Doctrine of Discovery: its importance for NZ Catholics

Doctrine of Discovery

One of the strong social movements of our time is the growing recognition of indigenous (first/original/ aboriginal peoples) in countries that have taken their contemporary form following a period of colonisation by European powers.

The ways colonisation took place varied according to place and time but usually involved the imposition of European power over local peoples and the establishment of economic and political systems benefitting the colonisers.

The ‘doctrine of discovery’ refers to a set of decisions and permissions given by the Popes of the late 15th century to the first main European colonising powers – Spain and Portugal.

The papacy court in pre-Reformation times was a kind of ‘high court’ of Europe, and these decisions were meant to avoid conflicts among Catholic rulers.

The decisions permitted ‘discoverers’ from Europe to take possession of lands that were ‘found’ and to bring the Catholic Christian faith to them.

The conquest of the West Indies, Mexico and Peru was accompanied by clergy as chaplains to the conquerors and bringers of Catholicism to local peoples.

Underlying these documents was a presumption of the superiority of European (white) ways and technology and of the Christian faith, especially in the form of Catholicism.

It was assumed that the arrival of all these things would greatly benefit local peoples.

Although later papal documents of the 16th century took a different approach –in the light of what colonisers were doing in the ‘New World’ – the practical effects of the initial conquest and colonisation (and the attitudes underlying them) continued.

The colonisation of Aotearoa by Britain was relatively late from the 1840s onward.

There had been a realisation by some in England (e.g., the influential anti-slavery ‘Clapham sect’ group) of the damage done by British colonisation in other places. Hence the move to seek a Treaty with the ‘independent tribes of Niu Tireni’ (cf: 1835 Declaration of Independence).

Captain Hobson gathered chief’s signatures to allow British settlement.

However, when in May 1840, he proclaimed British sovereignty over NZ (not conceded in the Treaty’s Māori version), it was by virtue of the Treaty for the North Island and by ‘right of discovery’ for the South and Stewart Islands.

The ‘doctrine’ was most notably summarised by US Judge Marshall in 1823 and has underpinned colonial and post-colonial legal systems in various countries.

It has come under strong attack, especially in Canada and New Zealand, as indigenous peoples reclaim lost rights.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is part of this repudiation. In Aotearoa, the Waitangi Tribunal and constitutional change are another part of the process of recognising indigenous peoples.

Since the late 1970s, popes have sought to meet indigenous people, offer apologies for Church practices that facilitated their subjugation and recognise indigenous spiritualities (cf Pope John Paul II in Auckland 1986, also Querida Amazonia, 2020).

Recently, the Vatican declared that the ‘doctrine of discovery‘ is not part of the Church’s official teaching but came from a particular historical political and legal situation.

This should remove any question that the Church supports colonialist practices, including where they might still occur.

Some campaigners against the doctrine have claimed the declaration is a way for the Church to absolve and distance itself from the racist assumptions and consequences of these documents. They have said there should not just be a repudiation of them but a formal rescinding plus clear action for redress.

What does the doctrine mean for pastoral ministers in Aotearoa NZ, today?

It means we continue to recognise the historical exclusion of Māori in Aotearoa, the importance of te Tiriti o Waitangi and the role of the Church in safeguarding the place of that Tiriti.

Other steps

  • learning good pronunciation of te reo as an official language of the country;
  • reading some good histories of this land;
  • learning the Māori names for objects, birds, and plants;
  • learning parts of the Mass in te reo; and
  • act against colonial practices.

In recent years we Catholics have been called to put a particular emphasis on the important work of decolonisation (cf, for example, Querida Amazonia nn. 9-19; Pope Francis’ message to a workshop on Colonisation, Decolonisation, Neo-colonialism in the Perspective of Justice and the Common Good).

Decolonisation is the process of freeing an institution of colonisation’s social, economic, and cultural impacts.

This involves our way of thinking and acting towards one another, and it is not simply about political independence.

This includes holding meaningful and even uncomfortable conversations about how the Church has been an instrument of colonisation and racism.

This could also mean kōrero on the rights of the indigenous all over the world and what the Church teaches about the dignity of all peoples

  • Gerard Burns is the Vicar General in the Archdiocese of Wellington
  • First published in Launch Out Letters. Republished with permission.
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