On Thursday, the Vatican’s Dicastery for Culture and Education formally repudiated the so-called “doctrine of discovery”, contained in a series of papal bulls dating back to the fifteenth century and which was used in the following centuries to justify the usurpation of territories inhabited by indigenous peoples in Africa and the Americas by European colonial powers. For decades, representatives of many indigenous peoples had been asking the Vatican to formally distance itself from the papal bulls on which this doctrine is based.
In the eighteenth century the governments and courts of several European countries that were engaged in the occupation and exploitation of large territories used various official documents issued by the Vatican – among them the bulls Dum Diversas (1452), Romanus Pontifex (1455) and Inter Caetera ( 1493) – to argue that there was an exclusive right of the Catholic “conquerors” to purchase or take possession of those lands from the indigenous populations. In essence, the bulls were initially issued to provide the rulers of Portugal and Spain with religious support to expand into Africa and the Americas, provided the local populations were not Christian and could be converted.
The most important of these legal decisions that harked back to the ancient papal bulls was the one issued by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1823: it established that ownership and sovereignty over the territories previously inhabited by indigenous peoples should automatically pass to the Europeans thanks to their “discovery ”.
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In a long statement, the Vatican has responded at least in part to the requests of indigenous peoples. The papal bulls in question have not been annulled, but the Dicastery wrote:
“The ‘doctrine of discovery’ is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church. Historical research clearly demonstrates that the papal documents in question, written in a specific historical period and related to political issues, were never considered expressions of the Catholic faith. At the same time, the Church recognizes that these Papal Bulls did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of indigenous peoples. The Church is also aware of the fact that the content of these documents has been manipulated for political ends by the competing colonial powers, to justify immoral acts against indigenous peoples, sometimes carried out without the opposition of the ecclesiastical authorities. It is right to acknowledge these mistakes, acknowledge the terrible effects of assimilation policies and the pain felt by indigenous peoples, and ask for forgiveness.”
During his papacy, Pope Francis has often shown a strong desire for rapprochement with indigenous peoples, organizing frequent visits to Latin America, Africa and Asia to meet their representatives. In April 2022, he also officially apologized to Indigenous peoples of Canada for the long history of abuse, harassment and deaths in boarding schools for Indigenous children used for the forced assimilation of indigenous cultures.
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