Vatican repudiates Doctrine of Discovery following demands from Indigenous people

Sarain Fox, right, and Chelsea Brunelle of the Batchewana First Nation unfurled a banner reading ‘Rescind the Doctrine’ outside the mass presided over by Pope Francis at the National Shrine of Saint Anne de Beaupre in Quebec last summer. (John Locher/The Associated Press)

By Nicole Winfield – The Associated Press

Documents had been ‘manipulated’ for political purposes by colonial powers, said Vatican

The Vatican on Thursday formally repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, the theories backed by 15th-century papal bulls that legitimized the colonial-era seizure of Indigenous lands and form the basis of some property law today.

A Vatican statement said the 15th-century papal bulls, or decrees, “did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples” and have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith.

It said the documents had been “manipulated” for political purposes by colonial powers “to justify immoral acts against Indigenous peoples that were carried out, at times, without opposition from ecclesial authorities.”

The statement, from the Vatican’s development and education offices, said it was right to “recognize these errors,” acknowledge the terrible effects of colonial-era assimilation policies on Indigenous peoples and ask for their forgiveness.

The statement was a response to decades of demands from Indigenous people for the Vatican to formally rescind the papal bulls that provided the Portuguese and Spanish kingdoms the religious backing to expand their territories in Africa and the Americas for the sake of spreading Christianity.

Those decrees underpin the Doctrine of Discovery, a legal concept coined in an 1823 U.S. Supreme Court decision that has come to be understood as meaning that ownership and sovereignty over land passed to Europeans because they “discovered” it.

It was cited as recently as a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision involving the Oneida Indian Nation written by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

During Pope Francis’s 2022 visit to Canada, during which he apologized to Indigenous peoples for the residential school system that forcibly removed Indigenous children from their homes, he was met with demands for a formal repudiation of the papal bulls.

Two Indigenous women unfurled a banner at the altar of the National Shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré on July 29 that read, “Rescind the Doctrine,” in bright red and black letters. The protesters were escorted away and the Mass proceeded without incident, though the women later marched the banner out of the basilica and draped it on the railing.

In the statement, the Vatican said: “In no uncertain terms, the Church’s magisterium upholds the respect due to every human being. The Catholic Church therefore 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.'”

Seen as mostly symbolic

Ghislain Picard, a longtime Innu leader and the chief of the Assembly of First Nations for Quebec and Labrador, said the news was a welcome development.

“Many of those pioneers and those who were involved in that work in the last 25 years must be applauding this development,” he said.

Ghislain Picard, an Innu leader and the chief of the Assembly of First Nations for Quebec and Labrador, said the news out of the Vatican on Thursday was a welcome development. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

But Picard says the move is mostly symbolic and it’s to be seen if it will affect policy in Canada.

“The Vatican seems to be washing its hands of its role in the whole colonization of our lands and to me it would be so simple to just accept the fact that they played a role,” he said.

“Reconciliation is a buzzword. But how it impacts current policy is really what’s at stake here.”

Phil Fontaine, a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations in Canada, who was part of a delegation that met with Francis at the Vatican before his Canadian trip and then accompanied him throughout, said the statement was “wonderful,” resolved an outstanding issue and now puts the matter to civil authorities to revise property laws that cite the doctrine.

Phil Fontaine, a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations in Canada, is seen outside of St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican in this March 2022 photo. (Gregorio Borgia/The Associated Press)

“The Holy Father promised that upon his return to Rome they would begin work on a statement which was designed to allay the fears and concerns of many survivors and others concerned about the relationship between their Catholic Church and our people, and he did as he said he would do,” Fontaine told The Associated Press.

“The church has done one thing, as it said it would do, for the Holy Father. Now the ball is in the court of governments, the United States and in Canada, but particularly in the United States where the doctrine is embedded in the law,” he said.

Michèle Audette, an Innu Senator who was one of the five commissioners responsible for conducting the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, said when she heard the news, she was in disbelief.

Michèle Audette, a former commissioner for the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, said she was in disbelief at the news out of the Vatican’s statement Thursday on the Doctrine of Discovery. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

“It’s big,” she said in an interview on CBC Daybreak. “That doctrine made sure we did not exist or were even recognized.… It’s one of the root causes of why the relationship is so broken.”

Konrad Sioui, the former grand chief of the Huron-Wendat Nation, said he had long hoped the Vatican would repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery.

“This news is something we’ve been waiting for,” he said. “This answer of the church today gives us all the hope we need because we’ve been deprived of our lands through this very [doctrine].”

The Métis National Council said the Vatican’s statement of repudiation signals “a renewed commitment by the Catholic Church to walking together in a good way.”

The council said it is taking time to fully understand the statement’s “nuances and potential implications, so that they can inform our collective next steps forward.”

Three papal bulls still in place

The Vatican offered no evidence that the three 15th-century papal bulls (Dum Diversas in 1452, Romanus Pontifex in 1455 and Inter Caetera in 1493) had themselves been formally abrogated, rescinded or rejected, as Vatican officials have often said. But it cited a subsequent bull, Sublimis Deus in 1537, that reaffirmed that Indigenous peoples shouldn’t be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, and were not to be enslaved.

It was significant that the repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery came during the pontificate of history’s first Latin American pope. The Argentine Francis before the Canadian trip had apologized to Indigenous peoples in Bolivia in 2015 for the crimes of the colonial-era conquest of the Americas.

Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça, prefect of the Vatican’s culture office, said the statement was a reflection of the Vatican’s dialogue with Indigenous peoples.

“This Note is part of what we might call the architecture of reconciliation and also the product of the art of reconciliation, the process whereby people commit to listening to each other, to speaking to each other and to growth in mutual understanding,” he said in a statement.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at

With files from CBC News

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Pope asks for ‘forgiveness in name of church’ for abuses at residential schools, Thomson Reuters

Finland: Truth and Reconciliation Commission should continue says Sami Parliament in Finland, Eye on the Arctic

Greenland: Greenland, Denmark initiate investigation into past relations, Eye on the Arctic

Sweden: Sami in Sweden start work on structure of Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Eye on the Arctic

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