The Vatican Repudiates the International Law of Colonialism – Maybe?

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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Did American Indians influence the U.S. Constitution and the Founding Fathers?

I was interviewed today on this issue by “The Takeaway” on Public Radio International from New York City. Take a listen:

I published a law review article on this topic in 1993 –

and a 2015 article that addresses this issue and tribal constitutions in general –

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More press and a TV news segment on the Catholic Church’s “repudiation” of the international law of colonialism, the Doctrine of Discovery

Check out this written news report from ICT (formerly Indian Country Today), and you can also watch the ICT TV news show from March 30, 2023 where I am interviewed. The video segment on the Doctrine of Discovery starts at the 19:30 mark of the video.

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The Legal Elements of the Doctrine of Discovery

Last week, I published online this short article on what I define are the ten elements of the international law of colonialism. These elements, or factors, of this legal principle are set out in the very influential U.S. Supreme Court case of Johnson v. M’Intosh, 21 U.S. 543 (1823).

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The Vatican “repudiates” the Doctrine of Discovery on March 30, 2023

The Vatican, sort of, rejected the international law of colonialism a few days ago. This international law is better known today as the Doctrine of Discovery (DoD). The DoD title developed from the United States Supreme Court case of Johnson v. M’Intosh, 21 U.S. 543 (1823). I have been researching, writing, and speaking about the Doctrine since 2002.

Pope Francis has apologized at least twice for the Church’s involvement in colonization and for its murderous impacts on Indigenous Nations and Peoples. He did so expressly in Bolivia in 2015 and in Canada in July 2022. In 2022, Indigenous Peoples expected him to withdraw the papal bulls, edicts/orders of the Church, from 1436, 1452, 1455, and 1493 that authorized Portuguese and Spanish colonization and exploitation of Indigenous Nations and Peoples in Africa and the Americas. But after the Pope did not address these bulls in July 2022, the Vatican said it would continue to study them and develop the Church’s response to the DoD.

On March 30 two Dicasteries, departments, of the Vatican issued a statement repudiating the Doctrine. But at the same time the Church denied that the DoD had ever been Catholic teachings and that the offending bulls did not help create the international law of colonialism. Needless to say, I and almost all scholars who have examined this history and this international law believe otherwise.

Check out this New York Times article on this “repudiation.” Vatican Repudiates ‘Doctrine of Discovery,’ Used as Justification for Colonization

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Oglala Sioux Tribe sues United States for failure to provide treaty promised criminal law protection

The Associated Press published an article on this law suit on Friday February 10. It has been republished in many papers and on TV news web pages. Here it is on ABC News:

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American Indian Influence on the United States Constitution and the Founding Fathers

 I delivered a one-hour talk on Nov. 17, 2022 in Philadelphia at the National Constitution Center on the above-named topic.

Here’s the talk on NCC’s YouTube page: 

American Indian Influence on the Constitution and the Founding Fathers Featuring Robert. J. MillerJoin Robert J. Miller for a conversation about American Indians political theories and how their governments had a profound effect on many of the Founding Fa…
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Podcast on new book – “A Promise Kept: The Muscogee (Creek) Nation and McGirt v. Oklahoma” (Univ. Okla. Press, 2023)

 I and my co-author Professor Robbie Ethridge were on a one hour podcast about our new book on January 5, 2023. It is now available online;!!IKRxdwAv5BmarQ!eKl-bueezBQC9JJSzbyA-NWIc11WkNQCvCvegDNzcTKeQSE6CfVN5ZrB-y–x-Lev02szb4_lqkxSF5wyklROki1Tso$

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First book on McGirt v. Oklahoma (2020)

My new book on the McGirt v. Oklahoma (2020) case was just published this week by University of Oklahoma Press. Professor Robbie Ethridge of University of Mississippi is my co-author.

Here is the Oklahoma Press website for our book.

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The International Law of Colonialism: Free webinar March 10, 2023 – Register NOW!

Hi: The Indian Legal Program at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University in the United States is offering a free zoom webinar from 7:30 am – 3:30 pm USA Mountain Standard time on March 10. We have 13 speakers from around the world who will discuss the Doctrine of Discovery – the international law of colonization – and which will include discussions on the leading court case on that topic, Johnson v. M’Intosh, 21 U.S. 543 (1823), now 200 years old.

Please register at this link –

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