For thousands of years, indigenous peoples lived free in their territories. When European monarchies arrived in the Western Hemisphere during the so-called Age of Discovery, they claimed the lands, territories and resources of such peoples.
Last November, a member of the Loretto Community, Sr Maureen Fiedler, hand delivered a letter to Pope Francis’s ambassador in Washington, D.C., urging the Pontiff to renounce a series of 15th-century papal bulls that led to an understanding known as the Doctrine of Discovery; a doctrine widely used to justify the oppression of indigenous peoples.
Sr Fielder said she did not know if her letter made it to the Vatican. But she hoped a resolution by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious would spur the Pope to repudiate the doctrine.
Indigenous groups have tried to overturn the doctrine since at least 1984. In its 2007 Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the United Nations criticised such policies.
The doctrine is used in particular by former British colonies such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.
What is in it?
• European monarchies treated indigenous land as unoccupied if Christians were not
present. Status of a “human” was based on religion. Land deemed unoccupied was therefore “discovered” as if it had been previously unknown, and the land thus claimed by the “discovering” Christian European sovereign.
• A Christian government’s claim to sovereignty over the territory of an indigenous nation or people could be transferred by a treaty with another Christian government.
• Sovereign monarchs gave royal charters of “discovery” to companies or individuals to delegate the work of claiming indigenous lands.
• The Christian European governments sought to subdue, enslave and convert peoples.
• In the 1823 US Supreme Court ruling Johnson v. M’Intosh, the Supreme Court ruled that Indian nations had no legal title to their lands and were entitled only to the right of “occupancy”.
• The Doctrine of Discovery is used to diminish the validity and significance of international treaties between indigenous nations and the US, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.
Since 1823, the doctrine has been enshrined in United States law, and it was cited as recently as 2005 in a ruling against Indian tribes.
The Vatican has said that later bulls and papal apologies show the Church no longer supports the
“The wrongs done to the indigenous people need to be honestly acknowledged,” St John Paul II said in 1998. He also delivered a sweeping apology in 2000 for the Church’s mistreatment of groups, including indigenous peoples.
It is not enough for the Church to say that some negative actions show it has dropped the Doctrine of Discovery. It is past time for positive action. The Church must articulate that the doctrine is unjust and should never be used.
Revoking those old papal documents, and telling the world why, is an important step towards correcting injustices inflicted on indigenous peoples over the past 500 years. It would also be a spiritually significant step towards creating a way of life that is no longer based on greed and subjugation.