The Vatican repudiated the colonial doctrine of discovery that legitimized the appropriation of indigenous lands in America

Pope Francis, meeting with indigenous people during his visit to the Peruvian jungle in 2018 (AFP) (AFP /)

He Vatican responded on Thursday to indigenous demands and officially repudiated the doctrine of discoverythe theories supported by papal bulls of the fifteenth century that legitimized the appropriation of indigenous lands in the colonial era and were the basis of some current property laws.

Papal bulls or decrees from the 15th century “did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of indigenous peoples” and have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith, a Vatican statement said.

The documents, he pointed out, were “manipulated” for political purposes by the colonial powers “to justify immoral acts against indigenous peoples that were carried out, on occasions, without opposition from the ecclesiastical authorities.”

The statement from the Vatican offices for development and education indicated that it is appropriate “recognize these mistakes”, admit the terrible effects of the colonial policies of assimilation of indigenous peoples and ask for their forgiveness.

The statement responded to decades of indigenous demands that the Vatican officially rescind the papal bulls that provided the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal with the religious support to expand their territories in Africa and America under the pretext of expanding Christianity.

Those decrees support the doctrine of discovery, a legal concept coined in a United States Supreme Court decision in 1823 which is interpreted as ownership and sovereignty of the land passed to the Europeans because they “discovered” it.

The principle was most recently cited in a 2005 Supreme Court decision affecting the Oneida Indian Nation, authored by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

During Pope Francis’ visit to Canada in 2022, in which he apologized to indigenous peoples for a boarding system that forcibly removed native children from their homes, he found claims that the Church formally repudiated papal bulls.

On July 29, two indigenous women unfurled a banner at the altar of the National Sanctuary of Santa Ana de Beaupré with the words “rescind the doctrine” in big red and black letters. The protesters were escorted from the venue and the mass went ahead without incident, though the women later carried the banner out of the basilica and hung it from a railing.

Banner displayed by indigenous women (Reuters)
Banner displayed by indigenous women (Reuters) (GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE /)

In its statement, the Vatican said that “in clear terms, the Church’s magisterium upholds the respect due to all human beings. The Catholic Church therefore repudiates those concepts that do not recognize the inherent human rights of indigenous peoples, including what is known as the legal and political ‘doctrine of discovery’”.

The Vatican offered no evidence that the three 15th-century papal bulls (Dum Diversas in 1452, Romanus Pontifex in 1455, and Inter Caetera in 1493) had been officially rejected, rescinded, or abolished., as Holy See officials have often said. However, he cited a later bull, Sublimis Deus, of 1537, which reaffirmed that indigenous peoples should not be deprived of their liberty or possession of their property, and should not be enslaved.

It was significant that the rejection of the doctrine of discovery occurred during the tenure of the first Latin American pope in history. Franciscowho is argentinian he had already apologized before the trip to Canada with indigenous people in Bolivia in 2015 for the crimes of the colonial conquest of the American continent. Thursday’s decision was made while the pope was hospitalized with a respiratory infection.

Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça, prefect of the Vatican’s cultural office, said the statement reflected the Vatican’s dialogue with indigenous peoples.

“This note is part of what we could call the architecture of reconciliation and it is also a product of the art of reconciliation, the process by which people commit to listen to the other, to talk with the other and to grow in common understanding”, said in a statement.

(With information from AP)

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