The papal election has been a pretty popular topic. We finally get the first non-European pope of modern times, Catholics in Latin America are excited, people believe he’ll be more understanding to the plights of the poor, and everyone is focusing on Pope Francis’s apparent homophobia and feelings toward women. All of these are completely understandable topics considering the popularity of the Catholic religion and the influence of the pope on many of these people.

Now, I’m not going to go into the specifics about this event. First, I’m not immensely interested in it. I do enjoy hearing about my Catholic friends’ perceptions of it, and I enjoy hearing how they view news coming out of the Vatican. But I’m not really interested in all of the particulars of the pope. What Pope Francis says has nothing to do with my beliefs; it has nothing to do with my (non-existent) religious organisation. I have a vague understanding of how much of the process works, but that’s not what’s going to be discussed here.

What is going to be discussed is why we need historians.

Because it is actually big news that there is a change in the hierarchy of Catholicism, news stations have happily provided coverage of this event. One of those was NBC Nightly News, who had this lovely clip covering the apparent “Leaatin American” (see screen) influence in the Catholic Church.

Ignoring the apparent spelling errors of the transcript, the anchor wrongly assumes how long Latin Americans have been waiting for a pope of their own.

Ignoring the apparent spelling errors of the transcript, the anchor (who isn’t pictured) wrongly assumes how long Latin Americans have been waiting for a pope of their own.

The problem is that the news anchor wrongly assumes that Latin America has been waiting 20 centuries for this event to happen. This neglects an incredible amount of Latin American (pre-)history, including the tribes and civilisations prior to European conquest. It wilfully forgets that the European ‘discovery’ of the New World is accredited to Christopher Columbus (who we also celebrate in the form of a public holiday, annoyingly), and that didn’t happen until 1492. We even have an irritating poem that they used to teach in elementary schools so that children could remember what year he found a lot of new (to Europe) land.

In fact, it wasn’t until the early 1500s that Latin America was even really colonised by European nations. Following the subsequent creation of the many colonies throughout the Americas, thousands upon thousands of indigenous populations died to both exceptional violence and disease (and sometimes exceptional violence using disease, if the Europeans were feeling particularly accommodating). It wasn’t until that time period, known as either the Age of Discovery or the Age of Exploration, that there were really any populations of Catholics living anywhere in what is now Latin America.

Prior to that, you have the vast (and often unknown) histories of the Pre-Columbian civilisations and indigenous populations. And I’m fairly certain most of these people were not monotheistic; they were primarily polytheistic and many of the smaller tribes were also animists. These people couldn’t have cared less about a pope because he both didn’t have any influence over them, and they most likely didn’t even know he existed.

So no, NBC Nightly News, no person in Latin America has been waiting for 20 centuries to have a pope from their region. At best, they’ve only been waiting 500 years. And to be fair, the amount of time is probably lower than that because many of the people who colonised the region considered themselves Spanish or Portuguese (or whatever European nationality); it wasn’t until a many generations later that they started believing themselves to be distinctly Latin American and not European.

And that doesn’t even speak of the difficulty in the labels, the creation of terminology, or how these people view themselves in term of national identity. I’m just addressing this whole issue on a very basic level, but there is so much more that could be elaborated on.

Note: I love Latin America and its people more than anything, so I’m really happy for them since they’re getting the representation in the Catholic Church that they deserve (especially considering they’re such a significant population of it). I just wish people would learn something about an area’s history before spouting facts that clearly aren’t true and neglect the ancestral stories of people who do still exist, as there is a significant population of indigenous people throughout the region.

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