We May Be Making Too Much of the Doctrine of Discovery

Late last month, Douglas J. Lucia, the Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Syracuse, expressed the hope that he might meet with the pope to discuss the 15th-century papal donation granting the Catholic powers the right to colonize the Americas. He wanted to obtain “a public acknowledgment from the Holy Father of the harm these [papal] bulls have done to the Indigenous population.”

Bishop Lucia’s announcement was greeted favorably. Doing away with the papal bulls would be an important symbolic gesture. But that’s all it is. The Catholic Church has destroyed the lives of millions of Indian people and justified the destruction of many, many more. Lucia’s action does not begin to address the historic and continuing damage his church has caused Indigenous peoples across the American continents, and across parts of seven different centuries.

Though significant, the papal bulls were hardly the worst crime committed by agents acting in the name of the Catholic Church, and we’re making too much of the resulting “Discovery Doctrine.” The French who settled what came to be known as Canada, after all, did not care what the Pope told the Iberians. The English, who described the Pope as the “Anti-Christ” and the “Scarlet Whore of Babylon,” could not have cared less what he told Spanish and Portuguese monarchs. The English, in fact, were remarkably unintellectual about colonization, a process they viewed as a fait accompli, the only justification needed that it might make them rich and provide an opportunity to stick it to their abundant Catholic enemies. The entire history of European colonization in the Americans involved Europeans ignoring each other’s New World claims. Were there no papal donation, there is little reason to believe that English and French colonization would have followed a different course. The most enlightened English colonizers believed that Indigenous peoples just might have the capacity to abandon their savagery and become like them. They were often shouted down by other colonists who saw Indigenous peoples as “errors of nature, of inhumane birth/ the very dregs, garbage, and spawne of the earth.” People with beliefs like that could kill Indians and dispossess them with a staggering brutality.

If we want to understand the Indigenous past, we should spend less time talking about what white people did or did not do and focus instead on the native peoples who confronted their would-be colonizers. What the pope said did not matter to them one bit, and let’s not underestimate the longevity of Indigenous power on this continent. The Jesuits who first attempted to plant a mission at Onondaga Lake in the 1650s, for example, despite their high hopes, realized too late that they served merely as hostages who insulated the Onondagas from French assault and attracted Catholic Wendats to enter the Longhouse through its smoke hole and settle under the Tree of Peace at Onondaga. When the Jesuits were no longer useful, they realized their lives were in danger. They constructed the boats they used to flee in the one place they knew Onondagas would never see them: inside of their church. Three centuries after the papal donation, Haudenosaunee peoples, including Onondagas, entered into a treaty at Canandaigua that recognized their right to the “free use and enjoyment” of their lands, over which the United States neither claimed or exercised any real power at all.

Though Chief Justice John Marshall’s racist opinion in Johnson v. McIntosh in 1823 made use of what has come to be known as the “discovery doctrine” in a flawed and lazy effort to bring some order to a chaotic process characterized by viciousness, avarice and deceit, and though his toxic ruling has had a devastating effect on the field of American Indian law since 1823, his sloppy historical work was a justification for dispossession, and not its cause.

And from the Pueblos sexually mutilated on the order of Franciscan priests in the seventeenth century, to those Indigenous Californians enslaved in missions founded by the sainted Father Junipero Serra, to the children who have died in the century past in Canadian residential schools, and the ongoing occupation of the sacred site at Mount Graham, the sins of the church in which I was raised are great.

Indigenous peoples have faced efforts to take their souls, steal their lands, burn their homes and eradicate their culture. Catholics and other Christians have for much of their history sanctioned and engaged in these genocidal policies. But native peoples always resisted. Maybe Bishop Lucia deserves praise for calling out the historic conduct of the Catholic Church. But for an adequate penance it is going to take much more than the empty symbolism of repealing an ineffective legal doctrine that nobody in early North America during the first three and a half centuries of European colonization cared about at all.

This essay appeared originally in the Syracuse.com on July 19, 2021.

3 thoughts on “We May Be Making Too Much of the Doctrine of Discovery”

  1. As I wrote to you earlier this year, the Doctrine of Discovery has crept into U.S. judicial rulings more than your citation of Johnson & Graham’s Lessee v. McIntosh. Sadly, the late Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, cited the same doctrine in a recent ruling.
    It is doubtful the Pope will pay any more attention to Bishop Lucia than he did to the Native American youth from Minnesota who met with his emissary two years ago, that I wrote about earlier this year.
    Although it is true that a revocation of the two (or was it three?) Papal Bulls proclaiming the Doctrine of Discovery will never undo the damage that has been done to indigenous peoples all over the world, it would provide a reason to combat its use in any legal filing henceforth.

    1. I totally agree and understand. I was taught by Catholic doctrine that when the Pope sits “Ex Cathedra “ it’s infallible , and cannot be rescinded because he’s guided by the Holy Spirit. I now realize that it’s hocus-pocus mumbo jumbo when the lives of indigenous people were destroyed, lands taken and killed by the orders of the Popes. Isn’t it the same thing done to millions of people during the French ,Spanish, inquisition ? I was also taught that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ on earth!! Nonsense. Popery is a man made institution, where millions honest God loving people have been deceived. That’s why I very disappointedly walked away from this lie and human trap of the soul.

  2. I have a question that no one ever wanted to answer :. since the conduct of the European explorers,slavers, settlers all tried to use the Bible to justify the horrible things they did,along with their horrible attitudes and intentions, how were THEY able to ignore the direct commands of Jesus, where he states that one is to be honorable, honest, harmless. And to NOT covet things belonging to others,like mates, money,lands and possessions ?? One is simply to make an honest living,while telling anyone willing about the Gospel, mankind’s reconciliation to God, through the death of Jesus Christ, who paid for all human transgressions with his perfect life,and later a very hard death. You don’t stay in someone’s country, plotting to take it over,while planning genocide. And importing foreigners for slave labor ! Making disciples of all nations is and was not intended to be used as an excuse to commit crimes against humanity, so given all the laws regarding behavior in the New Testament,how could anyone,from the Catholic monarchies to the English colonists think they can get away with such blatant violations ?? It makes no sense at all. Especially if you are only a first generation American, this is just vile,crazy stuff. And until the Internet, there were few ways to find out the real history of America and the rest of the Hemisphere. More documents are surfacing written by those alive at the time, relating the events of the day while casually justifying such things. It was so well hidden up to the last decades, that once you find out, you’re left to feel so disturbed at the false images that fooled you into believing it was safe to move here. The U.S. is no longer well liked, and viewed with disgust and disappointment. Democracy is in retreat everywhere, and American leaders and agencies are responsible for much of this. Just look at this horrific war between Russia and Ukraine and what it could turn into ! Just one example And it is well known that Columbus was obsessed with the Silk Road, and conquest of that region and the trade route there. He thought he could,and should do that, getting lost in the Caribbean. The Doctrine of Discovery is an outgrowth of the Roman Empire,and it’s craving for Asian goods and it’s legendary wealth, before European countries became world powers. And the staggering damage to people everywhere. The roots of this so – called ” Doctrine” go straight back to that,over 2,000 years ago. Now the Vatican and the Catholic church is claiming that this same policy was never ” theirs.”. Don’t fall for this deflection !! It’s another of their ruses. Because their very foundation is absolutely rotten. And not Christian either . Indeginous people got caught between the battle between East and West that was always there,and still is. No one was able to get to this Hemisphere and warn them about world events and dynamics,or things may have turned out very different. Please look up Marco Polo and his writings. The clues are there. Don’t believe that the Vatican will suddenly be ” good.”. They have too much wealth and power to bother. Never trust them again.

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