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The Doctrine of Discovery

"The Vatican Statement: the papal bulls or decrees "did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of the Indigenous peoples"
Thursday, March 30, 2023: Pope Francis repudiates the Doctrine of Discovery

The Vatican responded to Indigenous demands and formally repudiated the "Doctrine of Discovery," which was backed by the 15th Century Papal Bulls that legitimized the colonial-era seizure of Native lands and form the basis of some property laws today.  This Doctrine of Discovery was almost always one of the first topics of conversation that came up when speaking about the indigenous people and the church.  The question was always stated as such, "Have you heard about the Doctrine of Discovery?"  They would go on to explain how the church was a part of this from its basis.  As a result some research was done on the doctrine of discovery prior to the Pope speaking about it and when I found out about this news a gasp was readily heard in the office I was working at.  "I hope that is good!" a co-worker stated.  "It is definitely good!"  I responded back.  

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When Pope Francis was seen on his Pilgrimage for Penanace, a banner was unfurled in front of the pulpit where he was speaking.  Many would see this banner as a disrespect of Pope Francis and what he was there to do.  For myself it was an acknowledgement of the years and years of work that Natives have had to do to have their voices heard and their rights understood.  Though I might not agree with the tactics, I had compassion none-the-less with the situation knowing that sometimes these extreme measures were the last resort in order to be seen and heard.  And thus this banner played an important role in what the Pope ultimately chose to do in addition to the many Native voices who he chose to listen to....thank you Pope Francis.  

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Click here to see the original Doctrine of Discovery in Latin.

For the full English here.

What is the Doctrine of Discovery?

The Papal Bull "Inter Cactery," was issued by Pope Alexander VI on May 4, 1493 and played a central role in the Spanish Conquest of the New World.  Ultimately it was used to support the claim to the right to the land that Columbus had 'discovered' on October 12, 1492.  This Bull then stated that all the land that was not inhabited by Christians was available to be discovered and claimed.  It laid also the foundations for how the Native religions and traditions would be seen by Christians throughout the years stating that "the Catholic Faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself."  Later this Papal Bull was brought forward in the 1990's and 2000's which came after the 1978 Religious Freedom Act that allowed the Native populations to again be able to participate in their own indigenous ceremonies.  

From the Native perspective of course this Papal Bull established the ability (for the Catholic Faith explicitly) to justify the unethical actions used to be able to take the Indian lands for European use and dominance.  It preceded the timeframe of the boarding school era in which the unfortunate common slogan for justification of actions during that timeframe was stated, "Kill the Indian, Save the Man" which feels like harsh rhetoric now, but was common rhetoric at the time.  Unfortunately the number of graves at Kamloops shows that the literal understanding of this phrase may have been implemented.  


The Holy See joint statement shows the level at which the church is willing to go to be able to understand and communicate with the Native populations.  Pope Francis clearly states in this document that: "Never again can the Christian community allow itself to be infected by the idea that one culture is superior to others, or that it is legitimate to employ ways of coercing others."  The Church is also stating that they support the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that would help to improve living conditions and help protect the rights of indigenous peoples as well as facilitate their development in a way that respects their identity, language and culture.  

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