2.34 Why was the Church so cruel to the Native Americans?
Following the great discoveries by Christopher Columbus and others, Spain, Portugal and other powers obtained colonial rights in America. The Pope gave them the task of spreading the faith in the new lands. Sadly, many conquistadores (colonists) were more interested in acquiring wealth than in this noble task.
The native population was treated inhumanely, to the extent that in 1537 Pope Paul III had to remind the colonists that Native Americans were human beings! Only in a later phase was the Church able to send its own missionaries. These missionaries not only proclaimed the faith, but lived it themselves, built hospitals and schools, and helped people in many different ways.
The early encounter between your traditional cultures and the European way of life was... a harsh and painful reality for your peoples. The cultural oppression, the injustices, the disruption of your life and of your traditional societies must be acknowledged. At the same time, in order to be objective, history must record the deeply positive aspects... Among these I wish to recall the work of the many missionaries who strenuously defended the rights of the original inhabitants of this land. [Pope John Paul II, To native people of the Americas, 14 Sept 1987]