Brendan Steven: The Catholic doctrine of discovery is already null and void

A Vatican document is being produced that will provide even more clarity on the issue
People displays a banner during Pope Francis mass at the National Shrine of Saint Anne de Beaupre in Quebec City, Canada on July 28, 2022. Gregorio Borgia/AP Photo.

At last, the Pope has apologized on Canadian soil for the Catholic role in this country’s shameful history of residential schools.

Will the apology be accepted? A friend reminded me that forgiveness is an act of the will. Every residential school survivor and family member will choose for themselves what this apology means to them. An APTN correspondent described the reaction of one woman: “The moment [the Pope] apologized, she felt all her sadness and anger leave her body.” If for that alone, this visit is worth it.

It is not my place to say whether the apology should be accepted. But for some of those rejecting it, one reason why casts a long shadow: the Doctrine of Discovery. The issue inflames passions. Just last week, at a papal Mass in Quebec, activists unfurled a banner that read “RESCIND THE DOCTRINE”.

To them, I am happy to report that the Church has done exactly that. There is no Catholic Doctrine of Discovery. The claim that one is part of contemporary Catholic teaching is simply untrue.

So, what is the Doctrine of Discovery? Things get a little confusing here. The term “Doctrine of Discovery” was first articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1832. It describes a principle whereby sovereignty over “new” lands was claimed by Europeans who first “found” them, whether or not Indigenous peoples already lived there. Today’s use of the term is broader. It is a catch-all that takes in a separate concept, terra nullius—the false notion that Europeans discovered empty land for the taking.

When you hear the Doctrine of Discovery and the Catholic Church referenced together, what is most often being described is a series of papal bulls promulgated during the Age of Discovery. What is a papal bull? First, it is not a doctrine in the theological sense. There is a misconception that, for Catholics, everything the Pope says is infallible, issued forth as if from the mouth of God himself. Only in some very specific cases is what the Pope declares considered an infallible teaching. Papal bulls are not one of those cases.

Bulls are political declarations made by the Pope. They are retractable. They come from a time when the Vatican had hard political power. There is not space here to give the fullest explanation for each of these papal bulls and their content. For that, I refer you to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ own condemnation of the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius. Suffice to say, together, these papal bulls provided something like permission for certain Catholic European powers to exert sovereignty over new territories.

Of course, those countries did what they pleased, with or without the Vatican’s permission. For instance, these infamous papal bulls include Inter Caetera of 1493. It gave Spain approval to rule over a large part of the Americas. This bull aimed to settle territorial disputes between Spain and Portugal. It failed in that purpose. Spain broke terms soon after, expanding past the boundaries the bull had set. Spain then went further, using the bull as justification for robbing local Indigenous peoples of land and sovereignty. No wonder the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action reference the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius at multiple points, including a call for religious denominations to repudiate it.

That is what the Catholic Church has done. It did not take long to do it. Inter Coetera began abrogating a year after it went into effect, all because Spain violated it. Keep in mind, as the Vatican itself has stated, subsequent papal bulls abolish previous ones. In 1537, Pope Paul III issued a new bull, Sublimus Deus, declaring that “Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property… and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.” The Canadian bishops list several papal decrees that follow the path set by Sublimus Deus:

  • Pope Urban VIII in the bull Commissum Nobis, condemning Portuguese abuse of Indigenous people under their rule;
  • Pope Benedict XIV in the bull Immensa Pastorum, condemning the enslavement and abuse of Indigenous peoples and excommunicating any Catholic involved in the slave trade;
  • Pope Gregory XVI’s apostolic letter In Supremo, condemning slavery in Africa and the Indies; and,
  • Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical In Plurimis, calling for the abolition of slavery in Brazil and worldwide.

Turning to the modern era, the Vatican repudiated the bulls before the U.N. in 2010, saying that Inter Coetera has already been abrogated” and is “without any legal or doctrinal value. They go on to say, “the fact that juridical systems may employ the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ as a juridical precedent is therefore now a characteristic of the laws of those states and is independent of the fact that for the Church the document has had no value whatsoever for centuries.”

More recently, in a 2016 statement condemning the principles which undergirded the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius, the Canadian bishops alongside other leading Catholic Canadian organizations declared that “we firmly assert that there is no basis in the Church’s Scriptures, tradition, or theology, for the European seizure of land already inhabited by Indigenous Peoples” and “we reject the assertion that the principle of the first taker or discoverer, often described today by the terms Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius, could be applied to lands already inhabited by Indigenous Peoples.”

And, of course, we have the words of Pope Francis himself, spoken earlier this week: “I am deeply sorry. Sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the indigenous peoples. I am sorry. I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the Church and of religious communities cooperated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.” Organizers of the papal visit point to this last statement as a repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery.

Beyond denouncing the Doctrine, the Canadian bishops have strongly supported the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and that UNDRIP “resonates strongly with statements already made by the Catholic Church.” These include Indigenous self-determination, self-government, right to traditional territories, right to their own educational institutions, and more. The principles contained in UNDRIP are the antithesis of the Doctrine of Discovery. In his pilgrimage to Canada, the Pope explicitly says Canadian Catholic communities are committed to promoting Indigenous peoples and cultures “in the spirit of UNDRIP.”

Still, as Archbishop Don Bolen of Regina said this week, “those papal bulls are not operative, [yet] on the other hand, we resonate with the Indigenous desire to name those papal bulls, to say we completely distance ourselves from them.” The archbishop shared that a Vatican document is being produced that will provide even more clarity on the issue.

Clarity is only ever a good thing. But despite the confusion, we cannot forget the reality: when it comes to Catholic teaching, the Doctrine of Discovery is null and void.

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