The 500-year-old legal and political theory that justified the taking of land from native populations by colonizers was formally renounced by the Church. The following article was published in the May-June 2023 issue of NewsNotes.
On March 30, the Vatican formally rejected the 500-year-old “Doctrine of Discovery.” This series of theory from the fifteenth century provided legal and religious justification to European rulers in their seizure of lands in the Americas and Africa from the people who had been living there for generations. It formed the foundation to property laws that are still enforced today that denied Indigenous people their land, language, culture, spirituality, and resources.
The announcement, a joint statement from the Dicastery for Culture and the Dicastery for Integral Human Development, said that the 15th century papal bulls were never official Catholic doctrine. “The Church acknowledges that these papal bulls did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples, these documents were manipulated for political purposes by competing colonial powers in order to justify immoral acts against indigenous peoples.”
The rejection of the concept comes after years of pressure from Indigenous groups calling for a formal rescission of the doctrine. This came to a crescendo last July as Pope Francis visited Canada and issued an apology for the Catholic Church’s involvement in the country’s 19th and 20th century residential schools, a legacy that stripped Indigenous peoples of their Native heritage and cultures.
During that visit, representatives of Canada’s First Nations delivered a plea to reject the doctrine to Pope Francis. At that time, the Holy Father said, “I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples.”
For many, his apology was not enough. Eight months later, Cardinal Czerny at the Vatican said that the church’s priority is to listen and to take seriously concerns raised by Indigenous peoples. While some appreciated his remarks, others insisted it was still not enough to repair the damage done. In its denouncement of the Doctrine of Discovery, the Vatican decried the theory as “not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church,” stating that the bulls were “written in a specific historical period and linked to political questions, [and] have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith,” calling them “an ad hoc response to an ad hoc problem.”
The first of the series of papal “bulls,” or decrees from which the Doctrine of Discovery was derived, came in 1452, authorizing colonial powers such as Spain and Portugal to seize lands and subjugate people in Africa and the “New World,” as long as people on the lands were not Christians.
The Doctrine of Discovery even found its way into the U.S. judicial system, and was referenced in an 1823 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Indigenous people had only rights of “occupancy,” not ownership, over their native lands that they had long inhabited. This led to the concept that the natives’ lands were free to take.
Invoking the Christian mandate to respect the dignity of every human being, the Vatican said, “The Catholic Church therefore repudiates those concepts that fail to recognize the inherent human rights of indigenous peoples, including what has become known as the legal and political ‘doctrine of discovery.’”
In making the announcement, the Vatican invoked the pope’s words from his Canadian visit: “Never again can the Christian community allow itself to be infected by the idea that one culture is superior to others, or that it is legitimate to employ ways of coercing others.”
The U.S. and Canadian Catholic bishops conferences issued statements welcoming the Church’s announcement. The U.S. bishops said, “as the Joint Statement [from the Vatican agencies] points out, there were times when Christians, including ecclesiastical authorities, failed to fully oppose destructive and immoral actions of the competing colonial powers. In this regard, we too express deep sorrow and regret.”
Maryknoll Fr. Steve Judd, who spent 40 years working among Indigenous peoples in Peru and Bolivia said the Church’s rejection of the doctrine is “a huge and welcome development.”
“Many of us Maryknollers who were blessed to live among these peoples throughout Latin America share in the joy of this announcement,” Fr. Judd said.“If nothing else, the prophetic and pivotal actions of solidarity by Pope Francis dramatize the struggle of Indigenous peoples for dignity, justice, and respect for human and religious rights unparalleled in history. He has set in motion for all Christians a road map to true reconciliation that missioners like me, and my brothers and sisters in Maryknoll, can and should follow for the rest of our lives in the accompaniment of these crucified and resurrected peoples.”
Fr. Judd said, “We know that the struggle for their rights and dignity is far from over, but this is an important first step.”
Painting: Christoper Columbus arrives in America published by the Prang Educational Co., 1893 via Wikimedia