The Catholic Church body organising the 2023 Universal Synod on Synodality in Rome has strongly deplored the church’s ‘oppressive’ abuse of power in the past and re-emphasised the principle of the equality of dignity of all baptised members of the church.
The document states that:
“The [Church’s] need for mercy and forgiveness also reaches into the past, not least for the ways in which the Church has consciously and unconsciously been an agent of oppression…The Church herself comes to recognise that she cannot secure her existence by the accumulation of power but only from God, in whom is all her strength and security.”
The document does not give a detailed list of these historic abuses of power but predicts a ‘more extensive treatment’ of those, ‘drawing on the experience of the whole church’. This may indicate that the October 2023 general synod in Rome will initiate that ‘more extensive treatment’.
The ‘Doctrine of Discovery’
Pope Francis is currently in dialogue with Canadian bishops with regard to the so-called ‘doctrine of discovery’ – the historic church statements that encouraged the seizure by European nominally Christian conquerors of lands belonging to indigenous peoples (and not just in Canada) during the ‘age of discovery’ that followed 15th century voyages of global exploration begun by Portugal and Spain. A statement on this has been promised soon.
As the Catholic church becomes more global, with expanding membership in Afica and Asia, it could make sense for the church’s leadership to distance itself from past church policies that favoured European adventurers at the expense of indigenous peoples in foreign lands. As a bishop from the world’s southern hemisphere Pope Francis is especially sensitive to the issue of European dominance of the church in the past.
However, it might be seen as logical to simultaneously ‘call out’ the oppression of members of the European church itself under ‘Christendom’ – the centuries-old union of church and state that began to come asunder with the French revolution of 1789. These ‘marginalised’ members of the European church included, for example, women who in Ireland were pilloried for pregnancy out of wedlock and indigent children committed to church run residential institutions, as well as families whose members suffered clerical sexual abuse that was also in many cases a consequence of the failure of bishops to act decisively.
Just how far the 2023 universal Synod will go in asking for forgiveness for the past remains to be seen. Once begun the historic task of giving a full account of church ‘oppression’ in past centuries might logically be thorough if it is intended to be convincing.