Vatican repudiates Doctrine of Discovery

Today, the Vatican “responded to Indigenous demands and formally repudiated the ‘Doctrine of Discovery,’ the theories backed by 15th-century ‘papal bulls’ that legitimized the colonial-era seizure of Native lands and form the basis of some property laws today,” the Associated Press reported.

“A Vatican statement said the papal bulls, or decrees, ‘did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples and have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith.'”

For as momentous as this Vatican statement is, it appears to have been released with little fanfare. It will certainly spur serious debates over land titles.

The ball is now in the courts of governments around the world.

Columbus claimed “New World” lands for Spain, based Papal edicts, which the Vatican formally rejected today. Image: Architect of the Capitol. This painting is in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

The Doctrine of Discovery refers to a series of Papal decrees issued up until the 15th century that gave European powers the religious, political, and legal justification to colonize lands not inhabited by Christians, and to convert, enslave, or kill the land’s inhabitants.

Significantly, U.S. case law carries that thinking forward. In the 1823 case Johnson v. McIntosh, the Court claimed the United States was the legal inheritor of land lawfully obtained from European monarchs who had seized it from Indigenous peoples. It coined the term “discovery doctrine.”

“On the discovery of this immense continent, the great nations of Europe were eager to appropriate to themselves so much of it as they could respectively acquire,” wrote Chief Justice John Marshall. “Its vast extent offered an ample field to the ambition and enterprise of all; and the character and religion of its inhabitants afforded an apology for considering them as a people over whom the superior genius of Europe might claim an ascendency.”

Johnson v. McIntosh

The Rev. David McCallum, executive director of the Program for Discerning Leadership based in Rome, said today’s statement “repudiates the very mindsets and worldview that gave rise to the original papal bulls,” NPR reports. “It renounces the mindset of cultural or racial superiority which allowed for that objectification or subjection of people, and strongly condemns any attitudes or actions that threaten or damage the dignity of the human person,” McCallum said.

“Indigenous leaders welcomed the statement,” Indian Country Today reported today. At the same time, it noted that the Vatican continued to try to keep some distance from acknowledging its own culpability. The Vatican statement said “the papal documents had been ‘manipulated’ for political purposes by colonial powers ‘to justify immoral acts against Indigenous peoples that were carried out, at times, without opposition from ecclesial authorities.'”

The headline on the CBC website read: “Indigenous leaders hope Vatican’s repudiation of oppressive colonial concepts leads to real change: ‘Reconciliation is a buzzword. But how it impacts current policy is really what’s at stake here’.”

“‘On the surface it sounds good, it looks good … but there has to be a fundamental change in attitudes, behaviour, laws and policies from that statement,’ said Ernie Daniels, the former chief of Long Plain First Nation in Manitoba, during a Thursday interview.”

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