Māori Council wants Pope to apologise for colonisation of NZ

doctrine of discovery

The executive director of the Maori Council, Matthew Tukaki, has written to Pope Francis, calling for “an accounting of the trauma” the Vatican has caused and a repudiation of the doctrine of discovery.

While not addressing the colonisation of Aotearoa specifically, popes have on several occasions repudiated and apologised for the doctrine of discovery going back as far as 1537.

What is the doctrine of discovery?

The Doctrine of Discovery and the attendant idea of terra nullius do not have a precise definition.

Essentially the idea is this: that sovereignty and land ownership were transferred to European Christians simply by dint of their arrival in the “New World.”

Papal bulls issued by Pope Nicholas V Dum Diversas in 1452. and Pope Alexander VI issued Inter Caetera in 1493  provided the legal and political justification for European monarchs to conquer and claim lands inhabited by indigenous peoples.

“It is a shameful blight not only on our history here in New Zealand but right across the first nations world where an old, archaic and quite frankly outdated document is not repudiated by the Vatican,” Tukaki says.

Apologies and repudiations have been made:

Pope John Paul II

  • In 1992 in Santo Domingo on the 500th Anniversary of Christopher Columbus landing there, Pope John Paul II confessed and begged forgiveness for the sins of the Church in the Spanish conquest of America.
  • He repeated a similar confession March 12, 2000, when, kneeling at the Holy Doors of the Great Jubilee. He begged forgiveness for Catholics who had violated “the rights of ethnic groups and peoples, and [for showing] contempt for their cultures and religious traditions.”

Pope John XXIII
Pope John XXIII’s 1962 encyclical Pacem in Terris pointed toward the United Nations and its role in protecting human rights, says Fr. Michael Stogre, author of That the World May Believe: The Development of Papal Social Thought on Aboriginal Rights.

“Subsequent teaching, particularly from Vatican II on, has certainly abrogated that earlier teaching,” Stogre said.

Pope Paul III
In 1537, Pope Paul III issued a bull Sublimus Dei in which he stated: “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.”

This bull is controversial because it’s unclear whether it was ever promulgated outside the Vatican.

In Medieval and Renaissance Europe it fell to popes to issue bulls, but it was the job of kings to promulgate and enforce them in their kingdoms.


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