RNS: Vatican statement repudiates Doctrine of Discovery

Current Affairs / Reconciliation

The Doctrine of Discovery was the theological justification for the atrocities that Western nations and church (including the Church of England and later on in the US, the Episcopal Church) committed against the indigenous people living in North and South America. It was first expressed in the middle of the 15th century by popes during the age of Discovery, as Western Europeans were coming into first contact with these existing civilizations. 

The Episcopal Church repudiated the same doctrine in 2009 and has since then taken a number of steps (small ones honestly) to live into this stance.

Pope Francis, last week, surprised many by a statement that distanced itself from the previous Papal Bulls and changes the stance of the Catholic Church.

But it was not enough for many, including Mark Charles, one of the Authors of “Unsettling Truths” claimed that the new statement didn’t go far enough:

Indigenous activists share mixed feelings on Vatican repudiation of Doctrine of Discovery:

“In what could have been a groundbreaking and historic repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, the Vatican instead released a series of political statements that sought to rewrite history, shield the Catholic Church from legal liability and shift the blame for the Doctrine of Discovery to governmental and colonial powers,” said Charles, who is Navajo.

The statement doesn’t exactly repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, he told Religion News Service. Instead, he said, it defines the doctrine as a legal concept and states it is not part of the teachings of the Catholic Church — that the papal bulls have never been considered expressions of the Catholic faith.

The statement, Charles noted, also claims those documents were “manipulated for political purposes by competing colonial power,” in order to justify the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples.

“If you truly see yourself as a representative of Christ to this world, you absolutely not only can do better, but need to do better. And, as a Native, Indigenous man, I will tell you wholeheartedly: Our people deserve better,” Charles said.

My own denomination has, like so many others, a lot to answer for in all this. We had “Indian Schools” where native children were taken from their families and forced to “westernize”. We have been missionaries and enslavers, sometimes in the same moment. So what the Catholic Church is having face, we’re having to face too – as are many institutions. 

As Pastor Charles says above, all of these statements represent a beginning, but there will be years of work required to make a proper start toward reconciliation. 

As we draw near to the Triduum this evening, we can keep this need for repentance in our hearts as we hold hope for reconciliation in the light of Easter.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Rex Brewer says

    Well said Bishop Knisely. To love as Christ has taught us we must also acknowledge the pain of others, and take responsibility for our choices.

  2. George and Marlies Parent says

    Thank you, thank for taking on this topic! It was unfortunate that you weren’t able to attend Mark Charles’ talk at Christ Church- hope you get to hear him another time.
    Yes lament is in order, and whatever we can do now to address these great wrongs of history.
    Easter Blessings- Marlies & George

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