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Mixed feelings for Vatican rescinding ‘law of colonization’

March 31, 2023

‘This is only a first step in correcting some of the wrongs in history’

People protest as Pope Francis meets young people and elders at Nakasuk Elementary School Square in Iqaluit, Canada, Friday, July 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, file)

ICT: Miles Morrisseau

The Catholic Church has credited “dialogue with Indigenous peoples” in repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery. 

In a joint statement from the Dicastery for Culture and Dicastery for Integral Human Development the Vatican formally rejected “those concepts that fail to recognize the inherent human right of Indigenous Peoples, including what has become known as the legal and political “doctrine of discovery.” 

The doctrine has been used as religious and spiritual justification to subjugate Indigenous peoples and dispossess them of land. 

“The Doctrine of Discovery was set out in a series of declarations by popes in the 15th century. These declarations (known as ‘papal bulls’) provided religious authority for Christian empires to invade and subjugate non‐Christian lands, peoples and sovereign nations, impose Christianity on these populations, and claim their resources. These papal bulls were written at a time when European empires were embarking on widescale colonial expansion,” according to the Canadian Human Rights Centre.

“This is a great day!” Myeengun Henry, former chief of the Chippewa of the Thames and current Knowledge Keeper at the University of Waterloo, told ICT. “It’s been a long journey on a road that denied Indigenous People rights to their own ancestorial territories. The Doctrine of Discovery, a papal decree that was the foundation of marginalization and the root of residential schools in North America has finally been repudiated.”

“According to some scholars, this ‘doctrine’ found its basis in several papal documents, specifically two bulls of Nicholas V, Dum diversas (1452) and Romanus Pontifex (1455); and Alexander VI’s bull Inter caetera (1493),” the Vatican release stated. “These are legal acts by which these two Pontiffs authorized the Portuguese and Spanish sovereigns to seize property in colonized lands by subjugating the original populations.”

The Vatican now fully denounces this position: “The ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ – a theory that served to justify the expropriation by sovereign colonizers of indigenous lands from their rightful owners – ‘is not a part of the teaching of the Catholic Church.’ It further affirms that the papal bulls that granted such ‘rights’ to colonizing sovereigns have never been a part of the Church’s Magisterium.”

The joint statement Thursday also reads: “The Church has acquired a greater awareness of (Indigenous Peoples) sufferings, past and present, due to the expropriation of their lands … as well as the policies of forced assimilation, promoted by the governmental authorities of the time, intended to eliminate their indigenous cultures.”

The news came as a surprise to Robert J. Miller, Eastern Shawnee Tribe and professor of law at Arizona State University. Miller appeared on the “ICT Newscast with Aliyah Chavez” to talk about the Vatican’s statement. 

“Native people went to the UN to talk to church leaders in the 70s to repudiate these papal bulls, which is an order from the church from the 1400s. The church claimed that they had done away with those bulls and 1539 in a papal bull that said Indians were human beings,” Miller said. “Well, that’s not the way the European countries of the world took it. And this law developed and as you said, the United States 200 years ago this year, in the case of Johnson v. M’Intosh, Chief Justice John Marshall, in the first American Indian law case in the Supreme Court, adopted the Doctrine of Discovery and applied it to Indian rights here.”

“It’s the law of colonization. And I call it the international law of colonization, because Europeans use this law to colonize Oceania, the New World and Africa as late as the 1880s. Europeans were using this international law to carve up Africa for colonies,” says Miller. “So this law has impacted every part of the world. As Europeans and later the United States claimed domination and that God granted them the right to take the lands and human rights of Indigenous peoples.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission looked into the long history and ongoing legacy of the infamous Indian Residential school system in Canada and its final report announced 94 calls to action. Included in the calls to action is a covenant of reconciliation that would “repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius.” 

In a statement released following the historic papal visit by Pope Francis to Canada in 2022, Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald of Taykwa Tagamou Nation said she had called on the Pope during her meeting with the pontiff to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery. 

She personally called on him to formally revoke the Doctrine of Discovery. “Renouncing and formally revoking the ‘Inter Caetera’ 1493 Doctrine of Discovery is an essential step for advancing reconciliation and the healing path forward,” National Chief Archibald stated. “So too are immediate calls to return diocese land back to First Nations and returning sacred items currently being held both in storage and on public display at the Vatican.”

While some are celebrating this monumental announcement, the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition says the Vatican’s statement “lacks accountability.” 

“While the Vatican’s decision to renounce the Doctrine of Discovery is the right one, it downplays the Church’s role and accountability for the harm it has caused to Native peoples. It does not change the fact that the Church’s views gave permission to colonizers to take Native lands and assimilate Native peoples,” said Deborah Parker, Tulalip and CEO of the coalition. “We demand more from the Catholic Church. We demand more transparency, including access to Indian boarding school documents, which they have refused to provide. We demand that the Church returns lands to the Tribal Nations in which it operated Indian boarding schools.”

The coalition also demands that the church supports the Truth and Healing Bill that would look at the U.S. assimilation policies for U.S. boarding schools, and respect for sovereignty and “Indigenous ways of being.” “We believe these are ways in which the Church can begin to take accountability for their actions,” the Thursday statement reads. 

The National Congress of American Indians, a national political organization based in Washington, D.C., commended the Catholic Church’s move. 

“It is our sincere hope that today’s announcement is more than mere words, but rather is the beginning of a full acknowledgement of the history of oppression and a full accounting of the legacies of colonialism—not just by the Roman Catholic Church, but by all the world governments that have used racism, prejudice and religious authority to not only justify past inequalities, but to allow, fuel, and perpetuate the institutionalization of those inequalities that continue to this very day,” the statement read. 

Many were happy to read the news like author and journalist Brandi Morin, who is Cree, Iroquois and French. She tweeted: “Is this real??!!!!!! WOW THANK YOU GOD- this just came out!!!! HUGE HUGE HUGE for Indigenous Peoples.”

Many Indigenous folks now ask on social media what this landmark move means for other laws.

“What the church did is an important worldwide educational moment, but it doesn’t change the law in any country. It doesn’t change titles to land anywhere,” Miller said. “Now it’s up to the nations of the world to address colonization, and to change laws that are based on racial discrimination, human genocide, ethnic cleansing, etc.

It’s one wrong corrected of many wrongs done, according to Henry who is a university Knowledge Keeper. 

“After years of requests, and most recently at the visit to Canada from Pope Francis in 2022, it has happened. This is only a first step in correcting some of the wrongs in history. Indigenous Peoples supported, fed and nourished the newcomers to North America or Turtle Island,” Henry stated. “In return the settlers took our lands via the doctrine of discovery through genocidal laws and methods. We celebrate this day on hearing this news. We thank Pope Francis today for being a true leader of change.”


Miles Morrisseau, a citizen of the Métis Nation, is a special correspondent for ICT based in the historic Métis Community of Grand Rapids, Manitoba, Canada. He reported as a national Native Affairs broadcaster for CBC Radio and is former editor-in-chief of Indian Country Today.