Doctrine of Discovery: How the 500-year-old Catholic decree encouraged...

Doctrine of Discovery: How the 500-year-old Catholic decree encouraged colonization

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The papal Doctrine of Discovery was used to justify colonization in the name of Christianity—and eventually became embedded in U.S and international law.

Published July 22, 2022

9 min read

Louise Large thrashed and screamed, fighting the black-robed nuns who held her tightly while speaking in a language she couldn’t understand.  As she watched her grandmother walk away, the young Cree girl realized she’d been left at the Blue Quill, a residential school for Indigenous children in Alberta, Canada. Afterward, she said in a 2011 testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, “I just screamed and screamed for hours.”

Soon, Large realized that she must adhere to a strict schedule at the school that revolved around Christianity, which she was now expected to practice. The children prayed so much, she said sarcastically, that they all got “boarding school knees”—joints turned callused and creaky because of the schools’ forced prayers.

Large was living out the legacy of the colonization of Canada, whose government forced more than 100,000 First Nations children to attend residential schools that stripped them of their Indigenous identities and attempted to convert them to Christianity.

(Residential school survivors reflect on a brutal legacy.)

In the 21st century, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission would uncover the history of the schools and their effects on Indigenous Canadians. Along the way, it documented how a centuries-old religious doctrine enabled the founding and operation of schools that caused so much harm.

Ahead of Pope Francis’ week-long trip to Canada that begins on July 24, activists and religious organizations alike have called on the Catholic leader to revoke the “doctrine of discovery”—a series of 15th-century papal decrees that laid the foundation for the European takeover of the New World and the annihilation of Indigenous culture in the name of Christianity. Here’s how those decrees became the legal basis for colonization—and the legacy they have left behind.

Origins of the Doctrine of Discovery

The doctrine has its roots in the early days of the Age of Exploration. Throughout the 15th century, the Roman Catholic Church responded to European Catholic nations’ ambitions to explore and colonize other regions. In a series of edicts known as papal bulls, popes gave those nations the right to take control of other lands, subdue the people who already lived there, and convert them to Christianity.

The most influential of those decrees was Inter Caetera, a papal bull issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493. A year earlier, in 1492, explorer Christopher Columbus had arrived in the Americas on an expedition funded by the Spanish monarchy. Though the purpose of the journey was to find a westerly route to Asian trading centers, it also presented an opportunity for Spain to expand both its kingdom and Christianity’s reach.

Alexander VI was a Spaniard with close ties to the monarchy—and his papal reign was marked with scandals stemming from his greed, corruption, and nepotism. When Portugal complained that Columbus and Spain were interfering with its own ambitions for the New World, the pope issued a document asserting that Spain had the exclusive right to territory west of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands in the mid-Atlantic Ocean.

The encyclical didn’t just give Spain carte blanche to claim lands in the New World. It also linked exploration and colonization to Christianity and conversion. Nations should make it a priority to ensure “that in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself,” Alexander instructed.

(What is colonialism? Read more about its history and harmful legacy.)

The pope’s reasoning drew in part on the emerging concept of terra nullius, Latin for “empty land.” Any place not already occupied by Christians was considered free for the taking by Christian Europeans—regardless of how many people already lived there or the advancement of their civilizations.

How the Doctrine of Discovery became law

As explorers pushed into the New World, the papal bull and the idea of terra nullius fused into a legal concept known as the “doctrine of discovery.” The concept metastasized from the 15th through 19th centuries alongside the aspirations of Spain and other European nations. Eventually, writes legal historian Robert J. Miller, the doctrine had a “world-wide application.”

The doctrine was used to justify everything from the European takeover of most of the Western Hemisphere to the coercive tactics used by missionaries there. Though Pope Paul III in 1537 forbade the enslavement of Indigenous peoples and the seizure of their property, the edict was often ignored.

Even non-Catholic countries like England found inspiration and justification in the doctrine, Canada’s Truth & Reconciliation Committee noted in its final report in 2015. By combining the idea of Christianity as a “civilizing” force with the concept that Indigenous people “simply occupied, rather than owned, the land,” the committee writes, England, France, and Holland joined Spain and Portugal in a seemingly justified Christian takeover of the New World.

Over the years, the doctrine of discovery made its way into U.S. national law. In Johnson v. M’Intosh—an 1823 Supreme Court decision related to a dispute over a parcel of Piankeshaw land in what is now Illinois—the court found that Native Americans had no land rights because of the doctrine. The religion and character of Native Americans, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote, was inferior to Europeans’ “superior genius.”

Fueled by the doctrine and the legal justifications it offered, officials moved   to convert Native people to Christianity and compel assimilation. In 19th-and 20th-century Canada, 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and forced to attend more than 130 residential schools across the country. Around the same time in the United States, hundreds of thousands of Native American children also were forcibly enrolled in at least 367 such schools nationwide. Brutal and often deadly, the schools stripped children of their language, culture, and communities.

(A century of trauma at U.S. boarding schools for Native American children.)

The legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery

In modern times, though, resistance to the discovery doctrine as a legal concept has grown. Spearheaded by Indigenous activists, the movement to repudiate and eliminate the doctrine has prompted lawsuits, protests, and even a 2013 United Nations conference that denounced the doctrine as the “shameful” root of the ongoing marginalization of Indigenous peoples worldwide.

Church groups have also joined the mounting movement; denominations like the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, the Mennonite Church, the United Methodist Church, and the Anglican Church of Canada have all repudiated the doctrine.

Yet the encyclical issued by Pope Alexander VI centuries ago has never been formally revoked—and only a Catholic pope can take that highly symbolic step.

Nor can a formal annulment undo the effects of the doctrine it established. One 2011 analysis found that the number of Native Americans shrank by half within just a few years of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas and Alexander VI’s papal bull. And centuries of being treated as inferior have fueled countless disparities for Native people worldwide.

“These religious ideas became the foundational building blocks of white supremacy and Manifest Destiny that we are dealing with today,” said Syracuse University religion professor Philip Arnold in an article published in January.

The Age of Exploration is over. But even if the pope turns his back on the encyclical that helped foment centuries of colonization, the discovery doctrine’s destructive legacy lives on.  

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