Guilt, Responsibility, and Purgatory: How Traditional Catholic Teaching Can Help Us Think About Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations

It has been a tough summer here in Canada. Media reports of the presence of hundreds of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools once run by Catholic religious orders and the various reactions to such announcements dominated the national news cycle for much of June and July. In one sense, this is not news. The existence of these graves has long been known, and was treated in some detail in the report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015. And Canadians are slowly learning not to refer to these reports as “discoveries.” Indigenous communities, and anyone who bothered to listen to them before this spring, knew these graves were there. (In fact, the Archdiocese of Regina had actually donated $70,000 in 2019, along with full access to cemetery records, to help with the restoration of the cemetery at Cowessess, the single largest site of unmarked graves to date). Nevertheless, the specific numbers at specific sites that the recent use of ground-penetrating radar has made possible has been a catalyst for a kind of national reckoning.

At the heart of that reckoning are several questions about the role of the Catholic Church in Canada’s residential schools. There are, of course, questions about the past. What was the Church’s relationship with the government? How did the Church understand its own participation in this system? What were the conditions in the Church-run schools? Etc. There are also questions about the present. What are the Church’s obligations to survivors and their descendants? How should the Church meet such obligations?

These are fraught questions and our public discourse has been hindered not only by misinformation (e.g., early media reports sometimes spoke of “mass graves” and there is a persistent media narrative about hidden Church documents that is far removed from reality), but also by competing approaches to how we as a society should respond to past institutional evils.

As is the case with so many other contentious contemporary issues, individual Catholics found themselves aligned not so much with other Catholics, as a group, but with others of their own political stripe. By and large, conservative Catholics agreed with other conservative Canadians on such questions and liberal Catholics thought like other liberal Canadians. That is to say, the fundamental categories that most Canadian Catholics use to think about these questions are not theological, but ideological.

It seems to me, however, that our theological tradition has many resources for helping us think about these questions in a way that is both fully Catholic and that holds more promise for our future together as Canadians than the standard left-right political responses. And so, I want to write, in this piece, as a Catholic theologian to my fellow Catholics. If we Catholics simply assume the secular ideologies of our public discourse and parrot the arguments found in them, we make no meaningful contribution. Instead, we import the political divisions of the culture into the Church, further weakening our identity and witness. If we are to learn the lessons God is offering us all through this tragedy and contribute to the healing of Canadian society, Catholics need to learn to see this issue through theological lenses. Let us take, then, these two sets of questions, those about the past and those about the present, in turn.

Thinking Theologically

Education has always been a key apostolate for the Church. Wherever she goes, the Church builds schools. Those schools have educated millions of children around the world for centuries. It has, in fact, been one of the ways the Church has been present to and served the marginalized in many contexts. Nevertheless, judged by the standard of her own doctrine, the Church should never have participated in Canada’s Indian Residential Schools. That government program ran directly counter to Catholic teaching at two essential points: first, the principle of subsidiarity, particularly that application of the principle in the sphere of education which insists that parents are the first educators of their children, and second, the principle of the enculturation of the Gospel first insisted upon by the Council of Jerusalem, namely, that people need not abandon their own cultural heritage in order to become followers of Jesus.

This was not, as some narratives imagine, a basically well-intentioned project of education and evangelization whose failures, however grotesque, can be attributed to the presence of a few bad apples. The truth is precisely the reverse: though there were undoubtedly good, dedicated, and competent people who worked in the system, and who achieved real goods in their work, the system was itself fundamentally evil. Its primary goal was not education in itself, but cultural annihilation. The education on offer was a means to that wicked end. Rather than serving the marginalized, we participated in a system perpetuating marginalization. Any goods one can point to—and it is best to leave such pointing to the survivors themselves—were in spite of an evil system, not because of it. And far be it from anyone who professes the cross of Christ to suggest that any evil is justified if God, in his great mercy and providence, allows some good to come of it.

According to the Catholic understanding, parents are responsible for the education of their children, and schools and teachers are supports for parents in that work. This is fundamental to the Catholic belief that, not only should Catholics have access to Catholic schools, but parents of any religious conviction and none have the right to send their children to schools that will support them in passing on their convictions to their children. For schools to function as an arm of the state over against the legitimate aspirations of parents and communities is indoctrination and totalitarianism, not education.

Canadian Catholics are, or should be, keenly aware of this dynamic in our own fight for our rights to a Catholic education. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a better illustration of the wisdom of Catholic teaching on this matter than the chaos that has followed from Canada’s residential schools, where the conviction that parents are their children’s primary educators was contravened as a matter of principle. Intergenerational trauma is precisely what Catholics who understand their own Church’s teaching about parental rights and duties should expect from such a system. If we can recognize the necessity and the justice of Catholics having access to Catholic schools, how can we not decry the injustice of a system that often forcibly removed children from their homes, families, and communities, in order to strip them of their cultural identity? This leads us to our second consideration.

Not only were children forcibly removed from their families and communities in direct contradiction to Catholic teaching on parents as first educators, they were also removed with the explicit goal of stripping them of their culture. Once at these schools, children were forced to cut their hair and change their clothing and forbidden from speaking their own languages or engaging in their own spiritual and cultural practices. The Indian, it was said, needed to be taken out of the child. The abuse—physical, spiritual, verbal, emotional, and sexual—that was practically routine in some of these schools was not merely the result of some very bad people being given unfettered access to innocent and helpless children. More than that, such abuse followed quite logically from the racist and dehumanizing attitudes towards Indigenous people and culture that motivated the whole system to begin with.

Now, there is no denying that, whenever Christians hold cultural power, they are tempted to identify the spread of the Gospel with the spread of the dominant cultural system. Christianity’s complicity with colonialism has a long and sad history. But it is also the case that, when Christianity is at its missionary best, the missionaries themselves clearly see that Christianity cannot be identified with any one culture and that sharing the Gospel means freeing people from oppressive systems, not imposing them.

It is not too much of a stretch to suggest that this is what drives much of the drama in the Acts of the Apostles. Paul, that story’s main character, saw with utter clarity that identifying the message of the Gospel with the culture in which it was first lived and experienced was contrary to its very nature as universal. His fight at the Council of Jerusalem for the right of his Greek converts not to be forced to become culturally Jewish in order to enter the Church was a fight for the soul of the gospel. It was also determinative for the historical success of Christianity. Had the decision in Jerusalem not gone Paul’s way, Christianity today, if it even existed, would be but a small Jewish sect. The Church’s participation in Canada’s residential schools, whose explicit and primary goal was the destruction of Indigenous culture, was a direct repudiation of the Council of Jerusalem. It was, to be blunt, heretical.

On this point, some, whose first instinct is to defend the Church, are tempted by a kind of historical relativism. But the suggestion that Catholics could not have known any better given the basic attitudes of the time does not hold water. While it is always a delicate business to pass moral judgment on those of another historical era and it is true that we can never know the level of culpability in an individual’s heart, we can say that, as a Church, we should have known better. And, in any case, what good is a Church whose moral compass is indistinguishable from that of the ambient culture?

Consider the question of eugenics. In the early twentieth century, eugenics was proposed by various progressive voices as a solution to many of humanity’s problems. Given the state of scientific knowledge of the time, this “solution” was at least plausible. Nevertheless, the Church saw clearly that the practice of eugenics was contrary to human dignity and could not be countenanced. For this, the Church was ridiculed in fashionable circles as the intransigent enemy of progress. Today, of course, Catholics can point to the Church’s principled stand against the eugenics movement with pride. A Church whose timeless principles give it the perspective to see beyond the historical moment is a Church worth listening to.

But on the question of residential schools, despite some notable individual exceptions, the Church lost sight of its own teaching. Somehow, the overwhelming majority of Catholics found a way to look past the forcible removal of children from their families despite Catholic teaching on the rights and duties of parents as first educators of their children. Somehow, the overwhelming majority of Catholics did not understand that the intentional repression of language and culture was contrary to the gospel, despite the fact that Our Lady appeared to Juan Diego as an Indigenous woman, that St. Jean de Brebeuf wrote the Huron Carol, telling the story of the nativity in the language and imagery of Indigenous peoples, that, I struggle to know how to emphasize this as strongly as it deserves, the New Testament was written in Greek (i.e., the language of the evangelized, not the evangelizers)!

Whatever standards we are judged by in the public sphere, Catholics will not truly understand the folly of our participation in Canada’s Indian Residential Schools if we do not also judge ourselves by our own standards. It is a paradox of the gospel that hope emerges as a real possibility at the moment we see the true depth of our sin. This is why we gaze upon the cross. In a world that has learned to identify Christianity with colonial power, it is a strange kind of good news that our failures on this count are not a matter of following our principles, but of abandoning them. Judged in the light of the gospel, we have failed. But that means, at the same time, that the gospel has not failed. Precisely in condemning us, it remains good news. Though the gospel never stops at condemnation.

Thinking About the Church’s Present Obligations Theologically

We have been given the grace of seeing our failures brought to light. What, then, shall we do? Allow me a sacramental metaphor. Let us make a good confession. Let us openly acknowledge our sin without excuse or quibble, but with full trust that God will honor such truth-telling. I hope that the previous section will help us in that task. For we must confess not simply that we did wrong, but that we, as Catholics, should have known better.

But confession is not complete without penance. This is not because God withholds forgiveness until we have paid some arbitrary price, but because genuine sorrow over sin desires to make reparation. Sins have consequences and no one is truly sorry for sin who does not wish to counter the effects of their evil actions on the world. Not to put too fine a point on it, the sacrament of confession (and penance) is the sacrament of truth and reconciliation.

Let us pause for a moment, though, to acknowledge the limits of our metaphor. The sacrament of confession is something between the guilty individual and God. How does its logic apply to a situation where the guilty individuals are long dead and those left to make reparation did not participate in the evil in question?

In Nehemiah, chapter 9, Israel makes a public confession for the sins of the nation before renewing the covenant with Yahweh. They confess not merely the sins of those present, but most especially the sins of their ancestors. This does not mean that they falsely imagine that every person present is personally guilty of those sins from the past. Rather, they recognize that the place in which they find themselves today is a result of the sins of the past and that there will be no moving forward until those sins are acknowledged and repented of. The Bible teaches us that there is such a thing as collective responsibility that is not the same as personal guilt.

This is difficult for many people living in our hyper-individualistic culture to accept. We do not appreciate the idea that we might be somehow responsible for the actions of others. Making things even worse, our soundbite culture can struggle to distinguish between guilt and responsibility. And so, calls for responsibility can often shade into unjust accusations of guilt, while protestations of innocence can become a denial of responsibility. In a culture that is not merely hyper-individualistic, but hyper-polarized, a vicious cycle soon leads to extreme positions where one group’s elision of guilt and responsibility leads them to celebrate the burning of Churches as a kind of just recompense for the sins of the past while another group’s elision of innocence and freedom from responsibility leads them to deny that the Church of today has any obligations whatsoever to residential school survivors and their descendants.

Here, I suggest, is where some good traditional Catholic theology can help us. Catholics believe in Original Sin. That is to say, we know something about being implicated in a broken and sinful system through no fault of our own. And Catholics believe in the communion of saints. That is to say, we know something about shared responsibility and bearing one another’s burdens. Most particularly, Catholics believe in purgatory and prayer for the dead. That is to say, we know something about making reparations for sins that are not personally ours.

In late June, Chief Cadmus Delorme of the Cowessess First Nation said, in an interview on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s nightly newscast The National, “We all inherited this. Nobody today created residential schools, nobody today created the Indian Act, nobody today created the 60s scoop but we all inherited it.” He then went on to exhort Canadians to do what they can today to make the future better than the past by, e.g., studying and implementing the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Chief Delorme taught that, while we are not guilty, we are all responsible. His words struck a chord and immediately became a widely shared meme, appreciated by people who disagree about much else on this issue.

This should resonate with Catholics, especially those with a particular devotion to the Holy Souls in purgatory. Catholic teaching about purgatory and prayer for the dead is easily misunderstood. Many imagine purgatory to be a place where sinners pay off a kind of debt for their sins and that prayer and sacrifices on behalf of the dead are ways that we can help them pay it off more quickly. Such a conception is fairly open to the Protestant critique that purgatory shows that Catholics do not really believe in the sufficiency of Christ’s death on the cross.

But the deeper logic of purgatory and prayer for the dead is that the consequences of our sins outlive us. Indeed, they outlive us both in our souls and in the world. Death does not automatically wipe the slate clean, as anyone who takes a moment to reflect on their own family history can easily attest. Purgatory is not the paying of a literal debt, though the debt metaphor has a venerable history in the Church, but rather a making fit of the soul for heaven. To achieve this, in purgatory, the consequences of our sins must be faced with brutal honesty. This means recognizing and grieving the damage my sins have caused, and continue to cause, in the world.

Prayers for the dead are a kind of consolation that we can give to those grieving souls. It is a way to tell them that they are loved and remembered despite their failings. It is a help in accommodating them to the love of God which, in the face of the truth about our sins and their consequences that we must confront head-on in purgatory, they may well be experiencing as burning pain. Perhaps the most effective prayer we can make for our own beloved dead is to offer them our forgiveness for the hurts they left behind in us. To do that is to offer healing to them and to ourselves. Prayer for the dead only makes sense if we really are all connected in Christ.

Furthermore, sacrifices on behalf of the dead are concrete acts that counter the effects of sin in the world. Even if they are small things like biting our tongue or foregoing a sweet, they are still part of the undoing of the damage left behind by the sins of those who have gone before. Except in the case of close family members or friends, we are rarely able to tailor our sacrifices very specifically. Rather, we offer them into God’s hands and trust in His providence. But there are times when specific reparations may be made for specific sins. These are special moments when we are given the grace to help those in purgatory by helping those they left behind and who still suffer as a result of their sin. 

And this is one challenge I would put forward to Catholics today. The Catholics who worked in Canada’s residential schools and who are now dead and gone are not simply a group of people to disassociate ourselves from because their sins are not our sins; they are our brothers and sisters in Christ and they need our prayers and sacrifices. They need us to make reparation on their behalf that they can no longer make for themselves. When the cock crows for us, do we want to face having denied knowing them?

Allow me to emphasize, this does not mean that our primary goal here is looking after our own. Rather, it is meant to highlight that Catholics already know about taking responsibility for one another’s sins. We do not need to panic about being falsely accused. If some voices misattribute guilt when they are rightly demanding responsibility, bearing wrongs patiently is a work of mercy, and one that can be offered in reparation for the sins of our forebears.

Bearing wrongs patiently is only the beginning. For what we have here is an exceptional opportunity and responsibility, a rare time when offering reparation for the sins of the dead is practically indistinguishable from offering reparation to the victims of those sins. Thus, anything Canadian Catholics can do today to make reparations for the past is being done for both perpetrators and victims. This is a remarkable microcosm for understanding the work of grace more generally. The gospel of reconciliation is simultaneously about forgiving sin and confronting the consequences of it. There is no need to prioritize one over the other. Let us rather celebrate that God, in his mercy, allows us to share in and alleviate the burdens of all who are suffering the consequences of our institutional failure, living and dead.

Featured Image: Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hugs Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme during an event surrounding the signing of a document, marking the transfer of control of children in care to the Cowessess First Nation, held on the First Nation in Saskatchewan on Tuesday, July 6, 2021; Source: Flickr, PD. 


Brett Salkeld

Brett Salkeld is Archdiocesan Theologian for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina and is the co-host of the Thinking Faith podcast. His latest book is Transubstantiation: Theology, History, and Christian Unity.

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