Vatican rescinds “Doctrine of Discovery”

I have written and spoken about the impact of the “Doctrine of Discovery” on Native American affairs for years. This “new” news from the Vatican is astounding. I think that, for the most part, the Vatican and the Catholics in general have tried to forget this piece of “ancient” history that basically says that Christian nations have the right to discover—and rule over—lands inhabited by non-Christians. In other words, all of the Americas were subject to the doctrine, and our USA, in Supreme Court opinions developed by Chief Justice John Marshall in the 1820s and 1830s, declared “that the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands.” Native peoples were left with a doctrine of “occupancy” and “limited sovereignty.”

What does this mean today? I’m no lawyer, but it certainly brings the entire field of “Indian Law” in America into discussion, as the “Marshall opinions” have long been cited as its basis.

Here is the news release from an interesting new news source I am following:


MARCH 30, 2023
In a landmark statement made today, the Vatican formally repudiated a centuries-old theory of church decrees that endorsed the forceful seizing of Native lands and near-total destruction of Indigenous peoples.

The decrees, or “papal bulls,” underpin “The Doctrine of Discovery,” a legal concept created in a 1823 U.S. Supreme Court decision that justified the forceful seizing of Native land by European colonizers under the guise that colonizers “discovered” the land.

In a joint statement issued by the Vatican’s development and education departments, the Catholic Church repudiated “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 Doctrine of Discovery “is not a part of the teaching of the Catholic Church,” according to the statement, which acknowledges the sufferings of Indigenous people “due to the expropriation of their lands … as well as the policies of forced assimilation, promoted by the governmental authorities of the time, intended to eliminate their indigenous cultures.”

The statement comes after decades of advocacy from Indigenous communities for the church to formally retract the numerous papal bulls that backed the expansion of Christianity at the cost of Native land and lives.

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