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Mark Charles: My Second Cup of Coffee: Vatican Repudiates the Doctrine of Discovery but seeks to limit the liability
Catholic Church repudiates legal doctrine used against tribal nations
Monday, April 3, 2023

The Vatican released a statement last week saying the Catholic Church has repudiated a religious doctrine that was used to justify the theft of lands from indigenous tribes in North America.

The joint statement from the church’s Dicastery for Culture and the Dicastery for Integral Human Development stated that both the Doctrine of Discovery and the papal decrees, or bulls, that granted sovereign rights to colonizing nations are “not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church.”

“In no uncertain terms, the Church’s magisterium upholds the respect due to every human being,” the March 30 statement reads. “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.’”

The statement explained the discovery doctrine can be found in several papal documents, including the Bulls Dum Diversas (1452), Romanus Pontifex (1455) and Inter Caetera (1493). Nineteenth Century courts in several countries later cited the discovery doctrine as justification for allowing settlers to relieve indigenous peoples of their lands, either by purchase or conquest.

The statement went on to claim that the papal bulls, “written in a specific historical period and linked to political questions,” were never considered expressions of Catholic faith.

“At the same time, the Church acknowledges that these papal bulls did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of indigenous peoples,” the statement reads.

The church also admitted that the papal bulls were “manipulated for political purposes by competing colonial powers in order to justify immoral acts against indigenous peoples that were carried out, at times, without opposition from ecclesiastical authorities.”

The National Congress of Americans praised Pope Francis and the Catholic Church for its repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery.

“It is no secret that many governments – including the United States – have relied on this doctrine to justify the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples and the taking of our lands,” NCAI said in a statement. “It is our sincere hope that today’s announcement is more than mere words, but rather is the beginning of a full acknowledgement of the history of oppression and a full accounting of the legacies of colonialism — not just by the Roman Catholic Church, but by all the world governments that have used racism, prejudice and religious authority to not only justify past inequalities, but to allow, fuel, and perpetuate the institutionalization of those inequalities that continue to this very day.”

Not everyone expressed support for the Vatican’s statement.

Navajo author and former presidential candidate Mark Charles chastised the Vatican Friday for its statement, saying the church is attempting to rewrite history in its repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery.

Charles, author of “Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery,” told Indianz.Com that he was surprised by the Vatican’s statement and was initially glad to learn the church was taking steps to repudiate the discovery doctrine.

Mark Charles
Mark Charles, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, addresses the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum in Sioux City, Iowa, on August 20, 2019. At the time, Charles was running for president of the United States as an independent candidate. Photo by Jerry Mennenga / Zuma Press, © Jerry L. Mennenga / Courtesy Ho-Chunk Inc

But after he read the actual statement, he became disappointed in the church, which he said is attempting to “gloss over” its historically inhumane treatment of Native peoples while washing its hands of some inconvenient history.

He said the church’s statement begins by praising its own past leaders who did admirable work, and even died, in support of Native people. Charles said it is likely the very church officials the Vatican is attempting to praise were actually killed or penalized by the church itself for violating church policy toward Native people.

“Then it states that the Doctrine of Discovery was never part of the Catholic Church’s teachings, and that is where it begins to fall apart,” Charles said.

He said the church’s statement claims that the Catholic Church didn’t really understand the impact of the papal bulls or how political leaders would use them to justify their subjugation of indigenous people. Charles said the 1452 papal bull (known as the Bulls Dum Diversas) was written specifically to justify the enslavement of indigenous people in the New World by Columbus.

“To talk like we didn’t know there was this Doctrine of Discovery, that’s a complete rewriting of history,” he said. “This was not a passive injustice, a passive sin for the Catholic Church. They were working with colonial powers to justify these things.”

He said the statement also glosses over 500 years of abuse and neglect of Native peoples by the Catholic Church, simply referring to these injustices as the “terrible effects of the assimilation policies” without referencing any specific event or action, such as the failed boarding school experiment.

“It’s very offensive to be asking for pardon when they can’t even acknowledge what they did and name the effect it had on indigenous people,” Charles said.

He said he was very interested to see the Catholic Church repudiate not just the religious aspects of the Doctrine of Discovery but also the legal aspects of it, something he said the statement appeared to do. He said a lot of well-meaning organizations have repudiated the religious aspects of the discovery doctrine but rarely have any repudiated the legal aspects of it.

He said the Doctrine of Discovery was used undergird the very foundations of America. The Declaration of Independence refers to Natives as “merciless Indian savages,” despite its contention that “all men are created equal.” The Founding Fathers are able to make this distinction because of the Doctrine of Discovery, which gave them a narrow view of who could be considered men, according to Charles in “Unsettling Truths.”

In the 1823 Johnson v. M’Intosh decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that when European Christian nations discovered new lands, they gained sovereignty and property rights over those of non-European, non-Christian people, including the Native people who had inhabited those lands. The decision, which referenced the Doctrine of Discovery, serves as a cornerstone of federal Indian law.

“Not only did the 1823 Supreme Court led by Chief Justice John Marshall, and subsequent Supreme Court judicial interpretations, perpetuate the dehumanizing worldview of the Doctrine of Discovery, but they transformed the discovery doctrine into a modern-day legal instrument that has become the bedrock of the legal principle for land titles in the United States,” Charles asserts in “Unsettling Truths.”

Pope Francis
Pope Francis in Iqaluit, Nunavut, on July 29, 2022. Photo: Vatican News

The Supreme Court referenced the M’Intosh decision in 1954, 1985 and most recently in 2005.

“The implicit bias of white supremacy is rooted in the Doctrine of Discovery, articulated in the Declaration of Independence, established as a foundational principle in the US Constitution, and was repeatedly codified into US case law by the courts,” Charles writes.

He said Friday that in repudiating the legal aspects of the Doctrine of Discovery the Catholic Church – one of the largest landholders in the world – seemed to be surrendering its right to stolen indigenous lands.

“I would love to see a Native nation sue the Catholic Church for the return of the lands that the Catholic Church owns,” he said.