the University of Salamanca – must not prevent noting with gratitude the wonderful works accomplished by divine grace among those populations in the course of these centuries. [4]

Pope Francis has given the most direct and passionate apology. This is unsurprising since he is from Argentina and has had first-hand knowledge of the current exploitation and effects of the past exploitation of indigenous tribes. In his visit to Bolivia, the pope said:

“Some may rightly say, “When the Pope speaks of colonialism, he overlooks certain actions of the Church”. I say this to you with regret: many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God. My predecessors acknowledged this, CELAM, the Council of Latin American Bishops, has said it, and I too wish to say it. Like Saint John Paul II, I ask that the Church – I repeat what he said – “kneel before God and implore forgiveness for the past and present sins of her sons and daughters”. I would also say, and here I wish to be quite clear, as was Saint John Paul II: I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the Church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America. Together with this request for forgiveness and in order to be just, I also would like us to remember the thousands of priests and bishops who strongly opposed the logic of the sword with the power of the Cross. There was sin, a great deal of it, for which we did not ask pardon. So for this, we ask forgiveness, I ask forgiveness. But here also, where there was sin, great sin, grace abounded through the men and women who defended the rights of indigenous peoples.[5]

In his response to the apology, Adolfo Chavez, a leader of a lowlands indigenous group,  Indigenous tribes said: “We accept the apologies. What more can we expect from a man like Pope Francis?”. “It’s time to turn the page and pitch in to start anew. We indigenous were never lesser beings.”

On 1 April 2022, Pope Francis apologised to the indigenous tribes of Canada for the Church’s role in forcefully assimilating children of indigenous tribes into European culture. In his apology letter, Pope Francis said:

I also feel shame. I have said this to you and now I say it again. I feel shame—sorrow and shame—for the role that a number of Catholics, particularly those with educational responsibilities, have had in all these things that wounded you, in the abuses you suffered and in the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values. All these things are contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God’s forgiveness and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry. And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your pardon. Clearly, the content of the faith cannot be transmitted in a way contrary to the faith itself: Jesus taught us to welcome, love, serve and not judge; it is a frightening thing when, precisely in the name of the faith, counter-witness is rendered to the Gospel[6].

Two months after this apology, he visited Canada to apologise to the indigenous tribes personally.

May God continue to help us🙏🏾


[1] John Paul II, Meeting of John Paul II with Catholic Intellectuals and Students in Cameroon, 13 August 1985, 7, available at URL: https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/it/speeches/1985/august/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_19850813_intellettuali-yaounde.html (accessed 13/06/2023).

[2] John Paul II, Meeting with the Catholic Community of the Island in the Church of San Carlo Borromeo, 22 February 1992, 3, available at  https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/it/speeches/1992/february/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_19920222_isola-goree.html (accessed 13/06/2023).

[3] John Paul II, “Mass for the Fifth Centenary of the Evangelisation of the Continent and for the Canonisation of Blessed Ezequiel Moreno Y Díaz”, 11 October 1992, 9, available at URL: https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/it/homilies/1992/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_19921011_v-centenario.html (accessed 13/06/2023).

[4] Benedict XVI, Speech at General Audience, 23 May 2007, available at URL: https://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2007/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20070523.html  (accessed 13/06/2023).

[5] Francis, “Address of the Holy Father at the Second World Meeting of Popular Movements, 9 July 2015, 3.2, available at URL: https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2015/july/documents/papa-francesco_20150709_bolivia-movimenti-popolari.html#_ftn5 (accessed 13/06/2023).

[6] Francis, Audience with Delegations of the Indigenous Tribes of Canada, 1 April 2022, available at URL: https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2022/04/01/220401e.html (accessed 13/06/2023).

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