Skip to content

What to expect from the USCCB’s revised pastoral framework for Native Catholics

The U.S. bishops are set to vote on a revised pastoral document for the pastoral care of indigenous peoples during their plenary assembly meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, this week.

The document was originally set to be approved by the bishops during their Baltimore meeting in November last year, but the text was suddenly pulled from the agenda during the course of the meeting.

The Pillar reported at the time that last minute concerns had been raised during the meeting that language in some parts of the document could create liability issues for the Church and needed to be revisited. 

But, with the document back on the agenda for the USCCB’s gathering this week, what’s likely to have changed?


The document, “Keeping Christ’s Sacred Promise: A Pastoral Framework for Indigenous Ministry,” was drafted by the USCCB’s subcommittee on Native American affairs, chaired by Bishop Chad Zielinski of New Ulm, following a vote by the bishops to commission the project in 2020.

The final text was developed in close collaboration with representatives from several Native peoples and communities and is intended to offer general priorities and themes for diocesan bishops and ministries, Native Catholic leadership, and other Catholic bodies working with Native communities.

It also treats a number of sensitive issues flagged by the bishops at the time the drafting project was agreed, including the so-called “doctrine of discovery,” urban Native American ministries, and what the subcommittee termed the “boarding school period.”

The previous draft, withdrawn during the November meeting, had already been unanimously approved by the USCCB’s administrative committee as well being endorsed by the National Advisory Council — the bishops’ conference consultative body, made up of laity, religious, and diocesan priests.

However, sources close to the conference told The Pillar, last minute concerns were flagged during the November meeting because the text would be a formal and official statement by the Catholic bishops of the United States. 

Sources told The Pillar last year that some bishops had concerns that passages intended to express regret and moral responsibility for that treatment of Native communities could have been interpreted to create potential legal liability for the bishops.

Since the text was pulled last year, The Pillar has learned, an extra month was given for bishops to submit questions, concerns, or feedback to the subcommittee, which were then used in revisiting the text.

Sources familiar with the drafting process say that the conference’s general counsel, as well as canonical and doctrinal offices were consulted and no issues, legal or otherwise, were identified.

The revised text has not been released by the USCCB ahead of the meeting. However, it is likely that key passages will be removed or redrafted, which could have been argued in court to mean the bishops accepted institutional liability for historic neglect or abuse suffered by Native communities.

Passage likely to be removed or rephrased from the withdrawn November draft include: 

“We apologize for any and all neglect and abandonment that Indigenous Catholics in our pastoral care have experienced,” as well as a  “formal recognition” by the bishops of “past sins” and “an apology” for “wounds inflicted on Native peoples” by “some members of the Church.”

However, given that the concerns raised about the document in November were, The Pillar understands, few and narrowly focused on specific legally problematic “apologies” and “formal recognitions” by the bishops, the revised text is still likely to contain clear and unambiguous expressions of regret, remorse, and even responsibility on behalf of the bishops — though in such a way as not to open up new avenues for lawsuits.

Specifically, the recognition of the personal and cultural harm done by government mandated boarding schools, some of which Church organizations administered, is likely to remain unchanged.

Although the Church played a role in administering some of these schools, the draft text also said that not all Catholic schools were set up for the purposes of cultural indoctrination, or “Americanization,” or even to separate children from their families.

“In Alaska, for example, many Church-run boarding schools were created to shelter youth who were orphaned during epidemics or whose parents were experiencing illness or dire poverty and could not care for them,” the document said, and is expected to still say in its final form.

“Many Native alumni of those boarding schools who are still living today express gratitude for the care and educational opportunities they received from the men and women religious who administered mission schools.”

But, the text said, “regardless of the individual experiences at boarding schools,” “the system itself left a legacy of community and individual trauma that broke down family and support systems among Indigenous communities.”

Subscribe now

Also likely to remain in the final text for approval this week is an explicit “repudiation” by the bishops of the so-called “doctrine of discovery,” in which 14th and 15th century papal bulls were used by European Catholic powers to justify the colonization of the Americas and subjugation of the Native populations.

“Let us be very clear here: the Catholic Church does not espouse these legal and political concepts or practices,” the November draft said, “it is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church.” 

However, the November draft also acknowledged that language in the 14th and 15th century papal bulls “did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of indigenous peoples,” and was “manipulated for political purposes” by colonial powers to “justify immoral acts,” often “without opposition from ecclesiastical authorities.”

“It is only just to recognize these errors, acknowledge the terrible effects of the assimilation policies and the pain experienced by indigenous peoples, and ask for pardon,” said the November draft, quoting from a joint 20203 declaration from the Vatican dicasteries for culture and human development, in language that is overwhelmingly likely to be retained.

Also likely to be retained is a call for an academic symposium, to be co-sponsored with the bishops of Canada, for further study and discussion of the various “legal and political” ways the “doctrine of discovery” has played out in the Church’s history with different native peoples in different parts of North America over several hundred years.

According to the original text, this proposal has already received the endorsement of the Vatican’s Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, and Dicastery for Education and Culture.

As a “pastoral framework,” the stated purpose of the document is to provide bishops and Native Catholic leaders “a series of general priorities, themes, and guidelines” for pastoral engagement and provision, rather than offer concrete proposals or programmatic agenda.

As a tone setting document, its primary utility will likely be determined by the warmth of its reception among Native Catholic communities.

The text was drafted with considerable collaboration by Native Catholic leaders and communities throughout the drafting process and, The Pillar was told, many of the problematic phrases likely to be edited out were the result of bishops' desire to use as much of their suggested language as possible in the final draft.

Given the extensive cooperation throughout the original drafting process, response from Native leaders to the revised text, and the reasons for its revision, are likely to prove the only significant stress test for the framework.

If the new wording sufficiently preserves the priorities and concerns of Native Catholic communities and offers a sufficiently candid account of the Church’s past moral failings, reception should be smooth.

Subscribe now

Comments 3