Doctrine of Discovery: A scandal in plain sight

This story appears in the The Trail of History feature series. View the full series.
An illustration shows Christopher Columbus standing before the king and queen of Spain, presenting Indians and treasures from the New World in 1493 in Barcelona. (Newscom/World History Archive)

An illustration shows Christopher Columbus standing before the king and queen of Spain, presenting Indians and treasures from the New World in 1493 in Barcelona. (Newscom/World History Archive)

by Vinnie Rotondaro

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In 2009, the Episcopal Church repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery. 

In 2012, The Unitarian Universalist Association followed suit. Other religious groups — the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the World Council of Churches, New York Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, the United Methodist church, to name a few — have also repudiated it. 

But the Vatican has refused to publicly address Catholicism’s role in bringing about the Doctrine of Discovery, or revoke the papal bulls that articulated it. Perhaps, then, it is not surprising to find that most Catholics know almost nothing about it.

Libby Comeaux, a lawyer and co-member of the Loretto Community, recalls the first time the Loretto sisters were confronted by the history. It was January 2012. Comeaux was participating in an environmental conference in the Denver metro area, of which the Loretto community was a sponsor."* 

“A number of Loretto sisters and members were at the gathering,” Comeaux said, “and one of the themes was the rights of nature, public trust, that sort of thing, as it applied to water. And a law professor from Denver University stood up and started giving us some feedback that was fairly uncomfortable to hear. … He was saying, ‘You’re talking about rights of nature as if you invented this term, and you’re Catholics. What do you think about the Doctrine of Discovery? What are you doing about it?’

“I may have been the only Catholic in the room who knew what he was talking about,” she said.

In November 2013, the Loretto community sent a letter to Pope Francis.

The letter called on the pope to “formally and publicly repudiate and rescind the Dum Diversas Bull of 1452, and other related bulls, which grant the Pope’s blessing ‘to capture, vanquish, and subdue the Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ and put them into perpetual slavery and to take all their possession and their property.’ We also call upon the Pope to repudiate and rescind the Inter Caetera Bull of 1493 that granted authority to Spain and Portugal to ‘take all lands and possessions’ so long as no other Christian ruler had previously claimed them. These bulls instilled the Doctrine of Discovery, the papal sanctioning of Christian enslavement and power over non-Christians.” 

The letter stated the papacy had done some positive work regarding the rights of indigenous peoples — such as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s supporting the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and Pope John Paul II’s asking of forgiveness for the misdeeds “of the sons and daughter of the church” — but not nearly enough.

(Recently, Pope Francis asked forgiveness in South America “not only for the offenses of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”)

The Loretto letter included a message from the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Religious Friends (Quakers), which stated:

“You [as Pope] have the power and responsibility to do more, by issuing a new papal bull that formally, directly, unequivocally rescinds and revokes the Doctrine of Discovery and the horrible, cruel, un-Christian language in those bulls that denigrates entire peoples with no justification.”

Comeaux said the Loretto letter was sent to the Vatican and to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. She said the Loretto community received no response from the Vatican. U.S. bishops’ conference president Archbishop Joseph Kurtz sent a note with a “polite thank you for including me,” she said. 

The sisters have contacted Kurtz, who heads the Louisville, Ky., archdiocese, and “he’s expressed interest in getting more information,” she said, “and we’re preparing [that] for him.”

Other groups have called on the pope to address the Doctrine of Discovery. In 2014, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious asked the pope to rescind the doctrine. In June 2015, the Romero Institute, a nonprofit law and public policy center focusing on Native American issues (and named after slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero), did the same. 

From the native perspective, the Indigenous Law Project’s Newcomb, who is Shawnee and Lenape, discussed the issue directly with Vatican officials. 

On May 16, 2007, Newcomb and other Native American representatives presented their case to Archbishop Celestino Migliore, now apostolic nuncio to Poland and then permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, in New York City. 

On July 16, they received a letter from Migliore informing them that subsequent papal bulls had “abrogated” the ones they wanted revoked — including a bull from 1537 that explicitly forbade enslaving “Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians” — and that there was no need to take further action. 

As for the doctrine’s more recent interlacing with U.S. law, “The refutation of this doctrine is therefore now under the competence of American politicians, legislators, lawyers and legal historians,” Migliore wrote.

Comeaux, who is familiar with the correspondence, characterized the letter as exercising “some fancy footwork in canon law.”

“It reads fairly defensively,” she said. “Indigenous scholars, frankly, don’t respect the integrity of the response.”

Why the reluctance? Newcomb attributes it to “denial.”

“There is a difficulty for the church in reconciling those documents and that language to the teachings that are attributed to Jesus in the Bible,” he said. “How in the heck do you have document after document after document [like the papal bulls in question] and then claim that you have this beneficial enterprise that you’ve been promoting throughout the world?”

Those documents had consequences, he said. “It’s not just a bunch of words on paper. When you understand the way in which language constitutes reality — that words and their meanings form the very basis of reality — then what form of reality was being constituted by the issuance of these documents?”

Newcomb said the doctrine’s effects can be seen in “everything that has devastated our nations and peoples, from the loss of our languages, cultures, spiritual traditions, territory. Every part of our existence has either been completely destroyed or destroyed to an extent, taken over. We as native peoples have been taken apart at the seams, as it were.”

What would happen in the U.S. if the pope were to repudiate the bulls that gave rise to the doctrine? 

Probably not much, legally speaking, said Jeffers. “It would just be a gesture,” he said. “It’s so wrapped up in law now, and law has become so divorced from religion, in Western societies at least, that the courts I don’t think are really going to care what the Catholic church says.”

Within the church and without, however, nearly all involved in the effort to repudiate the doctrine agree that the first step toward healing the wounds it inflicted begins with a basic acknowledgment of its history, and the reality it continues to perpetuate — to pull that reality out of the shadows and into the light of day.

*An earlier version of this story inaccurately stated that Comeaux was a convener of a law review symposium at the University of Denver. She was participating in an environmental conference in the Denver metro area.

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

Editor’s note: It may seem like papal statements from 500 years ago are ancient history. But Native American activists and scholars insist that Catholicism's past continues to affect the present. Papal bulls from the 1400s condoned the conquest of the Americas and other lands inhabited by indigenous people. The papal documents led to an international norm called the Doctrine of Discovery, which dehumanized non-Christians and legitimized their suppression by nations around the world, including by the United States. Now Native Americans say the church helped commit genocide and refuses to come to terms with it. This is Part Six of a six-part series on the legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery.

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A version of this story appeared in the Aug 28-Sept 10, 2015 print issue under the headline: Disastrous doctrine had papal roots.

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