Why I'm Deeply Disappointed With Pope Francis

By Mark Charles 9-29-2015
Image via Wikimedia Commons

I had been anticipating Pope Francis’ speech to a joint session of Congress ever since I learned it was planned. From the beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has established himself as a fearless advocate for the least, and an unapologetic prophet to both the church and the nations. A leader who shunned the glitter of the Apostolic Palace for the simplicity of a small guesthouse. A people’s pope who rebuked the rich and ate with the poor, and scolded the extravagance of the industrialized world as he drove through it in a fuel-efficient Fiat.

What words would this leader have for the Congress of the most wealthy, militarily powerful, commercially industrialized, colonial nation in the history of the world? The possibilities seemed endless.

We recently moved from the Rez to D.C., so I went down to the U.S. Mall and joined thousands of others who to watch Pope Francis’ speech on the Jumbotrons that had been set up in front of the Capitol.

The atmosphere was electric. When the speech started the crowd cheered; soon everyone was attentively listening to the words of Pope Francis as he addressed a joint session of the 114th Congress of the United States of America.

My anticipation changed to nervousness early in the speech, when the work of Congress was compared to the work of Moses, the biblical leader known for guiding God’s people to the Promised Land. “Promised lands” are always troubling for the Indigenous peoples who inhabit them. One does not need to read far into the biblical book of Joshua to learn that “Promised Land” for one nation literally means God-ordained genocide for another. Thus, when we describe the U.S. as “promised land,” we grant this nation divine pardon for the genocide it perpetrated against the Indigenous peoples of these lands.

But Pope Francis wouldn’t do that, would he? His comparison to Moses was primarily regarding the establishment of laws and not in direct reference to “Promised lands.” But still I was nervous.

Next Pope Francis invoked “three sons and a daughter of this land, four individuals and four dreams.” Again, I got nervous, not as much by the names he invoked, but by his use of the word “dreams.” You see, America is built on dreams. It is a nation of promise. But why? Why is there an “American dream” and not a French dream, a British dream, or a Belgian dream? That is because those countries do not sit on lands that were “discovered.” Every year the United States celebrates that in 1492 Christopher Columbus “discovered” America. But how can you discover lands that were already inhabited? You can’t, unless you first dehumanize those who were here prior.

The discovery of America is a racist colonial concept that requires the dehumanization of Indigenous peoples.

And discovery and slavery are why America is the land of “opportunity.” The American dream is predicated upon an empty continent and free labor. And Pope Francis was building on the theme of America’s dreams.

My nervousness grew.

About half way through his speech, Pope Francis mentioned the indigenous peoples of this land. My heart jumped. I was nervous, but eager: this was it. Here was the section. What would he say? What sin would he address? The Catholic Church’s Doctrine of Discovery? The colonialism of Europe? The stolen lands and broken treaties of the United States? Congress, the nation, even the world was listening.

Speak Pope Francis! Lift up the voices of the oppressed! Use your global pulpit to speak truth to the nations!

I waited in anticipation…

“Tragically, the rights of those who were here long before us were not always respected. For those peoples and their nations, from the heart of American democracy, I wish to reaffirm my highest esteem and appreciation. Those first contacts were often turbulent and violent, but it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present.”

What? Did I hear him right?

“…it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present.”

My heart sank. My body went numb. I could not believe my ears. Pope Francis was standing on the world stage dismissing the Catholic Church’s devastating Doctrine of Discovery.

The people’s pope was standing before a joint session of the 114th Congress of the United States of America excusing them for their genocidal history against the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island.

“…it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present.”

Those words are still ringing in my ears.

“…it is difficult to judge the past by the criteria of the present.”

Disappointment. Deep disappointment.

Mark Charles is a speaker, writer, and consultant who recently moved to Washington DC from the Navajo Reservation. He is a writer for Native News Online and the author of the popular blog " Reflections from the Hogan."

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