Pope Francis has been on a “homecoming” tour in Latin America. During his trip to Bolivia on Thursday, the Pontiff apologized for sins and “offenses” committed by the Catholic Church in the past. In particular, Francis referred to those crimes perpetrated against indigenous peoples during the colonial period. The request for forgiveness took place during a meeting with activists, representatives of indigenous groups, and Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales.
As Francis himself noted, this was not the first time that the Church has taken responsibility for the “grave sins… committed … in the name of God.” Church leaders in the region had acknowledged the Church’s shortcomings. And, in a 1992 visit to the Dominican Republic, Pope John Paul II apologized for the “pain and suffering” caused by the Church’s presence there.
To an extent, as a number of commentators have noted, Francis’s request went further than those of his predecessors. Francis asked for forgiveness “not only for the offenses of the Church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native people during the so-called conquest of America.” The reference to the experience of colonialism is undoubtedly welcome. Francis here draws attention to the broader and far-reaching impact of colonialism on the lives of indigenous people in the region.
At the same time, he subtly distinguishes between the crimes of the Church and the crimes of colonialism, a rhetorical move that obscures the ways that Christian theology fed into and nurtured European colonialism.
We should commend Francis for publicly acknowledging and apologizing for the ways that the Church has acted. It’s this kind of honesty and transparency that helps to heal the wounds of the past, not only in Bolivia but in other parts of the world—like the U.S.—where the Church’s reluctance to own up to her crimes has made it seem deceitful and hypocritical. Francis, by comparison, is a breath of fresh air—his openness and off-the-cuff style set him apart from his predecessors.
But for a church that claims nearly 2,000-year-old roots for itself this also raises another larger question; Just how much dissent, negativity, and destruction does any pope or Church leader want to own up to? We might note that while Francis apologized to indigenous groups in Bolivia he did not meet with similar parties in Ecuador earlier last week, despite requests made by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities.
Between the Crusades, colonialism, persecution of heretics and dissidents, etc., etc., etc., there’s enough to keep Francis in the global confessional all year. But Francis’s reference to and apology for colonialism is about more than regret for the past. It’s about his plans for the future.
Francis’s comments about colonialism were made in Bolivia, a country whose silver deposits were exploited during Spanish rule. Bolivian silver helped sustain the Spanish empire, finance the colonialist project in general, and support the Vatican itself. The wealth and natural resources of the indigenous people, in other words, were appropriated by larger foreign entities.
There are more than a few parallels here to Francis’s repeated criticisms of Western capitalism, multinational corporations, and the exploitation of the global poor by the global 1 percent. In his recent encyclical, Laudato Si, Francis advocated for a “preferential option for the poor and the planet” and decried the way that industrial-led destruction of the planet has particular consequences for the world’s poor. This was something he reiterated last week in his statement that “human beings and nature must not be at the service of money,” because the “economy destroys Mother Earth.”
Francis’s visit to flood-prone slums in Bolivia does more than merely offer concrete evidence of the connection between environmental destruction and humanitarian crisis. The Bolivian colonial experience also offers a less controversial historical example of how the exploitation of natural resources has always harmed the vulnerable in society. And modern capitalism, Francis thinks, continues to harm those “unproductive” to society: the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and the unborn.
The visit to Latin America has been particularly and sensitively attuned to local issues and history. But it also functions as the visual element of his theological “see and tell.” Francis has put global poverty and colonial history on display to the world. With platforms on the environment at the UN and the conservatively-stocked World Meeting of Families on the schedule for his coming visit to the U.S., we should expect to hear a more robust defense of Francis’s encyclical and his ethical economics. That’s if history has taught us anything.