Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Should we apologize for the North American martyrs?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 29, 2022

We’re coming to the end of a week in which Pope Francis has repeatedly denounced the excesses, real or imagined, of Catholic missionary work in Canada.

Again and again his “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada, the Pope apologized for “the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the indigenous peoples.” He lamented that Christians had “cooperated… in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of the residential schools.”

This week Pope Francis has been an outspoken defender of tradition. The traditions of Native American tribes, of course—not those of the Catholic heritage. In fact on one occasion he seemed to catch himself, saying: “Let us not transform [tradition] into traditionalism.” But it is remarkable, isn’t it, that the Pope sees merit in tradition everywhere but within the history of the Roman Church? [More on this below.]

The particular offense for which the Pontiff was busily apologizing was the role that Catholic religious orders played in the “residential schools” that took children from members of indigenous tribes away from their families, and educated them in European culture. Insofar as this program broke up families and denigrated tribal customs, it was indeed an offense. But

  • First, it was not the Catholic Church that devised the plan for the residential schools; it was the Canadian government. Today the country’s government leaders, having made their own pro forma apology, are anxious to heap blame on the Church. But the Catholic religious orders involved were only carrying out the politicians’ plans.
  • The defects of the residential schools—the crowding, poor nutrition, inadequate health care, lax supervision—can be traced to the meager funding provided by the government. The religious orders ran these institutions as charities. Clerics and lay volunteers suffered in the cold and ate the bad food, sacrificing to help young people. Some of them died on the job, and were buried in poorly marked graves, alongside the indigenous children they had served. They do not deserve the blanket condemnation they are now receiving.

The current furor peaked more than a year ago, with sensational stories about mass graves at one residential school in British Columbia. But months later, no human remains have been found at that site! In fact the site has not even been excavated. Plenty of people have an incentive to speculate that children’s bodies are buried in mass graves; apparently no one has much incentive to discover the truth of the matter.

No doubt there were children who died needlessly in these schools. No doubt there are many who were buried without ceremony. Those are the predictable results of poverty, disease and malnutrition. No doubt there were other abuses, too, in a situation marked by isolation and inadequate supervision. And again, all such abuses deserve the condemnation they are now receiving. But as we join in denouncing the abuses, should we not recognize the benefits of the residential-school education as well?

The children at these schools were coming from backgrounds that were, unfortunately, also troubled by poverty, disease, and various sorts of abuse (notably alcohol abuse). They were taught to read and write, and given an opportunity to make their way into a more affluent society. This week’s newspaper accounts frequently referred to “survivors” of the residential school, rather than alumni. But how many students found that these schools were their best change for a better life?

More important still, the residential schools gave their students a foundation in Christian teaching. During his week in Canada, Pope Francis occasionally drew a distinction between teaching the faith and imposing the faith, but that distinction is lost in the fog of rhetoric about colonization. The overall message of the past week, I fear, nourishes the perverse notion that Christian evangelization was a setback for the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Should we then apologize for the heroism of the North American martyrs, who gave their lives to preach the Gospel to these native tribes? Obviously their preaching was often unwelcome; otherwise they would not have been martyred. But it also bore much fruit, and for several centuries the region in which they worked was a bastion of Catholicism. Now the influence of the Church has waned, and unbelievers insist that the age of evangelization was a tragedy. That statements by a Roman Pontiff would contribute to that belief is appalling.

Just by the way, before I close down operations for the weekend, let me call your attention to a couple of other CWN stories that you might have overlooked. Both involve tolerance of tradition and of other cultures.

  1. In Syria, a terrorist missile attack disrupted the opening of a new Greek Orthodox church. The new church in the town of Al-Suqaylabiyah was named the Hagia Sophia, and modeled after the famous church of that name in Istanbul. It was built—with support from the governments of Syria and Russia—after the government of Turkey announced that the original Hagia Sophia, once among the most beautiful Christian churches in the world, would be rededicated as a mosque. Evidently some Islamic zealots objected to the new “Hagia Sophia.” Perhaps even more interesting, Syria and Russia—countries that we do not ordinarily count as friends of the faith—wanted to send the message that Islam should not overpower the Christian heritage.
  2. Meanwhile in India, an archbishop of the Syro-Malabar Church resigned, at the request of the Vatican, and despite strong support from the clergy of his archdiocese. Archbishop Antony Kariyil had not been accused of any misconduct. But he had opposed liturgical changes in the Eastern-rite Catholic Church—changes that the Vatican strongly endorsed. Specifically, the Vatican had insisted that in the Syro-Malabar Church, the priest must not celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy facing the people.

Syria and Russia supporting a Christian church. The Vatican supporting ad orientem worship. And the Bishop of Rome supporting the critics of the North American missionaries. It’s been a strange week.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Aug. 03, 2022 3:00 PM ET USA

    An obvious suggestion to the pope: stop doing any missionary work. If you must do something, build a church and wait. Should someone show interest, present a complete legal document, which, among other things, absolves the church of coercion which they must sign. No problem.

  • Posted by: wacondaseeds4507 - Aug. 01, 2022 2:11 PM ET USA

    It was good to see that on his flight home in his "press conference", Pope Francis also condemned neo-colonial imposition of Western values on third world nations (e.g., contraception and abortion), though unfortunately he described it as "a little bit". Eliminating the future citizens of a culture is actually more genocidal and more destructive than denigrating past cultural traditions.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jul. 30, 2022 6:06 PM ET USA

    I am not sure why you think it strange for Christian Russia to support Christians in other parts of the world. They have been doing so ever since throwing off the shackles of Communism. I have the same question about Syria's support for Christians. Why do you think it's strange? This forum has been reporting for as long as I have been a part of it on the accolades poured out upon Assad by Christian prelate after Christian prelate living in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. Check the record

  • Posted by: DrJazz - Jul. 29, 2022 11:28 PM ET USA

    Strange indeed. As I say to my (now grown) children, "Things just keep getting weirderer and weirderer."

  • Posted by: joshlevy8437 - Jul. 29, 2022 11:06 PM ET USA

    Strange that the Indians never feel any need to apologize for their past cruelties, which are legion. Their crimes against the settlers and missionaries are always excused, justified. Yet what about their crimes against each other during the preceding millennia , their innumerable inter-tribal wars, conquests, tortures, enslavements, etc.? Are those also to be excused, justified? (And, if so, how?)

  • Posted by: ewaughok - Jul. 29, 2022 9:40 PM ET USA

    Francis evidently believes apologies might redeem the Catholic Church’s image. He could conveniently use this occasion to disapprove of colonialism and approve indigenous cultures, much like he did with his ridiculous Amazon Synod a few years ago. Unfortunately, not only is the pope wrong on all of this, but he has this all backward. Rather than heal, this apology will only provoke more grievances and calls for reparations. With church attendance collapsing and basic truths being forgotten, it would’ve been far more appropriate for Pope Francis to loudly acclaim the missionary efforts in Canada and call for more such activity.