Roermond Catholic Church, Holland (Picture Source)
Is Catholic Church evil and was the Church responsible for the genocide of millions of Native Americans and Africans in the Americas? This is the topic of debate that emerged after I exchanged some views with a reader who didn’t like my Amazon book review that criticized the work of “New Left” wing authors/academics. You can read the full comments Here.
But anyhow, my contention in the following comment is that holding the Catholic Church responsible for the crimes against humanity during the colonial age, especially in the sixteenth century, that saw the destruction and occupation of the Americas is simplistic and reductive. still, I leave the question open for debate. Maybe some well-informed Catholics out there could tell us something about the Catholic Church’s OFFICIAL position as to how should European colonists treat the native populations? I welcome all well-informed, historically valid comments and contributions. Following is my own comment posted in response:
Thanks again for the comments.
I think you’re committing a minor error in how you read and interpret your information, and it warps your conclusions. You’re quoting incidents from the sixteenth century and judging them with modern standards. Moreover, the picture is far more complex than what you take it to be. In the sixteenth century, religion and the Bible in Europe (represented–usually–by the Church in Rome) encompassed everything–politics, law, culture, arts, music, literature and so on. Publicly, everyone was a Christian/Catholic by default whether he or she wanted to be one or not.
All heads of the states had to have Pope’s formal blessings to be in power. In fact the Pope/s, at times, may have acted as substitute Roman emperor. HOWEVER, in reality, he hardly was. The Church of Rome and its Pope had no army, the only tangible proof of real power and authority in that period. Rather, the Church exerted its authority over rulers through a complex mix of moral authority and, shall we say, ecclesiastical diplomacy. There was always a struggle for power going on between the real rulers of respective countries in Europe and Pope whose moral authorization they, theoretically, needed. In fact, most rulers hated the Catholic Church’s interference in their affairs.
For our purposes, we should look at the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547) in England. The Church so loved Henry VIII’s persecution of religious minorities (and his public affirmations of Catholic doctrine) that he was rewarded with the title the Defender of the Faith in 1521 by Pope Leo X. However, when Henry wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Ann Boleyn, the Pope refused to grant the divorce. It was enough for Henry to give Pope the finger and turn England into a “Protestant” country in the 1530s. This proves that despite Church’s official backing of emperors, it had no real authority over any government (or trade for that matter) policies of respective countries. Beginning in 1558, Henry VIII’s daughter Elizabeth I continued her father’s policy of official Protestantism. It incensed the Catholic Church so much that it issued official injunction urging all “Catholics” to assassinate England’s Queen. Even in the sixteenth century the Catholic Church could hardly be said to run the lives of European Christians. It was nice to obey the Church when it suited their own purposes.
By the way, “Protestant” England too enthusiastically exploited and persecuted natives and was actively involved in the hideous slave trade in which millions of Africans died. My point is that these crimes against humanity occurred in the colonial times– Catholic Church or no Catholic Church. The Catholic Church did not have any direct authority over whatever colonial forces (or European traders, fur trappers and fishermen for that matter) did in the lands across the Atlantic.
As for your comments about the “Catholic” Church’s role in the subjugation of Native Americans, you did not mention what Catholic Church’s official position on the subjugation of the Natives was (according to Bartolome De Las Casas’s book). I would be most interested to know about it. Do we have official Vatican documents that ordered or endorsed the subjugation and genocide of Native Americans? Is there such documentary evidence available? My understanding is that the Church’s official position was to evangelize, convert and “save” the Natives, not kill them.
Lastly, let me now take a jump out of the sixteenth century and talk of the present. Hardt and Negri were writing most of their books after the year 2000. In the last 100 years the Church has gone through immense changes and many positive developments have occurred. The Church’s official stance against the capitalist greed and support for the world’s poor is well known. Also, the Liberation theology movement in Latin America, as far as I know, emerged autonomously with the efforts of Latin Americans. The Vatican endorsed it later. That again proves that there is–and never was– a direct central command from the Vatican that decides anything (good or bad) “Catholic” individuals do.