Pope must repudiate papal decrees justifying colonisation

Catholic Diocese of Syracuse

US Bishop Douglas Lucia wants Pope Francis to repudiate a series of papal decrees justifying European countries seeking to colonize other nations.

He says papal decrees – called bulls – supporting the “Doctrine of Discovery” (the Doctrine) provided justification for “both political and personal violence against indigenous peoples.”

He wants “a public acknowledgment from the Holy Father of the harm these bulls have done to the indigenous population.”

The Doctrine draws from a series of papal documents dating back to 1452.

These were also included in future documents: Indigenous peoples were read the Spanish conquistadors’ “Requerimiento”, proclaiming their land belonged to Spain and demanding they abide by the monarchy’s and the pope’s authority.

“This particular doctrine has been used to justify both political and personal violence against Indigenous nations, Indigenous peoples and their culture — their religious and their territorial identities,” Lucia says.

As recently as 2005 the US Supreme Court ruled that repurchasing traditional tribal lands does not “unilaterally revive (the tribe’s) ancient sovereignty” over it.

“I’ve been trying to bring attention to this question of why the church, if it really wants to seek restorative justice, can’t just issue apologies,” says David McCallum SJ who alerted Lucia to the historical facts.

A papal bull from Alexander VI’s in 1493, for instance, gave Spanish explorers the freedom to colonize the Americas and to convert Native peoples to Catholicism.

Lucia says last US spring when the US bishops’ conference (USCCB) discussed ministry to Native Alaskans and Native Americans, he asked about residential schools for indigenous children and the Doctrine.

These schools’ legacy has been in the news lately after hundreds of unmarked graves were found at three former schools in Canada.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has asked Francis to apologize — on Canadian soil — for the Church’s role in this.

Up to 60 percent of Canada’s 139 residential schools were run by the Catholic Church. An Indigenous delegation from Canada will meet Francis in December “to foster meaningful encounters of dialogue and healing.”

The USCCB says it is watching the investigation “closely”, pledging to “look for ways to be of assistance.” However,

Lucia says he hasn’t had any reaction from it about his concerns.

Although the Church rescinded the Doctrine centuries ago, this doesn’t address the “enormity of the trauma and generational impact” the teachings had on Indigenous peoples, says McCallum.

There have been various Indigenous delegations to Rome – one in 2016 – to press the Vatican about the Doctrine.

“There have been responses …, but they’re not taking responsibility for anything,” says Steven Newcomb, the Shawnee/Lenape co-founder of the Indigenous Law Institute, who led the 2016 delegation.

Numerous Protestant religious groups have rebuked the Doctrine, as did the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which called on Francis to rescind the Doctrine in 2014.

“Simple apologies are not sufficient,” Newcomb says. “There needs to be a real reckoning.”

Lucia agrees: “Even as a Church we are called to conversion. I think this might be one of those conversion moments.”


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