Activists and religious organizations are calling on Pope Francis to revoke the “doctrine of discovery”—

27th July, 2022.      //   General Interest  // 

Doctrine of Discovery: How the 500-year-old Catholic decree encouraged colonization

Louise Large thrashed and screamed, fighting the black-robed nuns who held her tightly while speaking in a language she couldn’t understand.  As she watched her grandmother walk away, the young Cree girl realized she’d been left at the Blue Quill, a residential school for Indigenous children in Alberta, Canada. Afterward, she said in a 2011 testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, “I just screamed and screamed for hours.”

Soon, Large realized that she must adhere to a strict schedule at the school that revolved around Christianity, which she was now expected to practice. The children prayed so much, she said sarcastically, that they all got “boarding school knees”—joints turned callused and creaky because of the schools’ forced prayers.Large was living out the legacy of the colonization of Canada, whose government forced more than 100,000 First Nations children to attend residential schools that stripped them of their Indigenous identities and attempted to convert them to Christianity

In the 21st century, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission would uncover the history of the schools and their effects on Indigenous Canadians. Along the way, it documented how a centuries-old religious doctrine enabled the founding and operation of schools that caused so much harm.

Ahead of Pope Francis’ week-long trip to Canada that begins on July 24, activists and religious organizations alike have called on the Catholic leader to revoke the “doctrine of discovery”—a series of 15th-century papal decrees that laid the foundation for the European takeover of the New World and the annihilation of Indigenous culture in the name of Christianity. Here’s how those decrees became the legal basis for colonization—and the legacy they have left behind.

Origins of the Doctrine of Discovery

The doctrine has its roots in the early days of the Age of Exploration. Throughout the 15th century, the Roman Catholic Church responded to European Catholic nations’ ambitions to explore and colonize other regions. In a series of edicts known as papal bulls, popes gave those nations the right to take control of other lands, subdue the people who already lived there, and convert them to Christianity.

The most influential of those decrees was Inter Caetera, a papal bull issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493. A year earlier, in 1492, explorer Christopher Columbus had arrived in the Americas on an expedition funded by the Spanish monarchy. Though the purpose of the journey was to find a westerly route to Asian trading centers, it also presented an opportunity for Spain to expand both its kingdom and Christianity’s reach.

Alexander VI was a Spaniard with close ties to the monarchy—and his papal reign was marked with scandals stemming from his greed, corruption, and nepotism. When Portugal complained that Columbus and Spain were interfering with its own ambitions for the New World, the pope issued a document asserting that Spain had the exclusive right to territory west of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands in the mid-Atlantic Ocean.

The encyclical didn’t just give Spain carte blanche to claim lands in the New World. It also linked exploration and colonization to Christianity and conversion. Nations should make it a priority to ensure “that in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself,” Alexander instructed.

The pope’s reasoning drew in part on the emerging concept of terra nullius, Latin for “empty land.” Any place not already occupied by Christians was considered free for the taking by Christian Europeans—regardless of how many people already lived there or the advancement of their civilizations.

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