Will Pope Francis’ penitential voyage deliver what Indigenous people need?


On April 1, 2022, Pope Francis partially apologized to the delegation of First Nations, Métis and Inuit residential school survivors who travelled to Rome for meetings at the Vatican. The apology, however, simply said, “For the deplorable conduct of these members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God’s forgiveness and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry.” Not for the role of the Catholic Church itself but individual members of the church.

What was wrong with that apology?

Three things:

  • First, a failure to take ownership and accountability for the role that the Catholic Church as an institution played in the operations of the Indian Residential School system of which about 60% were managed by Catholic Church entities
  • Second, a failure to outline what the Catholic Church as an institution would do to make amends
  • Third, on the basis of the above two, a failure to adhere to the Catholic sacrament of Penance

A failure to take ownership and accountability

On March 27, 2018 Lionel Gendron, President the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops stated that “As far as call to action #58 is concerned, after carefully considering the request and extensive dialogue with the bishops of Canada, he felt that he could not personally respond.” The archbishop of Toronto indicated on June 20, 2021 that one reason for the lack of an apology is that “each diocese is independent and responsible for its own actions, and that approximately 16 out of 70 Roman Catholic dioceses in Canada were associated with the former residential schools.

This de-centralized operating model offers a perfect rationale to avoid and/or reduce liability which is what one would expect from corporate entities with international operations doing whatever is possible within – and sometime outside of – the bounds of the law to maximize profits, eliminate taxes and avoid as much government scrutiny as possible. Not from a religious organization whose principle goal is the personal salvation of souls through advocating and following moral precepts to guide one through life’s challenges.

The Anglican Church (1993, 2019, 2022), the United Church (1986, 1998) and the Presbyterian Church (1994) all issued apologies without exception and without qualifications. They took ownership of their responsibility and acknowledged their accountability over the operations of the Indian Residential Schools under their jurisdiction. In addition, all three fulfilled all the financial obligations detailed in the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA). All except the Catholic Church which leads to the second point.

A failure to outline what the Catholic Church as an institution would do to make amends

The Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement specified what financial amends that each of the four Church parties to the Settlement Agreement could make. Only the Catholic Church failed to comply. The CBC (July 29, 2021) and the Globe and Mail (Sept. 28, 2021) independently investigated the three components of the $79M financial settlement that the Catholic Church committed to and discovered:

  1. $29M Cash payment: Of the $29M cash payment, $6.6M was deducted for legal fees, administrative costs and other community services that were not fully explained or documented and were not backed up with any evidence to substantiate the claims
  2. $25M In-Kind Payments: The Globe and Mail examination of the “in-kind log” raises questions about legitimacy of services delivered. 50% of the 192 log entries were not properly documented or supported by evidence
  3. $25M Best Efforts Fund Raising: $3.9M out of a $25M target was all the Catholic Church could raise even though since the IRSSA was signed in 2006 they were able to raise $292M including $128M for the renovation of of St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica in Toronto. The 2016 grand opening was held only one year after the Church said there was no fundraising money for survivors.

To their credit, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops on Sept. 27, 2021 announced a new campaign to raise $30M over five years. The Indigenous Reconciliation Fund has the following priorities:

  • Healing and reconciliation for communities and families;
  • Culture and language revitalization;
  • Education and community building; and
  • Dialogues for promoting indigenous spirituality and culture.

A failure to adhere to the Catholic sacrament of penance

The seven sacraments of the Catholic Church – baptism, confirmation, eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, marriage and holy orders – are more than life’s significant milestones. They represent core, foundational beliefs that are bedrocks of the Catholic faith. How then could the Catholic Church so cavalierly fight so hard to refuse to take accountability and spend millions on lawyers to minimize their financial obligations. This is not an example of the spirit of reconciliation at work. This is an example of a sinner refusing to acknowledge that he has sinned.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides a perfect summary of penance and its connection to sin.

Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much. But sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbor. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must “make satisfaction for” or “expiate” his sins. This satisfaction is also called “penance.”

CCC 1459. Aleteia

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Final Report documents in horrific detail the horrible “sins” committed against Indigenous people collected from over 6,500 witnesses over the seven years that the commission operated. In the seven years since the TRC Summary Report was released in June 2015, 12 Calls to Action have ‘NOT STARTED” including 7 that deal with Aboriginal Rights and Title and Indigenous laws and legal traditions. Equally important is the Royal Proclamation and Covenant of Reconciliation which through Calls to Action 45, 46 and 47 calls on the Government of Canada and the four Church Parties to renounce the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius.

Perhaps one of the more fundamental actions that Pope Francis could take would be a formal renunciation and repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery.

In addition to a previous edict 1455, the Papal Bulls, as they are known, allowed European countries to claim discovery and ownership of land in the name of their king or queen if it was inhabited by non-Christians. To this day, the Doctrine of Discovery provides the legal underpinning for the federal government’s claim to rule over sovereign Canadian territory.

The Indian Residential School Truth and Reconciliation report of 2015 called on faith groups and religious denominations to renounce the doctrine, which was used to drive Indigenous people off their ancestral land onto reserves and, later, force Indigenous children into residential schools.

The Anglican and United churches have already done so. The Catholic Church, as yet, has not.

Toronto Star, July 22, 2022

If the Catholic Church were to issue such a proclamation, the current legal underpinnings of Canadian sovereignty relied on by the governments of Canada, the provinces and the territories to expropriate unceded Indigenous land and deny Aboriginal Rights and Title – even though affirmed by the Supreme Court – would lose a great deal of its its credibility – and justification!

If the end result of penance is to restore balance between a sinner and his victim, what better place to start than where it all began 500+ years ago.

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