Vatican rejects doctrine that fuelled centuries of colonialism
VATICAN CITY (AP):
The Vatican on Thursday responded to Indigenous demands and formally repudiated the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’, the theories backed by 15th-century ‘papal bulls’ that legitimised the colonial-era seizure of Native lands and form the basis of some property laws today.
A Vatican statement said the papal bulls, or decrees, “did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples” and have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith.
The statement, from the Vatican’s development and education offices, marked a historic recognition of the Vatican’s own complicity in colonial-era abuses committed by European powers. It was issued under history’s first Latin American pontiff, who was hospitalised Thursday with a respiratory infection, exactly one year after Francis met at the Vatican with Indigenous leaders from Canada who raised the issue.
On Thursday, these Indigenous leaders welcomed the statement as a first good step, even though it didn’t address the rescinding of the bulls themselves and continued to take distance from acknowledging actual Vatican culpability in abuses. The statement said the papal documents had been “manipulated” for political purposes by competing colonial powers “to justify immoral acts against Indigenous peoples that were carried out, at times, without opposition from ecclesial authorities”.
It said it was right to “recognise these errors”, acknowledge the terrible effects of colonial-era assimilation policies on Indigenous peoples and ask for their forgiveness.
The statement was a response to decades of Indigenous demands for the Vatican to formally rescind the papal bulls that provided the Portuguese and Spanish kingdoms the religious backing to expand their territories in Africa and the Americas for the sake of spreading Christianity.
Those decrees underpin the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’, a legal concept coined in a 1823 US Supreme Court decision that has come to be understood as meaning that ownership and sovereignty over land passed to Europeans because they “discovered” it.
It was cited as recently as a 2005 Supreme Court decision involving the Oneida Indian Nation written by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
During Pope Francis’ 2022 visit to Canada, where he apologised to Indigenous peoples for the residential school system that forcibly removed Native children from their homes, he was met with demands for a formal repudiation of the papal bulls.
In the statement, the Vatican said: “The Catholic Church therefore repudiates those concepts that fail to recognise the inherent human rights of Indigenous peoples, including what has become known as the legal and political ‘doctrine of discovery.’”
Phil Fontaine, a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations in Canada who was also part of the First Nations delegation that met with Francis at the Vatican, said the statement was “wonderful”, resolved an outstanding issue and now puts the matter to civil authorities to revise property laws that cite the doctrine.