15th Century Papal Bulls and the Doctrine of Discovery

The Loretto Community passed a resolution at their assembly in 2012 to stand in solidarity with the indigenous peoples of the world and call for the Pope to publicly rescind the Papal Bulls that led to the Doctrine of Discovery. The Doctrine is a legacy of the religious and secular policies that provided the justification for the forced colonization of indigenous peoples and seizure of their lands throughout North America.

In May, Loretto Community UN NGO representative Sally Dunne delivered a statement about the Doctrine and Loretto’s stance at an event during the 12th Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Papal Bulls (formal papal decrees) of the 15th century gave explorers the right to claim lands they “discovered” for the Catholic Monarchs of Portugal and Spain. This led to a treaty between the countries that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered,” claimed, and exploited. If the “pagan” inhabitants could be converted, they might be spared. If not, they could be enslaved or killed.

The Doctrine of Discovery became enshrined in U.S. federal law by the U.S. Supreme Court in a series of decisions, initially in Johnson v. McIntosh in 1823. In his ruling, the doctrine was used by Chief Justice John Marshall to explain and justify the way in which colonial powers claimed “newly discovered” lands during the Age of Discovery. Under it, deeds to newly discovered lands lay with the government whose subjects discovered new territory. The doctrine has been primarily used to support decisions invalidating or ignoring the rights of indigenous peoples to own land in favor of colonial or post-colonial governments.

This Doctrine governs U.S. Indian Law today and has been cited as recently as 2005 in the decision City Of Sherrill V. Oneida Indian Nation Of N.Y.  In addition, U.S. Supreme Court decisions have been cited as precedents by courts in English-speaking countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada to justify denying indigenous peoples their rights to their ancestral lands.

In her statement, Sally quoted Father Kevin Dance, former UN representative of Passionists, International, who wrote a paper on the topic, exhorting governments, world citizens, and the Pope to publicly disavow the original edicts. Dance called upon “Pope Benedict XVI, in recognition of the inherent dignity of all peoples of all backgrounds, to revoke the Papal Bulls,  which continue to be seen by some as institutional support for the misplaced conception that any group of people is inherently subservient to another. Formally revoking the Papal Bulls will be a significant step in the healing process for indigenous communities the world over.”

To read Sally’s full statement, please click here.


/Elaine Riot