Posted on April 3, 2023

Vatican Rejects Doctrine That Fueled Centuries of Colonialism

Nicole Winfield, Associated Press, March 30, 2023

The Vatican on Thursday responded to Indigenous demands and formally repudiated the “Doctrine of Discovery,” the theories backed by 15th-century “papal bulls” that legitimized the colonial-era seizure of Native lands and form the basis of some property laws today.

A Vatican statement said the papal bulls, or decrees, “did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples” and have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith.

The statement, from the Vatican’s development and education offices, marked a historic recognition of the Vatican’s own complicity in colonial-era abuses committed by European powers. It was issued under history’s first Latin American pontiff, who was hospitalized Thursday with a respiratory infection, exactly one year after Francis met at the Vatican with Indigenous leaders from Canada who raised the issue.


The statement was a response to decades of Indigenous demands for the Vatican to formally rescind the papal bulls that provided the Portuguese and Spanish kingdoms the religious backing to expand their territories in Africa and the Americas for the sake of spreading Christianity.

Those decrees underpin the “Doctrine of Discovery,” a legal concept coined in a 1823 U.S. Supreme Court decision that has come to be understood as meaning that ownership and sovereignty over land passed to Europeans because they “discovered” it.

It was cited as recently as a 2005 Supreme Court decision involving the Oneida Indian Nation written by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.


{snip} Michelle Schenandoah of the Oneida Nation had called for the Vatican to rescind the papal bulls when she delivered the closing remarks of the First Nations delegation that met with Francis during a weeklong visit last year by Native groups from Canada. On Thursday, she called the Vatican statement “another step in the right direction,” but noted that it didn’t mention the rescinding of the bulls themselves.

“I think what this does is it really puts the responsibility on nation states such as the United States, to look at its use of the Doctrine of Discovery,” she said in a interview from Syracuse, New York, where she is a professor of Indigenous law at Syracuse University’s College of Law. “This goes beyond land. It really has created generation upon generation of genocidal policies directed towards Indigenous peoples. And I think that it’s time for these governments to take full accountability for their actions.”


It was significant that the repudiation of the “Doctrine of Discovery” came during the pontificate of history’s first Latin American pope. Even before the Canadian trip, the Argentine pope had apologized to Native peoples in Bolivia in 2015 for the crimes of the colonial-era conquest of the Americas.

Felix Hoehn, a property and administrative law professor at the University of Saskatchewan, said the Vatican statement would have no legal bearing on land claims in Canada today, but would have symbolic value.

“The most that any papal repudiation of the doctrine (or the bulls, for that matter) can do in relation to Canadian law is to apply pressure on the Supreme Court of Canada to renounce the doctrine as part of Canadian law,” he said.