Vatican rejects 'Doctrine of Discovery'

The Vatican on March 30 announced a formal rejection of a 15th century theory known as the "Doctrine of Discovery." In a statement, the Church said it "repudiates those concepts that fail to recognize the inherent rights of indigenous peoples." The Doctrine of Discovery arose from several Vatican documents, or papal bulls. Key amongst them was the Inter Caetera, issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493. The document effectively granted Spain the right to claim and spread Christianity to newly "discovered" areas unoccupied by Christians.

The Doctrine, which the Vatican now states was "manipulated for political purposes by colonial powers," found its way into the common law of several nations. In the United States, the Doctrine was enshrined in the famous 1823 property rights case of Johnson v. M’Intosh. That opinion, written by Chief Justice John Marshall, subjugated indigenous land claims to those of the US government. In the decision, Marshall stated: "Conquest gives a title which the Courts of the conqueror cannot deny." As a result, US authorities seized large portions of indigenous land and sold it to white settlers. This policy was especially prevalent during the westward expansion of the US in the late nineteenth century.

The Doctrine of Discovery also influenced Canadian law, and First Nations in British Columbia have sued the province to reassert their traditional land claims. The lawsuits have achieved some success. In Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia (2014), the Canadian Supreme Court held that the First Nation had an exclusive right to use and occupy their land. However, the court noted that title to the land was still formally held by the Crown.

Perhaps more damaging was use of the Doctrine in the forced assimilation of indigenous peoples. Canada recently settled a class action lawsuit regarding the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families and placement into the country's widely condemned residential school system.

The Vatican's repudiation comes eight months after Pope Francis' trip to Canada. First Nations leaders welcomed the Pontiff's apology for the Church's involvement in colonization and human rights abuses as a first step toward justice.

From Jurist, March 30. Used wth permission.

See our prior coverage of the Doctrine of DiscoveryJohnson v. M’Intosh and Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia.