What is the “Doctrine of Discovery”?
First of all, it is not a Christian doctrine – this term is used in its legal sense. This is already confusing for some people. There is no Christian teaching by this name, and anyone familiar with Catholic Social Teaching of the last 125 years knows the value of universal human dignity, religious freedom, opposition to slavery, etc. It comes as no surprise then that most Catholics, most Christians, and even those in positions of authority in the Church, might have no idea what you were talking about if you raised the question.
In full disclosure, I do not recall ever hearing the term “Doctrine of Discovery” before this year. It probably came across my radar in the last couple years but did not catch my attention since I am neither a legal scholar nor an historian of European imperialism per se.
In primary school history classes I remember learning about the Age of Discovery; the European maltreatment, enslavement, and even genocide of indigenous peoples; the Papal Line of Demarcation that assigned points west to Spain and points East to Portugal; and so on. So, the idea is not entirely new, but it did come as some surprise when a Canadian friend asked if Pope Francis was planning to rescind the doctrine.
From the beginning it struck me as a bit fishy – certainly there is, nor was there ever, any Catholic doctrine known by such title. It is rather a reference to U.S. legal doctrine, an 1823 codification of international law and European mores that
…gave to the nation making the discovery, as its inevitable consequence, the sole right of acquiring the soil and of making settlements on it. It was an exclusive principle which shut out the right of competition among those who had agreed to it, not one which could annul the previous rights of those who had not agreed to it. It regulated the right given by discovery among the European discoverers, but could not affect the rights of those already in possession, either as aboriginal occupants or as occupants by virtue of a discovery made before the memory of man. It gave the exclusive right to purchase, but did not found that right on a denial of the right of the possessor to sell. (US Supreme Court, Worcester v. State of Georgia, pg 31, US 544)
What has that to do with the Catholic Church?
More broadly, it has come to be understood to mean, basically, “finders keepers” – and only if the finders were European. Though the term, and the concept, of a “doctrine of discovery” was coined by John Marshall during the legal preceding quoted above, protests today focus on the “Judeo-Christian” and papal origins of the body of decisions and laws that came to be associated with the idea. For example, the opening paragraph of the site www.doctrineofdiscovery.com:
Papal Bulls of the 15th century gave Christian explorers the right to claim lands they “discovered” and lay claim to those lands for their Christian monarchs. Any land that was not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered”, claimed, and exploited. If the “pagan” inhabitants could be converted, they might be spared. If not, they could be enslaved or killed.
The papal bulls that contributed to this line of thinking – and its consequence of unjust and inhumane treatment of indigenous peoples by European explorers – are generally cited to be the following:
Nicholas V, Dum Diversas (1452) – Issued in an effort to gain Portuguese support in defense of Constantinople against the Ottoman Empire, it offered Portugal exclusive land and trading rights in newly-discovered parts of West Africa, granting him permission to seize lands of and enslave any local “Saracens, pagans, and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ”.
Nicholas V, Romanus Pontifex (1455) – Confirmed the Portuguese rule over the African coast, and forbade other nations from engaging in trade with the Saracens (Generally, Muslims. Specifically, it seems, the Seljuk [Turkish] empire, as distinct from “Moors”, Berbers of North Africa and the Fatimid Caliphate).
Alexander VI Borgia, Inter Caetera (1493) – Issued immediately after Christopher Columbus returned from the West Indies, established the Line of Demarcation between Spanish and Portuguese exploration 100 leagues (about 320 miles) west of the Azores. The purpose of the bull was to spread Christianity to the natives there, who were thought to be positively disposed based on reports from Columbus, and its intent seems to be to regulate missionary activity in the Americas, rather than land rights.
The Spanish-Portuguese Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), conducted without any participation from the papacy, moved the line of demarcation west a few hundred miles and was clearly more focused on land claims. This was eventually ratified by Julius II in 1506.
There is no question that Spanish, Portuguese, English, and other explorers invented justifications for the enslavement of indigenous peoples and the conquering of their lands (inasmuch as the land would be said to ‘belong’ to anyone), for example, by claiming that non-Christians could not own land, or could be enslaved, using as justification portions of the above bulls.
Over the next three centuries, European powers expand and develop these conjured excuses to lay claim to the New World and its resources. The American republic takes the ball and runs with it, yelling “Manifest Destiny!” Over these centuries, the loss of human life, of property, and the degradation of humanity is long, it is horrific, and it is utterly unchristian.
Modern interest in the “Doctrine of Discovery”
LexisNexis turns up under 1000 references to the ‘doctrine of discovery’ going back to 1949, and almost all of these are legal cases, law reviews, or legal news outlets. It is only recently that it seems to have become an item for attention in religious circles, and is of particular interest in Canada, who often takes the lead in addressing past or present injustices against First Nations.
Since 1984, there have been petitions to the popes to “rescind the Doctrine of Discovery”. As we will soon see, when there is a cause du jour, memories are short – but first the current context of the cause.
It seems recent interest has been sparked by the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, originating in a 1998 Statement of Reconciliation between ‘Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians’, which sought to “put the events of the past behind us so that we can work towards a stronger and healthier future.”
In December 2015, the Commission published its Final Report, and a set of Calls to Action. Articles §48 and §49 call on all religious denominations and faith groups to formally adopt and comply with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and to formally “repudiate concepts such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius.”
Pre-emptive responses came from a number of groups, such as the Society of Friends (2013), the World Council of Churches (2012), the Unitarian Universalist Association (2012), and the Anglican Church of Canada (2010).
In 2013, several Catholic organizations petitioned the pope to formally revoke the bulls mentioned above, which are claimed to provide the basis for the “doctrine of discovery”. This included Pax Christi International and representatives of more than 40 religious congregations. In May of 2016 there was called a Long March on Rome to ask Pope Francis to revoke the “Papal Bulls of Discovery” [sic].
It was already two months too late, however. The Catholic Church in Canada also complied with the Commission’s request, and issued a formal rejection of the so-called “Doctrine of Discovery” and a number of related ideas condemned as “errors and falsehoods perpetuated, often by Christians, during and following the so-called ‘Age of Discovery’”. (CCCB, The Doctrine of Discovery, Terra Nullius, and the Catholic Church: A Catholic Response. 19 March 2016)
But what about the calls on the pope to revoke the papal bulls of 1452 and 1493?
Well, it seems he already has.
Or rather, his predecessors have, several times, over the last 500 years. At least, the ideas have been repudiated, rejected, and expunged from Church teaching.
Already there were objections to and retractions of these claims within the Church at the time they were being made by “Christian” monarchies and their explorers, for example:
Francisco de Vitoria, On the Indians (1532) – who used ‘the law of the nations’ (international law) and Inter Caetera to argue that “the barbarians [sic] possessed true public and private dominion. The law of nations expressly states that goods which belong to no owner pass on to the occupier/discoverer, but since the goods in question here had an owner, they do not fall under this title ‘by right of discovery.’”
In fact, the first petitions to the pope to repeal the teachings of these papal bulls were not in 1984, but 450 years earlier. They received a powerful response.
Paul III, Sublimis Deus (1537) – Begins by declaring unequivocally that God so loved the whole human race that he gave all people the ability to know God and come to faith in God. It then responds directly to the claims – not present in previous papal teaching – that the native peoples were subhuman and that they could be enslaved or their property stolen. In fact, he refers to this idea as a lie perpetuated by Satan! In a clear and authoritative revocation of anything to the contrary previously promulgated:
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 [dominio] 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; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.
That is about as clear as it gets, and those key words “we define and declare” put this at a rather higher level of authority than the so-called ‘bulls of discovery’. The Church had already rejected the core ideas of the doctrine of discovery three hundred years before anyone would even call them that.
Moreover, there are multiple papal and conciliar documents that reject the ideas, in whole or part, of the so-called ‘doctrine’. These include, but are not limited to:
1537 – Paul III, Sublimus Dei
1591 – Gregory XIV, Bulla Cum Sicuti
1639 – Ruling of the Inquisition against slavery
1741 – Benedict XIV, Immensa Pastorum
1839 – Gregory XVI, In Supremo Apostolatus
1890 – Leo XIII, Catholicae Ecclesiae
1963 – John XXIII, Pacem in Terris
1965 – Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes; Dignitatis Humanae
Finally, just in case those were not clear enough, popes have explicitly asked forgiveness of indigenous peoples for the Church’s role in supporting imperialism during the age of discovery, most notably:
1992 – John Paul II in Santo Domingo – on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landing there, confessed and begged forgiveness for the sins of the Church and the Spanish conquistadors.
2000 – John Paul II during the Great Jubilee, in Rome – during a mass of reconciliation, asked forgiveness for any Catholics in history who “had violated the rights of ethnic groups and peoples, and for showing contempt for their cultures and religious traditions”.
2015 – Francis in Bolivia – “I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the Church herself, but also for crimes committed against Native peoples during the so-called conquest of the Americas”
To be sure, it never hurts to repeat oneself. Just in case you were not heard the first time. Or the last time. God knows that if the people you agree with do not know they agree with you, the people who disagree might also be in the dark.
From Long March to Rome