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USA: bishops comment on Vatican note on the “Doctrine of Discovery”

(ZENIT News / Washington, 03.30.2023).- The Dicasteries for Culture and Education and for Promoting Integral Human Development released today a Joint Statement on the “Doctrine of Discovery.” The matter at issue involves documents (papal bulls) issued in the fifteenth century with regard to European exploration of land beyond continental Europe. Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City and secretary for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has issued a statement in response to today’s Joint Statement by the dicasteries:

We are grateful to the Dicasteries for Culture and Education and for Promoting Integral Human Development for their Joint Statement on the “Doctrine of Discovery.” 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. We welcome the statement’s renewed repudiation and condemnation of the violence and injustices committed against Native and Indigenous peoples, as well as the Church’s ongoing support for their dignity and human rights. In the centuries that followed the papal bulls at issue, many popes boldly proclaimed the God-given rights owed to all peoples, but we must also confront those moments when individual Christians lacked such boldness or clarity.

As the Joint Statement points out, there were times when Christians, including ecclesiastical authorities, failed to fully oppose destructive and immoral actions of the competing colonial powers.  In this regard, we too express deep sorrow and regret. 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. We will continue to support policies that protect the poor and vulnerable, and that will offer relief to Native and Indigenous families who are struggling. Through Catholic charitable, health, and educational initiatives, we will continue to offer service to all people, with particular concern for those Native and Indigenous communities where the Church has been present. We support the ongoing efforts of various Catholic communities to make archival and historical records more easily accessible.

Finally, as the Joint Statement indicates, the centuries of history at issue are complex, and the term “doctrine of discovery” has taken on various legal and political interpretations that merit further historical study and understanding. The experiences and histories of different countries and different Native and Indigenous peoples are distinct, and deserve further inquiry, although there are also opportunities for meaningful common understandings as well. As a Church, it is important for us to fully understand how our words have been used and misused to justify acts that would be abhorrent to Jesus Christ. We hope for more dialogue among Indigenous and Catholic scholars to promote greater and wider understanding of this difficult history. To that end, the USCCB and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops are exploring how they may support an academic symposium. This initiative has also received encouragement from the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences, the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, and the Dicastery for Education and Culture.

May God bless with healing all those who continue to suffer the legacy of colonialism, and may we all offer true aid and support. By God’s grace, may we never return to the way of colonization, but rather walk together in the way of peace.