NEWS 2005


An Open Letter to the Vatican:

Pope Fails Indigenous Peoples on Important Fronts

April 2005 (copyright)

Tony Castana

(The writer was the Project Director of the indigenous peoples' delegation to the Vatican in the Year 2000.)

Pope John Paul II's recent death has stirred a kind of global frenzy for an individual unparalleled in modern times. As millions have mourned and gathered to pay tribute to him, some have chosen to step back and reflect upon the meaning of the third longest papal tenure in history.

The pope's longevity is indeed intimately tied to his legacy for many have never known another pontiff. Even many who abhor his extreme conservatism inevitably saw him as a great patriarch, a Reaganesque type figure who would ultimately "bring home the bacon." He will certainly be remembered as a man who took bold stands on an array of social justice and human rights issues. His role in bringing down the communist system across Europe will undoubtedly endure for a long time to come. In his later years, he spoke out heartily against the pitfalls of capitalism. And
his stance against the war in Iraq highlighted his abhorrence to violence and war.

While most praise John Paul, some simply view his legacy as a polarizing one filled with contradictions. For indigenous peoples, the role of the Roman Catholic Church in terms of tokenism and cultural demise has always been very real. The pope's legacy of support and justice for indigenous peoples was highly controversial in certain important areas.

The pope seemed to be less than genuine in his practical support for the poor. In Latin America, he censored and silenced numerous theologians and scholars for their advocacy of liberation theology, which called for political, social and economic reforms and freedom for the poor and oppressed. This was most painfully realized in Brazil in the 1980s. His dogmatic approach to the issue was largely rationalized because the movement basically sounded "Marxist," and thus inclined toward "atheism."
Some view the papacy's establishment of tangible programs in aiding the poor to be largely symbolic, but rather gestures that consolidated the power and prestige of the church.

While the pope was clearly an inspiration to millions, half of the world's population, including many indigenous peoples, continues to live in poverty today. What have been the practical consequences of his legacy on them, and the 1.3 billion people who live in extreme poverty? Other than heads of State, most people of other faiths and beliefs simply do not know or care to know the pope. The pontiff is really the symbolic leader of the Western Christian world. And the Western Christian world usually gets what it wants when it comes to overly excessive and biased media coverage.

One issue kept densely veiled is the Catholic Church's means of upholding the converted. This was exemplified during the pope's final visit to Mexico in 2002. Though seeped in contradiction, John Paul's trip was hailed as nothing less than spectacular. Some two million Mexicans attended the
various events staged during his three-day visit. The pope was in Mexico City to canonize and beatify, and even received a kiss on his ring from Mexican president Vicente Fox, breaking a 140 year taboo revealing in part "the clandestine relationship between Mexican leaders and the church" (AP, August 2, 2002).

Underlying the visit was church's concern about "Protestant gains" in Mexico, and reinforcing its appeal to the Indian people to counter the threat. One of the ways of doing this was to canonize the first Indian saint in the Americas, Juan Diego. Diego is purported to have seen the Virgin Mary in 1531, and the pope called him "a catalyst in the conversion of millions of Indians to Christianity" (AP, August 1, 2002). Paradoxi- cally, there is no hard evidence proving the historical existence of Diego. In other words, Juan Diego probably never existed.

It did not seem to daunt the pope that the church was the root cause of the cultural genocide against the Mexica and Maya in the conversion process to begin with. However, the continued bleaching of the Indian soul and deeply embedded racism of the church was most prominently revealed when church officials changed the official church portrait of Diego, painted in the 1500s, from "dark skin" to "pale." This act appeared to be totally unnecessary as the pope obviously appeared to be enjoying himself while admiring and "blessing" the numerous Indian dancers and performers throughout his stay!

Encouragingly, the pope did specifically call for greater sensitivity and support for Mexico's indigenous peoples. While the spectacle ensued, however, some Mexicans were offended regarding the beatification of two Zapotec Indians. The two men were informants working for the colonial church to stamp out Indian religious culture and non-Christian ceremonies and practices. In 1700, they reported to authorities about an Indian ceremony being performed. Enraged because they felt betrayed, Zapotec villagers then executed the two.

The church is obviously well informed about the event. In accounts made public they reported that fellow villagers "dragged them, hung them and finally decapitated them, cut open their sides to pull out their hearts and gave them to the dogs" (AP, August 1, 2002). To put such a gruesome account into proper perspective, we must remember that this type of butchery was all too common among the conquistadors. The Spaniards had been committing similar atrocities in Mexico since their arrival in 1520, but obviously on a much larger scale. Yet, in the Year 2002, the church decided to beatify the "martyrs," even though they were traitors to their own culture and people, and despite those who the church knew would be offended, including descendants of the Zapotecs.

While the pope often spoke great words of kindness and certainly appeared to be well intentioned, the actions of the Catholic Church, couched in the spectacle of religious deception, are often deplorable. If the pope and church were truly sensitive and respected the rights and needs of indigenous peoples, they would not have beatified these two men, nor canonized Diego. However, the UNDERLYING MISSION of the visit took precedence over everything else. The church's fear of losing "its converts," albeit to another Christian sect, reveals its deep-seated past of religious intolerance and spiritual greed.

Perhaps the most important indigenous rights issue presented to the Vatican and Pope John Paul concerned the revocation of the 1493 papal bull Inter Caetera. This was the decree handed to Columbus on his second voyage to the Americas. It established Christian dominion and called for
the subjugation of non-Christian peoples and seizure of their lands. Consequently, tens of millions of indigenous peoples around the world were exterminated in the colonial process.

The Vatican is historically very familiar with the issue. The Carib Indian people publically rejected the "papal donation" early on. According to A. Garcia, the Indian people who had been taken to Cartagena commented, "The Pope must have been mad when he did so, for he was giving what was not his." Writing in 1519, Martin Fernandez de Enciso explained in his Suma de Geografia how the indigenous peoples of the province of "Cenu" reacted to the reading of the requerimiento based on the papal bull:

They answered me that regarding what it said about there being only one God who governed heaven and earth and who was lord of all, that seemed fine to them, but in so far as what it said about the pope being lord of the universe in God's place, and that he donated the land to the king of Castilla, they said the pope must have been drunk when he did that because he gave what was not his to give, and that the king who asked for and took the grant must have been crazy because he asked for what belonged to others, and that he should go there to take it so they could hang his head from a stick as they had hung other heads . . . belonging to their enemies . . . and they said that they were lords of their land and did not need another lord.

In the latter half of the 20th century, a modern movement calling for the revocation of Inter Caetera arose. In 1972, a telegram was sent to the Vatican by American Indian Movement activists during the Trail of Broken Treaties caravan that occupied Washington, D.C. They had asked the pope to annul the 1493 decree. In a letter to Pope John Paul in 1993, the Indigenous Law Institute based in the United States formally requested the revocation of Inter Caetera. And an annual papal bulls burning event commenced in Honolulu, Hawai'i in 1997 calling international attention to the issue.

In October 2000, an indigenous peoples' delegation went to Italy pressing for the revocation of Inter Caetera. They had a formal request for an audience with the pope endorsed by the Bishop of Honolulu. The nine delegates sought to take the Catholic Church up on their amends during their Jubilee Year. In 1998, the pope had called Christianity's 2,000th anniversary a year of mercy, seeking forgiveness, atonement and wanting the church to enter the new millennium with a "clear conscience."

The audience was turned down. Instead, a blanket apology had been issued earlier in the year by the Vatican for past crimes against various groups, including indigenous peoples. Ironically, the pope's apology was to "God," and not to the descendants of the victims of the atrocities committed to
which the church needed to take responsibility for. "The pope failed us," said Eric Po'ohina, a Kanaka Maoli delegate from Hawai'i and member of the indigenous rights' organization Kosmos Indigena. "We traveled half way around the world in the Aloha spirit only to be given a token gesture of welcome." Remarked Carib/Boricua Indian decendant Tony Castana, "Although the pope could not bear to meet with us, he was a good man. We will continue to educate the public on the meaning of this document and advocate for its repeal."

The Vatican has yet to directly address or come to terms with the greatest holocaust of the modern era, the American Holocaust. As vicar of Christ, the pope failed to make amends with indigenous peoples on this most critical of issues. He missed a "golden opportunity" to do so. The pope's stand on a number of other important indigenous issues was also not straightforward and minimal in outcome.