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Raymond J. de Souza: ‘Doctrine of discovery’ was never Catholic dogma

Let us hope the Vatican's recent clarification and repudiation finally puts the controversy to rest and helps foster reconciliation

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Discovery doctrine protest
Indigenous people hold a banner against the discovery doctrine during a Mass presided over by Pope Francis at the Shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre, in Quebec, in July 2022. Photo by Chelsea Brunelle/via REUTERS

It happened this week, but it is already old news. Very old news. Five centuries old.

National Post

The Vatican issued a document on Thursday that “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 statement recalls a “papal bull” of Pope Paul III in 1537, which mandated that: “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, even though they be outside the Christian faith; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and 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 was just shy of five centuries ago, at the same time as Jacques Cartier first sailed from France to what is now Atlantic Canada.

For context, Samuel de Champlain established Quebec in 1608 and the Mayflower sailed in 1620. If the French and English crowns paid any attention to what the pope had said more than 70 years beforehand, the story of Canada-Indigenous relations would have been a much happier one. If there is a villain to be found in the pre-Confederation history of Canada, the Catholic Church is not it, as St. Francois de Laval (1623-1708), first bishop of Quebec and defender of the Indigenous peoples, is sufficient to prove.

The subsequent painful history of residential schools has motivated some, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), to reinterpret the entire history of Canada, pre- and post-Confederation, through that singular and exclusive lens. Consequently, many now regard the entirety of the European and Christian presence in North America to be one long criminal enterprise, launched by the pope himself.

Hence the TRC’s call (No. 49) to “rescind” the “doctrine of discovery,” referring to a supposed papal permission for European crowns to seize Indigenous lands. Much bad feeling has been generated by what is bad history, and the Vatican’s statement is intended to advance reconciliation by stating anew what is very old news.

The term “doctrine of discovery” is not a Catholic term; and, as the statement noted, “is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church.” The term itself was cooked up by the United States Supreme Court in 1832 to justify ownership of “new” lands previously occupied by Native-Americans.

The historical context is that in the late 15th century, Spain and Portugal were setting out on the seas, first to West Africa and on to India, and later to the Americas. The papacy, which held international political authority at the time, was, in effect, a referee between the competing interests of Spain and Portugal. It did so partly in a series of three papal bulls — which are legal instruments, rather than doctrinal formulations — in 1452, 1455 and 1493. Columbus only sailed the ocean blue in 1492.

The bulls — from the Latin “bulla,” meaning “seal” — were concerned with avoiding conflict between European countries. At the time, little if anything was known about the Indigenous presence in the various territories. Those earlier bulls, written in the language of the time, “did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples,” as the Vatican statement acknowledges.

Nevertheless, they were “manipulated for political purposes by competing colonial powers” for their own ends, including “immoral acts against Indigenous peoples that were carried out, at times, without opposition from ecclesiastical authorities.”

That manipulation meant that Spain began ignoring those bulls by 1494, thus abrogating their effect. By 1537, when it became known in Rome how the Portuguese and Spanish were treating Indigenous people, Pope Paul III defended their rights. Thus in Catholic terms, the “doctrine of discovery” was a dead letter almost three centuries before the American Supreme Court invented the term.

That was clarified extensively by the Canadian bishops in 2016, after the TRC report, and in a Vatican statement to the United Nations in 2010.

Cardinal José Tolentino, one of the Vatican officials who issued the statement, said that it was part of the “art” and “architecture of reconciliation.” I understand those felicitous phrases to mean that even if a strict reading of history meant that it did not need to be said, if Indigenous peoples wanted it said, then it was necessary on those grounds to say it.

Cardinal Tolentino was too diplomatic to say that art and architecture can sometimes include a touch of artifice, and there is something of that at play here, too. The TRC was selective in what truths it decided to tell, and no little mischief has been made about the “doctrine of discovery” by some leaders who do not desire reconciliation, but recrimination.

Will the Vatican’s recent “art of reconciliation” invite more such artifice? I think it likely will, but Vatican officials and Canada’s Catholic bishops evidently think not. For the sake of genuine reconciliation, let us hope they are right.

National Post

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  2. A delegation member chants and dances before Pope Francis during an audience to Canada's Indigenous delegations at the Vatican on April 1, 2022.

    Raymond J. de Souza: The meaning of Pope Francis' apology to Indigenous people

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