Pope Francis looks on as he answers questions from journalists aboard his flight from Iqaluit, in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, to Rome July 29, 2022. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Editorial: One papal flaw -- genocide?

By 
  • August 4, 2022

Whether Pope Francis proves correct that the Indian residential school system constituted “genocide,” he erred three times during the concluding media conference for his otherwise near-flawless penitential pilgrimage across Canada.

“Yes, it was a genocide, yes, yes, clearly,” the Holy Father said using language that made headlines globally.

But no. Not “clearly.” Arguably. In the pontiff’s opinion self-evidently, as in the opinion of many others. But it was an error of established fact, history and international law to call it “clearly” genocide. Raging debate remains among Canadian historians about whether “genocide” applies to the residential school system. Views differ on whether even the coinage “cultural genocide” in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission satisfies genocide’s meaning.

The obstacle is logical. The word originates in the horrors of the Holocaust. Given the totalizing madness of the Nazi “Final Solution,” is it even possible to alter genocide’s nature with modifiers such as “cultural”? The United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect seems to clearly answer “No.”

“To constitute genocide, there must be a proven intent on the part of perpetrators to physically destroy a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. Cultural destruction does not suffice, nor does an intention to simply disperse a group. It is this special intent, or dolus specialis, that makes the crime of genocide so unique,” the UN Office’s website says.

The emphasis on “proven intent on the part of perpetrators” explains why the Irish Famine of 1845-1850, which killed a million people, fails to qualify as genocide. For, contrary to the pontiff’s second error at the media conference, geno (Greek for race or tribe) cide (Latin for killing) is not merely a “technical term” denoting generalized horrendous acts.

Genocide is “codified as an independent crime in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (the Genocide Convention),” the UN Office says. Codification followed negotiation of specific meaning. It has evolved through case law based on five explicit and “exhaustive” criteria. The case law now associates genocidal intent “with the State or an organizational plan or policy.”

Here, Francis’ “clearly genocide” error exceeds mere lexical nitpicking. The Pope is a head of State. He was a head of State on a State visit to another State. As head of State, he declared the Canadian State guilty of genocide, and also declared the State he heads guilty of the same internationally codified crime. The Holy Father’s third misstep, then, was far more serious than claiming clarity for what remains undetermined. Nor did he just reduce legality to technicality. With all the great good he did on his penitential pilgrimage, he also placed the Church at existential risk by, however inadvertently, convicting her of a crime for which she has not even been charged, much less found guilty. Walking back “clearly genocide” is clearly essential.

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