Vatican rejects ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ used to Justify Colonial Quest and Theft of Land

Pope Nicholas V

A few years ago when we published Dum Diversas or The Vatican’s Authorization of Slavery, many were surprised if not astounded to know that the Catholic Church had authorized and condoned the enslavement of people around the world, the conquest of their lands, the placement of indigenous populations into perpetual servitude, and the genocidal eradication of non Christian populations around the globe. There are still many Catholics today who do not know this! We received quite a few harsh inbox messages about the veracity of our work. Imagine the confirmation we got when last Thursday, March 30, 2023, after decades of indigenous calls, the Vatican itself repudiated the ‘Doctrine of Discovery’ which justified colonialism. A Vatican statement said the papal bulls, or decrees, “did not adequately reflect the equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples” and “therefore [the Vatican] repudiates those concepts that fail to recognize the inherent human rights of Indigenous peoples, including what has become known as the legal and political ‘doctrine of discovery.'”

It is not clear what to make out of this “rejection of the ‘Doctrine of Discovery'” by the Vatican. Are we supposed to clap? After centuries of killings, conquistadors killings of indigenous people of Americas, eradication of entire populations, enslavement of African people, land grabs across the globe, resources grab, enrichment, etc. We all know the coffers of the Vatican and European nations are filled with the spoils of these conquests and that their cities and countries were built on the back of all these. We ask again, what are we supposed to do with this “rejection”? Is the Vatican giving back what they took? Will the lands be returned? Words again and again and again… no actions!

The New Scramble for Africa (Source: Source: Dr Jack & Curtis for City Press, National Institute African Studies (NIAS))

As said before, there are no coincidences. There is no coincidence that this comes less than 2 months after the Pope’s visit to Africa, which is said to be the future of the Catholic Church. It is no coincidence that it comes just a few days before the very important Christian celebration of Easter. Could this be linked to the New Scramble for Africa? This New Scramble for Africa needs to be done as before, under the veil of good intentions, purity, and supposed forgiveness; while the impoverished people get ‘honeyed’ out with the ‘rejection’ (just words), the resources get pumped out. Some also think that it is no coincidence that it comes under history’s first Latin American Pope. And You, what do you make of this ‘rejection of the Doctrine of Discovery’ by the Vatican? Excerpts below are from Common Dreams. Please also check out the article in Al Jazeera.


In a historic shift long sought by Indigenous-led activists, the Holy See on Thursday formally repudiated the doctrine of discovery, a dubious legal theory born from a series of 15th-century papal decrees used by colonizers including the United States to legally justify the genocidal conquest of non-Christian peoples and their land.

In a joint statement, the Vatican’s departments of culture and education declared that “the church acknowledges that these papal bulls did not adequately reflectthe equal dignity and rights of Indigenous peoples” and “therefore repudiates those concepts that fail to recognize the inherent human rights of Indigenous peoples, including what has become known as the legal and political ‘doctrine of discovery.'”

Slaves on board a ship

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,” the statement added. “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.”

Indigenous leaders—who for decades demanded the Vatican rescind the discovery doctrine—welcomed the move, while expressing hope that it brings real change.

On the surface it sounds good, it looks good… but there has to be a fundamental change in attitudes, behavior, laws, and policies from that statement,” Ernie Daniels, the former chief of Long Plain First Nation in Manitoba, Canada, toldCBC Thursday.

There’s still a mentality out there—they want to assimilate, decimate, terminate, eradicate Indigenous people,” added Daniels, who was part of a delegation that met with Pope Francis last year in Rome and Canada.

… Discovery doctrine is rooted in a trio of papal decrees issued in the second half of the 15th century authorizing the Portuguese and Spanish monarchies to conquer land and enslave people in Africa and the Americas if they were non-Christians and dividing the Americas between the two burgeoning empires.

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