Pope Benedict: Ignoring Cultural and Religious Oppression in the New World

News Abroad

Mr. Miller is a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School, the chief justice of the Grand Ronde Tribe, and an Eastern Shawnee. He is the author of Native America: Discovered and Conquered.

News reports demonstrate that Pope Benedict is ignoring history and the violent cultural and religious oppression of indigenous peoples around the world by European Christians. Speaking to Latin American bishops in Brazil on May 13, the Pope cited the "rich religious traditions" of Indian people but added that their ancestors were "silently longing" for Christ and seeking God "without realizing it." Pope Benedict further demonstrated his misunderstanding of history and the forced conversions of natives in North, Central and South America and of massacres and "just wars" when he suggested that the Church did not impose itself on indigenous peoples and that Christianity had not been detrimental to them and their cultures. "In effect, the proclamation of Jesus and of His Gospel did not at any point involve an alienation of the pre-Columbus cultures, nor was it the imposition of a foreign culture." Benedict also added that a return to indigenous religions "would be a step back."

In sharp contrast to Benedict's comments, Pope John Paul noted in 1992 the mistakes that were made in the conversion of the native peoples of the Americas. Moreover, President Bush, while speaking on Sunday at the 400th commemoration of the Jamestown settlement, lamented the negative effects that European colonization had on the Indian tribes in Virginia. President Bush apparently would not agree with Pope Benedict's comments that native cultures were not injured by European colonization and evangelism because Bush stated: "The expansion of Jamestown came at a terrible cost to the native tribes of the region, who lost their lands and their way of life."

Not surprisingly, Pope Benedict's comments angered Indian leaders in Brazil. This is understandable, especially in light of the fact that several Indian groups had written the Pope just last week asking for his help in defending their lands and cultures. Jecinaldo Satere Mawe, a spokesman for Coiab, an Indian rights group in Brazil, called the Pope's comments "arrogant and disrespectful." A spokesman for the Makuxi Tribe, Dionito Jose de Souza, said the Pope was trying to erase the "dirty work" of colonization. Another Indian leader, Sandro Tuxa, called the remarks "offensive, and frankly, frightening."

Some Catholic priests who support Indian rights were also upset by Benedict's comments and Cimi, the Brazilian Church's Indian advocacy group, was distancing itself from the Pope's statements. An adviser to Brazil's Indian Missionary Council, which is supported by the Church, stated that the Pope's comments show he is "Eurocentric" and is ignoring the fact that Indians were forced by Portuguese and Spanish settlers to become Catholics. This adviser noted that the Pope must have "missed some history classes."

The Pope also ignored the history of papal bulls from the Fifteenth Century that divided the world for conquest and conversion by the Christian kings of Portugal and Spain. In 1436 Pope Eugenius issued Romanus Pontifex authorizing Portugal to convert the Canary Islanders and to control their islands. This bull was reissued by various popes and granted Portugal jurisdiction and geographical rights over infidels along the west coast of Africa. In 1455, Pope Nicolas even authorized Portugal "to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans," to place them into slavery and to take their property. Furthermore, after Columbus' report of a New World and Spain's claim to ownership, Pope Alexander VI issued three bulls in 1493 that confirmed Spain's title because the New World had been "undiscovered by others" (thus ignoring the known presence of indigenous people). Pope Alexander also granted Spain any other lands it might discover in the future provided that they were "not previously possessed by any Christian owner." Even more extravagantly, Pope Alexander later issued Inter caetera II and divided the world by a line drawn from the North to the South Pole and granted Spain title to all lands to be discovered west of the line to contribute to "the expansion of the Christian rule" and granted to Portugal all lands east of that line. Consequently, the world was divided up for European and Christian domination. This is exactly what followed. This is the history that Pope Benedict has overlooked in making his comments.

Since at least August 2006, various American Indian groups have called for the Vatican to withdraw these bulls and to repudiate this history of religious and Eurocentric oppression. That request now seems unlikely to even be considered in light of Pope Benedict's comments about the imposition of Christianity on the indigenous people of South America.