The ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ and the Catholic Church

COMMENTARY: The Church first condemned the concepts behind this doctrine in a document written by Pope Paul III in 1537. So why is its repudiation still an issue today?

Pope Francis meets with leaders of Canada’s
First Nations at the Church of the Sacred
Heart in Maskwacis, Alberta, July 25, 2022.
Pope Francis meets with leaders of Canada’s First Nations at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Maskwacis, Alberta, July 25, 2022. (photo: Vatican Media )

During a papal Mass last July in Canada, some Indigenous protesters unfurled a banner calling for Pope Francis to “rescind the doctrine,” by which they meant the “doctrine of discovery.” 

In response to that and more decorous requests, two Vatican dicasteries — Culture and Education and Promoting Integral Human Development — published a “joint statement” last week on the matter, stating that the Catholic Church “repudiates those concepts that fail to recognize the inherent human rights of Indigenous peoples, including what has become known as the legal and political ‘doctrine of discovery.’” 

Why would Canadian Indigenous groups be concerned about a so-called “doctrine” that has its roots in papal concessions to the king of Portugal in the 1450s concerning Africa, well before Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492? 

Why would that be relevant now if in 1537 the papacy had robustly clarified the rights of Indigenous peoples, long before Champlain established Quebec (1608) or the Mayflower sailed (1620)?


A Doctrine That Is Not a Doctrine

The protesters’ claim is that in granting permission to the Portuguese crown to acquire lands in Africa in the mid-15th century, the papacy created a “doctrine” in which those Europeans who “discovered” lands in Africa (and later the Americas) could claim them, superseding whatever ownership existed among the Indigenous peoples. This “doctrine” then justified the seizure of Indigenous lands and property and the enslavement of Indigenous peoples.

The joint statement clarifies a few things. First, the “doctrine of discovery” is a legal and political term, not what Catholics mean by doctrine, truths belonging to the faith:

“The ‘doctrine of discovery’ is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church. Historical research clearly demonstrates that the papal documents in question, written in a specific historical period and linked to political questions, have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith.”

As Europeans set out on the seas, the Holy See was called in as something of a referee regarding competing claims overseas. Also, at that time, missionaries could only get to foreign lands via European explorers, so their status also concerned the Holy See. 

Papal bulls — from the Latin bulla, meaning the “seal” with which such documents were authenticated — are principally not doctrinal statements. In the papal bulls Dum Diversas (1452), Romanus Pontifex (1455) and Inter Caetera (1493), the popes of the time attempted to regulate what the European crowns were doing.

In the first two, Pope Nicholas V gave the Portuguese rights to lands in Africa, and beyond, and to subjugate non-Christians in those territories. Inter Caetera was issued by Pope Alexander (Borgia) VI, giving the Spanish crown all the lands in the Americas west of the extant Portuguese holdings. Columbus had only sailed the previous year.

The Vatican’s joint statement acknowledges that these three bulls “did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples.” But great mischief was made by the European colonizers, without adequate objection from missionaries:

“The Church is also aware that the contents of these documents were manipulated for political purposes by competing colonial powers in order to justify immoral acts against Indigenous peoples that were carried out, at times, without opposition from ecclesiastical authorities. It is only just to recognize these errors, acknowledge the terrible effects of the assimilation policies and the pain experienced by Indigenous peoples, and ask for pardon.”


A Legal Term and Doctrine

The term “doctrine of discovery” is not a Catholic term. It comes from an 1823 U.S. Supreme Court opinion written by John Marshall:

“This principle was that discovery gave title to the government by whose subjects or by whose authority it was made against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession. The exclusion of all other Europeans necessarily gave to the nation making the discovery the sole right of acquiring the soil from the natives and establishing settlements upon it.”

That is American jurisprudence, not Catholic teaching.


Catholic Defense of Indigenous Rights

By the time Marshall wrote his opinion in 1823, he could not have claimed a Catholic source for the “doctrine of discovery.” The concepts behind it, though still animating the thinking of colonial powers, were denounced by the papacy in 1537 — nearly three centuries beforehand. In any case, as a legal matter, even the provisions of Inter Caetera were de facto abrogated almost immediately, as the Spanish crown did not abide by them.

Of supreme importance from a Catholic point of view is that, in 1537, Pope Paul III, in Sublimis Deus, taught the following:

“The enemy of the human race … inspired his satellites who, to please him, have not hesitated to publish abroad that the Indians of the West and the South, and other people of whom We have recent knowledge, should be treated as dumb brutes created for our service, pretending that they are incapable of receiving the Catholic Faith.

“We define and declare that the said 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, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; 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.”

When Pope St. John Paul II met with Indigenous leaders in Canada in the 1980s, he made explicit reference to Sublimis Deus as the basis for Catholic teaching on the dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples.

Pope Paul III’s teaching followed the work in the 1530s of Dominican friar Francisco de Vitoria, who lectured at Salamanca against abuses by the Spanish and Portuguese crowns against Indians. For that work, de Vitoria is recognized by secular legal scholars as one of the fathers of “the rights of nations,” and a bust commemorating him is at the United Nations in New York.

The earlier 15th-century bulls were issued when little was known about Indigenous peoples in the Americas. When knowledge of how the Europeans were treating Indigenous peoples in the early 16th century reached Rome, the teaching of the Church on their dignity was made clear.

Long before what would become Canada and the United States were established as colonies, Catholic teaching was clear on how Indigenous peoples should be treated. The first bishop of Quebec, St. François de Laval (1623-1708), was arguably the greatest European defender and friend that Indigenous peoples had at that time in the Americas.

That racist attitudes, discriminatory policies, political injustices and violence were extant in the colonies of North America is well documented, but had Paul III been heeded in 1537, the experience of Indigenous peoples would have been much happier.


Why Does It Matter Today?

Cardinal José Tolentino, one of the Vatican officials who issued the joint statement, said that it was part of the “art” and “architecture of reconciliation.”

I understand those felicitous phrases to mean that even if a strict reading of history meant that it did not need to be said, if Indigenous peoples wanted it said, then it was necessary on those grounds to say it.

Especially in Canada, where, for at least two generations now, incomplete and incorrect history has been widely disseminated, so much so that there are not an insignificant number of Canadians who falsely believe that Catholic missionaries massacred Indigenous children, the poisoned fruit of the “doctrine of discovery.” 

Canada’s bishops have, for the most part, not attempted to challenge that false history. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statement on the Vatican statement was typically reserved in that regard, citing but not quoting Sublimis Deus and preferring to stress the many apologies issued in recent years. 

The CCCB’s release does not clarify that no “rescinding” is needed for a doctrine that never existed in regard to Canada. Neither does the CCCB defend the historical record, namely that the papacy was on the side of Canada’s Indigenous peoples even as Jacques Cartier was first exploring Atlantic Canada.


The Missionary Mandate

Pope Francis began his pontificate with a call for a “pastoral and missionary conversion” aimed at becoming a Church “permanently in a state of mission” (Evangelii Gaudium, 25). 

How is that to be squared with the joint statement’s quoting Pope Francis: 

“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 CCCB’s statement highlights that quotation, but notably does not include the joint statement’s quotation of Pope Paul III from the 16th century.

The tension between the two statements needs to be resolved and requires a certain precision to avoid renouncing evangelization altogether, which Pope Francis insists continues “in obedience to the missionary mandate of Jesus” (EG, 19).

The question was first raised by Paul and Barnabas and resolved in Acts 15 at the Council of Jerusalem: Does following Jesus, becoming a Christian, require becoming a Jew first? The council took the view that it wasn’t necessary.

In the colonial context, does preaching the Gospel to Indigenous peoples mean that they must set aside their Indigenous culture? Do they need, in effect, to become French or Spanish in order to become Catholic?

Every culture needs to be purified by the Gospel; that was as true of the ancient Romans and their pantheon of gods as it is today with the pachamama of the Amazon. But one culture does not need to become another culture in order to accept the Gospel; hence, the Holy Father’s warning regarding “superior” thinking. 

The challenge facing missionaries then and now is to propose a Christian Indigenous culture, not a European culture rooted in Christianity. Pope Francis gave some important reminders on that delicate matter last year during his visit to Canada. It remains to be seen whether his challenge will be taken up.