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The Pope’s Penitence

Balbir Punj writes: He apologised in Canada. He should also acknowledge Church's excesses in India

File photo of Pope Francis. (Reuters)

Pope Francis’s six-day-long apology tour of Canada ended on July 29 in Iqaluit, the capital of the Nunavut territory, with an address to a crowd of mainly indigenous people, where he admitted that their stories “renewed in me the indignation and shame that I have felt for months.”

Terming his journey as a “penitential pilgrimage”, the 85-year-old Pontiff repeatedly sought “forgiveness for the Church’s role in the residential school system”. The Canadian government, however, said that his apology didn’t go far enough. The government’s criticism echoes that of survivors and concerns the Pope’s omission of any reference to the sexual abuse suffered by children as well as his refusal to name the Catholic Church as an institution bearing any responsibility.

Murray Sinclair, the former Chairperson of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) commented, “It is important to underscore that the 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.”

It’s obvious that Canada finds the Vatican’s “apology” half-hearted, aimed at mere optics. But why such scepticism about the Pope’s intentions? Because as recently as 2018, he refused to apologise for residential school abuses, even after the TRC in 2015 documented the abuse and torture inflicted by the Church on the indigenous population.

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Canada is just one of the scores of countries where the Catholic Church is accused of decimating local culture and subjecting generations to atrocities in a bid to “civilise” and convert them to Christianity. If the Vatican is genuinely remorseful about its record, why stop at Canada? Why not seek forgiveness from all those societies that were affected during its evangelical drive lasting several centuries? Nearer home, the Church’s record on persecution of people in Goa is as bad, if not worse, than in Canada.

The exploitation of Hindus, Muslims, and local Christians at the hands of the Catholic Church started with the Portuguese takeover of Goa in 1510. Through the notorious Inquisition, the Church, in cahoots with the Portuguese state, resorted to a host of repressive measures to stamp out the local culture. It didn’t spare even local Christians who didn’t owe allegiance to the Vatican. According to B R Ambedkar, “The inquisitors of Goa discovered that they were heretics, and like a wolf on the fold, down came the delegates of the Pope upon the Syrian Churches.”

The persecution of the Canadian indigenous population started with the enactment of The Indian Act in 1876. Children were taken away from their families and sent to residential schools, which were functional till the 1990s. In a recent statement, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau said, “Canada’s history will forever be stained by the tragic reality of the residential school system, which forcibly separated at least 1,50,000 indigenous children from their families and communities…” It has been reported that in these schools, children were beaten, forced to practise Christianity, and not allowed to speak their native languages.


From the 1990s onward, the Canadian government and the churches involved began to acknowledge their responsibility for an educational scheme designed to “kill the Indian in the child”. A report by the TRC states that over 6,000 children were estimated to have died because of the abuse in residential schools.

The justification for such atrocities partly comes from the so-called Doctrine of Discovery, the 19th-century international legal concept that legitimises European colonial seizure of land and resources from native people.

The havoc which the Catholic Church wreaked in Canada, India and other parts of the world, was not the result of a random act by an over-enthusiastic, misguided local satrap. It was a part of a policy entailed in Pope Nicholas V’s Papal Bull of 1452, which calls upon believers to, “…invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed…”


The forced obliteration of local identity in Goa, spanning four centuries, had institutional and doctrinal support provided by the Church. India and Canada are victims of the same crime. The belated apology by the Pope in Canada is a welcome step. Why doesn’t he apologise in India as well?

The writer is a former Member of Parliament and a columnist

First published on: 12-08-2022 at 03:58:39 am
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