Why Pope Francis May Be Hesitant to Revoke Discovery

WARNING: This story contains disturbing details

Pope Francis’ apology for the Catholic Church’s role in native residential schools in Canada has raised the question of whether he would formally revoke the Church’s Doctrine of Discovery.

Dating back to the 15th century, the doctrine included a series of edicts known as Papal Bulls, which were later used to justify the colonization of native lands.

But any hesitation on the part of the pope to part with them may stem from the Vatican’s view that the church has already abolished and replaced those edicts, some observers suggest.

“In a sense, from the church’s point of view, it doesn’t need to be repealed because it’s basically been abolished,” said Darren Dias, a professor of theology at St. Michael’s College in Toronto. “It has no status.”

On May 4, 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued the Papal Bull known as “Inter Caetera” which gave Portugal and Spain the religious support to expand their territories in Africa and the Americas for the purpose of spreading Christianity. The papal bull said lands not inhabited by Christians could be claimed while “barbarian nations were overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”

VIEW | Calls to Revoke Doctrine:

Protesters urge Pope to withdraw Discovery Doctrine

Two young First Nations activists carried a powerful banner to the Pope’s Quebec Mass. Their demand to withdraw the discovery doctrine that made colonization possible reflected a day of surprises and, for some, growing impatience for concrete action.

While the doctrine justified the colonization, conversion, and enslavement of indigenous peoples and the confiscation of their lands, scholars say it also laid the foundation for Canada’s land claim and Indian law, which laid the foundation for residential schools.

Dias says other edicts soon replaced the Doctrine of Discovery. For example, in 1537, Pope Paul III had issued his own decree opposing the enslavement of indigenous peoples. He wrote that they “should in no way be deprived of their liberty or possession of their property, even if they are outside the faith of Jesus Christ.”

Despite this, churches continued to colonize and evangelize by force, Dias said.

‘Circumstances have changed’

The Vatican did address the doctrine in a statement to the ninth session of the United Nations of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in April 2010.

The doctrine, the Vatican argued, had been abolished as early as 1494, and “circumstances have changed so much that it seems utterly inappropriate to attribute any legal value to such a document.”

The Doctrine of Discovery had also been abolished by other papal humps, encyclicals, declarations and decrees, it said.

A man is in a wheelchair.
Francis attends a silent prayer at the cemetery during his meeting with First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities in Maskwacis, Alta., on Monday. (Guglielmo Mangiapane / Reuters)

“The Inter Caetera bull is a historical relic of no legal, moral or doctrinal value,” the statement said.

“The Holy See affirms that Inter Caetera has already been dissolved and considers it to be without any legal or doctrinal value.”

However, calls for official renunciation continue, not only from the indigenous community, but also from some members of the Catholic Church.

An umbrella organization of female Catholic religious orders in the US, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, formally asked Francis to do so in 2014, saying he must “reject the period of Christian history when religion was used to promote political and personal violence.” against indigenous nations and peoples.”

Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at the University of Villanova, said he was surprised that Pope Francis’s team was not better prepared for the issue.

Because they knew this was the issue,” he said.

As for an official revocation of the doctrine, Faggioli noted that the Church does not issue formal documents declaring that previous edicts are no longer valid.

“In the Catholic Church, there is no formal mechanism to revoke a teaching of the past,” he said.

Instead, the Catholic Church will focus on “learning something new that is different from what has been taught before.”

Dias agrees that popes traditionally don’t abolish.

Instead, “a [new] education replaces the old education. This is certainly what happened with the Doctrine of Discovery,” he said.

In an email to CBC News, Jonathan Lesarge, a spokesman for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, reiterated that the Vatican has previously clarified that the papal bulls associated with the Doctrine of Discovery have no legal or moral authority in the Church.

“However, we understand the desire to name these texts, recognize their impact and distance themselves from the concepts associated with them,” he said.

“The bishops of Canada are working with the Vatican and those who have been studying this matter with a view to issuing a new statement from the Church.”

VIEW | Francis apologizes to survivors:

Pope ‘deeply apologizes’ for ‘colonizing mentality’ of many Christians

During his visit to Maskwacis, Alta., Pope Francis apologized to survivors of residential schools for the way members of the Catholic Church contributed to the cultural destruction of indigenous life.

Meanwhile, Matteo Bruni, the director of the Vatican news agency, acknowledged during a briefing a few days before the visit to Canada that “a reflection is underway in the Holy See on the doctrine of discovery,” according to America magazine.

But Steve Newcomb, an Indigenous scholar who has spent much of his career studying the Doctrine of Discovery, says he believes the Pope’s possible reluctance to retract the doctrine stems from his reluctance to change the world. recall the kind of language used by its predecessors.

“[They] issued such language that has had a destructive, devastating impact on all our native nations and peoples for centuries,” Newcomb said.

“Because it tears the veneer of the Vatican to reveal the true nature of the institution,” he said.

Newcomb also suggested that later edicts issued by the Church after the Papal Bulls of 1493 had little impact, and that the original Discovery Doctrine served as the basis for “the most heinous acts of genocide against the original nation” for decades.

He said that despite the statement to the UN in 2010, the Vatican continues to try to evade responsibility for the doctrine.

“They’ve never publicly acknowledged what’s in those documents. They just want to refer to the titles of the documents, not the content.”


Support is available to anyone affected by their residential school experience or the latest reports.

A nationwide Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to support former students 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 counseling 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 via online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.

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