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Vatican repudiates 'Doctrine of Discovery,' but forgets enslaved Africans

The Catholic hierarchy has marked an official stance against the colonization and subjugation of Indigenous persons.

Pope Francis greets members of an Indigenous tribe during his trip to Canada in July 2022. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty)

For the first time ever, the Vatican has officially condemned the “Doctrine of Discovery,” a 15th-century theory that effectively granted Catholic authorities justification for subjugation and colonization in the New World.

A new joint statement from the Holy See’s Dicasteries for Culture and Education and for Promoting Integral Human Development comes eight months after Pope Francis’ visit to Canada, where representatives from indigenous groups urged the pontiff to rescind the Doctrine and apologize for atrocities committed by Church leaders during and after the Age of Exploration.

Since that time, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has worked with Vatican officials on the document, which was released Thursday morning in Rome.

“In no uncertain terms, the Church’s magisterium upholds the respect due to every human being. The Catholic Church therefore 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,’” the new Vatican statement reads.

“The ‘doctrine of discovery’ is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church.”

According to the Vatican, the “doctrine” was never an official Church teaching, though its effects were widespread and authoritative among European colonists—who quickly overtook much of the Western Hemisphere between the 15th and 18th centuries.

The journey of the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus to the West Indies in 1492 kicked off the era and was soon followed by papal bulls justifying the explorations and granting purported land rights to the European Catholic invaders.

“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,” the Vatican statement reads.

“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.”

Though the overwhelming majority of European colonists in the New World were White, others were also known to have participated in displays of force against Indigenous—including Juan Garrido, an Afro-Portuguese conquistador who in 1508 helped conquer the Taíno people in Puerto Rico.

Pope Paul III would blunt the Doctrine somewhat by defending the rights of non-Christian Indigenous peoples and others with the papal bull “Sublimis Deus” in 1537, but by then the sociopolitical damage was arguably already done.

Though not mentioned in the new Vatican communique, the Atlantic slave trade was also greatly fueled by the Doctrine of Discovery, with human trafficking in the early modern Catholic Church expanding from a European and West African interplay to a transhemispheric imperial endeavor. Roughly 12 million Black people, many of them Catholic, would be enslaved and shipped across the ocean to the New World during the time of the trade, with millions more dying during the journey.

One of the papal bulls typically associated with the genesis of the Doctrine, “Dum Diversas” from Pope Nicholas V in 1452, explicitly granted Portuguese authorities the blessing of the Church on reducing non-Christians to “perpetual slavery” in newly discovered lands. Scholars have argued that this subjugation eventually led to the modern theories of race, as the ravages of slavery became associated with sub-Saharan African people specifically.

Even so, though the Vatican committees begin their new statement by touting later popes’ condemnations of “violence, oppression, social injustice and slavery,” the focus throughout is on Indigenous peoples.

Fr. Nnaemeka Ali, OMI, celebrates a Mass for an Indigenous community in Canada. (Vatican News)

In the late 18th century, shortly after the founding of the United States, Americans also latched onto the Doctrine of Discovery, with future president Thomas Jefferson claiming in 1792 that it was a standing international law. The U.S. Supreme Court would later rule in 1823 that principles of the doctrine applied to American colonial efforts under “manifest destiny” to seize Native American lands during the nation’s westward expansion.

Shortly after the release of Thursday’s statement against the Doctrine from the Vatican, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released an affirmative response from its secretary, Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City.

“The Joint Statement is yet another step in expressing concern and pastoral solicitude for Native and Indigenous peoples who have experienced tremendous suffering because of the legacy of a colonizing mentality,” he wrote.

“In recent years here in the United States, dialogues among Catholic bishops and Tribal leaders have illuminated more aspects of this painful history, and, with humility, we wish to offer our continuing solidarity and support, as well as a further willingness to listen and learn.”

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger and a seminarian with the Josephites.

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