Benedict XVI corrects the record on colonization of Latin America

New York

In apparent response to criticism of his May 13 speech in Brazil in which the pope asserted Christianity was not an “imposition of a foreign culture” on indigenous peoples of the New World, Benedict XVI today acknowledged “the shadows that accompanied the evangelization of the Latin American continent.”

The pope said “the sufferings and the injustices inflicted by the colonizers on the indigenous populations, who often saw their fundamental human rights trampled upon,” cannot be forgotten.

Benedict was speaking during his regular Wednesday General Audience in Rome, which he devoted to the Brazil trip.

Last Sunday, in an address to the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean gathered in Aparecida, Brazil, for their Fifth General Conference, Benedict argued that Christianity was not imposed upon native peoples, but rather it was the fulfillment to which their religious experience pointed.

“The Utopia of going back to breathe life into the pre-Columbian religions, separating them from Christ and from the universal Church, would not be a step forward,” Benedict said in Aparecida.”Indeed, it would be a step back. In reality, it would be a retreat towards a stage in history anchored in the past.”

Afterwards, spokespersons for indigenous groups complained that the pope appeared to be denying the troubled history of European colonization.

Paulo Suess, an adviser to Brazil’s Indian Missionary Council, said the pope “is a good theologian, but it seems he missed some history classes.” Marcio Meira, who heads Brazil’s federal Indian Bureau, said, “As an anthropologist and a historian I feel obliged to say that, yes, in the past 500 years there was an imposition of the Catholic religion on the indigenous people.”

In that light, the pope’s comments today suggest that when Benedict said on Sunday that Christ was not an “imposition,” he meant the teachings of Christianity, not the concrete behavior of Christian colonizers – whom, Benedict admitted, were sometimes guilty of “unjustifiable crimes.”

At the same time, Benedict said, there were also Christian missionaries and theologians who defended the natives, such as Bartolomeo de Las Casas and Francesco da Vitoria of the University of Salamanca. Acknowledging the mixed historical record, he said, “must not prevent us from noting with gratitude the marvelous work performed by divine grace among these populations in the course of the centuries.”

“Today, in the epoch of globalization, this Catholic identity still presents itself as the most adequate response,” Benedict XVI said, “provided that it’s animated by a serious doctrinal formation and by the principles of the social doctrine of the church.”

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here