The Vatican met one of the long-standing demands of Indigenous groups in Canada by repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery
and the associated Papal decrees that had allowed the colonial-era seizure of Indigenous lands.
During his visit to Canada last July, Pope Francis came under pressure from Indigenous groups for a formal repudiation of the 15th century decrees, known as Papal Bulls, which gave European kingdoms the backing to take new territories so they could be turned into Christian lands.
Francis never spoke directly about repudiating the Bulls even if he apologized profusely for past abuses
, including the establishment of the largely Catholic residential school system that forcibly removed Indigenous children from their homes. On the flight back to Rome
from Canada, he referred to the policies of Indigenous disenfranchisement and forced assimilation as “genocide” but did not say when the Papal Bulls might be torn down.
In a joint statement issued Thursday, the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, headed by Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny, and the Dicastery for Culture and Education said that the Papal Bulls had never been expressions of Catholic faith. The same message was delivered by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops during the Papal tour; their representatives said the doctrine had no legal authority in the Church.
“The ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ is not part of the teachings of the Catholic Church,” the dicasteries said. “At the same time, the Church acknowledges that these papal bulls did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples. 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.”
The statement came a day after Pope Francis was sent by ambulance to Rome’s Gemelli hospital for what the Vatican called treatment for a respiratory infection, raising concerns about the health and staying power of the 86-year-old Argentinian Pontiff. On Thursday
, the Vatican said “the clinical picture is progressively improving and the planned treatments continue,” though Francis was to remain in hospital for a few days.
In an interview, Cardinal Czerny said Francis was certainly aware that the dicasteries’ statement was to be released Thursday. There was no suggestion from the Vatican that it was done at his request to bolster his legacy. The Pope has hinted several times that he would retire, as his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI did, if he became incapable of performing his duties for health reasons.
Scholars have argued that the legal basis for the Doctrine of Discovery is found in various Papal documents, notably three Papal Bulls from the mid- and late 15th century. Papal Bulls are a type of public decree or charter that have been used since the 7th century, though the phrase itself did not emerge until the 13th century.
They also claimed that the Papal Bulls authorized European power to take control of non-Christian lands in the Americas and elsewhere. One of them, issued by Pope Nicholas V, authorized King Afonso of Portugal to conquer “Saracens, pagans and other enemies of Christ” and to take their belongings, including land, “to convert them to you and your use, and your successors the Kings of Portugal.”
Cardinal Czerny said that the Bulls, which carried the Vatican seal, became invalid in the first half of the 16th century, when Pope Paul III’s Bull, “Sublimis Deus,” tried to protect Indigenous peoples from the colonial powers. In the Bull, he 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.”
While the repudiation of the Bulls took an inordinate amount of time, it appears that this formality would become inevitable in 2015, when Francis, two years after he was appointed Pope, travelled to Bolivia. There he asked the Church to “kneel before God and implore forgiveness for the past and present sins of her sons and daughters,” referring to the sins committed against the Indigenous peoples of the Americas in the name of God during the brutal colonial eras.
Cardinal Czerny said, “The Holy See, the Canadian and American Bishops, really [wanted] this statement, which regrets what happened, to help healing and reconciliation with the Indigenous Peoples.”
The dicasteries closed their statement calling for a greater implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. “The implementation of those principles would improve the living conditions and help protect the rights of Indigenous peoples as well as facilitate their development in a way that respects their identity, language and culture,” they said.
Cardinal Czerny said, “Going forward, the Catholic Church aims to continue its pursuit of justice. This necessitates improving relationships with Indigenous communities, listening to the needs of survivors and being ready to engage in solidarity with Indigenous communities as they strive to address inequalities, racism and systemic injustices.”