A public letter to Pope Francis

Dear Pope Francis,

I write you as one nested in the Catholic faith from birth and now, approaching elder years, still reeling from the disillusionment, working to root out of my psyche the harmful influences received while nurturing the positive ones. I appreciate and celebrate the fresh ray of hope you bring to this community of faith.

In January 2012, I convened The Downstream Neighbor to focus 400 contemplatives, activists, and scholars on our home watershed as a commons, an intrinsic right, and a public trust. At the top of several watersheds, the Rocky Mountains of Colorado provided the context for a deep and faithful inquiry into our human role in relationship with the near and farther neighbors of all species – and the waters of all life on the planet.

In that dialogue, a law professor Andrew Reid challenged our blindness as Catholics. To paraphrase his message, we were ignoring the foundational doctrine that has caused so much devastation of God’s creation: the Doctrine of Discovery. He shocked many people by emphasizing its roots in the 15th century papal bulls!

I immediately made a public apology, acknowledged that European Christian heritage had given me enormous privilege and wealth at the expense of my indigenous neighbors (those who survived at all) – and pledged myself to do what I could to correct the injustice.

As a direct result of this dialogue, members and past leadership of the Loretto Community (one of the sponsors of The Downstream Neighbor) met with indigenous Professor Tink Tinker and Loring Abeyta to develop the language and supporting background for a proposal. We consulted the published analysis of Steven T. Newcomb of the Indigenous Law Institute and the public statements of religious denominations repudiating these papal bulls. We requested and received the official endorsement of the Loretto Community to go ahead, with others, to add our community voices in solidarity with the long-standing demand of indigenous peoples for rescission of these bulls.

We became aware that a number of popes have made conciliatory statements and gestures since the authorization of theft and murder against whole peoples just because they did not practice the Christian faith (and happened to live where they had lived for generations on end). But though popes have distanced themselves from those legal documents, no pope has ever officially taken them off the record. Doing so would be a public acknowledgement of their tremendous error and harm in the name of religion, which used to be (and sometimes still is) mixed in with government.

The pattern of Christian superiority, dominance, aggression and dehumanization of others continues as the embedded substructure not only of civil law but of psyches. In my home state, “finders keepers, losers weepers” and “the biggest bully gets the prize” are still the operative rules, the legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery. This embedded pattern drives the current law of water and mining (including the new practice of horizontal hydrofracking) and commerce. This very day, consumers risk being trampled to death when stores open with bargains for holiday shoppers. The very greed-focused capitalism you deplore is solidly rooted in the 15th century papal bulls. Only you can take them off the books. This is what indigenous people ask of you. We stand with them in solidarity.

Some question whether papal rescission of these bulls would be anything more than a symbolic gesture. It is true that in the 15th century the popes had civil as well as religious authority, whereas now the authority is religious only. Others question whether standing silent in the face of repeated requests to rescind is itself a symbolic act that continues a disastrous history.

To those questions, I respond that profoundly meaningful symbolism can heal the world. Leadership is sorely needed for admitting a terrible mistake that authorized terrorism, genocide, and unjust accumulation of lands and wealth at the expense of innocent others. The best way to motivate the leadership of industry, mining, and government to make urgently needed changes is to show the leadership that even the pope of the Roman Catholic Church can identify a past mistake for what it was and officially repudiate, revoke, and rescind it.

But before you replace it with any other official teaching on the subject, I ask that you spend a significant time being tutored by indigenous elders on the plight of the devastated original peoples and lands of this planet Earth – AND the ancient teachings that must be restored for the essential substrata of life to survive.  

I am confident that the symbolism of servant leadership that you project is real. May you find in the ancient teachings of indigenous elders much resonance with the ever-present whisper of a carpenter’s son who lived long ago and stood up to the corrupt religious and governmental authorities of his day. I hope you will draw from indigenous wisdom, studies, and demands the courage to follow in those footsteps and make your own stand at this moment of deep crisis for all.

With devout respect for your commitment to peace and justice,

Libby Comeaux, Loretto Community co-member, Denver, Colorado, USA

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