Pope Francis’ Bolivian Apology: A Call to Conversation or A Religious Appeasement?

July 12, 2015

Many hoped Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope, would take a path leading to a new voice from the Church. I don’t know if we are hearing a new voice, yet, but at least the voice we are hearing calls for deeper conversations.

While visiting Bolivia this last Thursday, Pope Francis apologized to Americans whose ancient heritage is the American landscape. The apology was for the Church’s support and involvement in the colonization of the Americas. Though not a direct apology for his predecessor’s support of the genocidal Doctrine of Discovery, the apology is a first step.

The Pope’s apology calls for an interesting conversation during the coming months. For just prior to Pope Francis’ arrival in the US this fall, church structure is in place to canonize Father Junipero Serra on September 23. Pope Francis is concluding a path begun in 1988 when Pope John Paul II beatified Fr Serra.

While many folk may not know Fr Serra, most Californian’s who attended school in California do. Few born and raised Californians did not draw or construct a Mission while in school. For me it was the Mission San Fernando Rey de España located an hour south or so from my elementary school. Mission San Fernando was but one of the twenty-one missions dotting the California coast from San Diego (San Diego de Alcalá, 1769) to Sonoma (San Francisco Solano, 1823). The credit of developing a mission infrastructure where missions were located one days ride from one another goes to Fr Serra. Known for his intellect, the development of the string of missions, and the conversion of California Indians, the church and the state has held Fr Serra in good regard. California Indians, whose ancestors provided the labor to build the missions have, let’s say, a different take.

Fr Serra accomplished the mission work through the forced work and enslavement of local California Indians. This forced labor, along with diseases new to the California landscape led to a high rate of death of these coastal people. Having Fr Serra’s canonization on the heels of Pope Francis apology raises questions and calls for a deeper public conversation than the church has been willing to have.

The needed conversation does not lie within the Catholic Church alone. For a number of years, protestant churches have gotten on the popular bandwagon of repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery (DoD); nothing wrong with that at all. However, at the time of repudiation, these churches did not have an open and public conversation of what the DoD is, nor that a true repudiation calls for changing the denomination’s existing systemic racist structure. Which means the repudiation is much more of an apology than the renunciation of existing practices. Not unlike what will occur if Fr Serra’s canonization follows Pope Francis’ apology in Bolivia.

Possibly Pope Francis and his folk have something in mind in the coming months. Perhaps this apology was no more than an act to give a semblance of balance to the upcoming canonization. Maybe Pope John Paul II beatification of Father Junipero Serra in 1988 is unstoppable in 2015. Whatever the case, the actions of Pope Francis this last week has called American Christians into conversation.

(For Christians attending the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) General Assembly July 18-22 there will be an opportunity to join this conversation. On Wednesday, at the Greater Columbus Convention Center, Room E162A, William Blue Eagle McCutchen (Chickasaw) and David B Bell (Scots-American) will lead the Justice Working Session, Items for Research and Reflection – Doctrine of Discovery GA 1324 – “What Is the Doctrine of Discovery?”)

*Photo Credit: Freddy Barragan Garcia, AP

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