Vatican rejects Doctrine of Discovery, a move Indigenous people have long urged

Vatican rejects Doctrine of Discovery, a move Indigenous people have long urged
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Pope Francis bows his head behind Indigenous chiefs preparing to perform a traditional dance at a ceremony in Maskwacis, Alta., on Monday, July 25, 2022. The Vatican has rejected the Doctrine of Discovery a year after Pope Francis met with Indigenous groups from Canada and delivered his first apology for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools.

The Vatican has rejected the Doctrine of Discovery a year after Pope Francis met with Indigenous groups from Canada and apologized for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system.

A statement from the Vatican on Thursday said the papal bulls, or decrees, “did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples.”

The 15th-century doctrine was connected to the idea that lands being colonized were empty, when in fact Indigenous people had long called them home.

“These racist legal doctrines have allowed Canada to unilaterally claim sovereignty over our peoples and our lands and further used it as an excuse to commit genocide,” Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 73 First Nations in Saskatchewan, said in a statement.

“Today, the Vatican finally said what our peoples have always known.”

More than 500 years ago, popes began issuing the first of a series of edicts, known as papal bulls.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which investigated residential schools in Canada, said these bulls helped shape the political and legal arguments that became known as the Doctrine of Discovery.

The commission’s final report included a call to action for all religious denominations “to repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples, such as the Doctrine of Discovery.”

Last March, First Nations, MĂ©tis and Inuit groups went to Rome to meet with Pope Francis. Francis apologized for the church’s role in residential schools, but delegates also told him the doctrine must be rejected.

The pontiff travelled to Canada in July for a six-day tour, during which apologized again for residential schools and was criticized for not addressing the papal bulls. Throughout his stops in Alberta, Quebec and Nunavut, people held signs and yelled for the Pope to reject the doctrine.

Donald Bolen, the Archbishop of Regina, said Indigenous people made it clear that the Vatican needed to address the issue.

“The language in those bulls is deeply wounding and problematic, and there was a desire for the Holy See to address it, and they have.”

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, of which Bolen is a member, said in a statement that it’s grateful Indigenous organizations urged the move. The conference signed a statement calling for the church to reject principals associated with the doctrine in 2016.

Bolen said the Vatican’s statement Thursday shows Francis was listening to Indigenous people during their meetings at the Vatican and throughout his time in Canada.

“I think there’s no doubt that it’s a response given at the request of Indigenous people in Canada,” he said.

The statement from the Vatican, however, said the doctrine is not part of the teachings of the church and the documents were “written in a specific historical period and linked to political questions.”

The Vatican said the contents of the documents were manipulated for political purposes to justify “immoral acts against Indigenous Peoples.”

“It is only just to recognize these errors, acknowledge the terrible effects of the assimilation policies and the pain experienced by Indigenous peoples, and ask for pardon.”

Cody Groat, who is Mohawk from Six Nations in Ontario and an Indigenous studies professor at Western University, said implying that the church never advanced the doctrine shifts the blame.

Groat, who is also seeking to be the federal NDP candidate in a rural Ontario riding, said the statement suggests the Vatican recognizes it is in “a period of global reckoning” and had to take this step “in order to stay relevant.”

Federal Justice Minister David Lametti tweeted Thursday that advocacy by Indigenous leaders and communities led to the Vatican’s statement, calling it “a doctrine that should have never existed.”

“This is another step forward,” he said.

Kelly Geraldine Malone and Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 30, 2023.

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