With the Vatican repudiating the so-called “Doctrine of Discovery,” another step has been taken toward reconciliation. These are good steps, but more is needed, say former Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine and Wolastoquey elder Graydon Nicholas. The Vatican statement shows it has set itself an ambitious agenda, said Regina Archbishop Don Bolen. Michael Swan

A step further on pilgrimage of penance

  • April 8, 2023

Repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, endorsing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, confessing the sin of a colonizing mentality, promising to stand with Indigenous peoples when they struggle for their land and their rights and committing the Church to reconciliation with Indigenous people world-wide — all this arrived in a two-page statement issued jointly by two Vatican dicasteries as another step in the pilgrimage of penance Pope Francis undertook in Canada last summer.

The statement said that “historical research clearly demonstrates” several 15th-century papal bulls — Dum Diversas (1452), Romanus Pontifex (1455) and Inter Caetera (1493) — which were “written in a historical period and linked to political questions, have never been considered expressions of the 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.

“I’m enormously proud of all that we were able to do together. I’m satisfied, absolutely, with the statement,” former Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Phil Fontaine told The Catholic Register after reading the joint statement issued by the Dicasteries for Culture and Education and for Promoting Integral Human Development on March 30.

“I like the whole document. It’s great,” said Wolastoqey elder and chancellor of St. Thomas University Graydon Nicholas.

National political organizations representing most Indigenous people in Canada greeted the statement with caution and hope.

“The Vatican’s efforts to recognize the role of its doctrine in perpetuating these harms mark an important step in attempts toward reconciliation,” said the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami in a release.

“The statement of repudiation signals a renewed commitment by the Catholic Church to walking together in a good way,” said Metis National Council spokesperson Janna van de Sande.

“I will remain cautious and critical of the Catholic Church. I will also remain committed to healing,” AFN National Chief Rosanne Archibald said in a release.

Archibald renewed her demand for “a new, formal papal bull.” A papal bull is any document sent “sub bulla,” that is with the stamp of a papal seal in wax. Such seals were used in medieval and early modern diplomacy to ensure documents were not tampered with on route to their final destination.

The Vatican statement comes seven months after Pope Francis returned from Canada to Rome promising further work on the 500-year-old bulls that led to legal and political justifications for European sovereignty over Indigenous lands in Africa, Asia and the Western Hemisphere.

Only gradually did these political edicts from the papal court and addressed to the royal courts of Portugal and Spain begin to form a legal — not theological — doctrine to explain and justify European possession of Indigenous lands. They became part of the common law tradition of property law in 1823 with the United States Supreme Court decision in McIntosh v. Johnson, which referenced Inter Caetera as a precedent for international law. Only gradually did judges and lawyers, especially in the English-speaking world, begin referring to a “Doctrine of Discovery” as shorthand for the legal reasoning behind the 1823  decision.

By the 1880s, the Doctrine of Discovery played a central role in the scramble for Africa, which saw the colonial powers divide up Africa at the Berlin conference of 1885.

Robert Miller, an Arizona State University law professor and member of the Eastern Shawnee people, called the Vatican statement “a great, world-wide educational moment.”

Miller is editor of the 2012 book Discovering Indigenous Lands: The Doctrine of Discovery in the English Colonies and an expert on the legal history of the doctrine in international law. He cautions there’s only so much a Vatican statement can do.

“So many people think that it somehow restores Indigenous rights or something,” he said. “Of course, the Pope doesn’t have that kind of authority.”

In repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, acknowledging how the papal bulls were used to strip people of their lands, culture and dignity and committing the Church to the principles of UNDRIP, the Church is setting itself an ambitious agenda, said Regina Archbishop Don Bolen.

“These are important statements. They respond to Calls to Action. But they are steps along the way,” said Bolen. “The rubber hits the road when right relationships are established, when trust is regained, when we listen deeply, when we walk together, when we work together in addressing justice issues.”

No one should imagine that a statement alone will change the landscape of Indigenous-Church relations, he said.

“We’re working towards a different future and this statement is something requested. Hopefully, it offers enough to move forward,” he said.

When it comes to the next steps, Nicholas — who began researching the Doctrine of Discovery as a law student in 1969 — has very specific proposals. First, “each government — provincial, municipal, national, territorial — should also refute it.” Second, Nicholas wants to see the CCCB bring Indigenous elders and leaders together for a “sacred assembly.” Such an assembly would demonstrate that the bishops’ conference really is united and determined to address the issues.

Fontaine has a similar proposal for next steps.

“Next steps can’t be declared by one group and not the other. It has to be a joint commitment and declaration as to what the next steps will be,” he said. 

The bishops in Canada and the U.S. have proposed an academic conference that would bring together experts on the subject. 

Not all are so optimisitc, and one Ontario MPP sees the Doctrine of Discovery alive and well in Canada today. Sol Mamakwa, who represents a vast territory in northwestern Ontario that includes most of the Ring of Fire — an area rich in critical minerals needed for high tech applications and the green economy — sees the “remnants of the Doctrine of Discovery” in how Ontario is planning for mining in his riding.

“It’s very clear when institutions, governments, think they own these treaty territories, traditional lands,” Mamakwa said. “Ontario calls these lands Crown lands when, in fact, they are stolen lands.”

Indigenous people in Ontario are in the confusing situation where the federal government has rejected the Doctrine of Discovery and legislated national compliance with UNDRIP, but Queen’s Park has said nothing, Mamakwa said. Instead, the Ontario government is playing First Nations against each other as it tries to secure rights to build roads and invite mining companies into the remote region.

“It is all part of that colonial playbook where you divide and conquer nations,” he said. 

The Vatican statement is far from the first Church repudiation of the 15th-century bulls. Papal statements affirming the humanity and inherent rights of Indigenous people began in 1537 with Sublimus Deus from Pope Paul III, responding to pleas from Dominican missionary bishop of Chiapas Bartolome de las Casas. In the modern era, Pope John Paul II leaned on the theological doctrine of the incarnation when he declared at Fort Simpson in the Northwest Territories in 1987 that “not only is Christianity relevant to the Indian peoples, but Christ, in the members of His Body, is Himself Indian.” 

Pope Francis’ commitment to reconciliation has been a constant in his papacy. In 2015 in Bolivia he apologized to Indigenous people in Latin American and his apologies on Indigenous land last year in Canada were part of the same, global sweep of history, said Bolen.

If the 1,600-word statement from the Vatican took seven months to produce, that was in part because the Canadian bishops consulted widely with Indigenous partners as it advised the Holy See on what should be said, said Bolen.

Undoing history is a complicated business, the archbishop said.

“The Church needs to take responsibility where it was responsible, but clearly it’s not the only one responsible for colonization,” said Bolen.  

Bolen’s focus is now on the future.

“What’s needed in the Church is on local levels, in Canada and elsewhere, that we build relations with Indigenous peoples, we listen, we find out how we can support their efforts to revitalize culture and language and traditions. We find out what their critical justice issues are, and find out how to be an ally, how to stand in solidarity,” he said.

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