The Vatican’s Repudiation is Not Enough

Sarain Fox and Chelsea Brunelle of the Batchewana First Nation demonstrate outside the mass presided over by Pope Francis at the National Shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, Thursday, July 28, 2022. They hold up a banner that reads "Rescind the Doctrine" and stand in traditional regalia, holding their fists in the air.

CONTENT WARNING: This blogpiece deals with sexual and physical assault of children.

In case you missed it, the Vatican thought it did a thing on Thursday. After an embarrassing confrontation with its own legacy in Canada, followed by a bungled interview that demonstrated the Pope clearly had no idea about the Doctrine of Discovery and its enduring role in rights abuses, and an admission that the Pope was “not briefed” for that interview, they evidently went away and did some homework, and then came back with a formal repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery.

The response to this move is mixed. To be fair, many Indigenous Peoples were asking the Pope to repudiate the Doctrine. Still, it falls well short of what the Vatican could and should do, however, for a couple of reasons.

First of those reasons, is that the Vatican were the ones that codified the racist harm in the first place. Repudiation is a moral rejection, but it does not hold the systemic force that a rescindment does. The set of papal laws, (most notably Dum Diversas, Romanus Pontifex, Inter Caetera, Eximiae Devotionis and Dudum siquidem) that constitute the Doctrine of Discovery as an international legal concept have never been conclusively rescinded, and the system they shaped continues to bear dark outcomes for Non-European, Non-Christian folks around the world to this day. What is required is systemic change, and that comes in the form of rescindment and reparation (we will talk more on the reparation soon). As Doctrine of Discovery scholar Steve Newcombe point out, the papal bulls must be ceremonially and formally revoked in order to systemically undercut the very basis of the arguments of domination which remain to be used against us to this day.

While repudiating such a repugnant set of laws is certainly something any reasonable person or institution can and should do – that’s also not really what the Vatican did.

Here are the first three paragraphs of the Vatican’s statement:

  1. In fidelity to the mandate received from Christ, the Catholic Church strives to promote universal fraternity and respect for the dignity of every human being.
  2. For this reason, in the course of history the Popes have condemned acts of violence, oppression, social injustice and slavery, including those committed against indigenous peoples. There have also been numerous examples of bishops, priests, women and men religious and lay faithful who gave their lives in defense of the dignity of those peoples.
  3. At the same time, respect for the facts of history demands an acknowledgement of the human weakness and failings of Christ’s disciples in every generation. Many Christians have committed evil acts against indigenous peoples for which recent Popes have asked forgiveness on numerous occasions.

As you can see, there is NO clear accountability here for the role the Vatican have played in this issue. There is, in paragraph 1 an assertion of what they strive to do, in paragraph 2 an assertion of all the good things the Popes and Catholic folks have done for Indigenous peoples (gee thanks?), and in paragraph 3 an acknowledgement that “many Christians” have committed evil acts.

The evasion of accountability isn’t really surprising, after all they’ve evaded it for 500 years or so, it’s just slightly more audacious that they’re still evading it even within their repudiation. Nobody is arguing that Christians haven’t committed evil acts before, we are all aware of that. There’s committing an evil act, and then there’s drafting laws which set in train mass human rights abuses around the world for hundreds of years including genocide, and leading to the planet becoming uninhabitable. It’s not the same, obviously, but we are barely a third of the way through the document, and already it’s not clear exactly what the Pope wants us to forgive him for, because according to them, this is all the fault of colonial governments and apparently equitable to what many other Christians do. For the highest Catholic authority, they’re pretty crud at confession.

It doesn’t stop there though – the statement then, in paragraph 6 goes all in on the “wasn’t me” vibe:

The “doctrine of discovery” is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church. Historical research clearly demonstrates that the papal documents in question, written in a specific historical period and linked to political questions, have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith. At the same time, the Church acknowledges that these papal bulls did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of indigenous peoples. The Church is also aware that the contents of these documents were manipulated for political purposes by competing colonial powers in order to justify immoral acts against indigenous peoples that were carried out, at times, without opposition from ecclesiastical authorities. It is only just to recognize these errors, acknowledge the terrible effects of the assimilation policies and the pain experienced by indigenous peoples, and ask for pardon.

Hooooo poi. Ok let’s start with the obvious. The papal bulls WERE DELIVERED BY THE POPE. The “political question” posed by King Afonso, answered by Pope Nicholas V was “Can I go and invade North-West Africa and enslave and kill people, and take their lands and everything they own?” and Pope Nicholas’ answer to that “political question” was “YES, YOU CAN”.

The expression of the Pope IS the expression of the Catholic faith, and the expression of Pope Nicholas V in Dum Diversas was that it was acceptable to:

to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ…and to lead their persons in perpetual servitude, and to apply and appropriate realms, duchies, royal palaces, principalities and other dominions, possessions and goods of this kind to you and your use and your successors the Kings of Portugal.

He then doubled down on it with Romanus Pontifex, extending that entitlement out to all monarchs of Europe, and then numerous Popes, with numerous subsequent edicts, communiques and laws, supported and upheld that entitlement. So I’m not clear on what the “manipulation” is that the current Pope is referring to here because all of those things are a neat checklist of exactly what was done.

The statement by the Vatican tries to separate itself from “colonial powers” as if the Church was not, itself, a colonial power. The strongest clue is in the full name: The Doctrine of Christian Discovery. The conversion of Indigenous peoples to Christianity has always been a functional process of colonization. The domination of Indigenous concepts of sacredness by European concepts of sacredness is a powerful tool of oppression that preys upon the inherent, devout spirituality of Indigenous peoples. Spiritual domination provided the basis for the stripping of our native sacredness, as a precursor to stripping us of our humanity, and human rights – and that has always been at the heart of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. If you look to the proclamations of discovery, read out by the invading forces, often accompanied by representatives of the Church, these proclamations all reference the role of the church, such as El Requieremiento which compelled native inhabitants to “submit to the yoke of the Cross and the Crown”.

Of course, no Catholic defence is complete without a reference to the old chestnut of Sublimis Deus, which makes an entry in paragraph 8:

Numerous and repeated statements by the Church and the Popes uphold the rights of indigenous peoples. For example, in the 1537 Bull Sublimis Deus, Pope Paul III wrote, “We define and declare [ … ] that [, .. ] the said 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 Christian faith; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect”.

I’ve already written to the matter of Sublimis Deus, the long and short of which is that Sublimis Deus never forbade Indigenous oppression, and never forbade the colonial project, it only forbade those acts *as tools of conversion*. Ironically, it was also effectively annulled a year later by Non Indecens Videtur – literally “Let it not be seen as indecent” – meaning that the violent craft of colonization is permissable in the eyes of the Lord – why? Because the most important task is that of conversion. Most certainly (of course) colonial governments are accountable here, but that does not in any way erase the culpability of the Church as well, and it’s bemusing to watch the Cross blame the Crown, while governments also continually frame the Doctrine of Discovery as a “Christian” matter – they are both culpable in this story. The Church developed the laws which granted entitlement to the various Crown governments to establish themselves on native lands, and to exert dominance over Indigenous peoples. Those papal laws were the foundational blocks upon which colonial structures were built. It is imperative that the Church formally and ceremonially rescind those laws.

In 2012 the United Nations issued recommendations for all member states to formally repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery and 11 years later, not one member state has responded to that recommendation. Possibly the greatest value I can see in what the Holy See has done, is that it has started a ball rolling which will hopefully be picked up by other UN member states, who most certainly can and should repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, and where appropriate (ie for colonial member states) also rescind laws, legislation and policy based upon the Doctrine of Discovery.

But let’s not stop there – because 500 years of genocide and dispossession does not just warrant a statement of contrition. The Vatican did not just draw native converts from this project – it also acquired mass wealth through the application of the Doctrine of Discovery, which it retains today. The Catholic Church is one of the world’s largest landowners, with over 144 million acres of land. According to NASDAQ, it manages $64billion in assets, owns $764million in equity, and keeps gold reserves worth over $20million with the U.S. Federal Reserve, in addition to the massive amounts of precious metals that can be found in Catholic artifacts and buildings around the world. According to a 2018 investigation, the Catholic Church in Australia alone is worth around $30billion. Any reckoning that the Church purports to have over its history with the Doctrine of Discovery must come with financial restitution.

While the Canadian government has paid out a “settlement” figure of some $2billion this could easily be matched by the Catholic church in both Canada and the USA, and would still not “settle” the matter, especially given recent investigations that have exposed the catholic church’s role in siphoning away some $30million in trust funds paid to Indigenous families for stolen land – money that was siphoned to pay for the brutal assimilative residential schooling of their stolen children. Here in Aotearoa the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Children in State and Faith-based case is methodically exposing the horrors of generations exposed to the sick practices of church leaders, places like the Marylands Residential School of Ōtautahi, run by the catholic order the Hospitaller Brothers of St John of God, where 21 of the 23 Catholic brothers who worked there faced sexual and physical abuse allegations, including forcing Māori children to carry out cultural performances before sexually abusing them. The victims of that abuse have in many cases gone on to live extremely troubled lives. It has led to suicide, poverty, and lives of crime and further institutionalisation. Meanwhile – the New Zealand Catholic church owns  $169m in property and $40m in financial assets – and in their recent statement of intent in response to the inquiry was that they committed to “Work towards consistency in redress responses between Catholic Church entities”.

The harbouring of abusers by the church, and the concealment of their abuse, is such a longstanding practice around the world, that one could argue the church, too, has set the standard for denial of human rights of Indigenous victims of physical and sexual abuse, a standard that has carried through to colonial legal, economic and political systems shaped by the very notion of “In God We Trust”.

Insofar as the imperial expansion facilitated by the papal bulls also set the standard for corporate imperial misconduct from the industrial period onwards, resulting in climate change there is most definitely a case to be argued that the Church should contribute to the loss and damage fund agreed upon by COP27. And this, dear reader, is the most likely reason that the Vatican is reluctant to step into its responsibility in the first place, because the pathway to Indigenous justice has always been, and continues to be confounded by the fact that Indigenous dispossession underwrites the global economy.

That does not change the truth, which we must speak clearly and repeatedly, for our future descendants and all to hear- the Vatican must RESCIND the Doctrine of Christian Discovery.

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3 thoughts on “The Vatican’s Repudiation is Not Enough”

  1. Thanks for your mahi and clear explanations of a complex topic. So many people have no clue about this.

  2. Except of course New Zealand cannot repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery.

    The entire apparatus of the apartheid state (even name is Afrikaans)
    law, education, roads, everything – and above all the three million
    unwanted unconstitutional descrating white settlers who constitution
    “The Crown” depend on the Doctrine of Discovery to reman here.

    Repudiation means the end of the settler state;
    the end of colonialism
    the end of colonisation
    the end of a white majority

    or else, we’re here cos we discovered it
    whether we “repudiated” it or not.

    1. Morena James. You raise such an important point and one that I’m about to publish on next – what comes after (or indeed with) repudiation? Statements of repudiation, apologies, revocations must come with a full understanding of the systemic force and function of what you are repudiating if you truly seek to undo it. Thus repudiation is the philosophical setting for undertaking the systemic work that you describe. It does indeed *signal* an end of colonialism but is not an end, in and of itself.

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