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No, the Canadian Residential Schools Were Not “Worth It” Because of the Baptisms

Mortara and the First Nations.
July 14, 2021
No, the Canadian Residential Schools Were Not “Worth It” Because of the Baptisms
Former Kamloops Indian Residential School, where remains of 215 Indigenous children were found, is seen in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada on July 6, 2021. (Photo by Mert Alper Dervis/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The discovery, or recovery, of more than 1,000 unmarked graves at former residential schools in Canada has sparked outrage, and a wave of church burnings, across that country. The graves have forced Canadians to contemplate the idea that thousands of First Nations’ children were taken from their families under force of law, and turned over to boarding schools, mostly run by the Catholic Church, to be “civilized.”

These residential schools were sources of chronic institutional neglect and underfunding—which made them centers of personal hunger, disease, and neglect. You would think that while there might be subtle nuances to understanding the full story, no one would be daft enough to characterize them as an unalloyed good.

But you would be wrong: An essay by Declan Leary in the American Conservative last week did just that, arguing that the suffering endured in residential schools by so many children was justified—not politically, or historically, or culturally—but religiously justified, by the baptisms, confirmations, and catechisms carried out by the schools’ missionary administrators.


“Whatever sacrifices were exacted” in service of baptizing young Indians at residentials schools, were “worth it,” the essay concludes. “Sacrifices” being a tame euphemism for forcibly separating generations of children from their parents.

“The suffocation of a noble pagan culture”—worth it.

“An increase in disease and bodily death due to government negligence”—worth it.

“Even the sundering of natural families”—you guessed it. “Worth it.”

Leary’s reasoning is emblematic of a new kind of macho American Catholicism. How did this happen?

Leary imagines a Christianity in which Christ commanded that baptism take place by any means necessary, in which pouring sainted water upon pagan heads is always laudable, no matter what comes before or after.

This view is an inverted misunderstanding, and morbid misrepresentation, of the entire Christian missionary mandate. And it is not a version of the Great Commission that Christ would recognize.

The case of the Canadian residential schools is as complicated as it is tragic. For more than a century, Churchmen—many of whom might have been well-intentioned—went along with a civic project which amounted ultimately to cultural genocide. Perhaps not every single school was a barren block of suffering, and some native communities have had, until recently, more mixed memories about them. Some people who attended residential schools say they had positive experiences, and are glad for the Christian education they received. These schools are not universally condemned by their own alumni.

But the residential schools were also the locus of personal acts of abuse and mistreatment, and systemic patterns of racism and triumphalism—to say nothing of underfunded warrens of disease, neglect, and suffering.

Not every religious figure who worked with good intentions at residential schools should be indicted or damned to infamy. But both the systemic and personal abuses of the places must be dealt with in reality. Abuse and injustice can’t reasonably be framed as tolerable or excusable—still less “worth it”—because of the good, even spiritual good, they may have accomplished in some instances.

Forced attendance ignored the sovereignty of families and the freedom and dignity of individuals—the very things about humanity which, by the way, Christians hold to most reflect the image of our creator.

Christians hold that baptism is the doorway to salvation, the radical conforming of a person’s essential nature to Christ.

“Make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” is the first great mission of the Church. But salvation and grace are gifts to be offered and received, not imposed. Conversion necessarily presupposes freedom. And missionary activity presupposes a commitment to do justice in the name of Christ.

Canada’s own St. Jean de Brébeuf spent decades living with native Canadians, proposing Christ to them while respecting their freedom and identity—coming with a mission of love, even one which ended in his martyrdom. Such saints, and the missionaries who have really worked to propose the Gospel around the world, know that anyone who would credibly claim that God is love must give witness to that same divine love in his life.

To rephrase another well-known Canadian Catholic, the missionary is the message. And proclaiming Christ can’t be done justly without respect for the order of justice imprinted on every human heart.

Why, for example, does the Church teach that parents must ordinarily consent to the baptism of their children? That parents are primary educators, even of Christian children, and that their role must be respected even when it is inefficient or insufficient?

Because the Christian faith is not talismanic or magical; the sacramental order sanctifies a natural order which is already good—which already reflects the goodness of God—and which can not be easily rejected in favor of incantations, amulets, or ritual ablutions. The Christian faith is supernatural, not anatural or counternatural.

Some of the reaction to the discovery of the unmarked graves at Canada’s residential schools is based on misunderstandings or incomplete information. For example, forgotten or untended cemeteries are not mass graves. And while the Catholic Church in Canada has borne the brunt of the blame for a national shame, a proper understanding would also place blame on other institutions which contributed to the abuse, not least the government which brought the residential schools into law.

But even while some of the blame given to the Church is not justified, it is fantastical that people such as Leary would not just contextualize the past, but willingly proclaim that even the worst abuses were a virtuous exercise of the Church’s mandate to spread the Gospel.

To pretend that coercive residential schools were an unqualified source for good, while they decimated cultures and families, is not only unjust, and not just uninformed. It betrays the fundamental principle of the Church’s missionary impulse:

The messengers of Christ suffer for the conversion of those to whom they preach, not the other way around.

It should come as little surprise to Christians that people who proclaim Christ at the same time commit serious acts of injustice and inhumanity. The whole religion is premised on the idea that apart from Christ we are unjust, inhumane, uncharitable, and incapable—and that even a life of faith, devotion, and grace doesn’t solve those problems overnight.

That is the story of the Church’s sexual abuse crises, her financial scandals, and her historical crimes against cultures and people she wanted to evangelize. Some great saints—such as California’s Junipero Serra—saw, and worked, and loved with the charity of Christ himself. But other would-be missionaries—even if they did operate from good intentions—were as infected by the sins and blind spots and ignorance of their culture as was anyone else.

A Christian faith which comes by coercion or manipulation is no Christian faith at all. A vision for such things points to the blackest spots in the Church’s past, where conversion, often by the state cloaked in the authority of the Church, enforced a warped inversion of Christian “mercy” with sword and fire.

While the religious persecutions of Isabella’s Spain are a long way from the tragic complications of the Canadian residential schools, the urge to defend them is rooted in the same morbid fascination with faith as power.

There is, in every religious tradition, the human urge for order imposed and authority unquestioned, the desire to meet human weakness and equivocation with an almighty and irresistible imperative. The Catholic Church is no exception. It is the temptation of St. Peter in the garden of Gethsemane, where he lashed out with a sword at those who would arrest Jesus.

But Christians worship the God who mounts a cross, who does not impose himself, but offers himself.

God made us with dignity; and Christ makes that dignity all the more sacred. Rendering lost dignity as mere collateral damage in the battle for souls turns Christianity into an irrational set of superstitions carried out in service of earthly power.

J.D. Flynn and Ed Condon

J.D. Flynn and Ed Condon are canon lawyers and the editors of The Pillar.