Catholic Classroom: Indigenous Peoples
Question: What does the Church teach about indigenous peoples?
The colonization of many areas around the world, including (but not limited to) the Americas and Australia, has caused much devastation and sorrow for indigenous peoples. In its noble efforts to evangelize and bring the Gospel to all people, some members of the Catholic Church have historically participated in negative ways in this colonization. Pope Francis has said, “Here I wish to be quite clear, as was St. John Paul II: I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”
Any discussion of relationships between people needs to begin with the understanding that all human beings are equal in dignity because they are made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27). Thus, no human being or group of people is inherently more valuable than another. No matter how different indigenous peoples were from the groups that colonized them, they were no worse or better. Sadly, this is something many colonists failed to recognize or respect.
In more recent times, we have seen the ongoing effects that colonization still has for indigenous peoples. For many indigenous groups, this means threats to their land, culture, language, and stability. In Scripture, St. Paul writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). St. Paul here is not denying the differences between groups; rather, he is reaffirming their equal dignity in Christ.
What this teaches us is that indigenous peoples did not and do not need to become like their European colonizers in order to become part of the Body of Christ. On the contrary, the Church should embrace a diversity of cultures, including the cultures of indigenous peoples, and be grateful for the blessing of different experiences and expressions of faith. Indigenous groups have something unique to contribute to the very pillars of the Church that no other group can replicate. In the words of Fr. James Kubicki, National Director of the Apostleship of Prayer, "The Church is a diversity of people and the Church doesn't want to take away people's culture in order to make them Christian."
This means that our faith teaches us not only to embrace indigenous peoples in the faith, but also to stand with them in respect for their rights. In a 2015 speech in Bolivia, Pope Francis said,
To our brothers and sisters in the Latin American indigenous movement, allow me to express my deep affection and appreciation of their efforts to bring peoples and cultures together in a form of coexistence which I would call polyhedric, where each group preserves its own identity by building together a plurality which does not threaten but rather reinforces unity.
As Christians, we are responsible for standing with our indigenous brothers and sisters to defend their right to live peacefully in keeping with their own cultures. It is only just that groups independently determine the ways in which they live.