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Since he was elected as the Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church Archbishop Bergoglio has often surprised his flock and shocked many prelates and priests by his statements which seem to run contrary to aspects of the Christian doctrine. The recent visit to Canada by the first Pope from a developing nation (Argentina) in particularly delicate circumstances has taken aback those who hold fast to the core belief that it is the Church’s mission to propagate the faith (the name ‘propaganda’ comes from that essential vocation) and convert all those still unreached by the Revelation of the Only Son of God.
Canada is in the throes of the woke revolution which, albeit with the usual exaggerations and politically correct contrition, has forced the nation to look at its own less than exemplary past as a European colony. The country used to take pride in its peaceful environment, remaining expanses of virgin wilderness, generous social welfare system and liberal foreign policy which set it apart from its bellicose and imperialistic southern neighbour. However, that welcoming façade could not hide forever the sordid aspects of a society that even today practices a form of Apartheid towards its native population, kept on the fringe of the polity for centuries. Hundreds of murders and disappearances of indigenous Canadians in the last several years, particularly women and children, have been documented after being hushed up until recently. Right until the sixties ‘Indian children’ were picked up from native reservations by Government agencies and brought to boarding schools, many of them run by the Catholic Church for forcible assimilation into the ‘European’ way of life in harsh and even inhumane conditions, away from their families and their native culture which was forbidden to them. Those children, often no more than infants, seemingly poorly fed, clothed and heated were to forget their roots, languages and origins, taught to behave and think like their ‘white’ masters even though they would always remain second class citizens in their colonized motherland. The justification for the State policy was that it did its best to turn these ‘savage kids’ into proper and useful subjects of HM’s Empire and the Church took pride in fulfilling its God-imparted task to make Christians out of those pagan offspring of ‘false gods’. The mindset of the imperial powers was so deep-rooted and unquestioned that few people bothered to question the moral and even logical underpinnings of that system which was vetted by the highest legal and religious authorities. Investigations have uncovered evidence of widespread abuse and neglect in those boarding institutions which now look more like minors’ detention centers whose wards died in large numbers every year from a variety of diseases, probably physical as well as psychological.
The only extenuating circumstance that may be invoked to lessen the burden of guilt of the perpetrators of the barbaric process is that poor children were harshly treated all over the western world in the same period of time and that most orphanages were characterized by Dickensian squalor and cruel practices. It still took a few years after the second world war for general attitudes to change and for more humane conditions to prevail in the care of the most underprivileged and weakest members of society. Those who were assigned the task of raising Indian children in the Canadian State System (as in their American, Australian and other equivalents) may have believed that they were improving the lot of their wards by taking them out of the ‘wilderness’ and converting them to the true religion while imparting to them rudiments of ‘civilised’ knowledge. This concept of assimilation is central to the Christian perspective and to its universalist ambitions. The Hindu society has long been accused by foreign missionaries and agnostic sociologists of forsaking the tribals who live on its margins, leaving them to their ‘primitive’ ways and creeds, but is that not a better alternative to forcible conversion and attempted absorption into a one-size-fits-all society?
This is where Pope Francis’s statements during his pastoral visit to Canada overturn the applecart. He squarely equated the treatment of the native peoples by his own Church to ‘genocide’ and spoke highly of the wisdom and high values inherited by those long demeaned and decried ‘idolatrous’ nations and tribes. In his words, said at a press conference at the end of his visit: ‘…we still have (…) a colonialist attitude to reduce their culture to ours. It comes from the way of life which makes us lose the values that they have…Indigenous people have a great value, which is laving in harmony with Creation (Nature) and at least some that I know describe that by the expression: Living well. That is not what we mean in the west as having a good time, La dolce vita. No, to live well is to protect the harmony and that is for me the great value of the original peoples: Harmony. We are used to reducing everything to the mind. On the other hand, the personality of the ‘first nations’ – I speak in general – knows how to express itself in three languages: of the head, of the heart and of the hands. But all taken together and they know how to interact with Nature. So, what about this accelerated, somewhat neurotic progressivism about development that we practice? I am not speaking against development. Development is good but not as an anxiety for development-development-development. Look, one of the things that our overdeveloped, commercial civilisation has lost is the poetic gift. Indigenous peoples have kept that gift (…). So, this doctrine of colonization is truly evil and unfair. Even today it is being invoked as before but with kid gloves. (…). For instance some bishops from certain countries told me: “When our nation requests a loan from an international organization, there are conditions, including legislative ones which are colonialistic. To extend credit, they make them change their way of life’. Returning to our colonization of America: the English, the French, the Spanish, the Portuguese are four that always have posed this threat…This mindset: ‘we are superior and these natives don’t count’ (…) and that is grave. So, we have to return to what you (a journalist) said: go back and heal, let us say, what was done wrong, knowing that the same colonialism is still alive…”.
Such statements are seen by many in conservative quarters as expressing the leftist opinions of a Jesuit pope who is undermining the very tenet to which the Church owes its existence and which gives legitimacy to its worldwide ministry, namely the innate superiority and divine transcendence of the Christian Message. Francis seems to implicitly question the dogma that Jesus Christ entrusted his apostles and faithful with the duty to convert the people ‘urbi et orbi’. While there is a difference between spreading Catholicism – or other Christian denominations – and promoting the modern industrial and financial civilisation globally, no one can deny that there is a strong historic link between the two endeavours, even though modernization today has become mostly agnostic and materialistic in character. The global political-business order that is being imposed everywhere, as the Pope pointed out, is influenced by both the Judeo-Christian culture of revelation and the rationalistic spirit of liberal enlightenment, primarily inherited from the Protestant Reformation and therefore still arguably Christian in its essence.
Pope Francis has publicly cast doubts on the validity of the conversion cause by highlighting the pristine value of indigenous cultures. He cannot say in so many words that replacing those native ‘natural’ creeds with Christianity with all its westernizing Euro-centric implications, may not be desirable but he opens the door to that debate, leaving many theologians and dignitaries of the Church with the impression that he is, consciously or not, undermining the dais on which Saint Peter’s throne has rested for almost two millennia.
Will other missionary religions also have to reconsider their agendas of conversion in the light of the emerging scientific discoveries about human nature and the universe, by taking into account the current socio-political and environmental state of affairs?