Righting Vatican’s Wrongs: When is an Apology not Enough?

Photo from Walking Together website papalvisit.ca by Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops


Editor’s Note: This week’s guest contributor, Tim Leadem, lives in British Columbia off the coast of Vancouver. In April, he wrote a post about the atrocities in Canada brought about by the residential schools of the Catholic Church. Today he reflects on the Pope’s recent visit with the indigenous people of Canada to apologize. 

Pope Francis’ recent penitential pilgrimage and visit to Canada to meet with indigenous communities and to apologise for the role of the Catholic Church for abuses sustained by children in residential schools was a step forward.  It was long overdue.  Over the course of several days the pontiff traveled to various sites and expressed his heartfelt remorse over the past wrongs that Catholic clergy and laity had committed over the course of the 100 plus years that residential schools have operated in Canada.

The reaction of the indigenous communities was mixed.  While some were grateful for the apologies and acknowledgement, others felt that the Church had not gone far enough. There were no concrete plans for how the wrongs could be redressed in the context of reconciliation. 

Moreover many wanted the Pontiff to rescind a Papal Bull from 1493, Inter Caetera,[1] which had divided the “new world” into Portuguese and Spanish spheres of sovereignty.  Back in those early days of European voyages of discovery, Pope Alexander VI drew a longitudinal line that effectively gave Spain control over much of the Americas while Portugal received the lands to the east of the line including Brazil. 

The papal bull was an instrument to avoid war between the two Catholic countries.  However, its effect was to discount entirely the rights of the inhabitants of those lands described in the document and forms the basis for what is known as the Doctrine of Discovery.  “Discovery” of the lands granted some form of ownership over the land to the country that set foot upon the soil that had been already inhabited by the indigenous people for centuries.  The discovery process usually involved a planting of flags or crosses to signify that the land was being claimed by the Church and State.  Even after the Catholic Church went through the Protestant reformation, the Doctrine of Discovery held sway with various Catholic and non-Catholic Countries such as Britain, Netherlands, France and Denmark who claimed vast swaths of land.  Many of those lands are still controlled by the colonial power.

The whole period of colonisation of the discovered lands is a sad one.  The result is that the original inhabitants in some cases entered into treaties that were unconscionable by anyone’s definition of that term.  Land was ceded for settlement by colonists in return for blankets, trinkets and other such items.  The mindset of the indigenous leaders who entered into these treaties was not taken into consideration by the makers of the treaties. The colonial power that entered into the contract thought they were getting land; it is unclear what the various aboriginal communities thought was going on.  No colonial power really took the time to explain what was meant when the chiefs placed their marks upon paper documents.  Instead years later we now have treaties and reserved lands in much of North America.  There are a number of legal cases to determine the meaning and extent of what was done way back then.

But leaving the Bull for the time being, one has to wonder if the Pontiff’s apologies which were genuine go far enough. Without actions that follow up such apologies with definite steps for reparation and reconciliation, words alone too often can ring hollow. 

So the visit is over and the first steps have been taken.  The pope has agreed that what the Church did in the sorry episode of residential schools was to contribute to genocide of indigenous communities[2].  These are powerful statements.  And the momentum for significant change is here.  To take advantage of that momentum, the Catholic Church should embark upon a detailed and concrete path that leads to true reconciliation.  This path must involve reparations and remediation.  The Church is a wealthy organisation.  It should share some of its wealth with those indigenous communities that need assistance with their living conditions on their reserve lands, and funds for counselling and treatment for indigenous survivors of the residential schools.  Additionally, the Church should repatriate items of cultural and historical significance that it has acquired from indigenous communities.

The Church should use its power in positive ways to back the claims of indigenous communities not only in Canada but elsewhere in the world for true justice.  It would be a true indicator of its clear and honest resolve going forward to witness the Catholic Church aligned on issues with the indigenous communities rather than be an opponent on lawsuits and claims to redress past wrongs.  In the past, the Catholic Church has consistently relied upon lawyers and the law to resist calls to deal with its past wrongs whether it be residential schools or abuses committed by Catholic priests. 

When an apology is tendered by someone, the usual next step in this process is for the recipient to forgive the perpetrator.  In order to do so, however, there must be some time to assess that the apology is more than mere words.  A repudiation of Pope Alexander VI ’s Inter Caetera would go a long way to convince the indigenous communities around the world that the Vatican, too, wants justice for indigenous peoples.

[1] The full English translated text of Inter Caetera may be found here https://www.papalencyclicals.net/Alex06/alex06inter.htm

[2] These comments were made to members of the media on his way back to Rome.  See:https://globalnews.ca/news/9028012/pope-francis-apology-advocates-response/


  1. sally mac

    The Papal Bull should have Sh#t added to its full name….
    We are still living with the consequences of Alexander’s hubris 500+ years later.
    Francis is left at the end of the parade, trying to clean up the mess.
    Both he and Alexander, full of good intentions….

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Sally for weighing in on how the “sins of our fathers” haunt us and the need to be aware and work for reconciliation. Peace, Tom