Monday, May 14, 2007

Pope Benedict XVI and the Conquest of the Americas

Pope Benedict XVI concluded his first trip as pontiff to Latin America last week. He affirmed his resistance to liberation theology--not surprising since as Cardinal Ratzinger, his job was to be the enforcer of the pope and church doctrine, and he did so with relish against many liberation theologians, such as Leonardo Boff and Jon Sobrino, who taught about the need for the church adopting a "preferential option for the poor".

But some of his most controversial remarks had to do with the history of the church in Latin America and its relationship to indigenous peoples. Benedict claimed that the church did not engage in the "imposition of a foreign culture" on the indigenous peoples but had helped to forge a "synthesis between their cultures and the Christian faith."

Clearly, the pope is engaging in a bit of revisionist history here. Its hard to see how the indigenous people of the Americas were in any position, post Conquest, to engage in a dialogue about synthesizing their worldviews with those of the Europeans. The pope's comments suggest a dialogue among equals or peers about theology. As Bartolome de las Casas makes very clear in his analyses of the Americas, the Europeans, in large part, did not treat the indigenous with any sort of humane respect. Instead, they were beaten into submission and treated like cattle.

Other chroniclers of the Conquest, such as Alonso de Zorita and Fray Mendieta, point out that there was a spiritual dimension to the take over as well. The religious developed very sophisticated techniques for evangelizing among the native peoples that were far from benign. They included dramatic recreations of hell in which dogs and cats were thrown into ovens before crowds, creating cadres of children who could spy on their parents and tell the church if their families still practiced native religions in the home, and forms of corporeal punishment for parishioners who came late or not at all to Mass. Such techniques seemed designed to create a climate of fear or intimidation rather than calm discussion. Indeed, Mendieta recounts how some natives would quake and shiver in the presence of a rosary. He took this as a sign of their awe before the Holy Spirit. Seems more likely they were afraid of being beaten yet again.

It would appear that after 500 years, the colonial mindset of Europe is still very strong.

UPDATE (May 23, 2007:

As a result of strong objections from Latin Americans, the Pope recently backpedaled his remarks about the treatment of the indigenous, acknowledging that serious injustices had been perpetuated in the name of Christianity there. Perhaps there can be room for restorative justice.

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At 8:06 PM , Blogger Dennis said...

"It would appear that after 500 years, the colonial mindset of Europe is still very strong."

Is this an unfair generalization? Is this Pope really representative of "Europe" as a whole? I hope not.

At 11:53 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

I'm not sure that there is any real representative of the Europe at all, even the EU. But I think we should not underestimate the Pope as a messenger for some very strong conservative voices in the Continent. His remarks about Islam last year are on the minds of many as Turkey lobbies for entrance in the EU, and the riots and tension that are going on in France and Spain over immigrants from North Africa suggest that Europe still has an uneasy relationship with the developing world.

At 11:10 PM , Blogger Michael Faris said...

Perhaps the pope isn't representative of Europe, but is symptomatic of European colonialism?

At 4:24 PM , Blogger Martid said...

The idea of antagonizing the players in this game is dangerous. Why not to try to understand the position of the (already blamed for all the evil church) instead of building the new stereotypes such as white supremacy (colonialist set of mind)? History is hard to camouflage and it will proof it rights anyway. It seems, then, that the effort to build the new understanding it priceless. One need to move forward and by using the pompous language I shall say: we should have more faith in the people’s good will and we should try to build the bridges instead of dismantling them.

At 4:25 PM , Blogger Martid said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 2:33 AM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Martid: I think that in any kind of reconcilation, parties to the discussion need to be honest about the past and any harms they might have perpetuated. As I read the Pope's comments, he thinks there is nothing, or very little, that the Church did in the past toward Latin America that warrants reconsideration or pause. That is not an attitude that engenders trust, I would think.


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