· Vatican City ·

Interview with Cardinal Michael Czerny

The Church rejects all words and actions that do not recognise human dignity

 The Church rejects all words and actions that  do not recognise human dignity  ING-013
31 March 2023

The formal Note on the “Doctrine of Discovery” is the result of a process of dialogue and listening demanded by the Pope, which does not want to deny the “unfortunate steps” of the past, but to recognise them and place them in their historical context and also highlight their effects on the present.

In an interview with Vatican Media, Cardinal Michael Czerny, sj, Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, sums up the Joint Statement on the “Doctrine of Discovery”, published on Thursday, 30 March 2023. He says that the Holy See and the Canadian and American bishops really want this Note, which regrets what happened, to help healing and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

Can you tell us, why has the Holy See decided to publish this note on the so-called doctrine of discovery?

The Holy See has published a statement, a joint statement, on this Doctrine of Discovery, first and foremost, because the Indigenous people of Canada and the United States have asked for it. They have asked for it over the years, and they asked for it again when the Holy Father was there last year.

When I say “they,” obviously I don’t mean everyone, but there have been calls, repeated calls, insistent calls to please clarify this, you might say, this historical thorn in the side. But it’s important also to notice that the Indigenous people of Canada have been asking for a formal statement, and so the declaration is a formal declaration. If you would like to hear a pastoral response, you won’t find it in this declaration. In that case, you would go back to the pastoral statements of Pope John Paul ii and Pope Francis when they visited Canada.

Or, allow me to remember that in Bolivia, in July 2015, I was there when the Holy Father, repeating John Paul ii, asked the Church to kneel before God and implore forgiveness for the past and present sins of her sons and daughters, the many grave sins committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God during the so-called conquest.

Can you tell us, then, what was the scope and significance of the three fifteenth-century Papal Bulls in which the Popes granted colonizers the supposed right to take possession of the lands and goods of Indigenous peoples, and why do some scholars consider those documents to be the basis for the Doctrine of Discovery?

Now we call these things “Bulls,” and that sounds like a very strong and important name. But it just means that it’s a statement with a seal on it. It’s an official statement. It doesn’t mean that it’s an official teaching; it’s just a statement, like any head of state would emit — a kind of a decree might be a modest word for it.

So at the time, the Popes were not only the Popes, you might say, of the Catholic Church, but they were also rulers of much of Italy. And in that role, you might say, as both Pope and head of state, the Popes were trying to maintain the peace amongst the other rulers who were all, more or less, Catholic. And so in this case, the Pope was trying to prevent war and maintain order between Spain and Portugal, who were going to be at loggerheads in their attempts to colonize western Africa and North and South America.

And so the Bulls kind of say, “Well, you can do it here and you can do it there.” Whether the Pope had the right to do that or not is another question, but politically, in that sense, he was trying to be helpful, trying to avoid the war. It wasn’t a few years later that the bulls became obsolete, as happens with a decree. And within a few years, the Pope was, let’s say, “singing a different tune.” He was upholding the rights of the native or Indigenous peoples because, in fact, the colonizers were not just, you might say, colonizing, but they were exploiting, they were abusing, they were enslaving, they were persecuting, and so on. So that’s how we can understand the Bulls in their context, and, in a certain sense, that they were meant to play a certain role. And soon the content of them was, you might say, reversed.

While I’ve tried to mention very quickly the history, that’s not the main purpose of the declaration. The declaration isn’t trying to set the historical record straight, so much as to help the Church, the members of the Church — and indeed all the citizens of Canada, the United States — to recognize what of that sad history, in fact, is at work today. And that’s what motivates, you might say, the passion and compassion behind this statement: to help us all to face — and when I say “all,” I mean both the Indigenous people and those from elsewhere. Not because it’s historical but because of its effects today.

The Papal Bulls speak about domination, subjugation, taking land, they talk about enslavement. How do you move forward from a legacy like that? Is this present response adequate?

When there’s a legacy of hurtful language, going forward is a bit complex because, while it might seem best just to forget about it and carry on, that doesn’t really heal. On the other hand, to spend all our time digging around in the past to find out who said what to whom and how guilty are they of that, isn’t healing either.

So I think what the process in Canada, the public process and the Church’s process in Canada, is inviting everyone to do is to enter into dialogue so that, about these tense and painful subjects, there is mutual listening. And really mutual listening. It’s not just that the Indigenous people need to speak, but the more recently non-Indigenous arrivals also need to speak.

And we need, in that sense — and I think this is one of the achievements of the Holy Father’s visit — we need to learn how to talk about colonialization today. And this is something I don’t think we… certainly when I was a kid growing up, we never thought of that. We read about it as history, but we never thought it could possibly be going on now. Now we realize it goes on.

And we — everyone involved — need to talk… I should start, I’m sorry, everyone involved needs to listen. And after we’ve listened and listened and listened, then maybe we can begin to talk.

And then can you explain a bit further: when historically did the Catholic Church affirm the inviolable rights of the Indigenous peoples?

Well, it took a few years. These Bulls are from the late 1400s and, early in the 1500s, the language and the teaching and the response were already changing. But it’s a long and complex history and this is not the only long and complex history of the development of rights language. If you compare how the Church spoke about this particular issue, the question of the Indigenous peoples in the new colonies, with the language that it used at the same time about women, about children, about Jews, about non-Catholics, that was pretty horrendous, too. So there was a style of speaking and thinking which was much more polarizing, much more aggressive, much less respectful, that was typical of the time.

So where do we find ourselves today?

If you’re interested in how the history evolved, maybe one of the ways of expressing the Church’s commitment today is to mention the principles in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which the Holy See and the Church in Canada and in the United States have been vigorous in supporting.

So this is exactly the contrast that we need to appreciate: the difference in language between the 1500s and the 2000s, and that, while you can be sorry for, and we are very sorry, for how we spoke in the 1500s, I think when we ask the questions today, we have to say, well the language we’re using today is what we would find, for example, in the UN Declaration, which the Holy See has been vigorous in supporting and promoting.

And Your Eminence, you mentioned the Holy Father’s journey to Canada in July of last year, July 2022. Can you tell us, what effect did the Pope’s visit to Canada have on these issues?

I think that you could say that the Pope’s visit in 2022 brought balm and attention to these issues. On the one hand, the issues got raised because, when the survivors of the residential schools shared their testimony with the Holy Father, they were, in effect, telling him how colonization, which is, you might say, a thing of the past, was at the roots of their enormous personal suffering, so, shedding the light on the effects of colonization today.

At the same time, it also made everyone more aware of the history. And so when the request came, which has been coming for years now, to please formally clarify and please formally repudiate these unhappy declarations or statements, well this, you might say, this motivated the effort that we are talking about today.

And maybe one way of summing up the real message, the real meaning, is that on the flight back from Canada the Holy Father condemned — and now listen to this not with historical ears, but with today’s ears, yesterday in today’s ears; and each person listen for themselves — the Holy Father condemned in the strongest terms any imposition by one culture over another.

We’re not talking history now. We’re not talking history now. And he stressed not only the rights, of Indigenous peoples, but also the many blessings and gifts, and graces that flow from their place in our various societies.

By Christopher Wells