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Vatican relents on papal bulls

Kenneth Deer meeting pope Francis on May 4, 2016, the anniversary of one of the papal declarations that would lay the foundations for the “Doctrine of Discovery,” a religious and legal concept used to justify colonial genocide. Courtesy Kenneth Deer

In 2016, Kenneth Deer travelled to the Vatican alongside a delegation of other Indigenous leaders to demand that pope Francis revoke three papal bulls – declarations made by popes – that provided the legal basis and religious authority for centuries of ongoing colonial genocide.

Last Thursday, the Holy See Press Office formally repudiated the “Doctrine of Discovery,” a concept that was developed through a series of papal bulls made in 1452, 1455, and 1493. 

“Many Christians have committed evil acts against indigenous peoples (sic) for which recent Popes have asked forgiveness on numerous occasions,” reads the statement from the Holy See. 

“In this regard, the Church is committed to accompany indigenous peoples (sic) and to foster efforts aimed at promoting reconciliation and healing,” the statement continues. 

For Deer, the Vatican’s repudiation of the doctrine falls short of real accountability. 

“This seems to be more damage control by the Vatican, than sincere recognition of the role and responsibility to the church,” said Deer. 

According to the Vatican’s statement, “The Doctrine of Discovery is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church,” and “the papal documents in question… have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith.” 

“They’re trying to rewrite history,” said Deer. “They’re trying to change what people were thinking at the time, and at the time when those papal bulls were passed, it was accepted as part of the church’s teachings at that time.”

“I think it’s the church doing public relations,” said Kahnawa’kehró:non First Nations policy analyst Russ Diabo. 

“It’s worded in such a way that they don’t take responsibility for their role,” he said. 

“They definitely have a role (to play) for reparations and trying to correct some of the damage,” he continued.

“I’m not directly a survivor of residential school; my family was, and I know the damage that it did to my family. I think the church has to take some responsibility for that,” said Diabo.

Just last year, pope Francis visited Canada on a “penitential pilgrimage” and offered an apology for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system – an apology that many critiqued for its failure to mention the sexual abuse perpetrated by countless members of the clergy, and for its lack of tangible steps towards justice, like reparations. 

When Deer met pope Francis seven years ago, he was handed a red box with a set of rosaries, and the pontiff told Deer he would pray for him.

Later on that trip to Rome, cardinal Silvano Maria Tomasi, chair of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, told the delegation that the papal bulls were no longer in effect and had been superseded by other papal bulls. However, by the end of the meeting, the cardinal began to yield. The delegation was told that the Vatican would consider making a statement. That was almost seven years ago. 

“Only now in 2023 is a papacy speaking up and only because of pressure from Indigenous Peoples,” said Deer. “States weren’t putting any pressure on them to make these statements. These statements came because of pressure from Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous Peoples are right. We’re absolutely right.” 

For Steven Newcomb, a Shawnee/Lenape scholar, the fight for the church to address the doctrine, which he calls “the Doctrine of Domination,” began decades ago. Newcomb, alongside his friend and mentor, Virgil Killstraight of the Oglala Lakota Nation, first wrote to the pope – John Paul II, at that time – in 1993, exactly 500 years after the Papal Bull of 1493. 

Newcomb has devoted his adult life to this cause. He’s written a book about it called ITALICSSTARTHEREPagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian DiscoveryITALICSENDHERE and co-produced a film about it, ITALICSSTARTHEREThe Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination CodeITALICSENDHERE.

“I’ve spoken with cardinals, I’ve spoken with archbishops, I’ve spoken with bishops, I’ve spoken with priests. I’ve presented my book to the pope at the Vatican,” said Newcomb. 

Newcomb was also a member of the 2016 delegation that Deer travelled with to the Vatican – a trip that was coined “the long march to Rome.” 

“It launches the visibility of this issue right on the world stage, and that’s a really wonderful thing, because now we can begin to bring forward all the information that we’ve been accumulating and gathering over the course of decades and set the record straight,” said Newcomb. 

“We have to set the context for the conversation by acknowledging the original free existence of our nations and peoples, extending back to the beginning of time, and contrasting that with the system of domination brought by ship across the ocean and imposed on everyone and everything,” he continued. 

After more than 40 years of study and scholarship, Newcomb is a leading expert on the doctrine. He takes issue with the statement’s “numerous errors,” namely its citation of the 1537 papal bull from pope Paul III, which declared that Indigenous Peoples were “by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property,” and “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.”

Newcomb explained that about 10 days later, under pressure from Emperor Charles V of Spain, the Church removed the ecclesiastical penalties for defying the decree, meaning that empires could continue their genocide of the Americas without consequence from the church.

“There are, I think, efforts on their part to spin the information. They’re not coming clean with regard to the actual language of those older papal bulls,” said Newcomb. 

“They never, ever, ever quote the actual horrific nature of those earlier documents that said that the king of Portugal should go to the western coast of Africa to invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens (Muslims), pagans, and other enemies of Christ to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery and take away all their possessions and property,” he continued.

It would be a mistake to take the Vatican’s statement at face value, Newcomb said. “It’s a good start towards something, but let’s see where it continues to go,” he said.

Deer echoed this sentiment: “The whole journey is not over yet, but it’s a positive step in the direction of getting the papal bulls rescinded,” noting the difference between rescinding and repudiating. 

For Diabo, the repudiation comes at an interesting time. This week the Assembly of the First Nations (AFN) chiefs gathered in Ottawa to evaluate the federal government’s draft plan for the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). Diabo is a special advisor to national chief RoseAnne Achribald. 

In 2021, the federal government passed Bill C-15, which states that the Canadian legislation must align with UNDRIP, and gives the government until June of this year to table an action plan. 

Currently, the draft promises to repeal the Indian Act, establish an Indigenous rights ombudsperson, and pursue amendments to fisheries legislation. It also mentions ongoing proposed legal reforms concerning Indigenous health, policing, and water.

The draft plan, which was brought forward to the AFN by justice minister and attorney general David Lametti, was not met with enthusiasm as many criticized its lack of committal language. For Diabo, the draft plan is problematic because the measures it proposes are still grounded in Canada’s assumed sovereignty over Indigenous land and people.

“There’s still a colonial system, and it’s certainly not consistent with the UN Declaration standards,” said Diabo. “The declaration is not perfect either, but it sets minimum international standards that Canada’s domestic policies aren’t meeting. There’s a big gap.”

In response to the papal repudiation, minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Marc Miller, minister of Indigenous Services Patty Hajdu, and minister of Northern Affairs Daniel Vandal released a joint statement in which they cite UNDRIP: “(A)ll doctrines, policies and practices based on or advocating the superiority of peoples or individuals on the basis of national origin or racial, religious, ethnic or cultural differences, including the doctrines of discovery and terra nullius, are racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable, and socially unjust.”

In becoming a signatory to UNDRIP, the Canadian state must acknowledge that it is built on a racist legal fiction. In implementing the declaration, the state must decide how to reconcile this fiction with present-day realities. If the concept that was used to justify land dispossession has been decried by the state and now repudiated by the church, where does that leave the land?

“It’s still used to justify land dispossession. For sure, I think it’s helpful, but it’s not going to change our realities,” said Kanehsata’kehró:non human rights activist and land defender Ellen Gabriel.

For Gabriel, the repudiation feels like “flogging a dead horse,” she said. She acknowledged that the Vatican’s repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery is a step in the right direction, but said that’s it’s more important to focus on how Canada and the United States continue to disregard Indigenous sovereignty and the right to self-determination, pointing to ongoing efforts from the Wetʼsuwetʼen and Kanien’kehá:ka nations to protect their land. 

She also noted that the doctrine of discovery still carries legal weight, especially in the states, where the doctrine served as the basis for the 1823 Marshall decision in the Johnson v. McIntosh case, which ruled that Indigenous Peoples had no title to their land. 

“It was the basis for Canada’s declaration of sovereignty and oppression of Indigenous Peoples, for sure. So I think on Canada’s side that it also needs to do something,” said Gabriel. However, she’s not feeling optimistic that the action taken by the state will bring transformative justice.

“I really doubt they’re even interested in giving us land back. I think they want us to buy land that they stole. I think they want us to pay taxes on the land if we buy (it) back. I think they’re very content in the status quo,” said Gabriel.

“Does it mean it’s going to change the fact that there’s still land grabbing going on? 

Is it going to change the fact that Bill 96 is going to be taken off the table? Not very likely.”

Nicky Taylor
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