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Popes go to confession. Like everyone else, they have personal sins to acknowledge.

Popes can also confess the sins of the entire church. At the beginning of the new millennium, John Paul II famously offered a litany of mea culpa’s, asking forgiveness for, among other things, the Inquisition, centuries of Christian antisemitism, and the church’s chronic denial of the dignity of women.

This summer Pope Francis offered a historic apology of his own.

In July, he travelled some 9,000 miles roundtrip to communicate his deep shame and sorrow to the Indigenous peoples of Canada. Before a global television audience, he confessed the injustice of the now notorious boarding schools, the church-sponsored institutions which were designed to destroy Native cultures and have caused generations of unspeakable trauma.

Pope Francis called his journey a “penitential pilgrimage.”

He also called it a “first step.” He pledged to launch an investigation into all the facts and especially the “colonizing mentality” that has motivated church officials for centuries. “I will continue to encourage,” he said, “the efforts of all Catholics to support the indigenous peoples.”

What Pope Francis did not mention is the Doctrine of Discovery: the claim articulated by popes of the age of Columbus, asserting the authority of Christian throne and altar over the lands and peoples of what Europeans 500 years ago were dubbing the New World.

The doctrine eventually became a principle of U.S. law. Some scholars point to it as the genesis of modern racism.

In recent years, several churches and denominations have repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery—from the Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church to the Unitarian Universalist Association. The Catholic Church has not renounced it.

Today, Indigenous groups and their allies are calling upon the Vatican to rescind the doctrine.

This is where Catholic universities come in. David O’Brien, longtime historian at Holy Cross, defines the Catholic university as the place “where the church does its thinking.” By this he doesn’t mean an ivory tower for idle speculation or an echo chamber simply reaffirming all things Catholic. The Catholic university, as O’Brien sees it, lives up to its definition when it cultivates courageous critical thinking and exposes uncomfortable truths—truths that lead to a reckoning with the past and a commitment to institutional change.

On the topic of the Catholic tradition and Indigenous peoples, there’s much thinking of this sort to be done.

At Benedictine, we have taken our own first step and sketched out what ought to be the next.

This past spring, at the Teach-In on Social Justice and our Interfaith Baccalaureate services, our Academic Affairs Division debuted Benedictine’s first-ever Land Acknowledgment statement. Composed by faculty and staff from our Illinois and Arizona campuses, the statement expresses the University’s respect for the Indigenous peoples of our regions and recognizes our moral obligation to put that respect into action: to study our own past, including our complicity with the “colonizing mentality” the pope rightly condemns, and to work for justice today.

This fall, as we launch the Center for Benedictine Values, we will devote three Friday afternoons to faculty and staff Zoom dialogues on the Doctrine of Discovery and its tragic legacy. We’ll begin with Pueblo (Tewa) writer Sarah Augustine, who will join us for a discussion of her book The Land is Not Empty: Following Jesus in Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery. Subsequent programs will feature other prominent writers, scholars, and activists on related topics.

Watch the Center for Benedictine Values calendar for these events and other programs throughout the year, as we seek ever more faithfully to enact our vision of fostering a transformative educational experience grounded in Benedictine values!

Dr. Peter A. Huff
Director, Center for Benedictine Value

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