Vatican rejects "Doctrine of Discovery" justifying colonialism

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Steve Hayes

Apr 2, 2023, 1:07:10 PMApr 2
Vatican rejects ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ justifying colonialism

After decades of demands by Indigenous people, Vatican ‘repudiates’
theories that backed colonial-era seizure of lands.

Calls to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery grew louder last year when
Pope Francis made a trip to Canada to apologise for the Catholic
Church's role in abuses at so-called residential schools [File:
Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters]

Published On 30 Mar 2023

The Vatican has rejected the “Doctrine of Discovery”, a 15th-century
concept laid out in so-called “papal bulls” that were used to justify
European Christian colonialists’ seizure of Indigenous lands in Africa
and the Americas.

In a statement on Thursday, the Vatican’s development and education
office said the theory (PDF) – which still informs government policies
and laws today – was not part of the Catholic Church’s teachings.

It said the papal bulls were “manipulated for political purposes by
competing colonial powers in order to justify immoral acts against
Indigenous peoples that were carried out, at times, without opposition
from ecclesiastical authorities”.

“In no uncertain terms, the Church’s magisterium upholds the respect
due to every human being,” the statement reads. “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’.”

For decades, Indigenous leaders and community advocates had urged the
Catholic Church to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery, which stated
that European colonialists could claim any territory not yet
“discovered” by Christians.

The papal bulls played a key role in the European conquest of Africa
and the Americas, and their effects are still felt by Indigenous

Calls to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery grew louder last year when
Pope Francis made a trip to Canada during which he apologised for the
Catholic Church’s role in widespread abuses that took place at
so-called residential schools.

Between the late 1800s and 1990s, more than 150,000 Inuit, First
Nation and Metis children across Canada were taken from their families
and communities and obligated to attend the forced-assimilation
institutions, which were rife with physical, psychological and sexual

The Haudenosaunee External Relations Committee said at the time of the
pope’s residential school apology that more action was needed from the
church – notably, the revocation of the papal bulls.

“An apology to Indigenous Peoples without action are just empty words.
The Vatican must revoke these Papal Bulls and stand up for Indigenous
Peoples’ rights to their lands in courts, legislatures and elsewhere
in the world,” the committee said in a July 2022 statement.

Indigenous leaders welcomed Thursday’s Vatican statement, even though
it continued to take some distance from acknowledging actual

Phil Fontaine, a former national chief of the Assembly of First
Nations in Canada who was part of the delegation that met with Pope
Francis at the Vatican before last year’s trip and then accompanied
him throughout, said the statement was “wonderful”.

He said it resolved an outstanding issue and now put the matter to
civil authorities to revise property laws that cite the doctrine.

“The Holy Father promised that upon his return to Rome, they would
begin work on a statement which was designed to allay the fears and
concerns of many survivors and others concerned about the relationship
between their Catholic Church and our people, and he did as he said he
would do,” Fontaine told The Associated Press news agency.

“Now the ball is in the court of governments, the United States and in
Canada, but particularly in the United States where the doctrine is
embedded in the law,” he said.

“Today’s news on the Vatican’s formal repudiation of the Doctrine of
Discovery is the result of hard work and advocacy on the part of
Indigenous leadership and communities,” Canadian Justice Minister
David Lametti wrote on Twitter. “A doctrine that should have never
existed. This is another step forward.”

The Doctrine of Discovery was cited as recently as a 2005 US Supreme
Court decision involving the Oneida Indian Nation and written by the
late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

On Thursday, the Vatican offered no evidence that the three papal
bulls (Dum Diversas in 1452, Romanus Pontifex in 1455 and Inter
Caetera in 1493) had themselves been formally abrogated, rescinded or
rejected, as Vatican officials have often said.

But it cited a subsequent papal bull, Sublimis Deus in 1537, that
reaffirmed that Indigenous peoples should not be deprived of their
liberty or the possession of their property, and were not to be

Cardinal Michael Czerny, the Canadian Jesuit whose office co-authored
the statement, stressed that the original papal bulls had long ago
been abrogated and that the use of the term “doctrine” — which in this
case is a legal term, not a religious one — had led to centuries of
confusion about the church’s role.

The original papal bulls, he said, “are being treated as if they were
teaching, magisterial or doctrinal documents, and they are an ad hoc
political move. And I think to solemnly repudiate an ad hoc political
move is to generate more confusion than clarity”.

He stressed that the statement was not just about setting the
historical record straight, but “to discover, identify, analyse and
try to overcome what we can only call the enduring effects of
colonialism today”.

Michele Audette, an Innu senator who was one of the five commissioners
responsible for conducting the National Inquiry into Missing and
Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada, told the Canadian
Broadcasting Corporation that the announcement left her in disbelief.

“It’s big,” she said in an interview on CBC Daybreak. “That doctrine
made sure we did not exist or were even recognised … It’s one of the
root causes of why the relationship is so broken.”

Steve Hayes from Tshwane, South Africa

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