The call to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery

by Mary Ann McGivern

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On the back wall of the stone cottage behind the Bolduc House in Ste. Genevieve, Mo., the Doctrine of Discovery is posted. It was published on May 4, 1493, as the Inter Caetera Papal Bull by Pope Alexander VI. There is a petition to Pope Francis to rescind it on the Romero Institute's website.

This doctrine states that any Christians who come to a land and find people dwelling there who are not Christians may take their land and confiscate all their possessions. Essentially, it permits Europeans to take the land and enslave the people of Asia, Africa and the Americas. It was incorporated into U.S. law in 1823 by the Supreme Court in the case Johnson's Lessee v. McIntosh.

Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Marshall observed that Christian European nations had assumed "ultimate dominion" over the lands of America during the Age of Discovery, and that upon "discovery," the Indians had lost "their rights to complete sovereignty as independent nations." According to the Bolduc House website, U.S. courts used the Doctrine of Discovery as late as 1970 to adjudicate issues relating to Native American tribes.

My religious community, Loretto, has taken on this issue. The 2012 Loretto Assembly resolved to: Call on the pope to rescind these papal bulls; prepare educational/informational material for the Loretto Community, the Loretto schools and our associate groups; collaborate with those groups with whom we share a common purpose intercongregationally and interdenominationally as well as with environmental and Native American groups to help create a groundswell of support for this indigenous peoples' movement. We sent requests to Pope Benedict XVI and to Pope Francis to rescind the doctrine.

Then in 2014, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious also resolved to call upon the pope to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery. And the Romero Institute will attempt to present the issue to Pope Francis while he is in the United States. Surely it is time.

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