The Passionist Congregation is registered as an NGO (Non-Government Organisation) at the United Nations. Our representative there, along with other religious organisations that are either NGO’s registered there or otherwise observers, recently wrote an open letter to Pope Francis on the plight of indigenous peoples around the world. Below is a copy of that letter.
Holy Father Francis,
Greetings in God’s good peace and with prayerful hope for the blessing of good health along with courage and wisdom in your mission!
We, the undersigned religious non-governmental organizations in the United Nations, write to you in resolution from conversations with our indigenous brothers and sisters, having taken place annually at the Permanent Forum for Indigenous Peoples in UN.
In this letter, we want to express a concern that has been pressing upon us for a long time, a concern, we believe, that also needs your attention and wise deliberation. We wish to indicate our deep distress for Indigenous peoples throughout the world. Bringing you our request, we have every confidence that your shepherd’s heart would also share our worry.
We begin by calling to mind the reality of which you are already too aware. Indigenous peoples are living representatives of the world’s oldest continuing cultures. Sadly they are also among the most dispossessed people in the world. They are tragically over- represented in categories that measure poverty and social exclusion – life expectancy, decent housing, completed education, health, and levels of incarceration, joblessness and discrimination.
The phenomenon of colonization in the “new world,” from the fifteenth century onwards, was marked by the expropriation of lands and natural resources of the original inhabitants. Looking back, we can only conclude that this phenomenon of colonization resulted from a racist mentality. Even more tragically, the negative effects of colonization were reinforced by religious edicts that gave misguided moral authority to these secular policies. Indigenous peoples were seen as inferior to European settlers. This mentality had the equally tragic consequence of devaluing and too often violating these peoples’ full humanity, infringing upon their cultural practices and spiritual expressions. The abominable practice of slavery flourished for centuries.
To support their policies and practices, colonizing nations adopted the ‘doctrine of conquest or discovery’ that shaped relationships between governments and traditional peoples in the Americas, Africa and Oceania. Particularly regrettable is the sadly unavoidable fact that these doctrines can be traced directly to the Papal Bulls: Dum Diversis, June 18, 1452; Romanus Pontifex, January 8th 1455 and Inter Caetera, May 4th 1493. Pope Alexander VI in Inter Caetera says to Ferdinand and Isabella:
“…this assuredly ranks highest, that…the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself. You have purposed to bring under your sway the said mainlands and islands with their residents and inhabitants and to bring them to the Catholic faith.”
As you know only too well, Holy Father Francis, the papal decrees gave Spain and Portugal dominion over lands that indigenous peoples had occupied for thousands of years. What was, perhaps, an unintended consequence, however, gave credence to the European age of “Discovery” and the theft of entire continents.
It is lamentable that more than 500 years later, these notions continue to influence how people live, think and relate to one another. They still provide an archaic moral justification for states’ jurisdiction over traditional peoples. We acknowledge the statements made by your own representative here at the United Nations, the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See, that “the bull Inter Caetera is a historic remnant with no juridical, moral or doctrinal value,”2 however we must remember that these histories matter in the hearts and minds of many. Decisions can easily be derived from past racist notions of the superiority of one race or religion over another therefore still negatively affects indigenous lives. In this place and time, the sad and unavoidable conclusion is that these documents, regardless of legal stature, are seen as supporting the continued institutionalization of harmful attitudes that wound indigenous peoples. Nation states holding and promoting these attitudes prevent indigenous people from being both esteemed and treated as equal before the law in relation to their lands, their resources, and in shaping their own culture, education, spirituality and community.
In light of the above, dear brother Francis, we come with great concern and with hopeful expectation to ask you to continue to champion the God-given dignity of our indigenous brothers and sisters. We come to plead that before the world Conference on Indigenous Peoples in UN (September 2014) you act with courage and holy resolve to formally revoke the Papal Bulls quoted above. We recognize that this would be a symbolic gesture; however symbols are very meaningful and powerful in the Church and in the world.
Such an act of moral leadership from you would proclaim a dignity and respect too long denied the indigenous peoples throughout the globe. Additionally, it would challenge the governments to repudiate the policies that brought prosperity to them but untold suffering to the indigenous peoples. At the same time, will promote that governments and the Churches explore how they might contribute to restorative justice in the face of five centuries characterized by dispossession and alienation.
We thank you in anticipation and pray for you in your weighty task of service to all people.
The following religious non-governmental organizations in the United Nations,
PASSIONISTS INTERNATIONAL (CONGREGATION OF THE PASSION OF JESUS CHRIST; SISTERS OF THE CROSS AND PASSION; HIJAS DE LA PASION DE JESUCRISTO Y MARIA DOLOROSA).
SISTERS OF CHARITY FEDERATION.
SISTERS OF NOTRE DAME OF NAMUR.
MEDICAL MISSION SISTERS.
CURIA GENERALIZIA AGOSTINIANA. AUGUSTINIANS INTERNATIONAL.
MISSIONARY OBLATES OF MARY IMMACULATE.
PARTNERSHIP FOR GLOBAL JUSTICE.
CONGREGATIONS OF SAINT JOSEPH.