March 23, 2023

Verbatim: The Catholic Church and 'conciliation' with indigenous peoples


A presentation to the Regis-St. Michael’s Faculty of Theology Graduate Pro-Seminar by Kyle Ferguson, a second-year PhD student at the University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto School of Theology, on March 1.

My research involves questions related to conciliation between the Catholic Church and the Indigenous peoples in Canada. I use the word “conciliation” vs “reconciliation” as the latter connotates some kind of restoration of a previously workable relationship, which, from the perspective of many Indigenous people, is troublesome. Métis artist and writer David Garneau underscores this point by saying: “This word choice [reconciliation] imposes the fiction that equanimity is the status quo [historically] between Aboriginal people and Canada.”

My work aims specifically to reflect on the lessons learned from the Catholic Church’s process of conciliation with the Jewish people and to see what lessons from that relationship can be applied to the Indigenous context in Canada.  

Using the Church’s experience with the Jewish people as a source of learning is not new.  Jacques Dupuis, S.J., in his seminal book entitled Towards a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism argued with regards to covenantal theology that: “The case of Judaism and Christianity can serve, as has been suggested, as a catalyst for a reorientation of the relationship between Christianity and the other religions….” 

As yet, there has been no work done drawing on the learnings from the topic of Jewish – Catholic conciliation and transposing those learnings to another context. My overarching thesis is that much can be learned from this relationship. 

Like every comparative work, one will find both similarities and differences in the comparison. Regarding similarities, both Jews and Indigenous peoples have had a protracted history of broken relations with Christianity; both have experienced methods of evangelization contrary to the Gospel; both communities have experienced “seismic’ events described as genocides with significant Christian involvement, followed by acts of ecclesial penance; both conciliation processes have required the involvement of the local and universal Church, and both processes of conciliation pointed to a need for ecclesial reform.  

Concerning the Jewish question, the reform required a change in the Church’s anti-Jewish teaching found in its theology, liturgy and pastoral practices. Concerning Indigenous conciliation, a major focus has been on the needed apologies, but what is less clear is the actual theological and ecclesial reforms required inside the Church to advance the broken relationship….  

Concerning the differences in the comparison, Christianity has a connection to the Jewish faith, which is unique and unlike any other relationship. The Jewish Scriptures are part of Christianity’s corpus of Divine Revelation. Jesus himself was a Jew…“at home in the Jewish tradition of His time and was decisively shaped by this religious milieu….”  

Nonetheless, as argued by Lin and Brakel…while similarities and differences do exist, there are no “immutable” or “essentialized” learnings [languages, experiences] that cannot be transferred to some degree.” 

Two last things: First, the role of “insiders/outsiders” and second, conciliation as an incremental process. John Connolly, in From Enemy to Brother, argues Jewish converts to Catholicism (insiders/outsiders)…were instrumental in helping the Catholic Church to reorient its views on Judaism: “From the 1840s until 1965, virtually every activist and thinker who worked for Catholic – Jewish reconciliation was not originally Catholic. Most were born Jewish. Without converts, the Catholic Church would not have found a new language to speak to the Jews after the Holocaust.”

The role of Catholic Indigenous, who likewise experience this “insider/outsider” identity, both inside the Church and with the broader Indigenous community, will be essential in helping the Church to understand more fully what ecclesial acts of reform are needed to advance harmonious relations. 

Second, the experience of Jewish conciliation was that of incrementality. The conciliar declaration Nostra Aetate, while monumental and significant, was also limited and required decades of further work. The Papal apology delivered to Indigenous people in Canada in July 2022 … did not address every issue or solve every problem, but (was) an important incremental step towards the amelioration of relations. My next stage of research, then, will involve delving deeply into the history of Jewish – Catholic dialogue and mining the lessons of conciliation learned in that relationship to assist illuminating the conciliation efforts between the Catholic Church and the Indigenous peoples in Canada. 

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