Pope Francis, The Apology, and the optics of performative penitence

TRIGGERING SYMBOLISM – Pope Francis dons a traditional headdress for his apology in Maskwacis, Alberta. (Photo by Nathan Denette Canadian Press via Associated Press)


Gosh, that was some “penitential pilgrimage,” wasn’t it? Now that his visit to Canada is over, Pope Francis must be counting his blessings. After all, the historic and long-awaited papal apology on native land—an act of contrition for the terrible injustices that Indigenous children experienced in Church-run residential schools—went off pretty much as he might have planned it.

His Holiness enjoyed saturation media coverage during a slow news week in the host country (even pushing the ongoing saga of the Hockey Canada sex scandal off the top of the headlines). He thrilled the faithful by holding an outdoor mass at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium and then an indoor mass at the Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré Basilica near Quebec City. His presence deeply moved members of Indigenous communities in those provinces and in Nunavut, many of them grateful that an aging and ailing pope would travel so far to seek their forgiveness. And Francis himself, though frail and confined to a wheelchair throughout, suffered no significant health issues while in Canada. So, one might even call his visit a success.

That is one way of looking at it. Another is to dismiss the whole event as nothing but a typical Vatican exercise in ass-covering damage control, institutional reputation management, and performative contrition—an event that, for the Indigenous people it aimed to impress, carried little weight as an actual apology. Put aside all talk of Francis being more progressive than his predecessor (which isn’t saying much: any comparison to a right-wing zealot who stamped out liberation theology and disciplined Vatican II reformers is setting the bar for “progressive” rather low) and remember that this is the Roman Catholic Church we’re talking about: the motherlode of hypocrisy, a religious corporation whose sole raison d’etre is self-preservation. Yes, this is not a Church of moral leadership or of taking initiative; it is a Church that resists change with every fibre of its being, reacting only when it’s forced to, responding only when it can no longer tolerate the pounding on its door by an outside world that, having lost patience with it, has the temerity to demand accountability.

The unbearable permanence of Rome

Those of us who are born-again atheists, or otherwise “recovering” from this peculiar religion we grew up with, tend to view the Church with a sense of horror and revulsion that becomes predictable in our reactions to its dehumanizing treatment of women, Indigenous people, and sexual and gender minorities. But we also regard the Church with silent incredulity, amazement even, at its undeniable staying power. We are humbled in the face of its longevity, awestruck by its sense of permanence: the Roman Catholic Church—the largest cult on the planet, as a global institution dedicated to winning the hearts and controlling the minds of everyone in its flock—has proven, time and time again, that its capacity for survival, if not accountability, is limitless.

Thanks to its continuing wealth (two years ago, the Vatican said its net assets amounted to four billion Euros, a figure that didn’t include equity on the Church’s vast portfolio of property holdings around the world, nor the untold value of art works and artefacts at the Vatican and its embassies everywhere, many of dubious acquisition, nor the total worth of other sorts of property that are easy to hide from auditors when you’re a self-regulating Kingdom of God), and its endemic corruption (which, a century ago, enabled a pact with Mussolini that turned the Vatican into a city state-within-a-city, ultimately winning it status as a country at the United Nations), the Church keeps trundling along, century after century, battered and bruised but essentially unbowed.

FUTURE OF THE FAITH–East Timorese children walk in procession during Palm Sunday Mass in East Timor’s capital, Dili. Photo: CNS

If you actually thought that US $4 billion in settlements for sex abuse lawsuits could threaten the Church’s existence, you were sadly delusional. Even accounting for its decline in North America over the past couple of decades (during which the number of Catholics in the U.S. decreased by two million), the Church still thrives, thanks to expansion in the developing world. In Africa, which has the fastest-growing Catholic population on the planet, the ranks of the faithful are expected to reach nearly 350 million by 2050. And in Asia, East Timor now has a higher percentage of Catholics than the Philippines, long known as the Catholic country of the region. Yes, business is booming for the One True Church.

“Sorry” seems to be the hardest word

All of which brings us back to the Pope Francis apology tour. Back in 2015, one of the 94 calls to action from the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was for a papal apology to occur, live and in person, within a year. Obviously, Vatican logistics require much more notice than that for a papal tour. But it ended up taking seven years and would have taken even longer, if not for last summer’s discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children on the property of Kamloops residential school—and then a delegation of Indigenous groups that met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in April.

As mentioned, many Indigenous people found the pontiff’s carefully chosen words of apology during his visit to Canada deeply moving. They needed to hear those words. But many, many others were unimpressed. Apart from his mention of sexual abuse on the third day of his tour (and, in a late-breaking but significant development, given the resistance of some Canadians to the term, his media briefing on the plane back to Rome in which he used the word “genocide” to describe the impacts of residential schools), his statements in Canada failed to expand on his April apology. In both cases, he spoke of the actions of individuals but not about the Church’s institutional responsibility for the physical and sexual abuse of children at residential schools. And so of course he failed to back up the apology with concrete actions that might atone for the Church’s despicable conduct and provide redress for its victims, many of whom still live in suffering.

TRC chair Justice Murray Sinclair. (Photo by Fred Chartrand, Canadian Press)

Here’s the response of TRC chair Justice Murray Sinclair, perhaps the most trusted authority on Indigenous reality in Canada: “The Holy Father’s statement has left a deep hole in the acknowledgement of the full role of the church in the residential school system by placing blame on the individual members of the church. This was more than the work of a few bad actors—this was a concerted institutional effort to remove children from their families and cultures, all in the name of Christian supremacy.”

In his response, Justice Sinclair noted that the institutional church “was not just an agent of the state, nor simply a participant in government policy, but was a lead co-author of the darkest chapters in the history of this land. In many instances, it was not just a collaboration but an instigation. There are clear examples in our history where the church called for the government of Canada to be more aggressive and bold in its work to destroy Indigenous culture, traditional practices, and beliefs.”

Former NDP MP Romeo Saganash. (Photo by Dave Huehn, Flickr CC)

Naturally, there is deep cynicism about the motivation for a mealy-mouthed apology: full acknowledgement of institutional responsibility could open the door to a whole new round of expensive litigation, on top of all the other sex abuse lawsuits dogging the Church. “Probably a whole army of lawyers went through his text in Rome just to make sure he’s liability-free, or at least the church is liability-free,” former New Democrat MP Romeo Saganash told the Toronto Star.

Saganash, a Cree from northern Quebec, had an older brother who died at age six a year after being forced to attend a residential school. The former MP found it unsettling to witness Pope Francis kissing a red memorial banner that bore the names of 4,000 Indigenous kids, including that of his brother, who died or never returned from those schools.

Letting the abuse continue

Mi’kmaw lawyer Pamela Palmater suggested that the pope’s failure to take full church responsibility is not only a denial of history but also highlights a current problem: children still under the care of Catholic institutions continue to be at risk without full Vatican accountability.

Mi’kmaw lawyer Pamela Palmater. (Photo by Lisa Macintosh)

“As the saying goes, you cannot change what you refuse to acknowledge,” Palmater wrote in the Star. “That is evident by ongoing sexual abuse that continues unabated because it is facilitated by cover-ups within the church as an organization. Numerous reports, inquiries, commissions, and admissions by church officials indicate that the church is more concerned about its image than protecting children against sexual abuse by its members.”

Indigenous peoples have stated repeatedly that true reconciliation requires concrete actions by the Church to stop the ongoing abuse and make amends for the harm it has done, noted Palmater: “Apologies are empty sentiments without corresponding action. This trip should have been about penance (actions), not just penitence (regret).”

RESCIND THE DOCTRINE–People display a banner during Pope Francis’ Mass at the National Shrine of Saint Anne de Beaupré in Quebec City. (Photo by Gregorio Borgia, Associated Press)

So, what would real church atonement look like? Throughout the tour, activists called on the pope to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery, a 15th century piece of Roman Catholic law based on papal bulls that, though no longer official Church policy, still enable settler appropriation of Indigenous territory.

While the Holy See has argued that those documents have “had no value whatsoever for centuries,” Pope Francis admits that the Doctrine has found its way into various legal systems: the 1493 papal bull Inter Caetera continues to be cited by courts and governments to legitimize colonial land title. But despite some murmurings this week that Vatican officials were working with the Canadian government on some kind of clarifying statement about the Doctrine, it’s not likely to amount to much: there is no process in Canon Law for issuing formal documents declaring past edicts no longer valid. Ergo: Popes don’t rescind.

Putting the money where your mouth is

Far better to do something with cold, hard cash. For starters, how about matching the funds required for the papal tour to pay for much-needed infrastructure such as roadways and running water, including for the estimated 29 Indigenous communities across Canada still operating under a boil-water advisory as of March this year? Or, more to the point, how about Vatican funding to provide services for Indigenous people in recovery, many of whom found the papal visit itself triggering? And how about selling Church property for that purpose?

One popular meme circulating on Facebook this past week was McGill University social work professor Cindy Blackstock’s post-apology “to do” list. Blackstock, a Gitxsan activist for child welfare and executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, noted several gaps in the pope’s act of contrition.

McGill University social work professor Cindy Blackstock. (Photo from windspeaker.com)

“When victims must travel to Rome to ask for an apology, greater scrutiny is needed to ensure the apology delivers justice for victims and is not just a pro forma release of responsibility for the offender,” advised Blackstock. “[But] the Pope’s apology began by recognizing the Governor General and the Prime Minister (which are both offices arising from colonialism) before mentioning the Residential School Survivors and the children who died.”

Blackstock’s eight-point agenda for Pope Francis is more of a wishful thinking list (it includes “Repatriate anything taken from Indigenous Peoples by the Church or Holy See” and various reforms of Church teaching that would cause heart palpitations for the average cardinal), but it goes some way to express what reconciliation would look like to the people most damaged by Roman Catholicism in Canada.

People like Si Pih Ko, also known as Trina Francois, an Indigenous woman who travelled all the way from her home community with the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation, 800 kilometres north of Winnipeg, to attend the pope’s Monday apology in Maskwacis, Alberta.

When the pontiff was offered, and accepted, a headdress to put over his papal skull cap, or zucchetto, the moment proved too much for Si Pih Ko, who saw it as a sign of disrespect. Dressed in traditional regalia, she rebuked the pope by spontaneously bursting into an emotional, Cree rendition of O Canada, followed by a brief statement reasserting Indigenous sovereignty. Then she turned her back on the pope and walked away.

In Quebec City, a group calling itself the Mohawk Mothers noted during the papal tour that there were no words in the Iroquoian language, during the time when settlers arrived, for “I am sorry.” Only for saying “I will make it right.”

The long wait continues.

POWERFUL VOICE–Si Pih-Ko sings O Canada in Cree in front of Pope Francis. (Photo by Adam Scott/Prime Minister’s Office/Reuters)