Indigenous activists share mixed feelings on Vatican repudiation of Doctrine

Two Indigenous men in regalia stand to the left of Pope Francis, who sits in a wheel chair. Pope Francis arrives for a pilgrimage at the Lac Saint Anne, Canada, on July 26, 2022. The Vatican on Thursday, March 30, 2023, responded to Indigenous demands and formally repudiated the “Doctrine of Discovery,” the theories backed by 15th-century “papal bulls” that legitimized the colonial-era seizure of Native lands and form the basis of some property law today. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, File)

Steven Newcomb, who is Shawnee and Lenape, recalls first writing to the pope in 1992 to ask him to revoke the papal bulls behind the Doctrine of Discovery.

That was Pope John Paul II. Two popes ago.

So when the Vatican released a statement last week saying it repudiated that doctrine — which, backed by a series of 15th-century papal bulls, justified the domination by European Christians of lands already inhabited by Indigenous peoples — Newcomb said he wasn’t terribly surprised.

“I just think it’s fascinating and it’s really great because what it does is it catapults the issue to the world stage in a very prominent manner,” said Newcomb, author of the 2008 book Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute.

But Newcomb, like many Indigenous activists and organizations that have been outspoken about the continuing impact of the Doctrine of Discovery, has mixed feelings about the Vatican’s repudiation.

“They haven’t even begun to come to terms with the true nature of what we’re actually talking about,” he said.

The Doctrine of Discovery has received renewed attention in recent years as Indigenous activists have pushed for action to right the wrongs of colonization, and a number of Protestant — mostly mainline — denominations have issued their own repudiations.

The doctrine was first expressed by Pope Nicholas V in the 1452 papal bull “Dum Diversas,” which — along with subsequent bulls “Romanus Pontifex” and “Inter Caetera” — created a theological justification for Christian rulers to seize the property and possessions of non-Christians.

It was referenced as recently as 2005 in the Supreme Court ruling Sherrill v. Oneida, in which justices held that the repurchase of traditional tribal lands did not restore tribal sovereignty to that land.

Some have welcomed the Vatican’s statement.

The National Congress of American Indians, the oldest and largest organization representing Indigenous peoples in the United States, said Thursday (March 30) it commended Pope Francis and the Catholic Church for the statement released that day by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Culture and Dicastery for Integral Human Development.

The Vatican statement reads in part, “In no uncertain terms, the Church’s magisterium upholds the respect due to every human being. 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 NCAI expressed hope that statement would be the beginning of a full accounting for the legacies of colonialism, not only from the church, but also from governments that have used it to justify the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples.

“We thank the Creator that Indigenous peoples are strong, resilient, full of wisdom, faith, hope, and love, and we stand ready to have difficult conversations about the future and to work together to build off of today’s step forward to bring about meaningful positive change to our people and nations, and for the healing, reconciliation and restoration of all peoples across the globe,” it said.

Others were more reserved.

Renouncing the Doctrine of Discovery was the right decision, according to Deborah Parker, CEO of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. But the Vatican statement downplayed the church’s role in legitimizing the doctrine and lacked accountability for the harm it has caused, she said.

“We demand more from the Catholic Church,” said Parker, who is Tulalip.

Parker, in a statement reacting to the Vatican’s announcement, went on to list a number of demands, including access to documents regarding Catholic-run Indian boarding schools in the U.S.; the return of land on which those schools were built; and support for a bill that would create a Truth and Healing Commission in the U.S.

Mark Charles, a former pastor who co-wrote the 2019 book Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery and ran for U.S. president in 2020 in part to draw the country’s attention to the Doctrine of Discovery, also sees a missed opportunity.

“In what could have been a groundbreaking and historic repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, the Vatican instead released a series of political statements that sought to rewrite history, shield the Catholic Church from legal liability and shift the blame for the Doctrine of Discovery to governmental and colonial powers,” said Charles, who is Navajo.

The statement doesn’t exactly repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, he told Religion News Service. Instead, he said, it defines the doctrine as a legal concept and states it is not part of the teachings of the Catholic Church — that the papal bulls have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith.

The statement, Charles noted, also claims those documents were “manipulated for political purposes by competing colonial power,” in order to justify the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples.

“If you truly see yourself as a representative of Christ to this world, you absolutely not only can do better, but need to do better. And, as a Native, Indigenous man, I will tell you wholeheartedly: Our people deserve better,” Charles said.

Sarah Augustine, co-founder and executive director of the Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery and author of the 2021 book The Land Is Not Empty: Following Jesus in Dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery, is primarily interested in dismantling the legal structure of the doctrine. But, she said, she isn’t sure how the Vatican can say the papal bulls were manipulated for political purposes.

In “Inter Caetera,” Pope Alexander VI writes in part, “Out of the fullness of our apostolic power, by the authority of Almighty God conferred upon us in blessed Peter and of the vicarship of Jesus Christ, which we hold on earth, do by tenor of these presents, should any of said islands have been found by your envoys and captains, give, grant, and assign to you and your heirs and successors, kings of Castile and Leon, forever,” noted Augustine, who is Pueblo (Tewa).

“So how can you say that’s being manipulated by heads of state? I can’t sort of square that,” she said.

Augustine said the statement is a “momentous acknowledgment” by the Catholic Church and something she never thought she’d see in her lifetime. But, she said, she’d stop short of calling it a repudiation.

“I guess I think there is still a ways to go,” she said.

That includes steps toward repair, defined in relationship with Indigenous people, she said.

Newcomb echoed many of the same concerns with the Vatican statement. It also never uses the word “domination,” Newcomb pointed out, when “we’re not just talking about discovery, we’re talking about discovery in order to establish domination where it did not yet exist.”

He sees it as a move in the right direction, though.

“We’re certainly glad that they’ve taken the step, but they need to keep walking,” Newcomb said.

Newcomb has visited the Vatican twice; first, in 2000, when he handed a copy of “Inter Caetera” to a confused Swiss Guard and asked him to pass along to the pope his request — “on the part of Indigenous persons throughout the world,” including the small group of Indigenous people from the Americas he had come with — to formally revoke it.

In 2016, he had the chance to make that request himself and press a copy of Pagans in the Promised Land into the hands of Pope Francis during a papal audience in St. Peter’s Square as part of an Indigenous delegation gathered for what they called the Long March to Rome.

Newcomb told RNS he was reminded of the Jesuit leader who asked him during one of those visits to the Vatican if he believed the pope ever would revoke the papal bulls.

“‘Well, it’s possible,’ I said, ‘but it doesn’t really matter one way or the other,’” Newcomb remembered answering.

The request for the repudiation itself, whether it was ever granted or not, was the focal point that Newcomb said allowed him and others to build momentum and awareness about the Doctrine of Discovery. Now it’s being discussed all over the world.

“Sometimes the importance is in the journey itself,’” he said.


Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

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