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Let’s discuss truth and reconciliation in their fullness. How do we tell the truth, the fullness of the truth? How do we achieve true reconciliation? Both are two-way streets.
Firstly, what is truth? Pilate’s question to Christ at his passion rings down through the ages not merely as a dismissive remark uttered by a Roman governor in an imperial backwater of the 1st century. It is ontologically what is at the root of questioning itself. To fully embrace what is true one must seek the truth out in all honesty and embrace it in its fullness once it is encountered and one must desire to hear the truth and embrace it as such.
What is true reconciliation? Etymologically, it is to restore council, it is to bring back together in dialogue. Genuine reconciliation demands the presence of truth in its fullness which is ordered towards admission of wrongdoing, a desire for healing, and ultimately forgiveness.
All of us are sorrowful over the ongoing woundedness in our country that has resulted from the legacy of the residential schools. These are wounds wrought by government and abetted by the churches who were the willing agents of the Dominion government’s plan to assimilate Indigenous Canadians, a plan that in its various forms was federal policy until the 1980s.
To achieve both truth and reconciliation we must educate ourselves with the full truth, not just what the media reports or what we find on social media, and this means doing the hard work of reading documents and reports that detail responses to the scandal.
The Catholic Church in Canada has addressed its role in the residential schools and the abuse that took place there, abuse that was real and painful and that has left deep scars. The abuse is also a clear and ever-present reminder to all Canadian Catholics, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, of how the Church failed to live up to the Gospel and instead aided and abetted an assimilationist policy that will affect First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Canadians for generations.
So, let’s broach the thorny question of whether the Catholic Church has apologized. The majority of our political and business classes, mainstream media, and even some faith-based media continue to advance the lie that the Catholic Church has not apologized for its acknowledged role in the abuse at residential schools.
To begin with, it is important to learn about this history in all of its fullness. We also need to acknowledge what has in fact been done by the Catholic Church since the early 1990s to address the scandal. In learning about this painful history and what responsibility the Catholic Church has we must be clear about what we mean when we say "the Catholic Church." I think the majority of people, including many faithful Catholics, do not understand how the Catholic Church is organized. Many think of it in corporate terms: the head office with its CEO is in Rome and the various dioceses and religious orders are run on a branch plant model where everything is directed from Rome and Rome instructs the bishops what to do.
This is simply not the case. It has never been the case from the day of Pentecost down to the present day.
In each diocese, for example the Archdiocese of Vancouver, the Archdiocese of Halifax-Yarmouth, or the Diocese of Kamloops, or the Archdiocese of Keewtin-Le Pas, the fullness of the Catholic Church subsists. As St. Ignatius of Antioch said in the 2nd century, "Where the bishop is, there is the Church." In other words, every particular diocese is the Catholic Church in that place (Halifax, Vancouver, etc.) and the local bishop exercises full authority. All the bishops (the College of Bishops) throughout the world are united in communion with one another under the Roman Pontiff (the Pope) as the successor of St. Peter. The Roman Pontiff is the "first among equals" among all the bishops and exercises his authority with the College of Bishops.
So, the local bishop, not the Pope, is responsible for what occurs and has occurred in his diocese and local bishops are the ones to be held accountable and who must apologize (in addition to the superiors of religious orders such as the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, O.M.I.s, who exercise their own authority in communion with Rome). Now to the question: Have those dioceses and orders apologized for what occurred under their watch in the residential schools? The answer is a definitive yes. These apologies have been offered and accepted in some cases going back to the 1990s. These apologies can be accessed here and they are discussed in greater detail here, including the apology offered by Pope Benedict XVI that was heard and accepted by then AFN Grand Chief Phil Fontaine and a delegation of Indigenous leaders.
Furthermore, alongside the acceptance of these apologies as a key step towards reconciliation and forgiveness, we also need to hear more directly and frequently from Indigenous Catholics and other Indigenous Christians about how they live their faith incorporating their culture and how they have done so, in many cases for more than 300 years.
It is not inconsistent to be a Christian and to be First Nations, Métis, or Inuit just as it is not inconsistent to be a Christian and to be Scottish, or Irish, or Palestinian, or Chinese, or Xhosa. My own Celtic ancestors freely embraced Christianity when missionaries came to the west coast of Scotland from Ireland in the late 6th century led by St. Colmcille. Has there been coercion at times in an attempt to force Christianity on to people? Yes, there has been, and we must repent of that. We must also recognize people's free agency to believe what they choose to believe.
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To say that Indigenous Canadians in the 17th, 18th, or 19th centuries, or for that matter, 6th century Celts were duped into accepting the Gospel and that they have paid for it ever since is demeaning and insulting and the height of secularist arrogance. Whether Indigenous Canadians faithfully live their lives as faithful Christians, faithful Latter-Day Saints, faithful Buddhists, as adherents of distinctive Indigenous spiritualities, or as atheists or secular humanists is their business and they are exercising their religious freedom in doing so.
It is also important to remember the ongoing work done by Indigenous and non-Indigenous Catholics in First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities. Just over half of Indigenous Canadians identify as Catholic and many of their families have been Christians for many generations. Cardus Religious Freedom profiled one such effort, The Welcome Home, as part of our 2021 Diakonia Project. Indigenous Christians beautifully integrate their Indigenous culture with their Christian faith and they do this freely.
In human relations, especially after conflict, injury, or any other failure of human community the goals must be recognition of truth, full reconciliation, and unconditional forgiveness. All of this is hard. Damn hard. Why? Because we are human. All of us are humans who mess up, who wound, who lie, and who dismiss our fellow human beings, our fellow persons created bearers of God’s image and likeness. If God can forgive us for all of our wretched wickedness it is because He has imprinted that image and likeness on us and called us to be like Him.
So, let’s be like Him. Let us desire to restore true community with one another and to forgive, even when experiencing pain and loss. The opposite course of action is anger, vengeance, and pride, which are not very pleasant things. They are the enemies of community, of reconciliation, and of forgiveness. Which path do we follow? It is our choice, but in the end, there is only one way that is directed towards truth and that is forgiveness.
Convivium publishes texts that do not necessarily reflect the views held by Cardus, the Convivium team, or its editors. In the spirit of discussion, dialogue, and debate, we ask readers to bear in mind that publication does not equal endorsement. Thanks for reading. Join the conversation!