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Vatican formally repudiates "Doctrine of Discovery", which gave the Church's blessing to colonisation

Giovanni Torre -

The Vatican formally repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery on Thursday, the principles established by 15th century papal bulls which gave the church's approval to the theft of land and slaughter and enslavement of colonised people around the world.

The Vatican issued a statement in which it said the bulls (decrees) which formed the basis of the Doctrine "did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples".

The statement said the "doctrine of discovery" is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church, and claimed historical research clearly demonstrates the papal documents in question, "written in a specific historical period and linked to political questions", have "never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith".

It said the documents were "manipulated" by colonial powers "to justify immoral acts against Indigenous peoples that were carried out, at times, without opposition from ecclesial authorities", though it is worth noting the bulls clearly authorised invasion and conquest, and continued: "It is only just to recognise these errors, acknowledge the terrible effects of the assimilation policies and the pain experienced by Indigenous peoples, and ask for pardon."

"Many Christians have committed evil acts against Indigenous peoples for which recent Popes have asked forgiveness on numerous occasions," the Vatican noted.

The Church reiterated Pope Francis's view that the sufferings of Indigenous peoples "constitute a powerful summons to abandon the colonising mentality and to walk with them side by side, in mutual respect and dialogue, recognizing the rights and cultural values of all individuals and peoples".

The statement also referred to the Pope's statement that: "Never again can the Christian community allow itself to be infected by the idea that one culture is superior to others, or that it is legitimate to employ ways of coercing others."

The long-awaited statement from the Vatican came in response to a decades-long campaign from Indigenous peoples for the formal rescinding of the papal bulls that gave ecclesiastical backing to the Spanish and Portuguese kingdoms' imperialism in Africa and the Americas.

The legal concept of the Doctrine of Discovery was given that name in an 1823 US Supreme Court decision. The Doctrine was cited in the US as recently as 2005, in a case involving the Oneida Indian Nation.

In 2015 Pope Francis, the Church's first Latin American pope, apologised to the Indigenous peoples of Bolivia for the crimes of colonialism and the complicity of the church.

"Many grave sins were committed against the native people of America in the name of God," he said.

"I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America."

In July last year, Pope Francis visited Canada and apologised to Indigenous peoples for the residential school system that forcibly removed Indigenous children from their homes, leading to thousands suffering physical and sexual abuse, and premature death.

During this six-day tour he was met with renewed calls for a formal repudiation of the papal bulls.

In Thursday's "Joint Statement of the Dicasteries for Culture and Education and for Promoting Integral Human Development", the Vatican said: "The Catholic Church... repudiates those concepts that fail to recognise the inherent human rights of Indigenous peoples, including what has become known as the legal and political 'Doctrine of Discovery.'"

Assembly of First Nations in Canada former national chief Phil Fontaine, who met with the Pope before his tour of Canada and accompanied him throughout the visit, said the statement was "wonderful" but was not the end of the struggle for justice.

"The Holy Father promised that upon his return to Rome they would begin work on a statement which was designed to allay the fears and concerns of many survivors and others concerned about the relationship between their Catholic Church and our people, and he did as he said he would do," Mr Fontaine told the Associated Press.

"The church has done one thing... Now the ball is in the court of governments, the United States and in Canada, but particularly in the United States where the doctrine is embedded in the law."

Innu Senator Michèle Audette, one of the five commissioners responsible for conducting Canada's National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, told CBC Daybreak she was in disbelief when she heard the statement had finally come.

"It's big... That doctrine made sure we did not exist or were even recognised.… It's one of the root causes of why the relationship is so broken," she said.

The Métis National Council said the Vatican's statement of repudiation signals "a renewed commitment by the Catholic Church to walking together in a good way", and that it would take time to fully understand the statement's "nuances and potential implications, so that they can inform our collective next steps forward".

Among the 94 calls to action issued by Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in June 2015 was a call for all faith groups to repudiate concepts used to justify European dominion over Indigenous lands and peoples. Many denominations have since answered that call.

In September, Canada's First Nations Leadership Council called on then newly proclaimed King Charles III to renounce the Doctrine of Discovery.

The Council, which comprises the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs, the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations, and the First Nations Summit, said the Doctrine dehumanised non-Europeans while empires waged war and stole lands, resources and wealth.

While the Vatican's statement noted "scholars have argued that the basis of the aforementioned 'doctrine' is to be found in several papal documents, such as the Bulls Dum Diversas (1452), Romanus Pontifex (1455) and Inter Caetera (1493)" it provided no confirmation that the bulls themselves have been formally rescinded or rejected.

It did cite a later bull, Sublimis Deus, issued by Pope Paul III in 1537, which 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 Christian faith; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect". By the time this bull was issued, the vast Spanish and Portuguese empires were well entrenched and Indigenous populations in the Americas had been devastated by massacres, slavery and disease.

The Church's statement on Thursday concluded by noting the Holy See gave "strong support" to the principles in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

"The implementation of those principles would improve the living conditions and help protect the rights of indigenous peoples as well as facilitate their development in a way that respects their identity, language and culture," it said.

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