U.S. bishops to apologize to Indigenous Catholics, vow to address ‘unique cultural needs’

Native American Catholic Interior view of a stained-glass window of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. | Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

The U.S. Catholic bishops are expected to approve a document at their spring meeting this week that apologizes to Catholic Indigenous communities for a “history of trauma” caused in part by their “abandonment” by the Church and proposes a way forward that takes into account the “unique cultural needs” of these communities. 

The draft document, “Keeping Christ’s Sacred Promise: A Pastoral Framework for Indigenous Ministry,” provides an updated pastoral plan to address the concerns of Catholic Indigenous communities. The preface notes the last time the bishops formally addressed these communities was 1977.

“EWTN News In Depth” acquired the draft document from a source close to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. According to that source, the document seems likely to pass in its present form without significant changes. This Friday, the USCCB is expected to vote in approval of the text at its annual spring meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. 

In the document, the bishops note the contributions of Catholic missionaries and the impact on Native people, stating: “Today, many North American Indigenous Catholics trace their faith to the decision of their ancestors to embrace Catholicism hundreds of years ago.” 

But the bishops continue with an apologetic tone, writing: “Sadly, many Indigenous Catholics have felt a sense of abandonment in their relationship with Church leaders due to a lack of understanding of their unique cultural needs. We apologize for the failure to nurture, strengthen, honor, recognize, and appreciate those entrusted to our pastoral care.”

The document takes into consideration insights from a previous listening session with bishops and Native leaders in 2019 and aims “to lift the major topics and concerns that emerged from those conversations, and to encourage local bishops to engage and deepen the dialogue with the local Native communities.”

The text first recalls a history of trauma experienced among Indigenous communities, starting in the 15th century with the arrival of Europeans in North America. Among the major sources of trauma the text lists “epidemics, national policies, and Native boarding schools, which stand out because of their profound effect on family life.”

It states: “The family systems of many Indigenous peoples never fully recovered from these tragedies, which often led to broken homes harmed by addiction, domestic abuse, abandonment, and neglect. The Church recognizes that it has played a part in traumas experienced by Native children.”

The text also notes that “European and Eurocentric world powers” exploited the language of papal letters from the 14th and 15th centuries, and developed “justifications to enslave, mistreat, and remove Indigenous peoples from their lands.” The draft document states: “Let us be very clear here: The Catholic Church does not espouse these ideologies.”

The text states: “Historical traumas are a significant contributor to the breakdown of family life among many Indigenous peoples. In response, youth and young adults are disaffiliating from the institutional authorities such as the Church, community, and their elders. Many have rejected Christianity and turned to pre-Christian Indigenous religious practices. Many long for belonging and acceptance and might find solace in social media and other outlets.”

The draft calls for more listening sessions with Native American Catholics and partnerships “with ministries such as Catholic Charities and others that provide counseling and support groups for Indigenous peoples who struggle with woundedness from trauma.” 

The draft document also states a desire to support Indigenous Catholic communities as they unite to the sacramental life of the Church. The text says: “Let us not forget that the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, also serve as a prime opportunity for the Church to help heal past wounds.”

A connection is also made to traditional Native practices.

“For many Native communities, both healing rituals and those honoring the dead are meaningful,” it says. “The Church can use these beliefs to deepen Indigenous understanding of how Christ is present and active in the sacraments. Through embracing the sacraments, many communities have experienced the profound hope of reconciliation, healing, and eternal life.”

The text emphasizes the need for “authentic inculturation in the liturgy to deepen our relationship with Christ.” For Native Catholics, it notes “traditional rituals that complement and are compatible with Catholic doctrine and liturgical practices enhance the prayer life and religious experience of the people.”

Looking at some of the prevalent social issues, the draft says: “The Church in the United States must discern how best to allocate resources to support Indigenous communities in need.” The social concerns listed include an abuse of natural resources on Native lands, a lack of quality education, health disparities, racism, and inadequate housing.

Notably, the document mentions the importance of the USCCB anti-poverty program known as the Catholic Campaign for Human Development in addressing some of these concerns. The bishops will be discussing the future of this program at their spring meeting.

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The U.S. bishops hope the document will “be used by dioceses, parishes, regions, Native Catholic leaders, Catholic schools, and other Catholic institutions serving Indigenous populations to develop specific priorities, initiatives, and programs, tailored to the needs, concerns, and aspirations of the local Native populations.”

In the document’s conclusion, the bishops note: “An unfortunate tension exists today for many Indigenous Catholics, who feel they are presented with a false choice: Be Native or be Catholic…For Native Catholics who feel this tension, we assure you, as the Catholic bishops of the United States, that you do not have to be one or the other. You are both. Your cultural embodiment of the faith is a gift to the Church.”

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