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
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
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.