How popes have addressed the conquest of the Americas

Pope Francis reaches out 2 to crowd during his visit to Santa Cruz Bolivia on July 9 2015 Credit Alan Holdren CNA 7 9 15 Pope Francis visits Santa Cruz, Bolivia, July 9, 2015. | Alan Holdren/CNA.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico this week wrote to Pope Francis and the King of Spain, Felipe VI, asking for an apology for the conquest of Mexico by Spanish Catholics in the 16th century.

His demand for an apology comes at the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the conquest, and the 200th anniversary of Mexico's independence.

"I have sent a letter to the Spanish king [Felipe VI] and another letter to the Pope so that the abuses can be acknowledged and an apology can be made to the indigenous peoples for the violations of what we now call human rights," López Obrador said in video comments earlier this week.

"There were massacres...The so-called conquest was done with the sword and the cross. They raised churches on top of temples," he said.

"The time has come to reconcile but first they should ask forgiveness," he added.

The request generated criticism, and some agreement, in both Spain and Mexico.

According to the New York Times, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez dismissed the request, along with Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell, who said it was "weird to receive now this request for an apology for events that occurred 500 years ago."

Sergio Sarmiento, a Mexican columnist, asked why the president was calling for an apology from the people who stayed in Spain, and therefore would not have been a part of the Spanish conquest. Others criticized the president for demanding an apology for a 500 year-old offense.

One voice of support for the request came from Ione Belarra, a politician with the far-left Spanish Podemos party, who said on Twitter that it was "very right" to demand an apology for the "abuses" of the conquest.

In 1519, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés led a small army into the Aztec empire in Mexico, and within two years the Aztecs had fallen under European rule. The conquest led to a great loss of life among the indigenous peoples of Mexico, both in battle and from the introduction of foreign diseases, like smallpox.

At the time of Cortés' arrival in Mexico, the Aztecs were practicing child sacrifice, as well as a ritual in which they pulled the still-pulsing heart out of the chest of sacrificial victims and offered it to the gods, letting the blood spill over the altars and throwing the dead bodies off the steps of the temple.

Towers and other structures found in the Aztec empire were also reportedly made entirely human skulls, and anthropologists have also found evidence of a type of ritual cannibalism that took place among the Aztecs.

In 1892, Leo XIII offered a defense of the conquest of the Americas, largely at the hands of Christians. In the native people of America, Pope Leo said, Christopher Columbus "saw in spirit a mighty multitude, cloaked in miserable darkness, given over to evil rites, and the superstitious worship of vain gods. Miserable it is to live in a barbarous state and with savage manners: but more miserable to lack the knowledge of that which is highest, and to dwell in ignorance of the one true God. Considering these things, therefore, in his mind, he sought first of all to extend the Christian name and the benefits of Christian charity to the West."

The conquest of the Americas has also been addressed recently by St. John Paul II and Pope Francis.

In an address to native peoples during a visit to the United States in 1987, John Paul II acknowledged the pain caused by the encounter of Europeans with Native Americans, which "was an event of such significance and change that it profoundly influences your collective life even today. That encounter was a harsh and painful reality for your peoples. The cultural oppression, the injustices, the disruption of your life and of your traditional societies must be acknowledged," he said.

However, he also defended the positive aspects of the work of the "many missionaries who strenuously defended the rights of the original inhabitants of this land," who established missions and improved education standards while working to preserve the native language.

"Above all, they proclaimed the Good News of salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ, an essential part of which is that all men and women are equally children of God and must be respected and loved as such. This Gospel of Jesus Christ is today, and will remain forever, the greatest pride and possession of your people," he said.

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He recalled the example of St. Junipero Serra, who presented Mexican authorities with a "Bill of Rights" of sorts for indigenous peoples. He also recalled how in 1537, Paul III "proclaimed the dignity and rights of the native peoples of the Americas by insisting that they not be deprived of their freedom or the possession of their property."

In 2015, Pope Francis also addressed the conquest of the Americas, during a meeting with native peoples in Bolivia.

He echoed the sentiments of St. John Paul II, asking forgiveness for the sins committed by some Christians at the time, while defending the actions of other Christians at the time, who chose peace over violence.

"I say this to you with regret: many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God. My predecessors acknowledged this, CELAM, the Council of Latin American Bishops, has said it, and I too wish to say it. Like Saint John Paul II, I ask that the Church – I repeat what he said – 'kneel before God and implore forgiveness for the past and present sins of her sons and daughters,'" he said, quoting an address given by John Paul II in the year 2000.

"I would also say, and here I wish to be quite clear, as was Saint 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. Together with this request for forgiveness and in order to be just, I also would like us to remember the thousands of priests and bishops who strongly opposed the logic of the sword with the power of the Cross. There was sin, a great deal of it, for which we did not ask pardon. So for this, we ask forgiveness, I ask forgiveness. But here also, where there was sin, great sin, grace abounded through the men and women who defended the rights of indigenous peoples," he said.

The Vatican has yet to officially respond to López Obrador's recent request for an apology for the conquest of Mexico.

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