It’s been disclosed that Epsy Campbell Barr, president of the United Nations’ Permanent Forum on People of African Descent, has formally asked the Catholic Church to ask “forgiveness for the complicity, as well as the direct and indirect encouragement of the atrocities suffered” by millions of enslaved African people in the Americas.
In a letter dated January 3 and entitled “Pardon, reparation and reconciliation request from the Catholic Church to the people of African descent of the American continent and the Caribbean …,” Campbell wrote: “I am a Black, Latina woman, with an identity that I hold with great pride—that of the African diaspora around the world. I have inherited a great cultural and historical richness which I [have] no qualms about sharing with the world.
“Yet still, in the collective memory of our minds, the worst and longest crime that humanity has ever lived through, which was built up over centuries, weighs heavily on us: the genocide experienced by my ancestors, men and women of African descent, who were trafficked and enslaved for centuries in the Americas and the Caribbean.”
In the letter, Campbell asked Pope Francis to, in the name of the Catholic Church, ask Black people for forgiveness “for the complicity, as well as the direct and indirect encouragement of the atrocities suffered by millions of people, victims of the trans-Atlantic trafficking of African people and their enslavement for more than three centuries.” She also noted that “The Church has already acknowledged this on several occasions with Indigenous and Native peoples.”
Campbell, the former vice president of Costa Rica (she was the first vice president of African descent in Costa Rica and in Latin America), noted in the letter to Pope Francis––the first Latin American and first Jesuit pope of the Catholic Church––that “You have been a religious leader who is committed to the causes of justice, who is compassionate, and who has an infinite capacity to work for the common good and welfare of people. That’s why I am sure you clearly understand the horrors of violence, discrimination, and racism, which have caused pain and suffering in the lives of millions of people…
“[T]he request for forgiveness to descendants of enslaved people is a necessary historical path that contributes to human fraternity, reconciliation, and reparation for the harm done to millions of victims.”
This is, of course, not the first petition from Black people asking the Catholic Church to repent for its role in the enslavement of people of African descent. A Pew Research Center analysis found that the majority of Black Catholics—some 77%––believe that opposing racism is essential to being a good Christian. Members of the Oakland, Calif.-based St. Columba Catholic Church have sent open letters to Pope Francis since 2015, inviting him “to apologize to African Americans and all people of color for the way our church family, the Roman Catholic Church, has contributed to the sickness of racism within our church and in society at large.”
The St. Columba Catholic Church has sent five letters to Pope Francis so far. “We [have] sent the letter every year since the Holy Father’s visit to us. Never did we get a response,” St. Columba’s Father Aidan McAleenan said in an email to the AmNews: “Sad.”
In a recent opinion piece in the National Catholic Reporter, Villanova University Professor Shannen Dee Williams wrote: “In the 15th century, the Catholic Church became the first global institution to declare that Black lives did not matter. In a series of papal bulls beginning with Pope Nicholas V’s ‘Dum Diversas’ (1452) and including Pope Alexander VI’s ‘Inter Caetera’ (1493), the church not only authorized the perpetual enslavement of Africans and the seizure of ‘non-Christian’ lands, but morally sanctioned the development of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This trade forcibly transported at least 12.5 million enslaved African men, women and children to the Americas and Europe to enrich European and often Catholic coffers. It also caused the deaths of tens of millions of Africans and Native Americans over nearly four centuries.
“In the land area that became the United States, the Catholic Church introduced African slavery in the 16th century long before 1619. In fact, at various moments in American history from the colonial era to the U.S. Civil War, the church was the largest corporate slaveholder in Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri. We must also never forget Roger B. Taney, the nation’s first Catholic Supreme Court Justice and a descendant of prominent Catholic slavers from Maryland, infamously declared that Black people ‘had no rights which the white man was bound to respect,’ while denying the freedom petitions of Dred and Harriet Scott and their two daughters in 1857.”
Pope John Paul II, who led the Catholic Church from 1978 through 2005, made apologies for Catholicism’s role in enslaving Africans. In 1992, the Associated Press noted that “[d]uring his nine visits to Africa, John Paul…consistently apologized for the church’s role in the slave trade. ‘I cannot but deplore this cruel and sad offense to the dignity of the African man,’” the pope reportedly stated.
But while the Catholic Church has issued apologies, it has not asked for its victims to forgive the church for the harm it has caused.
“Forgiveness, as you have said repeatedly,” Campbell Barr wrote, “must be a welcoming forgiveness, that embraces the victims; that allows for reconciliation, for a fraternal reunification with Afrodescendant brothers and sisters.”
“We cannot change history, nor can we recover the thousands of lives lost in one of the greatest genocides in history. But we can accept historical mistakes, ask for forgiveness, and build a better future––and spare our Black children, and the next generations of African descendants, more pain and suffering.”