by Betty Lyons, Sandra Bigtree and Philip Arnold
When the Vatican finally comes to the realization it is mired in the genocidal mud of centuries of racist exploitation of Indigenous peoples around the world, a step towards acknowledging the need for reconciliation is welcome.
The statement by the Vatican repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, issued March 30th, is important and is representative of decades of work by Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists who have fought an often-lonely battle across the globe to bring attention to the racist underpinnings that still define so much of the legal mechanisms used to deny Indigenous peoples their rightful standing among the nations of the world.
The series of century papal bulls starting in the 15th century, which provided the theological and legal fiction to justify the Christian colonization and conquest, told European explorers who came first to Africa and later to the so-called New World, they could consider those lands terra nullis, or empty, if they were not occupied by Christians and seize them in the name of their sovereign.
It is not lost on us that this first step, no matter how limited, arrived under Pope Francis, the Vatican’s first leader from that so-called New World, who during a visit to Bolivia in 2015 apologized for the atrocities visited upon Indigenous peoples in the European conquest.
But while we welcome this first step towards reconciliation, we know it falls short of the kind of full accountability required to heal the still-festering wounds.
When comparing the “Joint Statement” coming from the Vatican with other Christian repudiation statements (like the ones by Episcopalians, the World Council of Churches, and Roman Catholic Statements) the Vatican’s statement pales in comparison. These other statements acknowledge historical traumas, confess complicity, and some even outline solutions.
The Vatican’s statement must follow these other models and be self-reflective, engaged with historical trauma of their own doing, and be specific in the next steps toward healing. Citations would help clarify statements like “Historical research clearly demonstrates that the papal documents in question . . . have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith.”
The record is far from clear. The Requiremento, Johnson v. M’Intosh, and even Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Sherrill v. Oneida are but some examples of documents that explicitly cited the church’s theological and legal justification of enslavement, exploitation, and extraction to provide a carte blanche for the mistreatment of Indigenous nations and peoples. The papal bulls undergirding the Doctrine of Discovery led to the continuing legacy of genocide.
The American Indian Law Alliance founder, Tonya Gonella Frichner (Onondaga Nation, Snipe Clan), in her 2010 Special Rapporteur report to the United Nations (E/C.19/2010/13), highlights not only the complicity of the Roman Catholic Church but also Protestant Christians as well. Her report called for a further robust study of the Doctrine which still needs to be completed.
The Vatican’s recent statement reads in part like an attempt at damage control.
The focus on Sublimus Deus (1537) as absolving the Vatican of complicity in colonialism has been addressed by Tina Ngata (Māori) and Steven T. Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape). What Ngata and Newcomb emphasize is that, at best, Sublimis Deus was a half measure. Sure, it acknowledges the humanity and property rights of Indigenous peoples regardless of their relationship to Christianity.
However, Sublimis Deus did nothing to slow the enslavement, exploitation, and extraction taking place across the world in the name of church and crown. Pastorale Officium provides some threats of punishment to abusers, but even those were mostly ignored, especially by men like Hernán Cortés.
In 1538 Pope Paul III issued Non-Indecens Videtur, which effectively annulled Pastorale Officium and Sublimis Deus. The Vatican’s most recent document’s citation of Sublimis Deus is an attempt to hide behind a wall of Papal obfuscation. Much like in the Wizard of Oz scene, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Only here, it pays no attention to preserving a toxic theology of domination and dehumanization.
The Vatican statement needs to address the complex, nuanced elements of the historical and contemporary legacy of the doctrine. Philip P. Arnold and Sandy Bigtree (Mohawk Nation) highlight ten religious dimensions of this Doctrine, and Steven T. Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) distills this all down to one-word: domination.
At the core of the Doctrine of Discovery is Christian domination. Despite the joint statement’s elision of domination in the English, domination pervades the liturgy and theology of the church. It is a project of domination of converting people from one religious tradition to another because of the belief in the superiority of the Christian tradition.
For example, the United States Conference of Bishops lectionary reading 161, issued in 2018, entitled, “The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe” cites passages from Daniel 7:13-14 which states “His [Son of man] dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not be taken away, his kingship shall not be destroyed.”
It highlights the domination logic which remains part of Catholic theology. The toxic theology of domination grants dominion over the earth, and an inherent sense of superiority because they are among the saved.
Presently Roman Catholic churches, schools, observatories, and more sit on stolen Indigenous lands in violation of human rights and international treaties. Pope Francis has called and acknowledged the genocidal legacy of Roman Catholic boarding schools – whose mission, as the founder of Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Industrial School said, was to “Kill the Indian, save the man” – but nevertheless, some of the schools continue to operate.
Christian domination is encoded into settler-colonial law through U.S. property law, federal Indian law, income tax regulations (religions should look like churches), separation of church and state, plenary power, the divinization of the state, and religious nationalism. Tupac Enrique Acosta (Izkaloteka Mexica Azteca) reminds us of the powerful and important work of the Continental Commission of Abya Yala. The commission reminds us that.
The question is no longer whether the Doctrine of Discovery as it is still being perpetuated in policy and practice across the hemisphere is valid. That question has been answered, definitively and finally. There is no moral, legal, or cultural presentation that can legitimately argue that the theory of the Divine Right of Kings, which spawned the Doctrine of Discovery by Christendom, can hold any validity in a democratic society by positing the “Divine Right of States.” What is in question now is on what side of history will each of us as individuals, as families, as communities, as nations, and as human beings stand.
While we welcome this first step by the Vatican acknowledging that on-going oppression, we stand with Mother Earth and all living beings. Will you? The time is now.
All work at The Commons is published under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/
Betty Lyons, an Onondaga citizen, is the President of the American Indian Law Alliance. Sandra Bigtree, a Mohawk citizen, and Philip Arnold, professor of religious studies at Syracuse University and the founding director of Skä·noñh — Great Law of Peace Center, are co-founders of the Indigenous Values Initiative.