Vatican Formally Renounces the Doctrine of Discovery

On March 30, 2023, the Vatican released its “Joint Statement of the Dicasteries for Culture and Education and for Promoting Integral Human Development on the ‘Doctrine of Discovery.’” In this statement, the Vatican rejected the so-called doctrine of discovery as a political device that European powers used to “justify immoral acts against indigenous peoples.”

According to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the doctrine of discovery is a “legal and religious concept that has been used for centuries to justify Christian colonial conquest. It advanced the idea that European peoples, culture and religion were superior to all others.” The term is derived from an 1823 US Supreme Court decision and is commonly understood to mean that if a European power “discovered” a part of the world, then they could claim ownership and sovereignty over it, notwithstanding the presence of Indigenous Peoples. The colonial conduct of European powers undertaken in part in reliance on the doctrine of discovery has had catastrophic implications for Indigenous Peoples across the world. The term has been used in the US Supreme Court as recently as 2005.

The doctrine of discovery “is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church,” says the Holy See Press Office. It cites three Papal Bulls (Dum Diversas in 1452, Romanus Pontifex in 1455, and Inter Caetera in 1493) as the basis for the doctrine, but it argues that these Papal Bulls, while “not adequately reflect[ing] the equal dignity and rights of indigenous peoples,” were “manipulated” by colonial powers to justify the violent theft of Indigenous land. The Holy See Press Office cites the 1537 Sublimis Deus as an example of the Holy Roman Catholic Church’s efforts to “uphold the rights of indigenous peoples.” According to its press release, the Church supports modern efforts for justice including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Vatican’s recent repudiation of the doctrine is likely a direct result of Indigenous Peoples in Canada who called for Pope Francis to reject it while he visited the country in 2022 to apologize for the Church’s abuse of Indigenous students at residential schools. While the Vatican’s rejection of the doctrine is a positive step in Indigenous Peoples’ relationship with the Church, the Catholic Church stopped short of taking responsibility for centuries of injustice suffered by Indigenous Peoples justified, in part, by reference to the doctrine of discovery.

Konrad Sioui, the former grand chief of the Huron-Wendat Nation, comments “[t]his news is something we’ve been waiting for. This answer of the church today gives us all the hope we need because we’ve been deprived of our lands through this very [doctrine].”

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