top of page

Papal Penitential Pilgrimage: A Reflection and Response in light of Catholic Social Doctrine

Next year, 2023, will mark the 30th anniversary of a very important lay-led Vatican-based foundation that still remains relatively unknown to most lay Catholics, certainly in North America. The Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice Foundation, established by St. John Paul II in 1993, was given the vital mission of fostering among lay Catholic leaders a deeper awareness and application of Catholic Social Doctrine.

Despite being a Catholic scholar with more than two decades experience in education, leadership development, social entrepreneurship, and public policy, I only learned about CAPP in 2017. After attending a first convention in Rome in 2018, however, I was quickly convinced of the need to make CAPP better known, especially in Canada. Soon afterwards, I began to work with others towards the establishment of a Canadian chapter, which will now be officially launched – in a two-hour virtual event – on September 17.

Although this initiative has been in development for several years, the launch of CAPP Canada has taken on even greater significance in the wake of the Holy Father’s penitential pilgrimage to Canada.

The primary purpose of this visit was to apologize and seek forgiveness for the profound harms inflicted on Indigenous people, including our own brothers and sisters in the faith. Specifically, Pope Francis apologized for the Church’s participation in the Indian Residential School system that was central to the government’s larger program and policy of coercive assimilation. In their worst instances, residential schools were the most destructive component of this coercive assimilation policy, even to the point of approaching or meeting the minimum threshold of the United Nations’ definition of genocide: “Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” Although coercion was not universally applied and permanent physical separation was not the goal, the psychological, emotional, spiritual, relational, linguistic and cultural separation that frequently resulted was destructive enough, and the effects continue to reverberate through survivors’ families and communities. And then there was the physical and sexual abuse that occurred. Although he did not use the word in his talks in Canada, the Holy Father acknowledged on the plane that “genocide” captures the worst aspects of the evils he had described and acknowledged.

Pope Francis expressed an anger and profound sadness felt by many of us at the failure of “Christian” cultures to uphold the Gospel. He reminded us that as the Gospel becomes more deeply inculturated in any society, there is always a risk of losing sight of it as a gift and a call to constant transformation. To receive the Gospel in any other way is to risk inverting the process of inculturation, to start converting the Gospel to conform to ourselves and our cultures, blunting and stifling its call to transformation in Christ. This can happen inadvertently, out of lukewarmness, or it can also be very intentional. Those who want to get away with actions opposed to the moral standards of the day must twist those moral standards or build a facade of conformity with them. Thus it should be no surprise to discover that Christianity is often strongest where it is persecuted, and most compromised where it is the social norm. I am reminded of the explanation given to a mentor who encountered resistance to his efforts to strengthen the Christian mission of an institution in the southern US: “Maybe where you come from, all Baptists are Christians, but here they can be anything from a Christian to a snake.” The same applies not only to Catholicism, or any religious faith, but also any ethical movement, such as environmentalism, whenever it becomes the social norm.

Grappling with evil done by people of ill intent or indifference is one thing, but the failures acknowledged by Pope Francis also present us with a more difficult and troubling question. How could such evil be done, permitted, or ignored, in the name of the Gospel, often by good people with good intentions? As Phil Fontaine, former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, acknowledged in 2011, the majority of residential school staff were good people working in a fundamentally flawed system. Although many of them mitigated the evils of the system or did good in spite of it, the question remains.

To this troubling question, I wish to offer a hopeful answer. Any good done by Catholics or resistance to the evil of the system, was informed by, and consistent with, the principles of Catholic Social Doctrine. These teachings have been developed since the late 19th century, precisely to guide our application of the Gospel to new and emerging challenges in social, economic, cultural, and political life, especially in contexts of increasingly rapid change. Unfortunately, Catholics – even many practicing Catholics – remain largely ignorant of it.

Overcoming Catholic ignorance of our own social teachings is a critical way of responding to Pope Francis’ invitation to intensify our corporal and spiritual acts of mercy, especially with regard to our Indigenous brothers and sisters. As his predecessor, Pope Benedict, has stated, the promotion and application of Catholic Social Doctrine is one of the three primary acts of mercy any Catholic can undertake. For example, to support a shelter for Indigenous homeless is vital. But it is no less important and often far more impactful to prevent such homelessness by working with Indigenous leaders to bring our social, cultural, political, and economic structures and practices into greater conformity with the principles of human dignity, solidarity and subsidiarity.

These three principles are central to Catholic Social Doctrine, but they also find echo in other faith traditions, cultures and histories. Drawing from their challenging experiences and unique cultures, from their own ideals and their own struggles to live up to their ideals, Indigenous Catholics and non-Catholics have important insights to contribute to a deeper understanding of Catholic Social Doctrine itself. And to acknowledge and affirm this is itself a fuller application of the principles of Catholic Social Doctrine.

Pope Francis emphasized our need to learn from our past failures, so that the evils he came to apologize for may never be repeated again. Yet he also brought a message of hope, reminding us that the history of the Church’s relationships – with its Indigenous members and with non-Christian Indigenous alike – is not reducible to the negative lessons we must learn and integrate. This history – starting with Christ’s teachings and the path He opened to redemption from our deepest failings – also includes models that can inspire hope for the future – for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Catholics alike.

In the late 1940s, a delegation representing Indigneous and non-Indigneous Catholics presented to a special joint committee of the Senate and House of Commons, set up to investigate the operation of the “Indian Act” and “Indian administration.” This delegation asserted that Canadians needed to understand that inculturation is a two-way street, that non-Indigenous Canadians needed to meet Indigenous peoples halfway, in a process of learning and integrating the best of each other’s cultures.

Two decades later, one of the most prominent Catholic leaders in Indigenous education gave a hard-hitting talk at a workshop for staff working in church-run residences for Indigenous students:

Our fallacy in our present way of thinking is that we assume we are right, that our way is better because we are white, educated and members of the dominant society. Right here and now, purge your mind of this cancer. … The Indian and the whiteman are two distinct parts of the just society which must work together and interpenetrate with reciprocal aid. Therefore it is not only the white man who must help the Indian, but also the Indian who must help the whiteman. In this critical moment of Canadian history, the assistance of the Indian has become of paramount necessity for all of us. Up till now the evolution of Canadian society has come about solely around the wish of the white man. Never with the wish of the Indian. Thus the figure of the Indian has remained outside of our mind, as we have built up our modern society. And because of this our progress may be compared to that of a man trying to advance on one leg instead of two.

Imagine how differently the last two summers, or the last two centuries, might have looked in Canada (and the US), if these examples of Catholic Social Doctrine in practice had been closer to the norm than the exception. Imagine if the Church itself had always been a model of solidarity among its Indigenous and non-Indigenous members, of working together for the common good, and drawing the best of Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures into deep and respectful dialogue on the question of what it means to be human and to live well in relation to our human and other-than-human world. Imagine if the Church had been a model of subsidiarity, showing profound respect for the integrity of Indigenous families and for the self-determination of Indigenous peoples, affirming their right to be free from coerced integration into the Canadian state. Imagine if the Church had always upheld the human dignity of Indigenous people, rejecting not only overt racism but also more subtle forms of prejudice and dehumanization. Imagine if Catholic charity had always been caritas, a self-giving love that does not impose itself or diminish the other, but sees, emphasizes and cultivates the goodness of the other. Imagine if the religious freedom of Indigenous Catholics and non-Christian Indigenous had been defended with equal firmness and consistency. Imagine if the Church had never lost sight of the gifts that Indigenous peoples - Catholic and non-Catholic alike - contribute to the Church and society as a whole.

The two historical examples cited above certainly point to the need for a more nuanced analysis and critique of the Church’s role in Indian Residential Schools and Boarding Schools history in Canada and the US. A more nuanced analysis is not a softer one, but a more precise and penetrating one – allowing us to avoid simplistic, polarized or scapegoating narratives that teach us nothing about our shared human capacity for good and evil. The Gospel is more “woke” – i.e. awake – than any narratives that draw simplistic lines between good and evil. It awakens us to the fact that our desire for the good, the authentic and the true, are often deeply entangled in our desire for the kind of knowledge of good and evil that only God can have. Nobody is immune from this temptation: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart” (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn).

By the early 19th century, agricultural, industrial, and demographic revolutions were opening up an unprecedented and expanding power gap between global human populations. This power gap fed off and into the rise of new forms of imperialism and nationalism, as well as new ideas and ideologies of race, evolution and progress. The result was a race for power amidst the growing power of race, and a progress of empire amidst an empire of progress. Most of the Christian and humanitarian proponents of Indian residential schools and boarding schools were the anti-racists of this time. They strongly opposed those who dismissed or maligned Indigenous peoples as innately incapable of contributing to, or participating in, the ‘progress’ of human civilization. With word and act, these humanitarians and Christians objected with a sense of urgency: ‘You are wrong. Any gaps are only a question of culture and education.’ Unfortunately, many of them were nevertheless influenced or infected by the cancerous growth of their time, the “fallacy … of thinking … we are right, that our way is better because we are white, educated and members of the dominant society.” The frequent failure to distinguish the gift of the Gospel from one’s own civilizational achievements – real or perceived – all too frequently translated into a deep entanglement of evangelization and colonization, mission and empire.

It should come as little surprise then, that some critics of Pope Francis’ apology argue that the problem with the church extends beyond its members’ and leaders’ weaknesses, failures and sins. It is the Christian mission itself that poses a fundamental problem. Certainly, in traditional Indigenous cultures, as in all cultures in human history – modern Western culture is a singular but not total exception – culture and religion are inseparable. In this regard,

… one cannot see how a culture that is interwoven with religion, that lives in it and intertwines with it, could be transplanted into a different religion, so to speak, without both being destroyed in the process. If one takes from a culture its very heart; if one plants a new heart into it -- the Christian one -- then it seems inevitable that this organism, which is not adapted to it, will reject it. A positive outcome to this operation seems hard to envisage.

This seems especially true if the transplanting religion demands an orthodoxy that precludes and rejects any form of syncretism. It is with these words that Benedict XVI himself articulated the problem, in Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions.

It is easy to see why even some Catholics adopt an impoverished view of the relevance of Catholic Social Doctrine for Indigenous contexts. In their view, the Church should limit its work to helping restore Indigenous languages and cultures, and fighting racism, inequality and injustice, especially where they have sunk deep roots into non-Indigenous structures, cultures and mentalities. Others go further, calling for the conversion of the Church, not towards greater fidelity to its mission, but to repentance and rejection of its core mission. In varying degrees, the Church’s universal call to conversion towards Christ is seen not only as misguided, but, in fact, unethical. In this light, even inculturation of the Gospel is just a more pernicious and subtle form of assimilation or spiritual imperialism.

And yet, conversion and something that could be mistaken for assimilation is what the Church has always proposed not only as the best answer to all wounds and injustice, but as our ultimate end:

The ultimate end of every human person essentially consists in a full and total identification with Christ, in being an ever more perfect reflection of his face. … Speaking of Christ's intimate and vital relationship with those who are reborn in the baptismal waters, St Paul is extremely clear and precise, affirming: “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2,20), words which apply to every baptized person (cf. II Cor 13,5; Col 3,4). (Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, “The Face of Christ in the Face of the Church.”)

Pope Benedict XVI’s answer to the apparent dilemma is worth citing at length:

[Inculturation of the faith] can only really make sense if the relationship between the Christian faith and the respective other religion together with its living culture is not one of absolute foreignness, if there is, rather, a certain inner openness, each to the other, within them …. Inculturation thus assumes the potential universality of every culture. … Each particular culture not only lives out its own experience of God, the world, and man, but on its path it necessarily encounters other cultural agencies and has to react to their quite different experiences. This results, depending always on the degree to which the cultural agent may be closed or open, inwardly narrow or broad in outlook, in that culture’s own perceptions and values being deepened and purified. That may lead to a profound reshaping of that culture’s previous form, yet this does not necessarily involve any kind of violation or alienation. ... This can represent the healing Pasch for a culture, which through an apparent death comes to new life and becomes then for the first time truly itself. With this in mind, we should talk, no longer about ‘inculturation’, but about a meeting of cultures, or ... ‘interculturality’.

As Pope Benedict then elaborates, the Christian missionary can gain new insights into the Gospel even in the encounter non-Christian cultures.

Benedict XVI’s response in this regard is powerful, but more powerful and tangible is the example of Indigenous Catholics who have become alter Christus, ipse Christus, or have said yes to the call of the Gospel and embarked on this path. They testify with their lives that healing, wholeness and holiness are the same thing and that our most authentic self is found in union with Christ, “the way, the truth and the life,” in and through whom we “become who we are.” Through their openness to Grace and the Gospel, their love of Christ, and their efforts to live, incarnate and inculturate their faith to its fullness, they have become part of the beating heart of the Church.

I can affirm this from personal experience. I was born and raised in the Canadian subarctic, among the James Bay Cree – usually the only non-Indigenous student in my class. It was here that the founding members of The Catholic University of America’s Anthropology Department did much of their early fieldwork, in the 1930s, gaining a deep respect for the peoples they encountered. Inspired in part by these same Catholic scholars and their Cree counterparts, I have spent most of my life trying to bring Catholic, Indigenous and Western cultures into deep dialogue on the core questions that Catholic Social Doctrine seeks to answer: what does it mean to be human and to live well in relation to our human and other than human world? In pursuing this dialogue I have not been breaking new ground, but following in the example of many Indigenous Christian elders and mentors, as well as non-Indigenous ones.

This dialogue is important because all that is true in any religion or culture can help heal us, make us more wholly human, and more holy. This is at the heart of Catholic Social Doctrine and it is reflected in the mission of CAPP, which welcomes the participation of non-Catholics and non-Christians.

Dialogue, study, listening and reflection are important but Catholic Social Doctrine is also practical and must be action-oriented. In this regard, the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission provides a good model, with its calls to action, many of which are fully consistent with principles of human dignity, solidarity and subsidiarity. This is one of several priority topics that the founding members of the new CAPP-Canada chapter hope to address after our upcoming virtual launch.

If any of this resonates for you as it has for me and others, I invite you to join us online from 1-3 pm ET, on Saturday, September 17. Register at:

Cecil Chabot, PhD

CAPP-Canada Coordinator

Editorial Note:

Shorter versions of this reflection were published in English by the Catholic Register (September 15, 2022) and in French by Le Verbe (September 14, 2022).

Dr. Chabot was a guest commentator for EWTN’s coverage of the Papal visit on Monday, July 25 and Tuesday, July 26. He referred to the importance of Catholic Social Doctrine, and the mission of CAPP, on both days. The clips are on ETWN’s YouTube channel.

(references to CSD @ 2:21:30)

(references to CSC @ 2:18:08 & 2:25:43)


bottom of page