Pope Francis’ White Non-Apology Tour

River Irons
14 min readAug 14, 2022
St. Mary’s Mission, Kansas, Potawatomi Indian School. Courtesy of Boston Public Library Under Creative Commons License.

As a survivor of a fundamentalist Catholic cult, I’d like to put the core issues with Pope Francis’ Canadian “apology tour” into plain terms.

I was 14 when my mother took my sisters and me to the rural town of Saint Marys, Kansas, to sequester us in a space safe from what she called “the evils of the world”. Saint Mary’s was one “parish” in a more extensive network of churches run by the Society of Saint Pius X, an organization that claims to be the last remnant of the one true Catholic Church. During my time in Saint Marys in the 1990s, SSPX leadership made these claims loudly and frequently, completely unbothered that the mainstream Catholic Church headed by the Pope didn’t recognize them as Catholic.

The Pope’s rejection was, in fact, a badge of honor. I spent my high-school years with teachers who believed that the mainstream Catholic church had become too tolerant of other religions and too loose in its definitions of acceptable behaviors for Catholics. Eastern forms of meditation, which had become more accepted in the modern Church, were to be avoided at all costs, as they could lead to demonic possession. Real Catholics, they claimed, should listen only to Classical music, sacred music rooted in Catholicism, and folk songs from Europe and the United States. Popular music that used the rhythms of uncivilized, undisciplined savages would tempt good Catholic people to commit sins of the flesh.

In this context, the SSPX’s pride in being rejected by the mainstream Catholic Church was rooted in the idea that modern Catholicism wasn’t White enough.

If you are an adult who moves to Saint Marys by choice, it’s likely because the town represents a vibrant home for hundreds of people just like you, people who will constantly validate and amplify your extreme conservative beliefs.

If you are a child raised there, it is the only world you know.

When my mother brought me to saint Marys, she’d already home-schooled me for four years, and I’d had significant religious indoctrination since the cradle. My age now put me somewhere between an adult overjoyed at the chance to immerse themselves in an ideology, and a child forced into an echo chamber for brainwashing. Either way, I found myself in an environment carefully designed to keep children isolated and indoctrinate them with approved beliefs and cultural practices.

Through isolation, immersion, constant repetition, and social pressures they could establish within such a limited community, SSPX leaders in Saint Marys hoped to produce adults who would never even think to question their teachings, let alone venture out into the world.

SSPX teachers and clergy proclaimed that the Middle Ages were not the dark ages but the Golden age of the Catholic Church. The Middle Ages were the ages of Crusades, when Catholics were doing God’s work, fighting to wrest the Holy Land from Muslims. It was the glorious time when real men fought battles while their delicate, submissive women waited patiently for them at home. The influence of African and Asian people had not yet corrupted a European culture still firmly rooted in Greek and Roman classicism.

In Saint Marys, we were living this magnificent fantasy. Young people filed into school buildings separated by gender to learn Greek and Latin and study early European art. We learned about the Medieval Period, the Renaissance, and the birth of the United States from approved textbooks that explored every topic through the lens of Catholicism and the Church. The reverence paid to the romanticized ideal of an obedient, strong yet delicate medieval woman with porcelain skin and flowing garments so impressed me that I became obsessed with striving to be this romanticized feminine ideal. It became a core part of my teen and young adult identity.

I failed miserably at being feminine and delicate and would ultimately fail even harder at being submissive to a man. What I did take away from those years is my deep understanding of fundamentalist Catholicism’s origin and history, a lens through which I could later recognize many of its attitudes still deeply ingrained in modern Christian conservative thought.

Most importantly, I experienced the idea of “White European” as an identity. It was an identity that I SSPX hoped I would internalize as the foundation for how I thought about myself and how I spoke and dressed. It determined which books, art, music, and activities I liked and didn’t like. It determined the names I chose for my children, Edmund, Miles, and Emma.

Further, I experienced my White European identity as something fragile and under constant threat. I would have to protect it fiercely by excluding any and all influence from other cultures.

Although it was just one of many SSPX churches across the country and the globe, there were two things that made Saint Mary’s truly unique in the 1990s.

The first was that the organization’s followers had taken over the entire town of Saint Marys, pushing out almost all of the original residents and creating a commune upon which members from all of the other SSPX centers were beginning to converge.

The second was Ramon Anglés.

River Irons (back left, then known as Rose) and Ramon Anglés on Campus in Saint Marys, September 1991

Father Anglés, as we called him, spoke with an accent that gave him a certain mystique and credibility in the pulpit. Rumors in the community had it that he and his family were old money from the European perfume industry and that he’d sacrificed it all to come to Kansas and do God’s work. God’s work never stopped him from enjoying expensive cigars while the town’s extremely large families struggled to provide for their children, but the community somehow found the endearing rather than hypocritical.

Anglés lived on “Campus”, a cluster of historic buildings on the East side of town where the SSPX parish had its offices, convent, library, chapel, boys’ school, girls’ school, and male and female dormitories.

Life in Saint Marys centered around this massive complex. SSPX members who lived “off Campus” constantly traveled to and from Campus for Mass, Confession, school, the campus bookstore, and parish social activities. Families that could not move to Saint Marys just yet could send their children to the Campus boarding facilities.

Campus was why we’d all come here. Campus was the nucleus of this commune and its pride and joy. Anglés honored the significance of doing his particular work in these particular buildings and could hardly get through a sermon without talking about it.

Father Anglés was from Spain and, as a Traditional Catholic, felt a deep personal connection to Spain’s Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella.

For Anglés, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were the 15th-century “Crusaders after the Crusades”, willing to fight encroaching threats to pure Catholic European culture at any cost. They expelled Jewish and Muslim people from Spain and instituted the Spanish Inquisition, which displaced or executed thousands of people for not being Catholic, or Catholic enough.

Rather than seeing large-scale murder as a red flag on the entire idea of Catholic colonization, Anglés chose to believe that the Spanish Inquisition was essential to protect the Catholic Church in Europe. He vehemently dismissed any negative commentary as anti-Catholic propaganda. He expressed a deep conviction that his job was to continue Ferdinand and Isabella’s work of spreading Catholicism throughout the world–and not just any Catholicism, but the extreme version of Catholicism that Ferdinand and Isabella’s championed in their time.

But Anglés’ chief source of pride in his heritage was that Ferdinand and Isabella financed Christopher Columbus’ journeys to the new world. He even talked of suggesting Columbus for Catholic sainthood.

If you’re reading this, you probably already know that Christopher Columbus committed heinous atrocities in the Caribbean and that his arrival in North America marked the beginning of the end for Indigenous people who had been living here peacefully for generations. But Anglés proclaimed to packed pews in the Campus Chapel that Columbus was the Catholic Monarchy’s gift to the rest of the Western World, especially to us here in the United States. If not for Columbus, we wouldn’t lie safely cradled in the arms of the real Catholic Church right now.

Not having this Church and the identity that came with it was a terrifying thought for us. If just one thing had gone wrong with Columbus’ journey, it could have created a ripple effect, ending in a scenario in which we might not have had the precious identity that was the foundation of how we thought and went about our lives. Without Ferdinand and Isabella’s riches, Columbus could not have made his holy journey. The new lands that were to become the United States of America would have remained overrun with savages, perhaps to this day. The Jesuits would not have built these hallowed halls of our Campus, where they worked to save the children of savages by converting them to Catholicism and European ways.

These old Jesuit buildings were the grand structures that made up our Campus. Gathered in the halls of an “Indian Mission”, we were continuing in the tradition of the Jesuits, Christopher Columbus, and Ferdinand and Isabella. The halls of the Indian Mission were where we had the honor and privilege to worship and where children would receive a proper Catholic education. Father Anglés would not let us forget, even for a moment.

The Society of Saint Pius X in Saint Marys was not accidentally falling into habits and thought patterns established by those who had gone before. Their teachings were exceptionally well defined and the racism was undeniably intentional.

While the days of kidnapping and re-educating indigenous children were undoubtedly over, the ideas that justified those kidnappings were alive and well. I’m grateful that SSPX taught me their racist ideology in such explicit and radical terms. They inadvertently taught me to recognize the same constructs anywhere, even if they are disguised or diluted.

Far from trying to hide their racist ideology, the Society of Saint Pius X was openly proud of it, confident that no one could ever define it as racism. If you’d introduced the word “racism” in connection with the religious and cultural ideas in Saint Marys, an outcry of righteous, pearl-clutching denial would undoubtedly have followed. But it was undeniable that almost all of the people in our cult were White. Some were White nationalists, and of those, some belonged to militias.

During my time in Saint Marys, a handful of people converting from other cultures to join SSPX assimilated enough to look and behave as white except for the color of their skin. Sure, you could be Black, Indian, or Asian physically. We wouldn’t turn people away based on skin color, but you couldn’t bring any aspect of your belief or cultural practice in with you. We had a standing invitation for Black and Brown sheep to join the fold, but we didn’t get many takers.

The cult desperately wanted new members to join, though. Expanding our numbers was another frequent topic in sermons and school lectures. In over 20 years since my escape, the number of Traditional Catholics living in Saint Marys has grown exponentially.

I suspect that most of the growth isn’t from the addition of new members coming from far outside this kind of ideology. People coming in from other SSPX parishes to be a part of the unique communal environment in Saint Mary’s probably contributes a lot to its population growth. But most of the growth happens from within.

When I married, the cult ensured that my new husband and I were clear on their policies about sex. SSPX forbids any kind of birth control or contraception, and women must submit to their husband’s sexual desires on demand. Sexual gratification was a sin unless it was a reward for the possible creation of a child, each and every time. We were to accept as many children as God would send us.

I was not to prevent pregnancy by any means. I could not tell my husband no. Even if pregnancy meant certain death for me, I was to place my life in the hands of God. Abortion under any circumstances was not allowed.

As a community where young people are socially coerced into marriage–and women into sexual submission–in their late teens and early twenties, we were going to colonize the world with the fruit of our loins. We would then indoctrinate those children in a controlled environment that they would most likely never leave.

I do get occasional updates on what goes on in Saint Marys. Since my family arrived in the early days of its enormous population growth, yet another generation of children is now producing children, and the cult has overflowed the town’s borders. Land and housing are in high demand for new families sheltering from “the evils of the world”.

For SSPX, this is the new colonization. The burden of ensuring the strength and spread of the White European identity falls heavily on women’s bodies. I would have had 18 or more children if I hadn’t escaped.

But this story isn’t about me. It only serves to illustrate this truth: that when an ideology or culture is deemed inherently superior, it follows that all people will be better off adopting it. Where the Christian religion is inextricably paired with White European identity, propagating and fiercely protecting the resulting White Christian culture becomes a moral obligation. Anyone and anything in the way of its universal adoption must be dealt with.

In other words, colonization finds a way.

When I escaped the cult with the three toddlers I’d borne during my four-year marriage, I knew the cult was wrong, but I didn’t know what was right. I had to take a good look at what I considered to be the real world. The mainstream Catholic Church seemed a logical and comfortable place to start.

But I found the same ideologies I’d encountered in the cult in the mainstream Catholic Church too. They were echoes, ghosts perhaps, of the Ferdinand and Isabella missionary culture, but I knew that culture well, and it was definitely present here. The choice between this ugliness and literally anything else didn’t seem difficult, even if it meant discarding the only world I’d ever known and the only identity I’d ever had. I was no longer Catholic.

I soon found that Evangelical Christianity wasn’t much different, with its imperative to spread a superior ideology clearly indicated in its name.

I couldn’t have explained any of this back then. I was flying on sheer intuition as I explored the world outside my isolated upbringing for the first time. It would be years before I found the words to describe what I saw and explain the decisions I made.

When Pope Francis went on tour apologizing to indigenous survivors of assimilation boarding schools in Canada, I saw someone who might understand on some level that the Catholic Church should apologize and pay reparations for the atrocities it committed. But the roller-coaster of emotions that indigenous journalist Brandi Morin described as she saw the healing power of Pope Francis’s statements of repentance and then the rock concert of his celebrity continue as if Indigenous people weren’t even there raises a concern that is absolutely valid.

The Pope acknowledged that children were taken from their parents, abused, neglected, and forcibly stripped of their culture. He admitted that those crimes have had deleterious effects on generations since. He has acknowledged that the Church owes reparations.

That is not enough. No apology will ever be enough if it doesn’t acknowledge the very root of what made all of the Catholic Church’s colonial atrocities possible: the fallacy that European Culture and Christianity are inherently superior.

A genuine apology from Pope Francis might contain points like this:

Our beliefs are not and never were not superior to yours.

Our culture and ways are not and never were superior to yours.

We created this ideology of superiority as a justification to commit atrocities against your people.

We had no right to open any schools or to teach your children anything.

We carry deep remorse for the abuse, neglect, and murder of your children. Our people could not have committed these crimes against you had we not created a systemic belief that your children must conform to our religion and culture.

This wasn’t about religious salvation. It was about marking you as inferior, so we could plunder indigenous lands, clearing the way for White people and exclusively White settlements.

We will make material reparations to undo the material harm to generations of your people by any means necessary. We will do this in the way you require, not in the way that benefits us.

At the same time, we acknowledge that material reparations will never undo our crimes and the suffering we caused.

Moreover, we acknowledge that material reparations cannot be successful as such unless we also undo the ideologies we created to justify atrocities and ongoing systemic inequities.

We will immediately stop teaching the lie that our way is the only way to salvation.

We will immediately stop teaching the lie that salvation depends not just on belief but on adherence to Western cultural practices.

We will stop propagating the lie that our culture and beliefs are superior and the highly destructive lie that we must spread our culture and beliefs because they are superior.

We do not have a right to own or define the concept of a higher power. Therefore, no one has to convert to our beliefs or practices to be blessed, guided, and protected by a higher power.

To stop propagating lies is not enough. We will actively lift up your culture and beliefs to the world as just as sacred, beautiful, and as valuable as ours.

We will work to undo these false ideologies by applying the same craft and diligence we put into creating and making them systemic over centuries.

We are criminals beholden to make restoration for our crimes. Neither the Catholic Church as a whole nor any of its leaders or members, including myself, will seek or accept any attention or accolades for their part in making indigenous people whole for crimes the Catholic Church perpetrated.

Additionally, I have no right to bless places or objects sacred to you, such as the Lac Ste Anne, which have been sacred for centuries without my Church’s idea of consecration placed on them. These are ceremonies that the Catholic Church has historically performed to make a show of imprinting itself on the sacred places and objects of other cultures and to perpetuate the lies I’ve described. These blessings were never appropriate and would be an outrage in this moment.

Of course, there would have to be a plan for implementing all of this and ways to regularly measure whether or not the plan was effective. In addition to requiring the direction of indigenous peoples, it would probably involve a lot of work from abolitionist experts in different fields such as behavioral science. Undoing generations of racist thought among White people will be no small feat, and I can only hope those abolitionist experts exist when the time comes.

But you get the idea. If the Pope doesn’t expose the racist ideas that justify what Catholic colonizers did, we have to assume he is only sorry because of the obviously bad stuff, like murder. Everyone knows “child murderers” isn’t a good look for any organization, and an apology would be in the organization’s best interest.

His apology implies that despite the things that went wrong, re-educating those children was still Whites doing indigenous people a favor. It means that assimilation was OK and even necessary. The schools themselves were a great idea if only we had run them more responsibly. We could have gone with a kinder, more subtle method of brainwashing instead of abuse, murder, and the forcible stripping of culture.

But oh, well. Just like the Spanish Inquisition in the glory days of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, it had to be done.

The shallowness of his apology is why the Pope can do his mea culpas, then kiss babies and work the crowd like a rock star on the same tour while baffled survivors of his Church’s crimes look on. The Catholic Church might be sorry for the obviousness of the crimes they committed, but they’re not sorry for who they are.

It’s the same reason we White people can be deeply sorry that George Floyd is dead and put Black Lives Matter signs in our windows for “solidarity” but never actually change anything. Change would mean questioning core ideas around our superiority that we’ve been using to justify atrocities and systemic oppression going back centuries. We just have not been willing to do that.

I don’t want to take anything away from Indigenous survivors who may find some healing in the Pope’s visit and who may view this apology as a step in the right direction. I do not speak for them. But I do want to take away from Pope Francis and the Catholic Church any sense that they’ve gotten away with a non-apology.

--

--

River Irons

I grew up in a cult. I escaped. I still search for freedom from oppressive constructs. Digital Artist, Storyteller.