The Catholic doctrine of discovery already sucks and avoids
Finally, the pope apologized on Canadian soil for the Catholic role in the shameful history of residential schools.
Will apologies be accepted? A friend reminded me that forgiveness is an act of will. Each residential school survivor and each member of their family will choose for themselves what this apology means to them. An APTN correspondent describes one woman’s reaction: “The moment [the Pope] apologized, she felt all her sadness and anger leave her body. If only for that, this visit is worth it.
It is not for me to say whether the apologies should be accepted. But for some of those who reject it, one reason casts a long shadow: the doctrine of discovery. The question ignites passions. Just last week, at a papal mass in Quebec City, activists unfurled a banner that read “REPEAL THE DOCTRINE”.
For them, I am happy to report that the Church has done just that. There is no Catholic doctrine of discovery. The assertion that one is part of contemporary Catholic teaching is simply false.
So what is the Doctrine of Discovery? Things get a little confusing here. The term “Doctrine of Discovery” was first formulated by the United States Supreme Court in 1832. It describes a principle that sovereignty over “new” lands was claimed by Europeans who had “discovered” them. the former, whether Indigenous peoples have ever lived there or not. The current use of the term is broader. It is a catch-all that takes into account a distinct concept, zero earth– the false idea that the Europeans discovered empty lands to take.
When you hear the Doctrine of Discovery and the Catholic Church referenced together, what is most often described is a series of papal bulls issued during the Age of Discovery. What is a papal bull? First, it is not a doctrine in the theological sense. There is a misconception that, for Catholics, everything the pope says is infallible, as if from the mouth of God himself. It is only in very specific cases that what the pope declares is considered infallible teaching. Papal bulls are not one of these cases.
Bulls are political statements made by the pope. They are retractable. They come from a time when the Vatican had harsh political power. There is no space here to give the fullest explanation of each of these papal bulls and their contents. For this, I refer you to The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ own condemnation of the doctrine of discovery and zero earth. Suffice it to say that together these papal bulls gave something like permission to some Catholic European powers to exercise sovereignty over new territories.
Of course, these countries did what they wanted, with or without the permission of the Vatican. For example, those infamous papal bulls include Inter Caetera of 1493. He gave Spain approval to rule over much of the Americas. This bull was intended to settle territorial disputes between Spain and Portugal. He failed in this goal. Spain broke the terms soon after, stretching beyond the limits the bull had set. Spain then went further, using the bull as justification to deprive local indigenous peoples of their lands and sovereignty. No wonder the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action refer to the doctrine of discovery and zero earth at several points, including a call for religious denominations to repudiate it.
This is what the Catholic Church has done. It didn’t take long to do that. Inter Coetera began to repeal a year after it entered into force, all because Spain violated it. Keep in mind, as the Vatican itself has declared, the following papal bulls abolish the preceding ones. In 1537, Pope Paul III issued a new bull, Sublimus Deus, stating that “Indians and all other persons who may be subsequently discovered by Christians shall in no way be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property…and may and shall, freely and lawfully, enjoy their freedom and possession of their property; they must in no case be reduced to slavery; otherwise, it will be null and void. The Canadian bishops list several papal decrees that follow the path traced by Sublimus Deus:
- Pope Urban VIII in the Bull Commission Nobiscondemning the mistreatment inflicted by the Portuguese on the indigenous peoples under their rule;
- Pope Benedict XIV in the bubble Huge Pastorumcondemning the enslavement and abuse of indigenous peoples and excommunicating any Catholic involved in the slave trade;
- Apostolic Letter of Pope Gregory XVI In Supremo, condemning slavery in Africa and India; and,
- Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII In Plurimiscalling for the abolition of slavery in Brazil and around the world.
Moving into the modern era, the Vatican repudiated the bulls before the UN in 2010, saying that “Inter Coetera has already been repealed” and is “without any legal or doctrinal value. They go on to say that “the fact that legal systems may use the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ as legal precedent is therefore now a feature of the laws of those States and is independent of the fact that for the Church the document has had no no matter. value whatsoever for centuries.
More recently, in a 2016 statement condemning the principles underlying the doctrine of discovery and zero groundthe Canadian bishops alongside other leading Canadian Catholic organizations have stated that “we strongly affirm that there is no basis in Scripture, tradition or theology of the Church, for European land grabbing already inhabited by Indigenous peoples” and “we reject the claim that the principle of the first taker or discoverer, often described today by the terms Doctrine of Discovery and zero groundcould apply to lands already inhabited by indigenous peoples.
And, of course, we have the words of Pope Francis himself, spoken earlier this week: “I am deeply sorry. Sorry for how unfortunately many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the indigenous peoples. I am sorry. I apologize, in particular, for the way in which many members of the Church and religious communities cooperated, notably through their indifference, with the projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of the time, which resulted in the residential school system.» The organizers of the papal visit designate this last statement as a repudiation of the doctrine of discovery.
Beyond the denunciation of the Doctrine, the Canadian bishops strongly supported the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and that the UNDRIP “strongly resonates with statements already made by the Catholic Church.” These include Indigenous self-determination, self-government, the right to traditional territories, the right to their own educational institutions, and more. The principles contained in the UNDRIP are the antithesis of the Doctrine of Discovery. In his pilgrimage to Canada, the Pope explicitly states that Canadian Catholic communities are committed to promoting indigenous peoples and cultures “in the spirit of UNDRIP.”
Yet, as Archbishop Don Bolen of Regina said this week,these papal bulls are not operational, [yet] on the other hand, we resonate with the native desire to name these papal bulls, to say that we are moving away from them altogether. The Archbishop shared that a Vatican document is being produced that will provide even more clarity on the matter.
Clarity is never just a good thing. But despite the confusion, we cannot forget the reality: when it comes to Catholic teaching, the Doctrine of Discovery is null and void.