The Conversation: A Brief History of the Catholic Church and Indigenous Peoples


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The Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican, commonly known as Saint Peter, is seen in a drawing from around 1640. Image: Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA)

The Vatican and Western Canadian Missions

A short story

Monday, July 25, 2022

The conversation

of Pope Francis historic visit to canada and his long-awaited apology for Catholic Church’s role in abuse Indigenous peoples suffered in residential schools raises the question of the overall relationship between the Vatican and Indigenous peoples. In my book Rome in Canada: The Vatican and Canadian Affairs in the Late Victorian Era, I examined how lobbies based on competing interests within government, church officials in Canada, and the Vatican itself functioned in an era of expanding colonial powers and Catholic evangelization. Today, the Catholic Church is still considered a tightly centralized organization under absolute papal authority. In fact, it’s a where competing interests often compete for influence and power. For example, in the three decades following Confederation in Canada (1867), “an aggressive Anglo-Saxon nationalism struggled to imprint its cultural model on the emerging Canadian state.” The greatest source of tension in the Church in Canada was that between Francophones and Anglophones. Conflicts have erupted over the linguistic aptitude of candidates for episcopal office, the creation of new dioceses, the appointment of pastors in ethnically mixed parishes, and the language of instruction in Catholic schools. In these struggles, people on the pews challenged religious authorities, priests and bishops fought each other, and religious communities divided along linguistic lines. The Vatican had to intervene in some of these issues, but the Roman bureaucracy itself was divided into competing factions over the correct course of action. My research into 19th century missions and Vatican diplomacy leads me to conclude that, despite the complexities of structure and authority within the Catholic Church, the Vatican was certainly not involved in the agreements signed between the Government of Canada and the religious orders and was probably unaware of them. to run the boarding schools. While the federal government must take ultimate responsibility for establishing and funding residential schools, religious communities, bishops, and popes have been variously complicit in a system that dispossessed Indigenous peoples and cruelly oppressed their children.

Dispossession justified by the Church

At the dawn of the 16th century, a Spanish pope, Alexander VI, creates a bull (edict) Inter cetera which paved the way for the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. This divided the New World between Spain and Portugal, the two most powerful maritime states at the time. No thought was given to the native inhabitants of the hemisphere. The bull validated the subsequent rampant exploitation of European expansionism, and is one bull often associated with the “Doctrine of Discovery”.“It is therefore appropriate than an Argentine popePope Francis, repudiates the document of his predecessor.

The “propagation of the faith” in the 19th century

As mission territory, the lands that became Canada fell under the jurisdiction of a department of the Vatican, Propaganda Fide (Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith). This was created in 1622 and headed by a cardinal with the help of clerical bureaucrats. Following major administrative reforms instituted in 1908, dioceses with large Aboriginal populations such as Mackenzie-Fort Smith (in present-day Yellowknife) or Hearst-Moosonee (in northern Ontario) continued to be under its dominance, while the non-Aboriginal those who broke away from it.

Early evangelism

The actual task of evangelization has been undertaken by religious communities, like the jesuits, who were responsible not to Propaganda Fide, but to their own superiors often residing in Rome. After the British conquest of 1763, male religious orders were virtually eliminated and it was not until the 1840s under Ignace Bourget, Bishop of Montreal, that they returned. Meanwhile, in 1820, Rome appointed a French-Canadian resident bishop at Red River (now Winnipeg). Bishop Norbert Provencher was also responsible for the missions in Western Canada. The Anglican Church sent its own workers there and was soon joined by other Protestant denominations. Short of personnel, Provencher went to Europe where he met Eugene de Mazenod, bishop of Marseilles and founder of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate who played a key role in the West. Alexandre-Antonin Taché, an Oblate from Quebec, succeeded Provencher in 1853. Taché ensured that the French and Belgian Oblates would monopolize the appointment of bishops for the remainder of the century west and north of the Red River. Ever since female religious communities were recruited in Quebec to staff schools and hospitals serving Indigenous communities, the Catholic Church had a decidedly Francophone character.

Assimilate indigenous peoples

At the time, we wanted to make British North America the image and likeness of the motherland “. This meant two things: confining French-Canadian influence to Quebec and ensuring the complete assimilation of Aboriginal peoples. The first goal found ready allies among mainstream English-speaking Catholics who chafed at their second-class status within the Church where French Canadians made up nearly three-quarters of its membership. Some Catholics of Irish descent considered themselves invested with a special mission: it was believed that Providence had willed that the Irish should become converting tools through the English language. This contrasted with The providential mission of French Canada who saw the French language as inextricably linked to the Catholic faith, a bulwark against ungodly North American materialism. These two visions clashed in Canada, where one by one the Western dioceses fell into the hands of the Anglophones, and in Rome, where the Irish party exploited to its advantage the prospect of mass conversions of North American Protestants to Catholicism where the English language was key.

Darwinist social views

Shaped by the racist 19th century Darwinist social views which focused on the demographic decline of Indigenous peoples and their eventual demise as distinct peoples, Ottawa forced acceptance of the Treaties numbered on The native populations of the prairies who were die of starvation as a result of the shot disappearance of the buffalo. The Indigenous Peoples Atlas of Canada notes that a major role in the disappearance of the bison was “US government policy to deprive indigenous peoples of an essential food source. The federal government also instituted the residential school system in an effort to “kill the indian in the child.“

Pope Francis pauses in front of a memorial honoring residential school survivors in Maskwacis, Alberta on July 25, 2022, during an official visit to Canada. Photo: The Vatican

Governments, religious orders

For a small fee, these orders ran boarding schools, 60 percent of which were Catholic. It is likely that the diocesan bishops had a low appreciation of the functioning of these establishments, most of them being located far from their place of residence. Meanwhile, successive governments, obsessed with cost-cutting and austerity, cut grants, which severely affected the physical, mental and moral well-being of students. Religious communities, bishops and popes have been variously complicit in a system that has devastated generations of Indigenous children and caused intergenerational trauma. Residential schools and papal bulls justifying the fallacious doctrine of Discovery call for concrete acts of atonement and reparation from the Church.The conversation

Roberto Perin is professor emeritus in the Department of History and the School of Public and International Affairs. at York University in Canada.

This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.


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