Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Pope and the Indians

Acting as if he were the latest incarnation of the dark and ominous priests who blessed the European conquests of the New World and the dismembering of its native cultures, Pope Benedict XVI declared while visiting Brazil yesterday that the Roman Catholic Church had purified America's natives, and that a revival of their religions would be a backward step.

The Church, the Pope added, had not imposed itself on the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Rather, he said, they had welcomed the arrival of European priests at the time of the conquest since they were "silently longing" for Christianity.

Indian leaders in Brazil and elsewhere reacted with outrage and disgust, and called the Pope's comments "arrogant and disrespectful." That's putting it mildly. This Pope, a former German cardinal, known as a serious scholar and accomplished theologian, has once again shown himself to be an ignorant and deluded fanatic who seems hell-bent on destroying what's left of the Church hierarchy's reputation.

Beginning with the gross and disgusting crimes against the Arawak people by Christopher Columbus, who was not particularly interested in converting them to Christianity, the European conquest of the Americas shifted into high gear with Hernan Cortez's Church-sanctioned invasion of Mexico shortly before 1520. By 1522, with his destruction of the Aztec Empire accomplished, Cortez began the systematic decapitation of native culture, replacing indigenous languages with Spanish and the MesoAmerican religions with Catholicism, whose cathedrals and churches soon became the central features of every city, town, and hamlet in New Spain.

An unintended but nevertheless useful consequence (in terms of easing the conquest) of the Europeans' arrival was the sudden unleashing of diseases against which the natives offered no acquired resistance. Some of these were brought by the Spanish themselves, and others by the animals or vermin that accompanied them. Unknown numbers, perhaps 90 percent, of the Indians died of these various pestilences.

By the time the aging Indian who called himself Juan Diego experienced his celebrated vision of the Virgin of Guadalupe in 1529, the conquest of Mexico was complete. But Juan Diego's Catholicism blended elements of the old Aztec religion with Roman orthodoxy; his Virgin incorporated elements of the Indian moon goddess Tonantzin. Fragments of the shattered Aztec culture remain embedded in Mexican Catholicism to this day, from its exuberant idolatry to the old native death cult preserved in its bleeding crucifixes.

The European conquest of the rest of what would become Latin America followed in quick succession, although the Portuguese reduction of Brazil's Indians was slower, less comprehensive, and continues down to the present day. Deep in the remaining rain forests of the Amazon basin, Indians are still being brutalized and torn from their old lifeways as more and more of their ancestral lands are "developed."

The conquest continues, and this is what made the Pope's ahistorical remarks yesterday so profoundly offensive. "We repudiate the Pope's comments," said Sandro Tuxa, a Catholic priest and Brazilian Indian who heads the movement of northeastern tribes. "To say the cultural decimation of our people represents a purification is offensive, and frankly, frightening."

The tragedy in all this is that Tuxa and thousands like him throughout the region are the voice of the Church at the grassroots, which is often doing necessary and courageous work among dispossessed people who have no other advocates. If the Church was an irrelevant artifact of the past from head to root, the Pope's profound stupidity wouldn't matter. But the roots are still viable, and apparently the Catholic Church is that most unusual of institutions, rotten mainly at the top.

No comments: