Vatican goes back on centuries-old “Doctrine of Discovery”
by Charles Avila – Author of “The Untold Magellan Story” and “Ownership: Early Christian Teaching”
March 1521, a date well known in Philippine history, has finally led to March 2023, a date not quite known yet but will soon be, as one will see.
The age of imperialism rested on the generally accepted notion of “finders’ keepers”. The right of “dominium” or absolute ownership came with the “discovery” of new lands and peoples. So, monarchs longing to build empires got the wealthy on their side to finance expeditions to the unknown. There was no lack of adventurers raring to conquer new lands for the prospect of sharing in the ownership of conquered territory – at any cost? Was there no regulation as what to “discover” on limited Earth? In fact, hardly, except the one set by the Popes of Rome.
The two superpowers of the time were both Roman Catholic Kingdoms ruled by competing sides of the same family, and so Pope Alexander VI (Borgia), relation of both sides, ruled that Portugal should keep to one side and Spain to the other side of the globe.
“Discovery” – a funny English term in our times – had doctrinally stemmed from the Roman “ownership” law of first occupancy, which was almost always accompanied by armed invasion. But since the adventurers “sent out” by expanding empires correctly suspected that in many cases they might not be “first occupants,” really, in that anywhere there might already be locals in place, the “sending” Monarch, like Charles, King of Spain and Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, would give the “Instruccion” that the locals “must be treated most affectionately, to influence them to become good Christians, which is our principal desire, and that they may, with good will, serve us and be under our government’s subjection and friendship.”
And so it was: “Christian civilization” would be a strategic instrument to get the locals to be docile and accepting of foreign domination. However, most of the locals – the indigenous peoples all across the globe – had a different notion of “ownership” from the Roman law conception. They did not fancy foreign invaders forcibly taking over their lands and killing off resisters. The inevitable result, not surprisingly, would be protracted and intense conflicts.
The invaders would not only kill off people but even destroy whole cultures just to be in better position, so they thought, to hold on more completely to the lands they had conquered by “the right of discovery”.
Surely a moral institution like the Catholic Church could not have been behind the carnage, the genocides, and the unspeakable abuses of human dignity that are all now a matter of historical record? However, it cannot be denied that she was.
To start with, it is a matter of scholarly consensus that the basis of the “Doctrine of Discovery” is to be found in several papal documents such as the Bulls Dum Diversas (1452), Romanus Pontifex (1455) and, most famous of all, Alexander Borgia’s Inter Caetera (1493).
In the times of Ferdinand Magellan, before his “Armada de Maluco” started off on the project that is now universally regarded as unquestionably the greatest human achievement on the sea, he might have had a chance for deep conversations with Bishop Bartolome de las Casas of Chiapas who had become an adviser to King Charles and resided in Seville the same time Magellan did.
He might even have known of the acrimonious debate between de las Casas and the philosopher Juan Gines Sepulveda. Las Casas successfully challenged Sepulveda’s Democrates Secundus, a tract that justified waging war in the process of the conquest in order to “christianize” the newly discovered peoples.
Las Casas not only succeeded in stopping the publication of Sepulveda’s work, but also in making a stronger case than ever for his peaceful and just means of evangelization.
But, nonetheless, at the very outset the “Instruccion” of King-and-Emperor Charles to the Armada was clear and quite detailed. He said that as a take-over armed force, the Armada was to establish military bases and garrisons, wherever it was worth it, with an eye to the gold and the spices and all the wealth of the occupied lands.
Going forward 500 years, there’s no longer a Borgia but a Bergoglio as Pope in Rome. He is also known as Pope Francis. What would be his take on this doctrine that has caused so much human suffering down the ages all over planet Earth?
Well, his take on this issue was officially published a few days ago in his “BOLLETTINO” of March 30, 2023 after it was gone through by two of his important cabinets (“Dicasteries” in Vatican language) – that for “Culture and Education” and that for “Promoting Integral Human Development.”
The document starts with saying that “respect for the facts of history demands an acknowledgement of the human weakness and failings of Christ’s disciples in every generation. Many Christians have committed evil acts against indigenous peoples for which recent Popes have asked forgiveness on numerous occasions.”
Today, however, (the document says) the Church (meaning, the Vatican) has acquired a greater awareness of the sufferings of colonized peoples, past and present, resulting from the expropriation of their lands, as well as from the policies of forced assimilation intended to eliminate their indigenous cultures.
Today, as a result of listening to indigenous peoples (the document continues), the Church has realized the importance of addressing the concept referred to as the “doctrine of discovery” –a legal concept that was debated by colonial powers from the sixteenth century onward.
Coming to the heart of the matter in paragraphs 6 and 7 of the document, the categorical statement is spelled out: The “doctrine of discovery” is not part of the teaching of the Catholic Church.
Would that not be an arbitrary statement without basis? “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.
“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.”
In fairness, Pope Francis has often urged in public: “Never again can the Christian community allow itself to be infected by the idea that one culture is superior to others, or that it is legitimate to employ ways of coercing others.” Would this then refer as well to ownership concepts and practices?
Apart from the Roman law conception, Pope Francis is surely aware of the criticisms and proposals advanced by the founding fathers of his own faith – from Clemens Alexandrinus to Augustine of Hippo regarding a foundational idea that has justified exploitation in the world.
Because of the brevity of the document, it winds up saying that “in no uncertain terms, the Church’s magisterium upholds the respect due to every human being.”
“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’.”
Thus did Jorge Bergoglio from a former Spanish colony named Argentina, in the persona of Pope Francis, make short shrift of a pseudo-Christian doctrine that held sway for centuries on end. It only took some 500 years. FINIS