Featured Image
Pope Francis wears a traditional headdress that was gifted to him by indigenous leaders following his apology during his visit on July 25, 2022 in Maskwacis, Canada. The Pope was touring Canada, meeting with Indigenous communities and community leaders in an effort to reconcile the harmful legacy of the church's role in Canada's residential schools. (Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images)Cole Burston/Getty Images

(LifeSiteNews) — Pope Francis’ Vatican has issued a new statement repudiating three 15th century papal bulls that many Indigenous groups in Canada have accused of paving the way for the European settlement of North America.

The statement, published Monday by the Vatican’s Dicasteries for Culture and Education and for Promoting Integral Human Development, renounced the “Doctrine of Discovery,” a non-doctrinal, political concept found in the papal bulls Dum Diversas (1452), Romanus Pontifex (1455), and Inter Caetera (1493).

“In our own day, a renewed dialogue with indigenous peoples, especially with those who profess the Catholic Faith, has helped the Church to understand better their values and cultures,” the Vatican explained.

“It is in this context of listening to indigenous peoples that the Church has heard the importance of addressing the concept referred to as the ‘doctrine of discovery,'” the statement reads.

Explaining the term, the Vatican continued:

The legal concept of ‘discovery’ was debated by colonial powers from the sixteenth century onward and found particular expression in the nineteenth century jurisprudence of courts in several countries, according to which the discovery of lands by settlers granted an exclusive right to extinguish, either by purchase or conquest, the title to or possession of those lands by indigenous peoples. Certain 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).

The ‘doctrine of discovery’ is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church. Historical research clearly demonstrates that 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. At the same time, the Church acknowledges that these papal bulls did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of indigenous peoples. The Church is also aware that the contents of these documents were manipulated for political purposes by competing colonial powers in order to justify immoral acts against indigenous peoples that were carried out, at times, without opposition from ecclesiastical authorities. 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.

After clarifying the political, and not doctrinal, nature of the “Doctrine of Discovery,” the Vatican quoted Pope Paul III’s 1573 Bull Sublimis Deus, to explain the Church’s true stance on the nature of human dignity with relation to non-Catholic and even pagan cultures:

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.

The Vatican’s statement on the topic follows Francis’ visit to Canada last year, during which he met with numerous indigenous groups and even partook in a pagan ceremony.

While many European settlers did commit morally abhorrent and objectionable acts toward indigenous populations in Canada and elsewhere, as noted by Andrew Boyd in the University of Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal, neither of the bulls Dum Diversas or Romanus Pontifex “concerned the Americas nor the treatment of indigenous peoples.”

“In the moral theology of the time, there was only one form of justified slavery, the capture and indenture of belligerents as prisoners of war, and then only during a just war. Further, these were practical decisions delimited by time and circumstance, not universal moral declarations,” wrote Boyd.

As for the third bull in question, Inter Caetera, Boyd explained it is “more precisely relevant, but its concern is with missionary evangelism, that ‘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 brought to the faith itself.'”

“Utterly absent is any excuse or justification for slavery, the deprivation of properties and freedoms, or inhumane treatment; only the briefest mention is made of trade, and none of land rights,” added the scholar.

To further prove that the Church did not condone the use of these papal bulls to commit atrocities against non-Christian indigenous populations, Boyd referenced multiple official documents issued by Holy Mother Church condemning such acts.

Specifically, Boyd mentioned Pope Gregory XIV’s 1591 condemnation of Spanish-led slavery in the Philippines; Pope Urban VIII’s 1639 condemnation of Portuguese-led abuse of indigenous populations in Brazil, Paraguay and the Amazon; and the Holy Office of the Inquisition’s condemnation of the slavery and mistreatment of West Africans in the 1680s.