Deeper dimensions in effort to reject Doctrine of Discovery

by Vinnie Rotondaro

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What is the larger social significance of the effort to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery?

Libby Comeaux, a Loretto Community co-member and lawyer who has been working to raise awareness about the doctrine — an international norm with roots in papal bulls from the 1400s that was used to subjugate indigenous people — explores the question in a recent piece for In These Times.

In the article, Comeaux, who interviewed with NCR for an ongoing six-part series about the Doctrine of Discovery, writes that the doctrine, “authorized European ‘discoverers’ to seize the lands and subjugate the peoples found in the Americas and use their labor to extract riches for the wealthy.”

“It set up the very problems that Francis’ environmental encyclical Laudato Si’ aims to solve,” she states.

“When Laudato Si’ looks to traditional church teachings to find an ‘integral ecology’ based on an interconnected web of life, it seems attuned to an indigenous worldview that honors all beings as belonging to Mother Earth,” she writes.

Yet, “Indigenous peoples have suffered over 500 years from intentional decimation of persons, communities and lands, accompanied by forced assimilation into a culture that insults and ridicules their most cherished ethical principles. In the process, by operation of these bulls over time, they are not the only ones who suffer. The entire planetary web of life is being devastated by massive extraction and dumping for profit. Laudato Si’ wants to bring forth a new paradigm that will heal this twin tragedy, but the irony is that the old paradigm finds its roots in these very papal bulls. Traditional indigenous scholars and elders have been asking for papal revocation for over 30 years, to no avail. Francis would be wise to get on with it, without delay.”

Comeaux suggests that solutions to our planetary crisis could be found in the process of rejecting the doctrine. To that end, she lists five suggestions for Pope Francis.

1) He could begin on September 23 at the White House by acknowledging President Obama’s 2010 commitment to official U.S. endorsement of the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This step pledges the United States to the planetary ethic of providing sufficient sovereignty for Indigenous Peoples to protect their ancestral lands and future generations by exercising free, prior and informed consent before any mineral extraction or other insult occurs. As chief executive officer, the President could even transfer the administration of Indian policy from the Department of Interior to the Department of State, which is responsible for implementing treaties.

2) Next, Pope Francis may feel caught in an undertow of the Laudato Si’ wave when he faces the Canonization Mass of Junipero Serra. Serra was an 18th century Spanish Franciscan priest who built the California mission system on the backs of Indigenous Peoples, ambivalent converts who suffered cruel punishment if they tried to escape. Francis could cancel or delay the canonization or, at the very least, explain that the church cannot make converts by insulting and trying to eradicate another group’s religion. He might even announce that he will meet privately in a mutual listening session with traditional (as distinct from converted) indigenous elders, before he returns to the Vatican.

3) When Pope Francis addresses the U.S. Congress on September 24, he could lead by example by finally renouncing and withdrawing the three 15th century papal bulls implicated in the Doctrine of Discovery. Numerous faith communities have urged him to do this. It is something only he can do, because he occupies the office that issued them. It would repudiate the paradigm of domination over nature and Indigenous Peoples that migrated directly from these bulls into U.S. law. It could show our current civil lawmakers how a prominent leader of a worldwide organization takes official action to root out centuries of systemic injustice.

4 ) With this paradigm-shifting step behind him, on September 25 at the UN General Assembly, Francis could make his best effort yet to wake us up from our cultural trance in time to avert the worst of the ecological catastrophes already in progress. He could make a credible plea to all nation states to adopt some form of new paradigm of human restraint to allow nature to restore, heal, and flourish—and for all decisions to be constrained by their ultimate impact on the next seven generations of all species.

5) Returning to his faith community in Philadelphia at the World Meeting of Families, Francis can emphasize the importance of supporting the right of immigrant families and environmental refugees—a large number of whom are indigenous peoples—to stay together as families—announcing, as well, a transparent investigation of the role of the Catholic Church in removing family life and cultural identity from indigenous children during the boarding school era.

In a statement emailed to NCR, Comeaux summed up her thinking:

"Our economic paradigm treats nature like it treats humans," she wrote, “as mere objects to be exploited for wealth or for the labor that makes wealth, without regard to equity among humans or sustainability in nature. We can trace that paradigm through M’Intosh to the papal bulls. Pope Francis can uniquely lead us to the new paradigm announced in Laudato Si’ by publicly revoking those bulls. In the process, he will make the strongest statement yet for full enforcement of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples."

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is]

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