Last March, the Dicastery for Culture and Education and the Dicastery for the Service of Integral Human Development published a joint note on the 'Doctrine of Discovery' in which it is stated that this doctrine 'is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church'.
What is the ‘doctrine of discovery’?
It is a political and legal concept that appeared when Western countries, especially Portugal and Spain, arrived in the 16th century in the countries 'discovered' by Christopher Columbus, which they thought to call the ‘New World’. This concept was used mainly from the 19th century onwards. This so-called 'doctrine' asserts that the 'discovery' of new lands confers on those who discover them the exclusive right to appropriate them. This implies the idea that no one was the owner before, whereas in reality almost all the lands claimed to be discovered were already occupied by others, if at all, by indigenous peoples. The same phenomenon was seen in the conquest of the North American West, made famous by countless films, where people were allowed to occupy as much land as they could before others arrived: other colonisers, of course, because the natives were already there, forgotten and left behind.
Several historians believe that three documents from the 16th century, by Popes Nicholas V and Alexander VI, were used to justify this concept. These are the bulls Dum Diversas (1452) which allowed the King of Portugal to take possession of the lands he had discovered in Africa and America, Romanus Pontifex (1455) which allowed any Christian monarch to take possession of non-Christian lands, and Inter Caetera (1493) which divided the 'New World' between the Spanish and Portuguese.
This joint note from the Dicastery for Culture and Education and for the Service of Integral Human Development was published on 30 March 2023. Exactly one year after a delegation of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples, was received at the Vatican, where, among the demands presented to the Catholic Church, their representatives asked the Holy See to abolish the three texts in question, as it had been asked for years by Catholic organisations involved in the defence of indigenous peoples in the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Affairs at the UN.
You can't abolish what no longer exists
The note states that "The 'doctrine of discovery' is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church. 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”.
Cardinal Michael Czerny, Prefect of the Dicastery for the Service of Integral Human Development, when interviewed by journalists, was keen to stress that these documents are outdated "circumstantial decrees", as the Catholic Church has long since rejected all concepts that, like the 'doctrine of discovery', "do not recognise the inherent human rights of indigenous peoples."
Pope Paul III's 1537 Bull Sublimis Deus
The note recalls that "Numerous and repeated statements by the Church and the Popes uphold the rights of indigenous peoples. For example, in the 1537 Bull Sublimis Deus, Pope Paul III wrote, ‘We define and declare [ ... ] that the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the Christian faith; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect’.
It can be said that this bull formally abrogated the three previous ones’. What no longer exists cannot be abolished.” The note from the two Roman dicastery also supports the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, signed in 2007, and encourages the 'implementation' of its principles.
Many Christians have committed evil acts
"At the same time -the document states-, the Church acknowledges that these papal bulls did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of indigenous peoples. The Church is also aware that the contents of these documents 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. 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.”
This has been done repeatedly by Pope John Paul II and most recently by Pope Francis in Canada, where the Catholic Church played a role between 1883 and 1969 in the running of residential schools, a system that the Canadian government adopted in its forced assimilation policy against Aboriginal children. However, Cardinal Czerny, who is Canadian, recalled that the three bulls in question were addressed to Portugal and Spain, with "no historical connection between what they speak of and what actually happened in Canada or the eastern United States”. Moreover, he said, the term 'Doctrine of Discovery' was not created by the Catholic Church, but by the legal power of the United States.
Responding to reporters on the plane back from Canada, Pope Francis noted that the 'Doctrine of Discovery' is still relevant in today's "ideological colonisations". There is often "this mentality that we are superior and that the indigenous people do not count", referring implicitly to international organisations that "put even legislative and colonialist conditions" for granting credits to certain countries.
See in full and in several languages the Joint Statement of the Dicasteries for Culture and Education and for Promoting Integral Human Development on the “Doctrine of Discovery”
Photo. Pope Francis meets with indigenous people and communities during his penitential piligrimage to Canada in July 2022 © Getty Images