In a re-enactment of Ponce de Leon’s landing in Florida, the Spanish conquerors invoke the Doctrine of Discovery, which is still being debated centuries later. CNS photo/Susan Schulz

Doctrine of discovery first repudiated in 1537

  • October 2, 2014

A 30-year effort to get the Pope to take back the words of two 15th century popes got another boost this summer when Leadership Conference of Women Religious, representing about 80 per cent of American sisters, passed a resolution calling on Pope Francis to repudiate the doctrine of discovery.

“We humbly and respectfully ask Pope Francis to lead us in formally repudiating the period of Christian history that used religion to justify political and personal violence against indigenous nations and peoples and their cultural, religious, and territorial identities,” reads a resolution passed in August at the urging of American Loreto Sisters.

Trouble is that the doctrine may have already been repudiated by other popes, going back as far as 1537.

The doctrine of discovery is a legal principle which has passed from Church law into common law. It granted the European discovering powers a kind of unrestricted sovereignty over the lands and peoples they discovered. It began with a series of papal bulls issued by Pope Nicholas V and Pope Alexander VI before and just after Christopher Columbus returned from his first contact with the Americas.

The sisters are not exaggerating when they talk about religion used “to justify political and personal violence.” In his 1455 bull Romanus Pontifex, Pope Nicholas V gave Portuguese King Alfonso a license to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue” the people in new lands of discovery. The bull encouraged the king to “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit.”

This was applied mainly to Portuguese discoveries along the coast of Africa and was meant to encourage King Alfonso in his battle against the Muslim Saracens.

By 1493 Pope Alexander VI had a broader scope of discovery to consider, courtesy of Columbus. Rather than going directly to enslavement, killing and vanquishing, he granted rights to the kings of Castile and Leon to establish dominions in most of the Americas, and the Portuguese to have the same rights in any lands east of a line from North Pole to South Pole 100 leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde. That majestic line drawn by Pope Alexander is how Brazil ended up speaking Portuguese.

Within these New World dominions, Alexander made the respective kings responsible for baptizing the natives.

“We exhort you very earnestly in the Lord and by your reception of holy Baptism, whereby you are bound to our apostolic commands, and by the bowels of the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, enjoin strictly, that inasmuch as with eager zeal for the true faith you design to equip and dispatch this expedition, you purpose also, as is your duty, to lead the peoples dwelling in those islands and countries to embrace the Christian religion,” wrote the Pope.

European kings could exploit New World land and people, but they also had to convert them.

It’s not hard to imagine today that Pope Francis might find these bulls worth repudiating — if only other popes hadn’t already done the job, beginning with Pope Paul III in 1537. In another bull Pope Paul attributed all this talk of enslaving and exploitation to “the enemy of the human race.”

“We… consider… that the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it,” wrote Paul III. “Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.”

This bull, called Sublimus Dei, is a little controversial because it’s unclear whether it was ever promulgated outside the Vatican. In Medieval and Renaissance Europe it fell to popes to issue bulls, but it was the job of kings to promulgate and enforce them in their kingdoms. The Spanish and Portuguese kings were already up to their eyeballs in New World gold and silver and seem to have lost Sublimus Dei in their spam folders.

But repudiation of the doctrine of discovery didn’t end with a one-page papal bull in 1537. In 1992 in Santo Domingo, on the 500th Anniversary of Christopher Columbus landing there, Pope John Paul II confessed and begged forgiveness for the sins of the Church in the Spanish conquest of America. He repeated a similar confession March 12, 2000 when, kneeling at the Holy Doors of the Great Jubilee, he begged forgiveness for Catholics who had violated “the rights of ethnic groups and peoples, and [for showing] contempt for their cultures and religious traditions.”

Papal teaching on human rights, both for individuals and communities, has been pretty consistent since Pope John XXIII’s 1962 encyclical Pacem in Terris pointed toward the United Nations and its role in protecting human rights, said Jesuit Fr. Michael Stogre, author of That the World May Believe: The Development of Papal Social Thought on Aboriginal Rights.

“Subsequent teaching, particularly from Vatican II on, has certainly abrogated that earlier teaching,” Stogre said.

There may be a symbolic value in a very specific statement about the doctrine of discovery, said Peruvian-Canadian Oblate missionary Fr. Nicanor Sarmiento.

“It’s like what happened with Galileo was symbolic, but it has an effect,” said Sarmiento, an expert in the theory of Christian missionary work.

Sarmiento believes anybody paying attention to what and how Pope Francis has been teaching, would know any teaching that tied evangelization to colonization is today null and void.

“What Francis is doing right now is in continuity with John Paul II in dialogue with indigenous cultures,” he said. 

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