The Vatican has made a statement disavowing a doctrine — not a commonly recognized doctrine of the Catholic Church, but what they referred to as a “legal and political” doctrine: the doctrine of discovery. Pope Francis has previously apologized to individuals and groups of indigenous people, and the Catholic Church nullified the doctrine in the 1500s, but this is the first official repudiation.

“The Catholic Church therefore repudiates those concepts that fail to recognize the inherent human rights of Indigenous peoples,” the statement says, “including what has become known as the legal and political ‘doctrine of discovery.’”

What is the doctrine of discovery?

The doctrine of discovery held that Europeans who “discovered” land that was already inhabited by other people — like Borinquen inhabited by the Taino — had the right to claim it for their own countries. This strange idea dates in the United States to Thomas Jefferson, who wrote about it in 1792. It was confirmed in 1828, by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Johnson v. McIntosh. Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in the unanimous decision held “that the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands.”

So what does the Vatican have to do with this? The idea first was published in the Papal Bull (degree) “Inter Caetera,” which was issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, just months before Christopher Columbus claimed Puerto Rico for Spain.

Inter Caetera” gave Spain permission to take over all the lands Columbus had found or might find. The pope wrote that he, with the authority of God, would “give, grant, and assign to you and your heirs and successors, kings of Castile and Leon, forever, together with all their dominions, cities, camps, places, and villages, and all rights, jurisdictions, and appurtenances, all islands and mainlands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered towards the west and south.”

The only exception would be if they found a place that already was “in the actual possession of any Christian king or prince.”

The letter specifically mentions Spain and Christopher Columbus, so there is no uncertainty about its application to Puerto Rico.

“Alexander, bishop, servant of the servants of God, to the illustrious sovereigns, our very dear son in Christ, Ferdinand, king, and our very dear daughter in Christ, Isabella, queen of Castile, Leon, Aragon, Sicily, and Granada, health and apostolic benediction,” it began. “You, with the wish to fulfill your desire, chose our beloved son, Christopher Columbus, a man assuredly worthy and of the highest recommendations and fitted for so great an undertaking, whom you furnished with ships and men equipped for like designs, not without the greatest hardships, dangers, and expenses, to make diligent quest for these remote and unknown mainlands and islands through the sea, where hitherto no one had sailed; and they at length, with divine aid and with the utmost diligence sailing in the ocean sea, discovered certain very remote islands and even mainlands that hitherto had not been discovered by others; wherein dwell very many peoples living in peace, and, as reported, going unclothed, and not eating flesh.”

Since 1493

A letter to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1493 might seem to be very far in the past and not relevant to modern life. As we saw, Thomas Jefferson, one of the funding fathers, took it seriously in the 1700s. The Supreme Court took it seriously in the 1800s. The concept was brought up again in a 1955 Supreme Court case. Justice Reed wrote, “This position of the Indian has long been rationalized by the legal theory that discovery and conquest gave the conquerors sovereignty over and ownership of the lands thus obtained.” He referred to Wheaton’s International Law, saying, “It confirmed the practice of two hundred years of American history ‘that discovery gave an exclusive right to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy, either by purchase or by conquest.’

In fact, the Supreme Court referenced the doctrine of discovery in 2005, in the case of City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, “Under the ‘doctrine of discovery,’ …fee title to the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign–first the discovering European nation and later the original States and the United States.”

The Insular Cases

The doctrine of discovery is a very old decree which has continued to be used to subjugate people. Even cases which do not specifically mention it as a precedent echo the idea it presents. It reminds us of the Insular Cases, a set of Supreme Court decisions from a century ago that continue to be used to justify the position of Puerto Rico and the other unincorporated territories.

Members of Congress and of the Supreme Court have objected to the racist attitudes shown in the Insular Cases and have called for their repudiation, just as people have been calling for the repudiation of the doctrine of discovery.

The Vatican’s rejection of the doctrine of discovery does not overturn the Supreme Court decisions based on that doctrine, but it is a step toward greater respect for all people, a worthwhile goal in the 21st century.

Image courtesy of Adobe



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