A poke at the Pope

I recently criticised Mattias Desmet for recycling – or actually elaborating for himself – a myth that Jesuits burned Native Americans at the stake in order to convert them. He did this through careless scholarship, but in a popular work that is likely to ensure the myth gets repeated until it becomes established fact.

En passant, I mentioned the recent furore over supposed unmarked mass graves of “First Nation” Canadian children being found and attributed to the murder of hundreds, or thousands, of kids forcibly removed from their parents by Catholic schools.

The whole things rests on some dubious geophysics anomalies at what may, or may not, be an old burial site. But not a single body has been found, despite a couple of years passing and a national scandal. The site has not even been dug, as far as I know – an odd lapse, don’t you think? The explanation is a combination of white anti-Catholic activism, power-politics amongst some Native American activists, and press group-think leading to political group-think (speaking charitably – quite what motivates Justin Trudeau’s extravagant apologies is anyone’s guess). But the fictional genocide has had real consequences in the actual burning down of many actual churches, not to mention in the demonisation of Catholics, Christians and white Canadians in general.

It’s not as if the actual facts have not been well laid out. I gained my knowledge from two lengthy articles by reputable journalists, and there’s another recent one, which will tell you all you need to know, in Quillette. According to that, even many ordinary Canadians have by now become well aware of the weak foundations of the story.

But of course, most of us see only the headlines, and whatever rebuttals or lack of evidence there is, most of the public will have embedded, somewhere deep in their psyche, the “knowledge” that Catholic educators and orphanages have routinely massacred children in Canada, Australia, Ireland, and presumably everywhere else they went that is not in the news. And that sits comfortably with the equally “irrefutable” facts that all Catholic priests are child-abusers (and not just those trained in seminaries that winked at homosexuality since Vatican 2), when they’re not burning heathen unbelievers at the stake.

Well, in the last week it’s in the news again. It seems, according to the Daily Mail, that Pope Francis visted Canda and made heartfelt and abject apologies for these evils of the Catholic Church in the past. The Mail, as background, referred as fact to bodies discovered (despite, you’ll remember, there being absolutely no forensic evidence for a single one). The Pope also apologised for the general policy of coerced education in Catholic schools (though only a proportion of Native American schools were run by Catholic charities) – yet when the waters are so complketely muddied on the first issue, how can we be sure of the truth of the second?

Now, I’m not a Catholic, and whilst I have followed some of the suspicions amongst traditional Catholics about Francis’s orthodoxy, I’ve no skin in the game. But as the head of a worldwide Communion – the largest within the Church – Francis has a large team of senior people at least as able as me to access the truth of the case, and with vastly more interest in seeing that Rome’s reputation should not be tarnished unnecessarily. To put it bluntly, genocide completely discredits the Church, and at least in its official position, Roman Catholicism sees itself as the only true Church of Christ, with Francis and his predecessors as his Vicar on earth. Does he see himself as apologising on behalf of Jesus for his poor governance?

Perhaps it seems to Francis that ready confession of sin is a Christian virtue. But it is only so if you have actually sinned. To confess to what you have not done is either cowardice, or masochism. And whilst Francis may be head of the Catholic Church, he is confessing not his own sin, but that of many generations of Catholic teachers, priests, missionaries and so on who, on the evidence so far presented, sought to do good for those indigenous peoples they encountered, in material as well as religious terms.

I immediately accept the strong likelihood that not all were sincere, that some were corrupt or psychopathic, and that all no doubt sinned occasionally in the exercise of their ministry. But that is not organised genocide, and in particular it is not what the activists, press and politicians have been exercising the public about.

In fact, the Pope ought to know that to apologise is, in fact, to bear witness. It’s simple (if not easy) to bear witness to my own sin. As David wrote,

“I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.”

It’s also possible to apologise on behalf of another, if you have witnessed the wrongdoing. To cite another Davidic example, Abigail apologises for her husband’s rash behaviour (in order to save his life, incidentally):

“Pardon your servant, my lord, and let me speak to you; hear what your servant has to say. Please pay no attention, my lord, to that wicked man Nabal. He is just like his nameā€”his name means Fool, and folly goes with him.”

I would even go so far as to say that, if sufficiently good witness can be brought to bear on the wrongdoing of someone for whom you bear some responsibility – that is to say after some due process of fact-finding – apology can be in order. “I can hardly believe that a priest I appointed did such a thing, but in the light of the court’s verdict I must bear some blame for my lack of discernment.”

But to apologise for something that, as far as the evidence has been adduced, did not happen, and in so doing to heap blame on long-dead brethren, unable to defend themselves, whose names can be found and whose reputations will be destroyed, is nothing more or less than bearing false witness against your neighbour.

And one doesn’t need to dig up any bodies to know that that is a sin.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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3 Responses to A poke at the Pope

  1. Levi says:

    Well said. There have been many wrong-headed popes, though this one might be, doctrinally, the worst and, by coupled with his imprudence, the most dangerous. Luckily he never speaks ex cathedra.

    One thing that the post Vat2 Church has got backwards, in its efforts to go with the world rather than have the world go with it, is on the psychology of forgiveness. The truly christian virtue is to forgive, yea even one’s enemy; the progressive vice, which, like all progressive vices, is merely a virtue inverted, is *to beg for forgiveness*, which, having no reconciliatory power of its itself, is no virtue at all. There is a world of difference between magnanimous humility, including repentance and rectification to the ends of reconciliation in truth & love, and wanton self-abasement, from fear of reprisal.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Other points about the modern appeals for forgiveness are that (a) they’re often on behalf of other people and (b) when they’re not, they’re seldom for actual vices, but for perceived breaches of newly-minted sins such as inborn racism or transphobia, diagnosed by the offence of others rather than conviction by the Holy Spirit.

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