The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC)’s call to action No. 58 asks the pope to “issue an apology to Survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools,” and to journey to Canada for this purpose.
Pope Francis has not yet provided such an apology. Now, he looks to be taking steps to do so.
Regrettably, these steps were only taken after the media spotlighted unmarked graves at multiple sites of former Indian Residential Schools, including news of the discovery of 215 unmarked graves identified by the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation at the former Catholic-run Kamloops Indian Residential School.
On request, I — a settler academic with doctoral training, teaching and research experience in both Christian ethics and peace and conflict studies — am addressing the question of the significance of a potential papal apology in Canada. In both Christian ethics and peace and conflict studies, I have engaged Catholic traditions.
I live on Treaty Six Nehiyaw territory and the homeland of the Métis, and work here as a settler Catholic with Indigenous colleagues as part of a team trying to indigenize St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan.
Need for an apology undertaken in a good way
If a papal apology in Canada can alleviate some of the ongoing suffering of residential school survivors, their descendants and communities, and help build and rebuild relationships among settler Catholics, Indigenous Catholics and other Indigenous people, that is its most poignant significance.
Pope Francis himself will not be able to sustain the necessary relationships for this level of conciliation and reconciliation. But his apology, if done in “a good way” can help remove barriers and contribute to conciliation and reconciliation along with other paths of dialogue and action.
Philosopher Nick Smith argues in I Was Wrong that an effective apology is characterized by providing a detailed recounting of the harms caused, agreeing to take blame for those harms, stopping participation in the harms and where possible, and appropriate, making recompense.
In integrating these steps, an effective apology will help transform harmful relationships.
Some blocks and barriers
There are barriers to this transformative potential. One is Catholics’ instinct that their church is holy and only its members can be sinners. Reforms in the 1960s opened ways to understand the Catholic Church differently, including as people on a collective journey and, thus, to confront corporate sin within the institution. However, as some theologians argue, attributing only holiness to the church continues to be a block to accepting collective responsibility on the institutional level in Catholic cultures.
Another argument circulating among Catholic faith leaders has been that there was, strictly speaking, no “Catholic Church” involvement in Indian Residential Schools — just the involvement of certain Roman Catholic orders and some particular dioceses — and that the key entities involved, notably the Oblates, had already apologized.
In face of the TRC’s call for the pope to apologize, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and some Catholic commentators have highlighted a 2009 meeting with delegates from the Assembly of First Nations and Pope Benedict XVI. On that occasion, Pope Benedict XVI made an “expression of regret.” Certain Catholic faith leaders have implied that this closes the question of a papal apology.
While some Catholics continue to advance these arguments today, they preceded the TRC’s final report. As is evident in the report, its authors were clearly aware of the arguments and found them unsatisfactory.
A more tempered statement engaging the Canadian context that Pope Francis issued from a balcony at the Vatican in June was also not sufficient in relation to call for action No. 58.
Finally acknowledging as much, the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops has now invited the Pope to come to this country, and he has indicated a willingness to accept.
This follows quite a time after the call to action No. 58 and the expressed wishes of Indigenous leaders, other politicians, including the prime minister and Catholic educational leaders. A papal apology in Canada has now emerged as a tangible possibility.
Many paths to walk upon
Our Catholic college’s Centre for Faith, Reason, Peace and Justice co-hosted a webinar in June. There, as part of a wide-ranging conversation, Cree-Métis grandmother, writer, playwright, filmmaker, scholar, teacher, activist and elder Maria Campbell addressed the topic of a papal apology.
She plainly stated that such an apology ultimately does not matter as the pope is just “a man.”
One implication I drew from Campbell’s words and other insights she and her fellow panellists shared was that whether or not a papal apology is forthcoming, there are many paths of “dialogue and action” that settler Catholics can and must walk upon to contribute to the much needed work of conciliation and reconciliation in Canada.
Some examples are finding concrete ways to live out the TRC’s calls to repudiate concepts used to justify European domination over Indigenous Peoples and lands (like the doctrine of discovery) and unambiguously meeting the Catholic Church’s financial obligations committed to as part of the Indian Residential Schools settlement agreement, including by redirecting resources and selling property currently earmarked for other aspects of its mission in Canada.
Even if the papal apology in Canada unfolds in a good way, it will nonetheless be unduly late.
To cite an important instance, the contrast is evident with the United Church of Canada’s response to its participation in Indian Residential Schools and colonization, in general.
For some non-Catholics and Catholics alike, this gap and the deeper ethical failings it points to bring into question the continued “moral authenticity” of the Roman Catholic Church: how closely the church reflects, embodies and allows people to hear the Christian gospel of love. In theological ethical thinking, this necessarily encompasses obligations to human neighbours and the natural world.
In his papal letter about connections between social justice and ecological health, Pope Francis teaches “it is essential to show special care for Indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners.”
Considering this ethical gap, some Catholics with lifelong and vocational commitments to their church have left it, or are questioning what it means if they remain part of an inauthentic institution. Others have recommitted to organizing, advocacy and education for truth and reconciliation.
Demands of the moment
Done in a good way, an apology will allow the institutional Catholic Church, through its most prominent faith leader, to regain a measure of authenticity by repenting from its sins — sins that include perpetuating cultural genocide, enabling multilayered abuse and the premature, avoidable deaths of children in Catholic-run Indian Residential Schools.
Returning to Smith’s framework, if Pope Francis comes to Canada to apologize, he will need to recount the harms to residential school survivors. He must unreservedly accept blame on behalf of both the institutional Catholic Church and settler Catholics. And he will have to disavow the continuing participating of settler Catholics and the Catholic church in colonial practices in Canada.
If certain bishops are barriers, then other Catholics will have to have come forward with the courage to intervene and ensure that proper recompense is made for the harms caused in Catholic-run Indian Residential Schools. These Catholics will also need to exercise their responsibilities for the life of the church by making their informed views known to their bishops and in their communities and by seeking to participate in global church consultations.
The upcoming visit of a delegation of Indigenous people to the Vatican is a chance for Pope Francis to consult and learn through face-to-face dialogue about how to take on this task in a good way.
The poorly justified wait for a papal apology in Canada may be too late but not too little if it can animate truth and reconciliation, while contributing to the healing of residential school survivors.
If you are an Indian Residential School survivor, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419