Spanish politicians object to Pope’s ‘apology’ for abuses of American colonization

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ROME – Whenever there is a slow news cycle, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador seems to demand that Spain and the Vatican to apologize for the “crimes” committed during Spain’s “conquest” of America.

Now Francis referred to the mistakes the Church might have made, in a letter marking Mexico’s 200th anniversary of its independence from Spain, and two major Spanish right-wing political movements are going after him for “apologizing in the name of others.”

In his message, delivered during the weekend, the Argentine pontiff invited Mexicans to have a “retrospective gaze,” which he said, “necessarily includes a process of purification of memory, that is, recognizing the errors committed in the past, which have been very painful.”

“For this reason, on various occasions, both my predecessors and I myself have asked forgiveness for personal and social sins, for all the actions or omissions that did not contribute to evangelization,” the pope wrote. “In the same perspective, neither can we ignore the actions that, in more recent times, have been committed against the Christian religious sentiment of a large part of the Mexican people, causing profound suffering.”

Some politicians in Spain did not take to kindly to the message, particularly among those in the country’s ever growing right-wing populist movements.

“I do not quite understand what a Pope of Argentine nationality is doing apologizing on behalf of others,” said Ivan Espinosa de los Monteros, member of the Congress of Deputies for the Madrid constituency. Espinosa serves as spokesperson of the Vox Parliamentary Group in Congress

The leader of the Vox party, Santiago Abascal, often refers to the pope as “citizen Bergoglio,” in reference to Francis’ given name, Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

According to Espinosa, Spaniards have “many reasons” to “feel proud of the history of Spain,” because the country has been exemplary during its expansion period.

In a similar vein, the president of the Community of Madrid, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, expressed “surprise” over Pope Francis asking for forgiveness for the “sins” of the Church during the conquest of America.

Answering questions from reporters, she said: “I am surprised that a Catholic who speaks Spanish speaks this way about a legacy like ours, which was precisely to bring Spanish, and through the missions, Catholicism and, therefore, civilization and freedom to the American continent.”

The political leader from Spain’s center-right People’s Party made these statements in Washington, where she defended the legacy of Spain in America against the “black legend” and “Manichean revision of history.”

José Francisco Serrano Oceja, a Spanish journalist and former dean of the communications faculty of the Catholic CEU San Pablo University said that “it is unfortunate that the pope is being used for the political struggle being waged in Spain.”

“It is necessary to read what the Pope says and not to respond to what we believe he has wanted to say,” the journalist said.

Attacking the pope, Oceja said, “has become a sport” for some politicians, news outlets and opinion makers. “Even if it means twisting his words or simply lying.”

As he noted, the pope neither supported Obrador’s populist campaign demanding an apology, nor did he criticize Spain’s conquest of most of the Americas, a process that began in 1492.

“In this letter Francis evokes the lights and shadows that have forged Mexico’s history, and says that a purification of memory is necessary, recalling that both he and his predecessors have asked forgiveness for actions and omissions (of the Church) that did not contribute to evangelization,” Oceja noted. “Where is the scandal? It is impressive how political ideology can blind.”

Jose Beltran, director of the Catholic weekly magazine Vida Nueva, told Crux that he actually has the feeling that the Argentine pontiff is the one who’s spoken “more softly” about the Spanish colonization process, particularly looking back to the “forcefulness of the mea culpa of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.”

“Moreover, if one dwells on the quote from which those ‘sins’ for which the Pope asks forgiveness are culled, one discovers that he does nothing but quote his predecessors,” he said.

“On the other hand, if Francis questioned the Spanish evangelization in the region, he would not have made his trip to Washington [in 2015] coincide with the canonization of Friar Junipero Serra, the Majorcan Franciscan who is a reference in the defense of the rights of the indigenous people,” Beltran said. “In proclaiming his sainthood, the pope set Serra as an example of all the good that the Spanish Church has done for centuries until today in its evangelizing work in America.”

Jose Luis Orella, doctor in history and law, and a professor in Madrid’s Catholic CEU San Pablo University, said that when he first saw the response from Vox and Ayuso to the pope’s words, he was “surprised.”

“There’s a great difference between what some papers claim and what the pope wrote, so the answer given [by the politicians] has little to do with what Francis said,” the historian argued.

Orella argued that the pope noted that there were mistakes made when it came to evangelization, but did not apologize for the conquest itself, a topic that can “provoke a rash to many.”

Often times, people who have not “delved into the message of the pope, favor political division, with arguments that are outside of what the pope actually says or does,” he said.

Oceja said Francis has a “global perspective.”

“It is important to read the pope’s messages under that Catholic vision, which is synonymous with universal, and not exclusively with local lenses, often very particular to, for example, the church in Germany or Holland,” the historian said.

“The caricaturizing of the pope helps to have that kind of political gain, because he is accused of attacking our political model or he is said to be old-fashioned on certain issues,” Oceja said. “And he is used to defend or attack certain policies, regardless of the fact that he is using a language that, in short, is more than two millennia old.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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