June 14, 2007 - Issue 233
Color of Law
On the Pope, Paternalism and Purifying the Savages
By David A. Love
During his recent trip to Latin America, Pope Benedict XVI offended millions when he arrogantly suggested that Catholicism had purified indigenous populations, and called the resurgence of indigenous religions a step backward. He also said the native populations were longing for Christianity, and had welcomed the Catholic priests at the time of European conquest.
He tried to clean it up afterwards by noting the, "sufferings and injustices inflicted by the colonizers on the indigenous populations whose human and basic rights often were trampled," but the damage was done.
The Pope seems to have selective amnesia when it comes to the Church and its horrendous history of human rights disasters against people of color. This happens at a time when Catholicism is becoming an increasingly southern religion and an increasingly brown religion. Roughly half of Catholics are in Latin America. Not only is the Pope out of step with the needs and everyday realities of the Third World, he is not speaking their language, and not owning up to the sins of the past.
Religious institutions have excused, aided and abetted crimes throughout history. Indeed, the church has much to atone for. There are three bulls (edicts, or executive orders, if you will) issued by the Papacy with which we should concern ourselves. The Dum Diversas, issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1452, authorized King Alfonso V of Portugal to reduce any "Saracens (Muslims) and pagans and any other unbelievers" to perpetual slavery, thereby ushering in the West African slave trade.
The Romanus Pontifex, also issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1455, sanctioned the seizure of non-Christian lands, and encouraged the enslavement of non-Christian people in Africa and the Americas. Specifically, it gave the green light to "invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed," all for profit, and in the name of Jesus Christ.
The Inter Caetera, signed by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, states, "... we (the Papacy) command you (Spain) ... to instruct the aforesaid inhabitants and residents and dwellers therein in the Catholic faith, and train them in good morals." This papal law sanctioned and paved the way for European colonization and Catholic missions in the New World.
These three edicts opened the floodgates for everything that followed, the raping, pillaging, kidnapping, genocide and enslavement of millions. They established the groundwork for the global slave trade of the 15th and 16th centuries, and the Age of Imperialism. Speaking of organized crime, at this time I'm reminded of a famous line from the movie The Godfather, referring to the drug trade: "In my city, we'd keep the traffic in the Dark People, the Coloreds - they're animals anyway, so let them lose their souls."
Despite the changing color of the church, there has been no pope from outside Europe in centuries, since the days of the African popes. And today, the current pope seems to want to perpetuate the paternalism and the racism of the past. The church is behind the times and out of step with the modern world and the needs of the poor. Its unhealthy view toward sexuality has destroyed the innocence of youth, through child abuse scandals. Its homophobia is callous and hypocritical. And its condemnation of reproductive freedom and contraception—stemming from a vow of celibacy for priests and nuns that had more to do with preventing clergy from having heirs who would inherit church property, and less to do with spirituality—is irresponsible, in light of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, home to the lion's share of AIDS cases.
In Brazil, Pentecostalismism is on the rise. There have been efforts to incorporate African rites and drums into Catholic services, in an effort to become more dynamic and more relevant. Yet, in the most African nation outside of Africa, and the world's largest Roman Catholic nation, there are only 11 Black bishops out of 400.
In Latin America, liberation theology remains influential. This school of theology, which focuses on social justice and political activism for the poor, challenges people in high places, and views Jesus as liberator of the oppressed, is rejected by the Vatican. In fact, Pope Benedict has devoted his career to eradicating liberation theology and its supporters, which he rejects as Marxist-inspired, and "a threat to the faith of the church."
What we are witnessing is the ancient struggle between imperial religion—the arrogant manipulation of God to endorse the powerful, protect the rich and maintain the status quo—and the use of faith as a force for social change. Look at the Christian Right's endorsement of Bush as "God's President," as he presides over the largest transfer of wealth in the nation's history, turns his back on New Orleans, appoints Christian Right attorneys to suppress the voting rights of African Americans, and sponsors the carnage taking place in Iraq. And on the other hand, remember Gandhi, who used Hindu spirituality and civil disobedience to liberate India from the British Empire. Remember Dr. King, who condemned Jim Crow segregation, poverty at home and an immoral war in Vietnam, as conservative Christians met him with brutality and death threats and moderate Christian clergy urged him to slow down. This is nothing new.
No longer can the great father on high dictate to the masses of colored children. Eradicating poverty, empowering the weak and seeking justice for all are the wave of the future. Glorifying a past that was a nightmare to many, and denying people their basic dignity and cultural self-determination, the Pope and other rusty, outdated institutions must get on the right side of justice, or find themselves relegated to the dustbin of history.
BC Columnist David A. Love is an attorney based in Philadelphia, and a contributor to the Progressive Media Project and McClatchy-Tribune News Service. He contributed to the book, States of Confinement: Policing, Detention and Prisons (St. Martin's Press, 2000). Love is a former spokesperson for the Amnesty International UK National Speakers Tour, and organized the first national police brutality conference as a staff member with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights. He served as a law clerk to two Black federal judges. Click here to contact Mr. Love.