Catholic 101: The Doctrine of Discovery

by | Oct 24, 2022 | Current Events, Global Catholicism, Papal News, Pope Francis

During the period that Saint John Paul II was pope from the late 1970s through 2005, he apologized and asked forgiveness for the history of Christian slave-holding and for the injustices inflicted by colonizing Christians. In the same spirit, Pope Francis traveled to Canada this past summer in order to ask forgiveness from native peoples for the sins committed against them by Catholics. He did this most especially for the activities of Church-led boarding schools that were initiated by the Canadian government in the 1880s. These schools functioned as institutions of assimilation to European Christian ways of life while also stripping away the cultural and religious traditions of native children. This is not to say that the schools did not provide important educational benefits, and some who attended say that they had good experiences there. Undoubtedly, most Catholic nuns, brothers, and priests who ran these schools had good intentions, but the overall aim of these schools undercut the Gospel message, and ironically, even the long-standing Catholic position that the parents are the primary persons responsible for making decisions about the education of their children. The boarding schools came into the spotlight in the media sparked by the recent discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at one of these residential schools. Unmarked graves were discovered at several other boarding schools in the past. During Pope Francis’ visit, a large sign was displayed that read, “Rescind the Doctrine of Discovery.” This has prompted many to ask: What is this doctrine? Does the Catholic Church have such a teaching? 

While the Church has no formal doctrine by the name of the “Doctrine of Discovery”, it does have documents (called papal “bulls”) that were issued by popes (mostly) in the 1400s dealing with European exploration of lands beyond Europe’s borders. The most well-known of these bulls mediated the dispute between Spain and Portugal over which areas of the globe were open to each for exploration and “discovery” of new lands. The pope assigned a certain portion of the world to Spain and another to Portugal referred to as the “papal donations”. The papal bulls that in which these “donations” are articulated are the roots that many today point to as the very foundation of the “Doctrine of Discovery.” This doctrine is completed – in the view of those naming it – when it was referenced in the laws of various countries when they dealt with property law. I will flesh this out more below, but first, we will talk a little more about papal bulls from this pivotal period of the 1400s onward. 

It was debated at the time they were issued and even today, however, what the pope was actually “giving” to these countries when the documents were issued. For example, the king of Spain argued that the pope granted full rulership over the lands “discovered.” Others have argued that what the pope intended was to grant either Spain or Portugal the rights to engage and evangelize the peoples there. In any case, what is absolutely clear from the documents is that the Church was very interested in spreading the Christian faith. This message is all over these documents. 

We also have many documents issued by the pope that condemn injustices against native peoples stretching back to 1434, very early in the European colonial period. Consider some of the condemnations of Pope Eugene IV in the 1430s. During that period, the Portuguese were raiding the Canary Islands (off of the west coast of Africa) for slaves. The pope demanded their freedom twice in 1434 in two separate bulls, which is almost 200 years before the first slaves landed in 1619 in what is now the USA.  Yet, in 1435, Pope Eugene insists in the document Sicut Dudum that those who have 

deprived the natives of their property, or turned it to their own use, and have subjected some of the inhabitants of said islands to perpetual slavery, sold them to other persons, and committed other various illicit and evil deeds

against the natives should “desist”. The penalty for not doing so was excommunication, essentially being kicked out of the Church and risking one’s eternal soul. Given such condemnation,  it’s difficult to know what papal documents intended to “give” to Spain and Portugal in the “donation” bulls.

Fast-forwarding a few hundred years, as European colonies became countries, indigenous peoples’ land rights became an issue. In the United States, the 1823 court decision Johnson v. McIntosh wrote into law justifications for colonizing land, much of which was land inhabited by natives. The chief justice, John Marshall, cited a 300+ year-old papal document (Inter Caetera, from 1493) as a justification for the court’s decision. The US is an historically Protestant nation and government officials at that time, in the best case scenario, were skeptical of Catholics, if not discriminatory against them. Marshall’s allusion to a papal document was not a matter of an alliance between the Catholic pope and the US Supreme Court. Nevertheless, Justice Marshall did see this document as supporting the court’s decision. The same thing was happening across the northern border;  American legal scholar, Robert Miller, holds that Canada has cited the Johnson v. McIntosh court decision about 70 times with regard to property law

The “Doctrine of Discovery”, then, first refers to statements by popes which divided land between Spain and Portugal, though what that exactly meant was somewhat ambiguous. Second, these statements were considered when laws were made by some countries that were former European colonies. These laws enabled governments to claim the land of indigenous peoples. This occurred a few hundred years after the statements by popes and independently of any formal coordination between the Catholic Church and these countries. The “Doctrine of Discovery” is the leveraging of the idea of discovery to argue for and put into law a claim on and right to indigenous lands. It has no current and actively sustained legal connection between popes and the countries which employed papal documents to support their claims on indigenous lands.

How should Catholics think about the call to revoke the “Doctrine of Discovery?” Certainly, once something becomes a matter of secular law, the Church has no ability to revoke the application of this “doctrine”. But more pertinently, what do we make of the Church’s statements from the 1400s dividing up territory between Spain and Portugal, even considering the ambiguity of the “giving”? 

These papal documents have already been, if not revoked, then at least contested by its own official teaching. The papal bulls to Spain and Portugal regarding division of land took place from the mid-1400s to the early 1500s. Following this period, there were a slew of papal proclamations condemning maltreatment of native peoples. One of the strongest of these came by the hand of Pope Paul III in 1537 in his bull entitled Sublimus Dei

We define and declare . . . that, notwithstanding whatever may have been or may be said to the contrary, the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.

Similar statements by various popes followed, spread throughout the next few centuries, sometimes condemning dispossession of native land, sometimes condemning the enslavement of natives, and sometimes both: in 1591 with respect to the Philippines; in 1622 in the modern-day Dominican Republic; in 1639 in Paraguay and Brazil; in 1741 in Brazil; in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna; in 1839 (denouncing  the slave trade); in 1888 (as a general denunciation of slavery). This does not mean that these directives were always followed or that they were always interpreted so as to have the greatest effect. For instance, the 1839 denunciation of the slave trade was interpreted by some US bishops as condemning the slave trade but not slavery itself. Further, the history of papal documents (especially in the 1400s) and the Catholic Church in general is more complex than we can address here. Suffice it to say that the basic position of the Church before the late 1800s was to allow for slavery in certain circumstances, primarily the enslavement of the aggressors by those fighting to defend themselves.

Second, from a Catholic perspective, what has been termed the “Doctrine of Discovery” is somewhat different then what Catholic Church theology has come to understand by the term “doctrine”. For example, Catholic doctrine has put forth certain general conditions about what makes war justifiable and what the nature of the resurrected body will be. The literal meaning of “doctrine” is simply “teaching”, but the Catholic Church has developed a more technical meaning for it. A doctrine must: 1) be on faith or morals and 2) be able to be applied generally, across historical periods. Obviously, the papal donation bulls have implications for faith and morals, but the “papal donation” bulls clearly deal more with legal issues about privileges to Spain and Portugal at a particular place and time. This is made clear by history itself by the fact that in 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas (between Spain and Portugal), replaced the papal document, Inter Caetera. This is not to say that this document did not have some type of lasting effect but that any specific church doctrine that is so dependent upon historical variability does not have the capability of rising to the level of a general principle on faith and morals that can be held in a lasting way. To return to the example above, the doctrines concerning what makes war justifiable or what the nature of the resurrected body will be have been held through broad swaths of historical change.

Pope Francis has already said that the Vatican will respond to the “Doctrine of Discovery,” the only question is how it will respond. Any response it makes will probably address the contemporary situation more than it will the technical sense of what is meant by “doctrine” in Catholic theology. It will likely speak to the pain and suffering of native peoples. This is partially because of what has been discussed above about what qualifies as “doctrine” in the Catholic sense of the word. It is also because most people are far more concerned (and rightly so) with acknowledging the great harms brought upon native peoples than they are with adjudicating the connections between remote papal statements of uncertain meaning and legal systems that have no legal connection to the Vatican. The documents in question spoke to Spanish and Portuguese regimes approximately 500 years ago. But the reality is that, regardless of all of this, many Christians looked upon “papal donation” bulls as justifications to dispossess indigenous peoples of their lands, and the effects to this very day are heartbreaking. This is what, I think, will be the central concern of the Vatican’s/Pope Francis’ upcoming document.


Image: Christoper Columbus arrives in America by Gergio Deluci <Wikimedia Commons>.

Edited 2:52PM, 29 October 2022