Responding to Indigenous, Vatican disavows ‘doctrine of discovery’

By Cindy Wooden | Catholic News Service
Thursday, March 30, 2023

Pope Francis receives a gift from an Indigenous leader during a meeting with First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities at Maskwacis, Alberta, July 25, 2022. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY — The Catholic Church formally “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,’” a Vatican statement said.

Issued March 30 by the dicasteries for Culture and Education and for Promoting Integral Human Development, the statement said papal texts that seemed to support the idea that Christian colonizers could claim the land of non-Christian Indigenous people “have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith.”

“At the same time, the church acknowledges that these papal bulls did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples,” the statement said.

Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, said the document responds to the repeated requests of Indigenous people in Canada and the United States to disavow the so-called doctrine, but it does not claim the discussion has ended or should end.

“It acknowledges that dealing with such a painful heritage is an ongoing process,” he told reporters. “It acknowledges still more importantly that the real issue is not the history but contemporary reality.”

And, the cardinal said, it is a call “to discover, identify, analyze and try to overcome what we can only call the enduring effects of colonialism today.”

Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, welcomed the Vatican statement, saying it is “yet another step in expressing concern and pastoral solicitude for Native and Indigenous peoples who have experienced tremendous suffering because of the legacy of a colonizing mentality.”

As the U.S. and Canadian bishops jointly look at ways to continue discussions of the issue and its impact, the archbishop prayed that God would “bless with healing all those who continue to suffer the legacy of colonialism and may we all offer true aid and support. By God’s grace, may we never return to the way of colonization, but rather walk together in the way of peace.”

The Vatican statement said that the content of several 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.”

The “doctrine of discovery” has become shorthand to refer to a collection of papal texts, beginning in the 14th century, that appeared to bless the efforts of explorers to colonize and claim the lands of any people who were not Christian, placing both the land and the people under the sovereignty of European Christian rulers.

Cardinal Czerny noted, however, that the phrase “doctrine of discovery” was coined by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1823.

“The unfortunate thing here is that a very strongly church-related word is used by the U.S. Supreme Court to name an idea that was part of a historical process” but was never church teaching, he said. The papal bulls usually cited as supporting the idea were not “magisterial or doctrinal documents,” but were attempts by the popes who wrote them to avoid war between Spain and Portugal as they made competing claims to land in the Americas.

In a series of meetings at the Vatican in March and April 2022, representatives of Canada’s First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities asked Pope Francis specifically for a formal repudiation of the “doctrine of discovery.”

And, at a Mass in Quebec in late July when he visited the communities in Canada, Indigenous women unfurled a banner that said, “Rescind the Doctrine.”

The loss of the land, language, culture and spirituality of the Indigenous peoples of Canada and the foundation of the residential school system all can be traced to the doctrine, Indigenous leaders told reporters after their meetings with the pope.

Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça, prefect of the Dicastery for Culture and Education, said in a separate statement, that while “the ‘doctrine of discovery’ was not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church,” the “tragic history” of how it was used “reminds us of the need to be ever more vigilant in our defense of the dignity of all people and the need to grow in knowledge and appreciation of their cultures.”

The statement from the two dicasteries, he said, is the result of a process of listening to Indigenous people and trying to grow “in mutual understanding. In that sense, the insights that inform this note are themselves the fruit of a renewed dialogue between the church and Indigenous peoples.”

A reporter asked Pope Francis about the doctrine during his news conference flying back to Rome from Canada. He said it always has been a temptation for colonizers to think they were superior to the people whose land they were colonizing. In fact, he said, there even was “a theologian, who was a bit crazy,” who questioned whether the Indigenous of the Americas had souls.

“This is the problem of every colonialism, even today,” he said, pointing to modern forms of “ideological colonialism,” which use requests for foreign assistance to force poorer countries to adopt policies that go against the values their people hold dear.

“This doctrine of colonialism truly is evil, it’s unjust,” the pope said.

The Vatican dicasteries’ statement acknowledged that “certain scholars have argued that the basis of the aforementioned ‘doctrine’ is to be found in several papal documents, such as the Bulls ‘Dum Diversas’ (1452), ‘Romanus Pontifex’ (1455) and ‘Inter Caetera’ (1493).”

But, the statement said, “the ‘doctrine of discovery’ is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church,” and, it added, “historical research clearly demonstrates that the papal documents in question, written in a specific historical period and linked to political questions, have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith.”

“At the same time, the church acknowledges that these papal bulls did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of indigenous peoples,” it said. “It is only just to recognize these errors, acknowledge the terrible effects of the assimilation policies and the pain experienced by Indigenous peoples, and ask for pardon.”


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