Beginning in 1436, the Catholic Church issued a series of decrees called papal bulls that granted Portugal the right to colonize the Indigenous nations and peoples in the islands off the Iberian Peninsula and in northwestern Africa. Bulls from 1452 and 1455 authorized Portugal to “invade,” “vanquish,” and “subdue” all pagans and to take all their lands and properties and to impose “perpetual slavery” upon them. After Columbus sailed into the New World, Pope Alexander VI issued three papal bulls in 1493 that divided the world from the North Pole to the South Pole for Spain and Portugal to colonize and exploit, and to convert Indigenous peoples to Christianity. Spain, Portugal, England, France, Holland, and the Church turned these bulls and their colonizing efforts into international law that is best known today as the Doctrine of Discovery.
In 1823, in Johnson v. M’Intosh, the United States Supreme Court adopted this international Doctrine as American law and defined the ten elements or factors that comprise Discovery. The United States domination of Indian nations and the political interactions, treaties, federal Indian policies, and laws that followed were all based on colonization under these elements of the Doctrine. Johnson is still the law in the United States today and has greatly influenced the jurisprudence and histories of other settler colonial countries around the world. Johnson has been cited scores of times by courts in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the British Privy Council. The elements that make up this international law are still plainly visible in the histories, policies, and modern-day laws of the settler colonial countries named above and in Chile, Brazil, and Africa.
Indigenous advocates have long called on the Catholic Church to withdraw those colonizing papal bulls and to repudiate this international law of colonization that it helped create. The Church has long resisted those calls and has claimed that a 1537 papal bull had already nullified the Fifteenth Century edicts. However, in 2015 in Bolivia, and 2022 in Canada, Pope Francis still felt the need to apologize and beg God for forgiveness for sins committed against Indigenous peoples during European conquest, conversion, and colonization.
After Pope Francis visited Canada in July 2022, the Vatican stated that it would reconsider these bulls and Indigenous issues. On March 30, 2023, two Dicasteries, or departments of the Church, issued a Joint Statement addressing the “Doctrine of Discovery” and repudiated any concept that fails to recognize the inherent rights of Indigenous peoples. I have long argued that such an action by the Church would be a great worldwide educational moment. But I have always cautioned that such an action would not alter the colonial histories, laws, or property rights in any country and in regards any specific Indigenous nation. On March 30, when this repudiation was announced, the former Chief of the Assembly of First Nations in Canada said that while the statement was “wonderful” it now places the matter of addressing the continuing impacts of colonization clearly on the doorsteps of civil governments to enact laws and revise property rights that are based on the Doctrine. Such a worldwide effort will require Indigenous nations and peoples to propose and promote corrective measures and to engage in extensive lobbying and legislative efforts.
Especially concerning, however, is the tepid reaction and statements by the Vatican itself and the Canadian Bishops’ Conference response to this “repudiation” of the Doctrine. Is the Vatican really rejecting the Doctrine of Discovery or not? For example, on the very day the Doctrine was apparently rejected, the Vatican News posted an article with a title that includes the phrase – ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ was never Catholic. In addition, the Canadian Bishops reject the idea that the papal bulls were ever used as the basis for the international law of colonialism. Apparently, the Church now repudiates and rejects the colonization and genocide of Indigenous peoples while at the same time it denies any culpability for the development of the Doctrine of Discovery and for the actions of Christian monarchs that the Church encouraged and sanctioned.
The international law Doctrine of Discovery has been, and still is, the tool of colonization, domination, and the attempted genocide of Indigenous nations and peoples for over 600 years. It is way past time for settler colonial nations and the Catholic Church to fully repudiate those murderous policies and actions, take full responsibility for their actions, and to begin to undertake concrete steps to address that history and attempt to ameliorate the modern-day situations of Indigenous nations and peoples.
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