In some fashion we all are guilty of perpetuating lies and rationalizing omissions. Sometimes following the politically correct advice of, “if you can’t say anything nice don’t say anything at all,” and in polite company avoiding race, religion, and people’s mothers effectively eliminates the possibility of accurate historical presentation and dialog.
Recently, MPCPMP was confronted with the choice of the ends justifying the means when we worked to install a historic marker in St. Augustine. A representative of one of the event’s supporting institutions restricted participants to those of the Judeo-Christian faiths for any activities on the grounds of the Mission Nombre de Dios. Originally, plans included a libation to the ancestors and other observances based upon inclusion of diverse religious beliefs and practices. We were told that there could be no “Call to Prayer” by Muslims, no smudging and blessing by Native Americans, no traditional libation for ancestors by an African spiritual adviser, and no statement by Buddhists. According to him, all these fell under the definition of non-believers and animism. This could not be allowed on what the Church defined as “sacred ground.” To add insult to injury, this person interpreted the history of the Catholic Church related to African enslavement in a biased and incorrect manner. Denying any complicity in the enslavement of Africans in the Western Hemisphere, the narrative presented to us was of a religious institution that treated these “poor victims” humanely by caring for their spiritual and physical needs. As a result of these restrictions, a choice had to be made. Although the MPCPMP does not agree with the Church’s position, we decided that having the historic marker installed that identifies St. Augustine as the first European/African/Native American settlement on the U.S. mainland outweighed any other considerations, so we opted for two events, involving representatives of other faith practices in a separate remembrance ceremony on the nearby north lawn of the Castillo de San Marcos while holding the marker unveiling at the Mission.
Admittedly history is messy, contradictory, sometimes quite brutal, seldom progressive, but that’s because it is about human beings. While everyone would like to put the best foot forward, the Inquisition, Pope Pius XII’s silence in World War II against Hitler and the Holocaust, and Las Casas’ advocating initially for African enslavement to spare the decimation of indigenous populations in the New World are just a few examples of the Church’s ugly clay feet rather than its halo.
Continuing through generations and centuries, church and state were frequently inseparable, especially in Europe. In 1493, one year after Columbus arrived in the Americas, the Pope by the Treaty of Tordesillas divided the New World into two European domains. The division known as the Line of Demarcation by which all of the New World except Brazil was assigned to Spain, and West Africa, as the prime source of enslaved labor for exploiting New World resources, was designated to Portugal. The stipulation of the Church was that just as long as the souls (African and Native American) were branded, baptized, and inventoried for the greater glory of God, their bodies could be oppressed. It is disingenuous to represent this settlement as a region where Spanish priests treated these captives justly simply because they were given access to the sacraments. Even as baptized Christians, if they were not free but enslaved, they were not treated humanely, no matter how often they confessed, received the Eucharist, or participated in Church practice.
This was not limited to Florida (which originally encompassed all of North America from Canada to what is now Texas), but repeated in Central and South America as well. The Church cannot hide behind its need to sustain itself as an explanation for allowing and condoning enslavement. This is a slam dunk- not a slippery slope. In two of the West’s most traditionally Catholic nations, Brazil and Cuba, slavery lasted the longest, and it was race-based. How can the Church wiggle out of that?
Porto Bello, Panama, has a church that is gilded with gold mined by enslaved Africans. It was at this port that the Spanish Empire collected all the precious metals and gems from the east coasts of Central and South America destined for Spain. The same holds true for Cuba. Gilded churches are found throughout the Americas, usually built upon sacred temple grounds of indigenous people. What primary institution other than the State benefited directly from the enslavement of Africans? It was the Church that blessed the ships – coming with captive Africans and leaving with gold, silver, and other valuables.
Throughout much of its history the Church has been complicit and active in the oppression and exploitation of people. An outgrowth of this history is the social gospel that today challenges traditional Catholicism and is increasingly popular in the West, where the legacy of poverty, oppression, and racism is evident. Presently, there is tension between the clergy who support this theology and demand that the institution become a force in making social change, and some established leaders who support the status quo. There is data that supports the fact that the Church is losing members as Pentecostal, evangelical denominations, and Mormons make inroads into populations who know too well the role Catholicism has had in their societies.
Hopefully, Pope Francis as the first Latin American prelate will confront this history and apologize for the part the Roman Catholic Church had in this inhumane practice over centuries. After all, St. Peter Claver in Columbia, St. Martin de Pores in Peru, and the Italian St. Benedict the Moor are insufficient examples to excuse or dismiss a 500 year history of supporting and enabling the enslavement and oppression of fellow human beings in the Western Hemisphere. And if Catholic means universal there should not be such resistance to the faith practices of others; after all, that has been one of the Church’s strengths over centuries – borrowing and incorporating traditions of others.