The president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has called the Supreme Court’s ruling affirming marriage equality nationwide a “tragic error.”
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky ended his press statement with this call: “I ask all in positions of power and authority to respect the God-given freedom to seek, live by, and bear witness to the truth.”
This has been a week that has called many “truths” into question.
We have become only too familiar with the gentrified, uptown Ku Klux Klan ideology of the Council of Conservative Citizens that inspired one young, white man to be so filled with hate that he murdered nine African Americans who had welcomed him into their church. It is an ideology that openly asserts: “God is the author of racism. God is the One who divided mankind into different types. … Mixing the races is rebelliousness against God.” As recently as 2007, the Citizen Informer, published and distributed by the Council of Conservative Citizens declared:
“We believe the United States is a European country and that Americans are part of the European people . . . that illegal aliens must be returned to their own countries; and that legal immigration must be severely restricted or halted through appropriate changes in our laws and policies. We also oppose all efforts to mix the races of mankind, to promote non-white races over the European-American people through so-called ‘affirmative action’ and similar measures, to destroy or denigrate the European-American heritage, including the heritage of the Southern people, and to force the integration of the races.”
This is language that should sound familiar to Catholics and others who understand how Papal Bulls provided the foundation for another set of beliefs: the Doctrine of Discovery.
In 1452, Pope Nicholas V authorized Europeans to “capture, vanquish, and subdue the saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ,” to “put them into perpetual slavery,” and “to take all their possessions and property.” A second Papal Bull in 1493 from Pope Alexander gave European explorers like Columbus further justification for the brutal colonization and killing of native peoples and the seizure of their lands in the name of Jesus Christ, because the people that inhabited them were no more than “brute animals.”
That was the basis for the unanimous US court ruling of 1823 in the Johnson vs M’Intosh case in which Justice John Marshall relied on the “doctrine” to make the case for the rights of the colonists to acquire Indian land efficiently and cheaply. Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape), co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, points to a United States government publication, authorized by Congress, that makes clear that land law in territories where Spain first laid claim, including Florida, Texas, California, Arizona, New Mexico, and elsewhere, “trace back to the Prerogatives granted to Columbus and to the Alexandrine papal documents of the Christian empire of 1493. We cannot comfort ourselves with the thought that this was just one of the more unfortunate events of a history long past. In 2005, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, cited the Doctrine of Discovery in ruling against the Oneida Indian Nation in a land claim case.
In this year of a much anticipated visit by Pope Francis to the United States, Catholics have reason to hope that all in positions of power and authority respond to the call already made by many women religious to repudiate a doctrine so utterly contrary to the teaching of Christ.
More recently, following the killing, one after another, of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and the racism writ large in the cities of Ferguson, Missouri; McKinney, Texas; Baltimore, Maryland; and Cleveland, Ohio, Marianist Sr. Nicole Trahan asked the question: “What is God saying to us in this moment of our history?
Sr. Nicole’s question preceded the violence that unfolded in Mother Emanuel church, violence that has made her question ever more urgent.What are we, as Catholics, saying in response to this moment in history?
People across the political spectrum seem to be coming together in the belief that one conspicuous symbol of the country’s history of slavery and oppression must go. In expressing the opposition of the USCCB to the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality, Archbishop Kurtz vowed that “As Catholic bishops, we follow our Lord and will continue to teach and to act” according to the truth as Jesus taught it.
It’s time then for the bishops to join the women religious in asking Pope Francis to publicly repudiate the odious, dehumanizing Doctrine of Discovery. It has no more business giving heft to our laws or playing a part in our civic life than the Confederate flag.
Will we hear as much from the pulpits? Will we say as much from the pews?