The City of Minneapolis, the Vatican, and truth telling

A couple of big news events happened in the past two days, one global, one local. Yesterday, the Vatican repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery. Today, the City Council approved a Consent Decree on police reforms reached between the city/Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) and the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR)..

The two might seem unrelated except by proximity in time. But both the Vatican and the city seem to shrink from owning up to their actions and the harm they’ve done.

MPD Consent Decree released

Police protect the Third Precinct on the first night of protests over George Floyd’s murder, which prompted the state Department of Human Rights report.

The Consent Decree agreement follows from MDHR’s April 27 report finding probable cause to believe that the City and its police department “violated the state’s Human Rights Act … by engaging in a pattern or practice of race discrimination.”

Scanning the 144-page document, a couple of lines jumped out.

The Decree said: “The Parties acknowledge and agree that this Agreement does not constitute an admission for purposes of liability or otherwise by the City or MPD, or their current or former officials, officers, employees, agents, assigns, or their successors.”

Comment: The city doesn’t want to get sued (again). It’s similar language when businesses are cited for environmental violations. They don’t admit guilt, but agree to do better in the future.

The Decree said: “While the City and MPD did not and do not admit or agree with MDHR’s Findings, the Parties engaged in good-faith negotiations to resolve this matter to avoid the time and expense of taxpayer funded litigation.

Comment: The Decree does not describe the areas of dispute. It raises questions about how the City sees the problem and its commitment to fix it.

One big frustration in reading the Decree is not knowing what changed. Some of the Consent Decree’s language reflects current MPD policy and some reflects new requirements. The Decree doesn’t distinguish between the two, so the reader doesn’t know what the new stuff is.

Comment: Why not be more transparent?

The 144-page Decree uses the words “racist” once, “racism” once, and “race” 22 times. For instance, it says MPD’s policies will be updated to: “Prohibit officers from using language or taking action to taunt or denigrate an individual, including using racist or otherwise derogatory language, and require officers to treat individuals with a high degree of ethics, professionalism, and respect,” (if that language isn’t already in policies).

Comment: It’s curious. Why avoid the words racism and racist?

City Council Member Robin Wonsley (Ward 2), who has become a go-to source for critical analysis of city decisions, said negotiations were a closed-door process from start to finish, except for MDHR’s public sessions held last summer.

“Council was also told that there was no way to change this,” she wrote. “Council President Jenkins was the only member of the Council who was involved in the negotiations process, representing the City alongside the Mayor, City Attorneys, Interim Police Chief Amelia Huffman, and Civil Rights,” she said in an email.

Repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery

Columbus claimed “New World” lands for Spain based Papal edicts, which later would be called the “Doctrine of Discovery. Image: Architect of the Capitol.

The Doctrine of Discovery refers to a series of Papal decrees, called “bulls” issued up until the 16th century that gave European monarchs the religious, political, and legal justification to colonize lands not inhabited by Christians, and to convert, enslave, or kill the land’s inhabitants. The doctrine was later incorporated into U.S. law.

Indigenous leaders and nations from around the world have been asking the Vatican to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery for decades and welcomed Thursday’s announcement.

The Vatican’s statement takes responsibility in a few sections.

It says: “respect for the facts of history demands an acknowledgement of the human weakness and failings of Christ’s disciples in every generation.”

Further, in dialogue with Indigenous peoples, “the Church has acquired a greater awareness of their sufferings, past and present, due to the expropriation of their lands, which they consider a sacred gift from God and their ancestors, as well as the policies of forced assimilation, promoted by the governmental authorities of the time, intended to eliminate their indigenous cultures.”

At the same time, the statement seems to get defensive and step back from its culpability.

Here are a few excerpts:

Statement: “The ‘doctrine of discovery’ is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church. Historical research clearly demonstrates that the papal documents in question, written in a specific historical period and linked to political questions, have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith.”

Comment: That seems to minimize the church’s role in Indigenous genocide. It’s kind of like saying, “I didn’t mean to. It wasn’t my intention.” Impact matters more than intention.

Statement: “The Church is also aware that the contents of these documents were manipulated for political purposes by competing colonial powers in order to justify immoral acts against indigenous peoples that were carried out, at times, without opposition from ecclesiastical authorities.”

Comment: It reads like trying to shift blame onto politicians. Yes, the monarchs are to blame, but that doesn’t somehow absolve the church.

Statement: “Numerous and repeated statements by the Church and the Popes uphold the rights of indigenous peoples. For example, in the 1537 Bull Sublimis Deus, Pope Paul III.”

Comment: This statement feels defensive. It also ignores the church’s active harms that continued well passed 1537. For instance, Catholic missions were built in what is now California starting in 1769. They were Spanish efforts to assimilate Indigenous peoples into their culture and the Catholic Church. The church also was deeply involved in Indian boarding schools and residential schools, and the atrocities that happened there.

Perhaps like the City of Minneapolis, the Vatican is worried about getting sued.

For more, see Indian Country Today’s piece: Mixed feelings for Vatican rescinding ‘law of colonization, or the statement from the National American Indian Congress.

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