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Explainer: Could Pope Francis revoke the 15th-century ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ used to justify colonizing Indigenous peoples?

“RESCIND THE DOCTRINE.” These were the words written in bold red and black letters across a white banner that stretched across the front of the sanctuary of the Basilica of St. Anne de Beaupré in Quebec moments before Pope Francis presided at Mass there. It was the second Mass of his visit to Indigenous Peoples in Canada to apologize for the deplorable abuses committed over more than a century in residential schools under the Catholic Church’s watch.

This bold demonstration, which was televised and broadcast around the world, sharpens the demands for Pope Francis to make a public statement in Canada that would rescind what is known as the “doctrine of discovery.” Now, the seeming absence of any mention of the doctrine in the pope’s days in Canada could threaten some of the good will, reconciliation and healing brought by this momentous time in the Vatican’s relations with Indigenous People.

Many Indigenous Peoples in Canada appear to have received well the apology made by Pope Francis on the first day of his pilgrimage of penance in their lands. But as the apology—and the applause and shouts expressed each of the four times the pope said “I am sorry” in his speech on that day—begins to settle, Indigenous communities are finding space to reflect on that historic moment and digest its contents. Some are now asking what is still left for the pope to say before he returns to the Vatican. And with that have come louder, more visible—even angry—demands for Francis to condemn these instructions given by two popes in three letters to the kings of Portugal and Spain during the Imperial Age that make up the so-called doctrine of discovery. The legacy of these papal edicts has had a devastating historic impact on Indigenous communities; they have attacked Indigenous traditions and practices and threatened even legal claims to what Indigenous Peoples believe are their rightful lands.

Why is it so important for the pope to make a public pronouncement to rescind this doctrine? In fact, some would argue it has already been rescinded by the church. Has it?

But why is it so important for the pope to make a public pronouncement to rescind this doctrine? In fact, some would argue it has already been rescinded by the church. Has it? Is that enough? Before we explore these questions, we need to do some stage setting.

What is the doctrine of discovery?

The doctrine of discovery is a somewhat misleading blanket term adopted to refer to what were essentially a series of public decrees—known as papal bulls—that were written by the popes of the 15th century to the Catholic kings of Spain and Portugal granting them permission to colonize non-Christian lands and enslave the non-Christians found in these lands that were deemed undiscovered by the Christian world.

There were three papal bulls of discovery issued to this end: Pope Nicholas V first wrote “Dum Diversas” to the king of Portugal in 1452. Within less than three years, he would issue a similar decree, “Romanus Pontifex,” to the king of Spain. It would be almost four decades before Pope Alexander VI wrote “Inter Caetera” in 1493, which is the papal bull most often cited when referring to the doctrine. It preserves many of the directives contained in preceding papal bulls and further amplifies the scope of what the pope allowed kings to do under the blessing and authority of the Catholic Church in the church’s quest to evangelize.

With these letters, the popes granted to kings and those of their empires certain permissions, among these the rights to conquer the lands of Indigenous Peoples where Christianity had not taken root, to convert the Indigenous Peoples there to the Roman Catholic faith and to enslave Indigenous Peoples. These documents of papal authority not only gave kings tacit consent to dominate Indigenous Peoples and their lands, but they also grounded such pursuits in a Christian, even specifically Catholic sense of mission and divine obedience to God. “That in our times, especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread,” Alexander VI wrote in his bull granting Spain possession of lands discovered by Christopher Columbus. The pope argued further that the pursuits of Spain were justified “that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”

The popes granted to kings and those of their empires certain permissions, among these the rights to conquer the lands of Indigenous Peoples where Christianity had not taken root.

From this brief exposition of some of the contents of the papal bulls it is plain why Indigenous communities would call for such instructions to be repealed by Pope Francis. The Catholic Church’s theological view of the world and the respect it has for a diversity of beliefs has clearly shifted. Today, the church is more inclined to value and celebrate the experiences and gifts that other religious traditions can bring into the world, as Pope Francis’ visit to Canada and his willingness to partake in important cultural rituals repeatedly revealed.

Still, while the pope and the Vatican have moved beyond a mentality that saw Indigenous Peoples and those who were not Christian as inferior to white, European Christians, the call to revoke the doctrine of discovery remains—not least because of its impact on property laws.

The doctrine of discovery and the U.S. Supreme Court

While the doctrine of discovery might be considered obsolete by some, it has implications today for Indigenous communities, notably in the way that it has been used by justices of the U.S. Supreme Court to deny Indigenous Peoples’ land petitions.

The doctrine was first used in a 1823 U.S. Supreme Court case. In Johnson v. McIntosh—the first of three landmark cases in Indian law in the United States—the court ruled that while the Piankeshaw and Illinois Indians, two Native American communities, were within their right to occupy, settle and govern parcels of land in the Ohio River valley, they had no claim to land ownership. Following the logic of the doctrine of discovery, the land belonged to those who discovered it and therefore the federal government rightly owned the land.

The doctrine of discovery has been applied in many other cases and used internationally to legitimize governments’ ownership of land. As late as 2005, in Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation, the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also argued against an Indigenous community’s claim to their land on the basis of the doctrine. In each of these cases, the particulars are complicated. Their inclusion here is not intended as a debate over the rightness of the judgment but rather to show how a so-called doctrine established in three letters by 15th-century popes has come to bear on secular laws and affect Indigenous communities.

Recent calls to rescind the doctrine of discovery

In late March, when the delegations of First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples heard the pope’s historic first apology for the church’s participation in the Canadian government-mandated residential education system, some members of the delegation said they told the pope that an apology on Indigenous soils in Canada needed to include a call to repeal the doctrine of discovery.

But on Monday July 25, 2022, when the pope offered the most comprehensive apology yet as the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church for abuses in Canada, there was no explicit mention of that doctrine.

When the pope offered the most comprehensive apology yet as the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church for abuses in Canada, there was no explicit mention of that doctrine.

And this was not the first time that Indigenous People had met with the pope at the Vatican to discuss the doctrine. In the first year of Francis’ papacy, a delegation of Indigenous People, who called themselves “​​The Long March to Rome,” met briefly with the pope on May 4, 2015—the anniversary of one of the papal bulls—to demand that he repeal the doctrine. “They were the ‘blueprint,’” the delegation said in a press release, “for conquest of the New World; they provided moral justification for the enslavement and conquest of Indigenous peoples worldwide; they are an ongoing violation of contemporary human rights legislation; and other communities currently struggling to save their lands are threatened by modern-day ideologies of inequality anchored in the papal bulls.”

The delegation reported then that the pope had appeared attentive to their calls but said little else. “The pope was very kind,” Kenneth Deer of the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawake reported. “He kept eye contact and he was very attentive. And all he said was ‘I will pray for you.’ That’s the only thing he said. And he gave me a little red box with a set of rosaries in it. And that was it.”

But, despite no assurances from the pope, Mr. Deer said he still left the Vatican with some hope that the Vatican would speak out against the doctrine after he received a clear acknowledgment by a Vatican official that the doctrine was devastating and that something needed to be done about it.

After their brief meeting with the pope, the delegation met for a longer time with members of the then Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Mr. Deer remembered an exchange with Cardinal Silvano Tomasi, who at the time was the secretary of the council.

“He started giving the usual spiel that the papal bulls are no longer in effect, that they’ve been superseded by other papal bulls and there was no need for us to do anything,” Mr. Deer said, reporting the meeting to APTN. But as they neared the end of the meeting, Mr. Deer said: “[Cardinal Tomasi] was changing his position. At the end he said, ‘Maybe the Vatican does have to make a statement. We have to consider making a statement.’”

Though the Vatican has still not made a statement about the doctrine, there are Catholic bishops calling for the church to recognize the harm that these ancient papal pronouncements have done and the church’s need to apologize and distance itself from it.

Though the Vatican has still not made a statement about the doctrine there are Catholic bishops calling for the church to recognize the harm that these ancient papal pronouncements have done.

“This particular doctrine has been used to justify both political and personal violence against Indigenous nations, Indigenous peoples and their culture—their religious and their territorial identities,” Bishop Douglas J. Lucia of Syracuse, N.Y., told Religion News Service in 2021. “Since they were papal bulls in the beginning,” the bishop said, there needs to be an effort to repudiate the doctrine and, he added, “a public acknowledgment from the Holy Father of the harm these bulls have done to the Indigenous population.”

Consecrated religious women have also joined calls for repudiation of the doctrine. In 2014, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious explicitly called on the pope to rescind the doctrine of discovery, asking him “to consider deeply how the Church may embody in these times the Christian heart of justice and compassion toward indigenous peoples” in a statement. “We humbly and respectfully ask Pope Francis to lead us in formally repudiating the period of Christian history that used religion to justify political and personal violence against indigenous nations and peoples and their cultural, religious, and territorial identities.”

Catholic organizations aside, calls for the doctrine to be repealed have also come from within the United Nations. In 2013, The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues called “on the Catholic Church to openly denounce the centuries-old ‘Doctrine of Discovery,’” which it acknowledged to be the “shameful root of all the discrimination and marginalization indigenous peoples faced today.”

Public appeals for a formal end to the doctrine have also come from within the wider Christian churches and community, among them the Episcopal Church, the Mennonite Church, the United Methodist Church and the Anglican Church of Canada. In May this year, when the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the worldwide Anglican communion, visited Saskatchewan, he asked the crowd, “How can we dismantle the doctrine of discovery in a way so it can never be used again?”

New developments at the Vatican

A week before the pope traveled to Canada, the Vatican ignited new hope that the pope might say something about the doctrine on his visit to Canada.

“A reflection is underway in the Holy See on the doctrine of discovery,” Matteo Bruni, the director of the Vatican press office, said at a press briefing to the media just days before the Canada visit. Mr. Bruni added that though the reflection was “nearing the end of its conclusion,” it might not be concluded by the time of the pope’s visit to Canada and that he could not confirm whether the pope would say anything specific to the doctrine upon arrival in Canada. But, he added, “there ‘might’ be a development on this theme” after the papal trip.

So when no mention of the doctrine was made during the pope’s first apology in Canada, despite the glimpses of hope that Mr. Bruni offered, some Indigenous People were left wanting.

“Repudiate the doctrine of discovery! Renounce the papal bulls! End genocide!” This was the message that Chief Judy Wilson of the Neskonlith Tribe, whose father attended the residential schools run by the Catholic Church, shouted while the pope delivered his first apology in Canada. “I still haven’t heard anything about repudiating the doctrine of discovery,” Chief Wilson later told CBC News, “which is where a lot of the genocide legislation policy, you know, the Indian Act, the residential schools, the creation of the reserves all stem from.”

Whether Pope Francis will explicitly address the doctrine in the hours he has left in Canada or whether he will offer any light on the ongoing reflection at the Vatican during his customary press briefing on the return flight to Rome—as has often been the case with his mid-air papal press conferences—remains to be seen.

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