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En una conferencia de prensa durante su regreso de Canadá en julio de 2022, el Papa dijo que lo que les sucedió a los indígenas fue un genocidio. Foto: Vatican News

Vatican: The doctrine of discovery is not part of the Catholic Church’s teaching

13 April, 2023 | Ricardo Changala

The doctrine of “discovery” is not part of the Catholic conception, affirmed the Vatican in a public statement in which it explained that the documents related to the subject were written in a specific historical period and related to political issues, but are not part of the Catholic faith since the papal bulls of that time (Dum Diversas (1452), Romanus Pontifex (1455), and Inter Caetera (1493)) did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of indigenous peoples. [1]

The legal concept of “discovery” emerged in the 16th century and consolidated itself in the jurisprudence of the 19th century in the courts of different countries, according to which the discovery of land by settlers granted the exclusive right to extinguish, through purchase or conquest, the title or possession of said lands by indigenous populations.

The Vatican points out that it should be remembered that the Bull Sublimis Deus of 1537, of Pope Paul III, states: “We determine and declare […] that these Indians and all the people that Christians will come to know in the future, even if they live outside the Christian faith, can freely and licitly use, possess and enjoy their freedom and the dominion of their properties, that they should not be reduced to servitude and that everything that would have been done otherwise is null and void.»

The communiqué refers to the fact that, at present, there is renewed dialogue with indigenous peoples, which has helped the Church better understand their values and cultures, as well as become more aware of their past and present sufferings caused by the expropriation of their lands and the policies of forced assimilation promoted by the government authorities of the time, which sought to eliminate their indigenous cultures. [2]

Precisely, a 2014 study presented at the United Nations had argued that the so-called doctrine of discovery originates in papal bulls based on the alleged racial superiority of Christians. The so-called “discovery” has been used as a justification framework to dehumanize, exploit, enslave, and subjugate indigenous peoples and strip them of their most basic rights, laws, spirituality, worldview, as well as their lands and resources. Ultimately, it is the very foundation of genocide.[3]

The General Assembly, in its resolution 67/157 of 2012, had already recognized that the universal realization of the right of peoples to self-determination is a fundamental requirement for effectively guaranteeing and respecting human rights and the preservation and promotion of those rights.

The effects of the doctrine of discovery remain devastating, far-reaching, and intergenerational, as the Special Rapporteur states in his report, noting that the colonial-era doctrine of discovery, combined with the related doctrines of conquest and European racial superiority, was a driving force behind the atrocities committed against indigenous peoples on a global scale, the consequences of which continue to be felt.[4]

The Declaration of the Nations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted in 2007, clearly places itself at the antipodes of the concept of “discovery” since it posits as essential rights the sovereignty and self-determination of indigenous peoples.

In this regard, the same communiqué mentioned reminds us that the Holy See gave its support to the principles contained in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, reaffirming that implementing such principles would improve living conditions and help protect the rights of indigenous peoples, in addition to facilitating their development in a way that respects their identity, language, and culture.

[1] https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/it/bollettino/pubblico/2023/03/30/0238/00515.html#es

[2] See on this website the note “The Pope calls on States to recognize the Indigenous Peoples of the world”, https://www.lacommunis.org/pope-calls-on-states-to-recognize-the-worlds-indigenous-peoples/

[3] Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues thirteenth session New York, 12-23 May 2014. Study on the consequences of the doctrine of discovery for indigenous peoples, including mechanisms, processes and instruments of reparation E/C.19/2014/3

[4] Human Rights Council twenty-first session, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, A/HRC/21/47, 6 July 2012