Vatican Formally Repudiates Doctrine of Discovery, Acknowledges Harm to Indigenous Peoples

On Thursday, the Vatican officially renounced the Doctrine of Discovery, a set of theories supported by 15th-century papal decrees that authorized the colonial-era confiscation of Indigenous lands and underpin some contemporary property laws.

The Vatican’s statement declared that the 15th-century papal bulls “did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples” and were never viewed as expressions of the Catholic faith.

The statement further explained that these documents were “manipulated” by colonial powers for political reasons “to justify immoral acts against Indigenous peoples that were carried out, at times, without opposition from ecclesial authorities.”

Issued by the Vatican’s development and education departments, the statement emphasized the importance of “recognize these errors,” acknowledging the devastating consequences of colonial-era assimilation policies on Indigenous communities, and seeking their forgiveness.

This statement serves as a reply to the longstanding calls from Indigenous peoples for the Vatican to officially revoke the papal decrees that granted the Portuguese and Spanish kingdoms the religious support to extend their territories in Africa and the Americas in the name of disseminating Christianity.

During a mass near Quebec City, protesters called on the Pope to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery. The Pope acknowledged the need for ‘concrete action’ to mend the relationship with Indigenous people. The Doctrine of Discovery, a legal concept derived from an 1823 U.S. Supreme Court decision, has come to signify that Europeans gained ownership and sovereignty over land because they “discovered” it.

As recently as a 2005 Supreme Court decision involving the Oneida Indian Nation, the concept was cited, with the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg authoring the decision.

During Pope Francis’s 2022 visit to Canada, where he apologized to Indigenous peoples for the residential school system that forcibly removed Indigenous children from their homes, he faced demands for a formal repudiation of the papal bulls.

On July 29, two Indigenous women displayed a banner at the altar of the National Shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, which read, “Rescind the Doctrine,” in bright red and black letters. The protesters were escorted away, and the Mass continued without incident. However, the women later carried the banner out of the basilica and draped it on the railing.