A Brief History

Key Elements of the Doctrine of Discovery

The first papal bull (or edict) typically cited as part of the Doctrine of Discovery was Romanus Pontifex, written by Pope Nicholas V in 1455. It affirmed Portugal’s right to claim lands in West Africa. According to an English translation provided in Wikipedia, it reads in part:

“… since we had formerly by other letters of ours granted … faculty to the aforesaid King Alfonso [of Portugal] — to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and 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…”

In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued the bull Inter caetera granting Spain the right to conquer and claim newly found lands to the west, prescribing boundaries. This triggered the start of Catholic missions in what is now North America. According to an English translation of Inter caetera published on the website nativeweb.org, the papal bull states in part:

“Among other works well pleasing to the Divine Majesty and cherished of our heart, this assuredly ranks highest, that in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”

For more details, visit www.doctrineofdiscovery.org, a webste developed by a study group which hopes to influence the Pope to formally rescind the Papal bulls creating the Doctrine of Discovery.

Church Policy Reverses Direction

Past Popes have issued subsequent policies  that condemn mistreatment of non-Christians and prescribe a more peaceful path of conversion. Here are papal statements that followed the Doctrine of Discovery edicts.

Sublimus Dei, issued May 29,1537, is a papal encyclical repudiating the enslavement of Indians and proscribing the proper approach to evangelism.

“We, who, though unworthy, exercise on earth the power of our Lord and seek with all our might to bring those sheep of His flock who are outside into the fold committed to our charge, consider, however, 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. …

“We define and declare by these Our letters, … that, notwithstanding whatever may have been or may be said to the contrary, the said 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.

“By virtue of Our apostolic authority We define and declare by these present letters … that the said Indians and other peoples should be converted to the faith of Jesus Christ by preaching the word of God and by the example of good and holy living.”

In Supremo Apostolatus, 1839, is an Apostolic letter condemning the slave trade, again condemning enslaving Indians.

“We say with profound sorrow – there were to be found afterwards among the Faithful men who, shamefully blinded by the desire of sordid gain, in lonely and distant countries, did not hesitate to reduce to slavery Indians, negroes and other wretched peoples …

“[Previous papal encyclicals] severely and particularly condemned those who should dare ‘to reduce to slavery the Indians of the Eastern and Southern Indies,’ to sell them, buy them, exchange them or give them, separate them from their wives and children, despoil them of their goods and properties, conduct or transport them into other regions, or deprive them of liberty in any way whatsoever …

Papal Apologies

Pope also have issued apologies, without formally repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery. Here are two we have identified.

Pope says sorry for sins of church, The Guardian Newspaper recounts a speech by Pope John Paul II in 2000 making a sweeping apology for the Church’s violence towards Indians and other peoples.

“Saving one of his most audacious initiatives for the twilight of his papacy, John Paul II yesterday attempted to purify the soul of the Roman Catholic church by making a sweeping apology for 2,000 years of violence, persecution and blunders.

“From the altar of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome he led Catholicism into unchartered territory by seeking forgiveness for sins committed against Jews, heretics, women, Gypsies and native peoples. …”

In Bolivia, Pope Francis Apologizes for Church’s ‘Grave Sins’:  The New York Times and other news outlets reported on the Pope’s apology to indigenous peoples in the summer of 2015:

“Some may rightly say, ‘When the pope speaks of colonialism, he overlooks certain actions of the church,’ Francis said. ‘I say this to you with regret: Many grave sins were committed against the native people of America in the name of God.’”

“He added: ‘I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.’”

Formal Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery Still Needed

Still, many people believe the Pope and Catholic Church need to make a formal repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery as one part of addressing the deep damage it has done. Such a statement also could have implications for the Doctrines absorbed into U.S. law. (See Section: Impact on U.S. Law.)

Calls for Repudiation

Indigenous peoples and others continue to call on the Catholic Church to make a formal and explicit statement repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery. Sheldon Wolfchild makes the point powerfully in the documentary film: Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code. The film is based on Steven Newcomb’s book Pagans in the Promised Land and features interviews with Newcomb, co-founder of the Indigenous Law Institute.

Here are other examples:

  • Members of the Onondaga Nation called on the newly elected Pope Francis to take action in 2013, according to an article in The New York Daily News titled: Native Americans to new Pope: Recant the ‘Discovery Doctrine,’ which gave Catholics dominion over New World.
  • The National Catholic Reporter reported on another call for renouncing the Doctrine of Discovery in a 2000 article titled: Indigenous demand revocation of the 1493 papal bull.”
  • A number of Catholic groups have asked the Pope to renounce the Doctrine of Discovery, according to an artcle on the website of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia in Kansas: Thirteen Catholic groups ask Pope Francis to rescind papal bulls from 15th century.
  • The Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia have joined 12 other Catholic groups requesting that Pope Francis issue a formal rescission of the 15th century papal bulls that provide the basis for the Doctrine of Discovery. Joining with the elected leadership of the Concordia sisters to make the request are the Loretto Community, and the elected leadership of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, the 19 member congregations of Dominican Sisters Conference, the Sisters of St Francis (Rochester, Minn.), Sisters of St. Joseph of Philadelphia, Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth (Kan.), the Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes (Fond du Lac, Wis.), Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Casa Loreto, Rome), Sisters of St. Joseph and Associates of Buffalo, N.Y.; Pax Christi International; as well as the 8th Day Center for Justice, which is funded by 34 congregations of religious men and women; and the Franciscan-founded Nevada Desert Experience in collaboration with Chief Johnnie L. Bobb of the Western Shoshone National Council. The membership of the 13 groups includes women and men religious and laypeople.