People have been asking me what I think about the recent apologies of Pope Francis. Some were complaining it did not cover everything he ought to have covered. Others told me they hate apologies. I have been resisting a reply as I consider an answer. I know this is not like me. I usually allow whatever inane thought has entered my head to plop out ungraced. This time I wanted to do better. I am glad I waited because on his second last day in Canada, Pope Francis made a momentous statement, which in my opinion dwarfs all else. He got to the root of the problem and he apologized for that and said we must do better. Frankly, it was a shocking statement that many have not taken note of. He has effectively ended, in words at least, more than 500 years of an important plank of white supremacy and hate that has been a stain on western civilization that urgently required redress.
First, about the apology I don’t claim the right to tell indigenous people what form of apology they should accept or what wording is good enough. That is for them to decide. I think however I can comment on what Pope Francis has done to remove a deep dark stain on so-called western civilization for the benefit of beneficiaries of that civilization like me. Pope Francis made some astounding remarks about the foundational notion of white male supremacy and its corollary doctrine of discovery. Few have commented about that.
I have often said that Pope Francis is my Pope. I have never been taken seriously in comments because I not a member of any organized religion and certainly not the Catholic Church. So I have no claim to ownership of the Pope. Part of the reason I have been opposed to organized religion is that it has been used for so long to buttress the thinking that produced the Doctrine of Discovery. That doctrine is based on an underlying philosophy of white male supremacy, which is the real original sin.
The Doctrine of Discovery is a doctrine as vile as vile can be and it was produced in the name of religion by Catholic Popes starting in the 15th century. In those days statements by the Pope were important. They were almost like laws. To many they were laws because all of Europe was Catholic. But on July 28, 2022, in Canada, the current Pope poked a hole in it so deeply that it is bound to sink. This was a truly historic moment. I applaud the Pope.
To begin with, we should note that the doctrine of discovery (or discovery doctrine) is a concept of public international law that was produced by the Roman Catholic Church and adopted by the European monarchs in order to justify and legitimize the colonization and evangelization of lands outside of Europe. These lands were often ludicrously described as “uncivilized” or “savage.” The inherent dehumanization of non-Europeans in the eyes of Europeans was used to legitimize the theft of foreign lands by Europeans by giving a thin veneer of legality and religion to that organized theft.
This doctrine was used from the mid-fifteenth century to the mid-twentieth century to permit European countries to seize land that was inhabited by indigenous people around the world and in particular in the recently contacted western hemisphere.
The idea of the doctrine was that any land not occupied by Christians could be seized by Christians for their own uses. This idea was the basis of colonization. It really was doctrine invented by Popes and European monarchs to try to justify (weakly) their invading, of the western continent, and raping and pillaging its inhabitants in the name of the Catholic Church and European monarchs. it really was a doctrine that authorized exploitation.
The doctrine was often promulgated by written statements made by Pope that were called Papal Bulls. A papal bull is a type of public decree, such as letters patent, or charter issued by a pope of the Catholic Church. It got the name from the lead seal the Popes used to make their statements look official. Most of now think of them as bullshit, but actually for centuries those decrees were very important and had serious consequences attached to them because of the prestige of the Popes.
The doctrine emerged during the Age of Exploration. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued what was called, most appropriately, a Papal Bull, Dum Diversas that authorized Portugal to conquer non-Christian lands seize the inhabitants as slaves and consign them to perpetual servitude. Is it possible to imagine a viler doctrine that this? In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued another Papal Bull that permitted Spain to claim the lands visited by Christopher Columbus on behalf of his patron Spain. In 1494 the two competing Christian nations concluded the Treaty of Tordesillas that divided the western “New World” between the two of them. As if they had the right to do that. It showed the extreme arrogance of Christian Europeans that gave them the confidence that they could own and control the world while ignoring the wishes of people that already lived there.
France and England, for a while at least, also used the Doctrine of Discovery to justify their dubious claims in the New World even though they refused to recognize the Spanish-Portuguese hegemony. Francis I of France said he wanted to see the “testament of Adam” that divided the world between Spain and Portugal. When Christian nations quarrelled over disputed western territories, they sometimes asked the Pope to arbitrate the disputes. Inhabitants of course, being savages, had no say in what was decided. Their lives did not matter.
After the English Reformation when England no longer recognized the supremacy of the Papal Bulls, it retained the Doctrine of Discovery to sanction its own bloody deeds. It was just that after that the English monarchs had the supreme authority, rather than the Pope but it did not cede jurisdiction to local people. The effect on indigenous people was the same.
In 1537 Pope Paul III issued a Bull Sublimis Deus that forbade the enslavement of the indigenous people of the Americas that he called the “Indians of the West and the South.” The Pope stated that “Indians” are fully rational human beings who have the rights to freedom and private property even if they are not Christians. That was a radical idea. It was so radical that European monarchs often ignored it.
The Doctrine of Discovery continues to this day to be referred to in American and Canadian judicial decisions and it continues to influence American treatment of indigenous people. The doctrine was expounded upon by judges of the U.S. Supreme Court in a series of cases most notably Johnson v. M’Intosh in 1823. In that case, demonstrating the poverty of American common law, the Supreme Court Justice John Marshall had large real estate holdings that would have been adversely affected if the case were decided in favor of one of the litigants, Johnson, so rather than recusing himself, Justice Marshall wrote the decision of the unanimous court in a manner that protected his personal interests. The court ruled that the ownership of land came into existence by virtue of discovery of the land which in that case was discovered by Great Britain and then lawfully transferred to the United States, again without consent by the indigenous inhabitants.
The Doctrine of Discovery has been roundly criticized as socially unjust, racist, and in violation of basic human rights. In 2012, the UN called for a mechanism to investigate land claims. Speakers at the UN conference noted how the doctrine had been used repeatedly over centuries to allow for the transfer of land from indigenous people to colonizing authorities or dominating nations without consent of the indigenous.
Numerous religious bodies have condemned the doctrine, including the Episcopal Church in 2009, the Unitarian Universality Association in 2012, the United Church in 2013, the Christian Reformed Church in 2016, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) also in 2016 and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In November 2016, a group of 524 clergy publicly burned copies of Inter caetera, a specific Papal Bull that underpinned the doctrine as part of the protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline protests near Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
The Canadian bishops have called on the Catholic Church to issue a new Doctrine of Discovery and stated that they “reject and resist the ideas associated with the Doctrine of Discovery in the strongest possible way.”
Finally, in July of 2022, without mentioning the doctrine specifically, Pope Francis during his penitential pilgrimage to Canada made some profound comments that seriously undermine the legitimacy of the doctrine. It really was a historical moment. I will get to that in my next blog post.