As a newcomer to western Canada working in Indigenous communities in 1990, I vividly recall trying to console the children of a couple that had just perished in a car crash. The loss was devastating. But they had just been told that their parents were killed – and were now burning in hell – because they were on their way to participate in a sinful activity.
This in a community where the clergy still refused to bury anyone who took their own life in the cemetery and where people recalled their suicidal relatives being buried head downwards so they would get to hell faster. No mention of the possibility that being molested by clergymen or tormented in a boarding school might have contributed to such suicidal behaviour. They were already in hell.
In recent days, we have seen flags flown at half-mast here in town as news of the horrifying discovery of unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School began to spread. I can’t believe anyone is surprised or shocked. It wasn’t just a few bad apples. It is the inevitable symptom of a system that enjoyed cross-party, multi-denominational and widespread public support for many years here in Canada. But the continuing refusal of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate who ran the Kamloops "school" to release their records of this dismal time, along with their continuing and nauseating self-portrayal as a beacon of peace and healing in a troubled world, is symptomatic of a deeper malaise.
I know many individual Catholics who are profoundly noble, courageous and spiritually evolved human beings. I also have several dear friends who were raped by Catholic priests as children. On the whole, there can be no doubt the Catholic Church has played a consistently malignant role in human affairs, which it belatedly attempts to whitewash.
The script has been consistent for centuries. All too often the infliction of suffering justified by a higher purpose. Usually unmarked graves and shattered lives. Always cover up. Wherever you look, its fingerprints can be found on the wrong side of history – from the horrors of the Inquisition and the Albigensian massacres, to the Croatian extermination camps and the Rwandan genocide, from the Magdalene laundries to its ambiguous silence in the face of the Holocaust. But let’s leave aside for a moment the church’s historic record when it comes to heretics, pagans, women, scientists, LGBTQ people and Jews.
It has yet to repudiate the various edicts and papal bulls that make up the Doctrine of Discovery, which some would say continues to offer moral cover and theological justification for the colonial project that unleashed 500 years of unimaginable brutality and subjugation across the Americas. As the horrors of that legacy continue to be unearthed in this time of truth and reconciliation, there are some truths I’m having a hard time reconciling.
There seems to be plenty of money to build new Catholic churches and schools here in town to ensure a new generation of the faithful. And yet 20 minutes down the road, in the community of Morley that has one of the highest youth suicide rates on the planet, educators have to beg for a few handouts to be able to offer what they themselves know are little more than irrelevant Band-Aids.
We leave a few tiny shoes on the steps of buildings, but we have normalized the institutions and ideologies that made dehumanization and massacre possible. We’ve baked them into our civic infrastructure and constitution alike and accorded them a respect that they have not earned.
I love this country. And I love this valley and its kaleidoscope of human and more than human inhabitants. And I believe with all my heart in the possibility of respectful co-existence and a flourishing future for all.
But you don’t undo the legacy of a 100-plus years of violent oppression with a quick apology and a vague promise to "listen" to the victims. It will take a commensurate degree of time, commitment and resources. Something like a 100 year commitment to helping to undo the legacy of a system that was explicitly designed, according the Oblate bishop of St. Albert, to make Indigenous children “forget the customs, habits and language of their ancestors.”
How about a 100 years of learning? A 100 years of meaningfully supporting resilience and renewal with more than just empty words, vacuous apologies and a pained expression? In 2015, Pope Francis urged Catholics to be unafraid of change and suggested that “we are not living in an era of change but a change of era.”
I think we can all feel the truth of those words in our bones as we grapple with the social and ecological consequences that have flowed from the ideologies and actions of those that came before us. It’s quite the inheritance. But the malevolent shadow of the church has managed to slip unscathed between eras many times before.
If you continue to fund, uplift and remain silent within a church – any church – that continues to deny and cover up its legacy of systemic harm, then, no matter your good works, you too sit with the congregation of the complicit. We all do.
With grief, rage and a heart cracked wide open