03/30/2023, 17.40
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Indigenous peoples: Church repudiates the 'doctrine of discovery’

In a joint statement, the Dicasteries of Culture and Integral Human Development condemn the documents from the time of the colonial conquest that were used to justify stripping Indigenous peoples of their lands. During his visit to Canada, Indigenous peoples had asked Pope Francis to do that. The “rights of indigenous peoples” should be protected and their development should be facilitated “in a way that respects their identity, language and culture.”

Vatican City (AsiaNews) – In a joint statement, the Dicastery for Culture and the Dicastery for Integral Human Development affirm that the "doctrine of discovery" is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church.

The formal declaration is a direct response to a request made by Indigenous peoples during Pope Francis’s apostolic visit to Canada, and unequivocally condemns the use of certain papal bulls in the colonial era to strip Indigenous peoples of their lands.

The statement also provides an opportunity for the Catholic Church to renew her request for forgiveness for “the terrible effects of the assimilation policies and the pain experienced by indigenous peoples”. It also acknowledges that the implementation of the principles contained in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is a challenge more relevant than ever.

“[I]n 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.”

Nonetheless, “Many Christians have committed evil acts against indigenous peoples for which recent Popes have asked forgiveness on numerous occasions.”

The statement notes that thanks to the help of indigenous peoples, “the Church has acquired a greater awareness of their sufferings, past and present, due to the expropriation of their lands, which they consider a sacred gift from God and their ancestors, as well as the policies of forced assimilation, promoted by the governmental authorities of the time, intended to eliminate their indigenous cultures.”

In this context, it is important for the Church to address the “doctrine of discovery", which starting in the 16th  century, but even more so based on 19th century jurisprudence, granted settlers the "right" to extinguish, by purchase or conquest, the title to the lands of indigenous peoples.

“Certain scholars have argued that the basis of the aforementioned ‘doctrine’ is to be found in several papal documents, such as the Bulls Dum Diversas (1452), Romanus Pontifex (1455) and Inter Caetera (1493).

“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.”

Hence, “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.”

“The Catholic Church 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’.

Today the question must be seen less than in terms of the past than in the light of the challenges of the present. For this reason, the statement ends by saying that “the Church’s solidarity with indigenous peoples has given rise to the Holy See’s strong support for the principles contained in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

Indeed, “The implementation of those principles would improve the living conditions and help protect the rights of indigenous peoples as well as facilitate their development in a way that respects their identity, language and culture.”

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