Could Pope Francis revoke the 15th-century ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ used to justify colonizing Indigenous peoples?

By Ricardo da Silva SJ, 4 August 2022
Pope Francis meets with indigenous people whilst addressing authorities, diplomats and indigenous in Quebec, during his 37th Apostolic Journey. Image: Vatican News


“RESCIND THE DOCTRINE.” These were the words written in bold red and black letters across a white banner that stretched across the front of the sanctuary of the Basilica of St. Anne de Beaupré in Quebec moments before Pope Francis presided at Mass there. It was the second Mass of his visit to Indigenous Peoples in Canada to apologize for the deplorable abuses committed over more than a century in residential schools under the Catholic Church’s watch.

This bold demonstration, which was televised and broadcast around the world, sharpens the demands for Pope Francis to make a public statement in Canada that would rescind what is known as the “doctrine of discovery.” Now, the seeming absence of any mention of the doctrine in the pope’s days in Canada could threaten some of the good will, reconciliation and healing brought by this momentous time in the Vatican’s relations with Indigenous People.

Many Indigenous Peoples in Canada appear to have received well the apology made by Pope Francis on the first day of his pilgrimage of penance in their lands. But as the apology—and the applause and shouts expressed each of the four times the pope said “I am sorry” in his speech on that day—begins to settle, Indigenous communities are finding space to reflect on that historic moment and digest its contents. Some are now asking what is still left for the pope to say before he returns to the Vatican. And with that have come louder, more visible—even angry—demands for Francis to condemn these instructions given by two popes in three letters to the kings of Portugal and Spain during the Imperial Age that make up the so-called doctrine of discovery. The legacy of these papal edicts has had a devastating historic impact on Indigenous communities; they have attacked Indigenous traditions and practices and threatened even legal claims to what Indigenous Peoples believe are their rightful lands.

But why is it so important for the pope to make a public pronouncement to rescind this doctrine? In fact, some would argue it has already been rescinded by the church. Has it? Is that enough?

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Ricardo da Silva, S.J., is an associate editor at America Media.

With thanks to America and Ricardo da Silva SJ, where this article originally appeared.


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