Pope Francis delivers his apology to Canada’s Indigenous peoples in Maskwacis, Alta. Photo by Michael Swan

Reconciliation must respect Church-State separation

By  Garnett Genuis, Catholic Register Special
  • August 18, 2022

The Pope’s visit to Canada and apology to Indigenous peoples was a profound occasion for our country. His visit also raises important questions about the proper relationship between political and religious institutions. 

I believe that, when it comes to advancing reconciliation, government-Indigenous reconciliation and church-Indigenous reconciliation are separate processes on separate tracks. The crimes of residential schools were perpetrated by State and Church together, however, both must now take action individually to try to restore trust and community.  

Having separate tracks of reconciliation expresses the responsibility of each institution and seeks to upset the negative precedent set by residential schools in Church-State relations. Residential schools were a policy of the federal government that some religious communities collaborated in, and this policy went against the longstanding traditions of many of those religious communities. ‘

Many early Christian missionaries had shown profound respect for the dignity of Indigenous peoples and cultures, recording Indigenous languages (some for the first time) and incorporating those languages into the Catholic Mass long before European vernacular languages were being used. This was consistent with the long-standing Christian principle of “Inculturation” — adapting Christian ideas to the local cultural context. Participation in the later policy of residential schools by some Christian organizations flew in the face of those long-standing teachings and traditions and instead involved the subversion of Christian ideas to State direction. Undoing the damage going forward therefore involves churches fully recognizing their responsibility to stand apart from the State and to challenge injustices it perpetuates.

While the Pope’s visit to Canada was an important moment in the life of our nation, it was not a political event. Politicians (myself included) were invited to attend, but were rightly not given roles of prominence. Fittingly, the Pope did not address the government’s myriad failures on reconciliation, speaking instead about the failure of Christian institutions to live up to their own creed. I was very pleased to see Pope Francis demonstrate a profound appreciation for the richness of the Indigenous cultures that residential schools had sought to destroy. Going beyond apology to meaningful affirmation sets a powerful example. 

The current federal Liberal government does not seem to want this “separate tracks” approach to reconciliation. In spite of the positive response from many Indigenous people to the papal visit, Liberal Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Mark Miller eagerly nitpicked at the supposed inadequacies of the apology, as if it were his job to do so, before the papal visit was even complete.

In a readout of his meeting with the Pope, the Prime Minister noted that he apparently raised the need to “address the Doctrine of Discovery.” While acknowledging the enduring impacts of the papal bull Inter caetera (from which the so-called “Doctrine of Discovery” was derived), we should also note that this bull was actually already repealed within 50 years of its original promulgation.

Furthermore, it should never be the role of the State to dictate to religious organizations the nature of their practices or doctrines, beyond ensuring that they follow the law. Imagine a minister of the government telling Muslims, Jews or members of some other faith what things they should apologize for or what doctrines they should rescind. In a free society religious and civil society organizations must operate independently from State pressure.

Miller’s and Trudeau’s comments in this area should be understood in the wider context of the way that the government has engaged with the topic of Catholic-Indigenous reconciliation. Despite the government’s continuing failures on reconciliation, they have managed to channel some of the resulting anger towards churches. Recall that last summer, when churches were targeted, spray-painted and torched, Liberals remained largely silent on these church attacks. One senior Liberal even called the violence “understandable.” Some may have made the calculation that pointing the finger at the Catholic Church is a useful distraction from the government’s own problems. But sowing and fanning division for political purposes becomes harder for Liberals when Catholic-Indigenous reconciliation is advancing. And it is.

Going forward, the important work of reconciliation, involving both Church and State, must continue. The Catholic Church has taken an important step forward this summer and I encourage all Catholics to work at the local level to follow-up on the Pope’s direction. Rather than trying to reset the narrative and refocus blame on churches, the government should focus on its own areas of responsibility to advance reconciliation and support concrete improvement in the quality of life of Indigenous peoples. 

(Garnett Genuis is the Conservative Party Member of Parliament for the Edmonton-area riding of Sherwood Park–Fort Saskatchewan.)

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