Statement on Doctrine of Discovery at Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (5-21-2013)

Loretto Community Calls for Pope Francis To Publicly Rescind the Doctrine of Discovery

Statement by Sally Dunne, Loretto Community UN NGO Representative

During the 12th Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

May 21, 2013

So many words have been spoken and written over many years about the horrendous and lasting impacts of the Doctrine of Discovery, and there are no new insights that I can offer.  Therefore, I want to share with you this afternoon excerpts from a statement prepared for the Permanent Forum last year which, as you know, had as its priority theme the Doctrine of Discovery.  The statement was written by my friend and colleague, Fr. Kevin Dance, who was the UN Representative from Passionists, International for ten years.  Kevin left New York last summer and returned to his home in Australia.  His paper was one of his last acts as an active member of the NGO Committee on the United Nations International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.  Kevin titled his paper:

“The enduring impact of the religious and secular policies which provided the justification for colonization upon the lives and wellbeing of indigenous peoples.”

Indigenous peoples throughout the world are the living representatives of the world’s oldest continuing cultures. They are also among the most dispossessed and disadvantaged of people. In more than 70 countries in which they live, indigenous peoples are over-represented in all categories used to measure poverty and social exclusion – including life expectancy, decent housing, completion rates for education, health, levels of incarceration, joblessness, and discrimination.

The phenomenon of colonization and settlement of lands in the “new world” from the fifteenth century onwards has been marked by the expropriation of lands, territories and resources of the original inhabitants. Grounded in racism, and reinforced by religious edicts and secular policies, the indigenous peoples were seen as inferior to the European settlers. This evaluation led to the violation of their cultural practices and spiritual expressions. It also permitted the practice of such abominations as the institution of slavery.

Ongoing relationships between governments and traditional peoples in the Americas, Africa and Oceania have as their foundation the ‘doctrine of discovery.’ This doctrine, routinely agreed to by governments, can be traced directly to Papal Bulls issued during the 15th century.

The Pope, at this time, was not only the spiritual head of the Catholic Church, but also the political arbiter of the Holy Roman Empire. The papal decrees justified Spain and Portugal’s dominion over lands occupied for thousands of years by indigenous peoples. They made possible the European age “Discovery” that resulted in the outright theft of vast tracts of land from indigenous peoples.

More than 500 years later these papal decrees still shape the way many people live, think, and relate to indigenous populations. They continue to provide legal justification and lend moral credence for states’ exercise of jurisdiction over traditional peoples. Decisions based on discriminatory notions of the superiority of one race, religion, or any other such grouping over others, continue to negatively affect the lives of people for generations, even centuries.

These attitudes soon became enshrined in law. The U.S. Supreme Court, in 1823, drawing on the notion of cultural superiority ruled in Johnson v. McIntosh that the United States, as rightful successor to various ‘potentates’, had “ultimate dominion” or “ultimate title” over all lands which fall within the claimed boundaries of the United States. This decision was directly linked to earlier documents that commissioned “Christian people” to “discover” and possess the lands of “heathens”. This has since been used to limit Native Americans’ title to their traditional lands to a“right of occupancy” which must bow to the “absolute title” of the United States .  The Johnson case has been used often in the courts of English speaking countries, such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada, to justify the limitation of the title to land of the indigenous peoples within their borders.

Kevin ended his paper with several exhortations – to governments, to citizens of the world, and to the Pope.  He 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.”

One more paper I wish to quote from was written in 1992 by Steve Newcomb, a Native American who is an expert in United States federal Indian law.  His paper ends with these two paragraphs:

As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Inter Cetera bulls on May 3 and 4 of 1993, it is important to keep in mind that the Doctrine of Discovery is still being used by countries throughout the Americas to deny the rights of indigenous peoples, and to perpetuate colonization throughout the Western Hemisphere. To begin to bring that system of colonization to an end, and to move away from a cultural and spiritual tradition of subjugation, we must overturn the doctrine at its roots. Therefore, I propose that non-Native people – especially Christians – unite in solidarity with indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere to impress upon Pope John Paul II how important it is for him to revoke, in a formal ceremony with indigenous people, the Inter Cetera bulls of 1493.

Revoking those papal documents and overturning the Johnson v. McIntosh decision are two important first steps toward correcting the injustices that have been inflicted on indigenous peoples over the past five hundred years. They are also spiritually significant steps toward creating a way of life that is no longer based on greed and subjugation. Perhaps then we will be able to use our newfound solidarity to begin to create a lifestyle based on the first indigenous principle: “Respect the Earth and have a Sacred Regard for All Living Things.”

20 years later, and 2 popes later, Indigenous Peoples around the world still call for a formal papal recission of the papal bulls which constitute the Doctrine of Discovery.  In recent years, we have begun to hear Christian voices repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, issuing formal, public statements of apology and seeking reconciliation.  The United Methodists, the Anglicans, the Episcopalians, the Quakers, the World Council of Churches — these and others have all publically acknowledged the heinous acts committed based on the Doctrine of Discovery philosophy.  Noticeably absent have been voices from Catholic institutions.

The Loretto Community is just now sending a letter to Pope Francis, urging him “to issue a compassionate public proclamation rescinding the Doctrine of Discovery.”  We hope other Catholic congregations and organizations will add their voices and create a groundswell of appeals for the pope to take this action.  And we hope that Francis, as the first pope from the Americas, will be moved to finally address this unfinished business in the spiritual life of the Catholic Church.