Vatican formally repudiates the Doctrine of Discovery

The Vatican has 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.

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.

The statement, from the Vatican’s development and education offices, marked a historic recognition of the Vatican’s own complicity in colonial-era abuses committed by European powers. It was issued under history’s first Latin American pontiff, who was hospitalized recently with a respiratory infection, exactly one year after Francis met at the Vatican with Indigenous leaders from Canada who raised the issue ahead of Easter.

Calls to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery were made during the Pope’s visit to Canada where he personally apologized for the actions of some Christians for the treatment of indigenous children in Catholic residential schools. He did not take responsibility for the Catholic Church’s role in the establishment of the residential schools as an act of acculturation of indigenous peoples.

In his speech he reinforced the belovelance of the establishment of Christianity on indigenous lands which reflects the Doctrine of Discovery, but apologies for the actions of some Christians for their abusive behavior which was not consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church. He did also, acknowledge to journalist on his return flight that treatment of Indigous peoples amounts to a genocide. However, there were demands made to go further and rescind the Doctrine of Discovery.

The Doctrine of Discovery established a spiritual, political, and legal justification for colonization and seizure of land not inhabited by Christians. The Doctrine resulted in colonization of Africa, Asia and the Americas.

Foundational elements of the Doctrine of Discovery can be found in a series of papal bulls, or decrees, beginning in the 1100s, which included sanctions, enforcements, authorizations, explusions, admonishments, excommunications, denunciations, and expressions of territorial sovereignty for Christian monarchs supported by the Catholic Church.

Two papal bulls, in particular, stand out: (1) Pope Nicholas V issued “Romanus Pontifex” in 1455, granting the Portuguese a monopoly of trade with Africa and authorizing the enslavement of local people; (2) Pope Alexander VI issued the Papal Bull “Inter Caetera” in 1493 to justify Christian European explorers’ claims on land and waterways they allegedly discovered, and promote Christian domination and superiority, and has been applied in Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the Americas.

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